Improv skills lead to success

Archive for November 2012

Introverts: Review of Quiet

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Cover Image of Quiet, by Susan Cain

Title: Quiet

Author: Susan Cain

Publisher: Crown

Copyright: 2012


Length: 312 pages

Price: $26

Rating: 95%

This review originally appeared on Technology and Society Book Reviews.

I am an introvert. I prefer my own company to that of others, though over the years I have found ways to manage social interactions with something approaching grace. In her new book Quiet, author Susan Cain describes my experiences with unerring accuracy.

Cain graduated from Harvard Law School and practiced corporate law for seven years. Early in the book, she described the fear she felt giving presentations, negotiating with her clients’ creditors when times were tough, and teaching negotiation techniques after she left the legal field. For an introvert, interacting with new people in a one-on-one or small group setting can be difficult. When you put the same individual in front of a large group or any group when new business or the well-being of your client is on the line, the pressure can become unbearable.

The pressure introverts feel is brought into sharper focus by what Cain calls the “extrovert ideal” prevalent in America. She starts by describing a Tony Robbins seminar she attended, where Tony’s seemingly boundless energy let him maintain his momentum throughout a 10-hour seminar with minimal breaks. Tony seemed to draw his energy from the audience, but introverts are exhausted by social interaction. The author describes one popular and dynamic speaker who is a profound introvert and must withdraw to his hotel room after he speaks to recharge. She also visited Harvard Business School, which might be characterized as Extrovert Central. Participation in classroom discussions contributes a significant amount to students grades, so it pays great dividends to speak up and make useful comments in class. Introverts, surrounded by Type A extroverts, often struggle in this environment.

Cain also analyzes the new emphasis on teamwork and consensus that permeates business and education as far down as the elementary school level. She refers to this emphasis on teamwork as the New Groupthink and declares that it “has the potential to stifle productivity work and to deprive schoolchildren of the skills they’ll need to achieve excellence in an increasingly competitive world.” She supports her argument by citing several studies performed by psychologist Anders Ericsson. His research found that the key to success in many fields depends on practicing in solitude. When you’re alone, you can engage in deliberate practice without interruption or distraction. Solitude also lets you concentrate on the elements of a skill that are bothering you the most. Mohammed Ali referred to this type of work as “the lonely work”— the work you have to do to be special is the work that no one else ever sees.

Cain provides a number of useful strategies and tactics for introverts and for organizations who hire substantial numbers of introverts to follow so they can succeed. In the computer realm, which draws introverts in huge numbers, teams can begin their collaboration virtually. Introverts perform better when given time to think on their own and without the expectation of immediate response. Also, because typing comes to them much more readily than speaking, introverts are more likely to share their ideas via a chat room or discussion forum. After your team of introverts generates their ideas, you can summarize what they’ve written and use it as the basis for a relatively brief in-person meeting to discuss the available options.

I found Quiet to be an exceptional book that speaks directly to my personal experiences. I highly recommend it to anyone who is an introvert or who lives or works with one. Much of what might mystify you about our approach to the world will become clear.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at

Improv and Business for Introverts

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One of the best-known yet still strangely prevalent misconceptions about comedians is that we’re all extroverts, energized by more or less showing off in front of an audience. Many of us are, but many others are introverts searching for connections from the safety of the stage.

Wait…the safety of the stage? Performing for a crowd is somehow less intimidating and awkward than going to a party? For many people, myself included, it’s true. A show, even a solo act, is a team effort. You have the house staff, the technical crew, and perhaps other performers on your side of the curtain to share the experience with. You are a team of individuals with a stake in making the show successful. Even though they’re not in front of the audience, the crew and house staff benefit from good shows. No one wants audience members to remember they saw a horrible show at the XYZ Theatre – there’s a very real possibility they’d never go back.

Rehearsals, workshops, and pre-show technical checks are all ways for the team to bond and make the performance space their home, at least for a bit. And as anyone who has been on stage can tell you, the “fourth wall” between the audience and performers is real. There is a tangible separation between the stage and the seats. Improv groups and other performers often break the fourth wall and permit direct interaction with the audience, but the distinction between performer and audience member remains. When the performers turn their attention from the audience and to the action on the stage, audience members understand they should return to the role of observors.

Well-functioning business teams provide a similar environment for introverts to work in comfortably, but both improv groups and business teams can be dominated by individuals with forceful, extroverted personalities. The growing cultural emphasis on in-person teamwork and outward expression puts introverts at a severe disadvantage. In-person meetings and brainstorming sessions emphasize immediate participation, not the quiet reflection and careful communication introverts prefer.

I’ll devote the next few posts to introverts and how we interact with the world, starting with a review of a book I hope you find the time to read.

Memories Change Over Time

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Memories of dramatic events seem to be burned into our minds. It seems easy to recall where we were when we learned JFK was assassinated (before my time), Ronald Reagan was shot (middle school gym at the end of the day), Elvis died (in a car near the top of Massanutten Mountain on our way to my grandparents’ place), or on September 11, 2001 (checking email after sleeping late).

It all seems so clear, but how reliable are our memories of the events and the circumstances surrounding them? Not very, especially as time passes and discussions of the events contain information not available at first. For example, a Smithsonian magazine article notes that Karim Nader, a neuroscientist, examined his own memories of September 11 and found he had made some mistakes.

Nader, now a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, says his memory of  the World Trade Center attack has played a few tricks on him. He recalled seeing  television footage on September 11 of the first plane hitting the north tower of  the World Trade Center. But he was surprised to learn that such footage aired  for the first time the following day. Apparently he wasn’t alone: a 2003 study  of 569 college students found that 73 percent shared this misperception.

These changes are normal and expected. You store long-term memories by associating new information with things you already know. As you continue to receive information about an event, it becomes difficult to distinguish what occurred when. That’s why legal experts view eyewitness testimony as unreliable – humans are fallible, our memories especially so.

When you’re an improviser, this fallibility works to your advantage. Long-form shows can run for 45 minutes or more and, given the huge number of choices performers make, inconsistencies crop up all the time. The good news is that your audience wants you to succeed and, unless the error is too big to ignore, they’re almost always willing to go along with the new reality. Not doing so would undermine their enjoyment of the show, so they have an incentive to play along.

This forgiving atmosphere isn’t present in politics and business, at least not for your competitors. They want you to fail and will bring up every instance of you ignoring or, in their opinion, attempting to mischaracterize the past. It doesn’t help when a campaign adviser admits that’s what you plan to do. As reported in a article on March 21, 2012:

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s senior campaign adviser, was asked in a CNN interview Wednesday morning whether the former Massachusetts governor had been forced to adopt conservative positions in the rugged race that could hurt his standing with moderates in November’s general election.

“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes,” Fehrnstrom responded. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”

Ouch. I anticipate the Etch A Sketch will be a theme in the 2014 and 2016 election cycle. Regardless, the lesson to draw from this incident is the same for both improv and business: Don’t abuse your audience’s goodwill.

Read more:

Semantic Memory: It (Can Be) a Trap!

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In my previous post, I talked about the difference between episodic memory and semantic memory. Episodic memory, as the name implies, refers to memories of episodes in your life. These memories don’t always come back quickly, or at all in some cases, and they can change over time. Semantic memory, by contrast, refers to items you can recall instantaneously. Knowledge of simple arithmetic is a terrific example what’s contained in your semantic memory.

Episodic memory provides a nearly endless source of inspiration for improvisers and business people alike. Not only can you drawn your personal experiences to create scenes are presentations, you can use your knowledge to understand another person’s point of view. And, of course, if you don’t share another individual’s experiences, you can use your interactions as a tremendous learning opportunity.

Semantic memory can be a bit of a trap in both improv and business. The things that you know and feel that become ingrained enough to become part of your semantic memory can trap you into always reacting the same way to a particular stimulus. For example, you might give a presentation to a prospective client in an industry you’re not familiar with. If they ask a question you’ve answered many times before, you might give an answer that’s appropriate to your previous clients but not to the new client’s circumstances.

In improv, relying on semantic memory results and repetitive scenes and quick burnout. Audiences can be creative, but many times you’ll find that they tend to give the same suggestions. You have to find new ways to ask for input to avoid that repetition or, alternatively, constantly find new ways to build scenes around the suggestions of monkey, banana, and Jell-O. You and your audiences will be happier if you do, especially if you tend to have a lot of repeat audience members.

Episodic and Semantic Memory

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If I ask you to tell me what 3+2 equals, you would probably do so instantly. On the other hand, if I ask you to name in the last movie you saw the theater, you might have to think about it for a second or two. Those two different types of recall illustrate the differences between semantic memory and episodic memory.

I’ll start with episodic memory first. As the name implies, episodic memory is a form of long-term memory that records events from your life. Such episodes might include your wedding, the birth of a child, or something as mundane as getting out of a cab and stepping directly into a puddle. These episodes make up your internal autobiography, which is your personal record of your experiences.

Semantic memory, by contrast, refers to a subconscious knowledge that forms the basis for how we speak our native language, perform tasks we’ve done thousands of times, or interact in social settings. Semantic knowledge is often tacit, meaning that it is hard to quantify or describe. In many cases there is no need to write down the rules of behavior because everyone in the situation knows precisely what they are supposed to do. You’ll find this is true of families around the dinner table or groups of friends who go out for drinks after work.

Episodes from your life provide terrific fodder for scenes if you’re an improviser or for presentations in business. The trick is to find episodes that are directly relevant to your audience’s needs and to resist the temptation to stray too much from the truth. It’s one thing to tell your significant other a slightly exaggerated version of your exploits, but it’s quite another to tell an obviously untrue story in a business presentation. Conference goers have seen lots of presentations and they can smell a fake a mile away. Play it straight—don’t give in to the temptation to exaggerate too much.