Improv skills lead to success

Archive for July 2012

When Not to Improvise

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One of my go-to statements about improv is:

Improvisation is like car racing. It’s only a good idea if everyone is doing it and you’re all going in the same direction.

We as improvisers should remember that assuming others will adapt to us can greatly complicate our business relationships. As a case in point, I just finished recording a course for I record most of my courses from home, so I’m teamed with a producer assigned to remote authors. I’d deviated from the original table of contents, but hadn’t updated the Excel worksheet for my producer. What I assumed would happen is that he’d see that my recordings didn’t match the original structure, change the file himself, and fill in his notes.

What went wrong? His workflow is to review the files when I’m done recording, which means he’s not adapting as I go. As soon as his notes didn’t match with the original TOC, he had to come to me to find out what had changed. I submitted the accurate TOC based on my actual recordings, but now he has to go back through his work, determine which notes apply to which movie, and update his the spreadsheet for the video editors.

If I’d taken a few seconds to update the TOC worksheet as I moved along, I’d have saved my producer an hour of tedious, detailed work reconfiguring his notes. Sorry, Ian.

Written by curtisfrye

July 30, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Full Review of Significant Objects

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I mentioned the book Significant Objects a couple of days ago. If you’re interested in the book, and I hope you are, you can read the full review I just published on Technology and Society Book Reviews. I’ve run that site since 1998, which is eons ago in internet time.

Here’s the first paragraph of my piece:

Every now and then you read a book that causes you to think “Man, that was great! I should do a project just like it!” Then you sit back and realize the project’s creators had a brilliant idea, invested the time and effort to realize it, and that your attempt would be at best an homage and at worst a poorly executed rip-off of someone else’s concept.

You can find the full review at

Written by curtisfrye

July 29, 2012 at 1:19 am

Discriminative Listening

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I’ve reached the end of my series on the types of listening John Kline identifies in his book Listening Effectively. Kline was writing for U.S. Air Force officers, but his analysis works just as well in the business and improv arenas.

Kline’s final type of listening is discriminative listening. In this case, “discriminative” means to listen with the goal of discovering meaning through sensitivity to body language, tone, pace, and other aspects of speech apart from the words used. Discriminative listening is hardest for individuals who have difficulty recognizing body language. The stereotypical computer nerd is notoriously insensitive to body language and nuance, so much so that sarcasm and irony are lost on them. Body language and vocal nuance vary so much among regions, let along among individuals, it’s a wonder we can understand anything but the most basic statements in our native language.

Body language in business can be a tricky thing. Most individuals learn to control and mask their body language as they progress up the corporate ladder, so you can find yourself latching onto slight indications that have no connection to their true thoughts. It’s also possible to lie using body language, so be aware you might not be getting the whole truth.

Improvisers can’t afford to be misleading — we must communicate clearly and efficiently, especially when we’re being sarcastic or ironic. Doing so helps our fellow performers understand our intent and, just as importantly, shows the audience what we mean. The fourth wall is a powerful barrier to effective communication in scripted theatre, much more so when you’re improvising.

Written by curtisfrye

July 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Significant Objects and Events

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I have one more post to go in my listening series but I had to tell you about the book Significant Objects, just published by Fantagraphics. The idea behind the project was to sell 100 mudane items such as ashtrays and gold-colored rabbit candles on eBay. The twist was that the item description was actually a short-short fiction piece by professional writers such as Meg Cabot, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Scarlett Thomas.

So how much value did the stories, which were clearly labeled as fiction, add to the items? The items cost an average of $1.25 to acquire and sold for a total of nearly $8,000. That’s a profit of about $7,875, or over 6,000 times acquisition cost.

When I was young, I heard a story about an auction where the auctioneer was having a hard time getting anyone to bid on a guitar. One of his assistants picked up the guitar and played a beautiful song, causing the price to go through the roof when the bidders realized the object’s potential. That story is probably apocryphal, but the lesson remains: you make something significant by how you relate to it, whether by making music or writing a story about it.

As improvisers, we use our audience members’ suggestions to create our work. We have a duty to them to make their contributions significant by honoring what they gave us, especially if we’re replaying their day or referring to an important event in their life. Remember also that we can do harm. It’s one thing to show how a person’s day could go wrong, but it’s another to dismiss what they’ve said or done.

Keep your audience’s needs at the forefront of everything you do. After all, they’re the most important group in the theatre.

Written by curtisfrye

July 22, 2012 at 1:27 am

Critical Listening

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In previous posts, I’ve described appreciative listening, relationship listening, and informative listening. John Kline’s book Listening Effectively identifies two more types of listening, the first of which is critical listening. As the name implies, critical listening involves making decisions and judgments about what you’re hearing.

In an improv context, critical listening often falls by the wayside. When you and your scene partners are on the same wavelength and operating together as a cohesive unit, you can safely go along with whatever you hear. This is especially true if you’re doing a short form scene that lasts three to six minutes. You don’t have much time to consider what’s going on, so you rely on your reactions. That’s not to say you never pause to take a breath and react to what’s been said, but it does mean you can’t ponder over long the cosmic significance of your comrade’s offer.

In longform scenes, critical listening is extremely important. Because you have more time to think, you can provide more nuanced reactions to offers and use your own contributions to move the scene forward. When you’re off stage, you should always be listening to what’s been said so the you can analyze it, however briefly, in the context of the scene and how you can contribute to what is gone before.

In business, critical thinking is paramount. Once you get past the brainstorming stage where no idea is wrong, you have to begin evaluating alternatives to decide what you want to do. To paraphrase Michael Porter, strategy is often the art of deciding what not to do. And then there are these little things called performance reviews.

Finally, you should always evaluate what you do from a critical standpoint. The popular phrase “don’t judge me” drives me crazy because it implies that everyone’s contributions are of equal worth. They’re not. Critical thinking lets you review what’s been done and make judgments about how you and your fellow players could improve. Most groups identify a single individual to give notes for a show, but in others the director takes on the role. You should always judge performances, especially your own.

Written by curtisfrye

July 13, 2012 at 6:34 pm