Improv skills lead to success

Archive for May 2012

Language and Acceptance

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I’ll take a quick break from my series on listening to point you to a New Yorker blog post by Ryan Bloom. Improv and business are all about language, whether used to share ideas, to include others, or to exclude them from your group. In technical fields, you get jargon. In social circles, you’re often differentiated based on your grammar.

Is this inclusion and exclusion fair? Of course not. Human interaction and grouping at least implies (I’d argue requires) a sense of “member of the group” and “not a member”. To me it’s not surprise that how you communicate identifies you as part of a group. Bloom also points out that individuals are members of multiple groups and adapt to fit the situation. The “correct” usage appropriate for one circumstance would sound dorky in another.

As you might suspect, academics have found a way to differentiate themselves based on their approach to grammar and usage. There are two general schools of thought when it comes to language and “correct” grammar. The purely prescriptive outlook argues that there is a single, correct way to speak and write. The purely descriptive outlook argues that there is no “correct” way to speak or write — all that matters is current usage. Descriptivism is a push-back against the “blackboard grammars” of the prescriptivists. Bloom argues that descriptivists, whatever their motives, don’t adequately describe social realities:

People who say otherwise, who say that in all situations we should speak and  write however we’d like, are ignoring the current reality. This group, known as  descriptivists, may be fighting for noble ideas, for things like the  levelling of élitism and the smoothing of social class, but they are neglecting  the real-world costs of those ideas, neglecting the flesh-and-blood humans who  are denied a job or education because, as wrong as it is, they are being harshly  judged for how they speak and write today….

This is not even to mention the descriptivists’ dirty little secret. When it  comes time for them to write their books and articles and give their speeches  about the evil, élitist, racist, wrongheadedness of forcing the “rules” on the  masses, they always do so in flawless, prescriptive English.

You can find the full article here:


Written by curtisfrye

May 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Appreciative Listening

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I’ve spent the last several posts describing the different types of listening that John Kline mentions in his book Listening Effectively. The next type of listening, appreciative listening, is both the most enjoyable and the most dangerous. It’s the most enjoyable because appreciative listening is usually reserved for listening to music or a story you love to hear. As the name implies, you appreciate what you’re hearing.

So why is appreciative listening dangerous? In an improv context, you can get so caught up in listening to what’s going on that you forget to contribute yourself. Even if it’s just a momentary pause, a break in the action can disrupt the audience’s experience. Appreciative listening can also affect how you do business. Think of the legendary Steve Jobs “reality distortion field.” Jobs could wrap an audience around his little finger with his enthusiasm and charisma. He had the benefit of promoting some pretty awesome products, but it’s also true that his presentation skills had a lot to do with the public perception of Apple’s work.

If you can entice a business audience to listen appreciatively, I hope you will use your powers only for good.

Written by curtisfrye

May 21, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Relationship Listening 2

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In my previous post, I talked about relationship listening, which author John Kline describes as the type of listening you do to establish or deepen a relationship. Typically, conversations involving relationship listening cover personal topics such as family, personal backgrounds, and activities outside of work.

How does relationship listening relate to improv? In short-form improv, where scenes typically last five minutes or less, relationship information is assumed and communicated obliquely while something else happens. Making your exposition serve double duty saves time and avoids stretches where the performers are on stage but the plot isn’t progressing.

In long-form shows the performers have more time to develop the scene, so the pacing doesn’t have to be quite as quick at the start. Scenes where the characters start out as strangers and build a relationship work much more effectively in shows lasting 20 minutes or longer.

In the business world, always assume that relationships with co-workers will last for a while. Take the time to get to know, and value, your colleagues.

Written by curtisfrye

May 14, 2012 at 3:02 am

Teamwork and Trust

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I wanted to take another quick break from my series of listening articles to point out a terrific thought from a high school film student regarding a project he helped create through the Ghetto Film School in New York City. This quote comes from Mark Singer’s “Tales About Town” piece on pages 21-2 of the May 7, 2012 issue of New Yorker magazine.

During the Q.&A., the moderator, Evan Shapiro, a Ghetto Film School board member, asked Jared Ray, “How does it feel to write the best script of the program and then lose control?”

“I didn’t mind, because I’d grown so close to my classmates,” said Jared, now a film student at SUNY Purchase, conveying a heartwarming level of trust and a potentially career-jeopardizing lack of cynicism.

I hope Jared never loses his trust in his colleagues. Trust is hard to gain and easy to lose, but it sounds like he and the rest of the team found the proper way forward.

Relationship Listening

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Previously, I mentioned John Kline’s book Listening Effectively and talked about informative listening. In this post, I’d like to take a quick look at relationship listening.

As the name implies, relationship listening is the process you use to improve your relationship with your conversation partner. Your goal is to learn more about your colleagues and, by so doing, improve your relationships with them. There will always be a few individuals who use this information against you, or who use information as a weapon, but most of your colleagues do want to get along better. Be sure to set your boundaries appropriately, both for your own comfort and to maintain your professionalism, but don’t be afraid to offer your trust and offer more trust to someone who deserves it.

Relationship listening is important for team members working in the same space, but it’s vital for virtual teams. I’m a freelance writer, which is about as solitary an existence as you can get these days. I didn’t meet my agent until we were five years into our working relationship, and only then because I happened to be driving through his part of the country. I believe we’ve been in the same room a grand total of three times since 1996, but we know a lot about each other and have navigated some tricky waters together.

If you’re an improv performer, you should do a lot of relationship listening. I started workshops with my current group in 1995 and, over the years, we’ve developed a deep shared context. There are about 30 regular players who rotate in and out of our cast in a given month, so of course there are subgroups that get along better with each other or who have more in common. Even so, we share where appropriate and aren’t afraid to turn to each other for a sympathetic ear. Having established that comfortable, familiar base, we can push each other to improve as performers and as a team.

Written by curtisfrye

May 6, 2012 at 11:32 pm

What Siri Can Teach You About Listening and Responding

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I’m jumping ahead a bit in my posts on listening and responding, but I just read MIT Technology Review’s terrific new article on Social Intelligence that explains the popularity of Siri, the personal assistant app resident in the iPhone 4S.

The article’s author interviewed Boris Katz, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, to get his take on why Siri works so well. Katz noted that Siri responds directly to task-related queries, varies its responses, and admits when it doesn’t know how to do something (such as posting to Twitter).

He also pointed out that Siri includes judicious bits of humor in its responses. When asked “Should I go to bed now?”, it might respond “I think you should sleep on it.” This type of gentle humor makes Siri seem more human and approachable. It’s the antithesis of “going for the joke” in a conversation or improv scene — the statement accepts what went before (the question) and responds appropriately given the server running the speech recognition and generation algorithms couldn’t possibly judge if it’s time for the user to go to bed.

You could do a lot worse than emulating Siri in your conversations.

Written by curtisfrye

May 3, 2012 at 11:14 pm