Improv skills lead to success

Archive for January 2013

Repetition Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

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Humans crave variety. It’s easy to get bored in a job where you repeatedly encounter the same scenarios, whether as part of a customer service job or, perhaps surprisingly, as a lawyer. Yes, a lot of the law is repetitive, especially for young lawyers learning the basics of their practice area. In a field bound by precedent, you spend a lot of time adding details to templated filings your firm has used for years.

Improv provides a welcome relief from the drudgery of the office, but it’s possible for improvisers to get into ruts. If you work with the same group for several years, you end up doing a lot of shows with the same cast. Sure, every show’s different, but they’re not that different. And, humans being what they are, the suggestions you get won’t be that different if you keep asking for the same things. So ask for new suggestions! Don’t go for the standard categories of occupations and animals — ask someone to describe their imaginary friend or a machine they’d like to invent.

For those of you in the corporate world who don’t have a lot of flexibility in how you do your job (yet), make those hallway conversations count. Don’t try to be funny all the time, but use your listening skills to make offers that advance conversations and learn more about your colleagues.

Bonus hint: You can often get superb customer service if you make your rep’s day better. Be nice. Answer their questions directly. If there’s a moment where the conversation pauses because the computer’s slow, make an offer! If you’re talking with a cable company about a bill, mention a show you watched and liked. If it’s a store, mention a good experience you had. The person helping you might not want to interact with you, but if they do, you might have a brief but fun conversation about a topic of mutual interest. You will have gotten what you wanted (and maybe a little extra) and made someone else’s day brighter. Isn’t that why we perform?

Bonus bonus hint: Don’t hit on the rep, even if they sound cute. In fact, especially if they sound cute. They’re in Atlanta and you’re in Missoula…enjoy the conversation and move on.

When Goals Don’t Match Incentives

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Several months ago I wrote about how improv and business relationships can resemble some of the classic 2 x 2 games, such as Chicken or the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Improv and business have characteristics in common with other games, too.

My last post mentioned Mikhail Tal, one of the fiercest attackers in the history of chess. He specialized in knocking the position and his opponent off balance and winning in the resulting complications. Tal lost a lot of games in dramatic fashion, too, but his games were rarely boring.

You can’t make progress in an improv scene or business if you’re afraid to shake things up. Unlike in chess, where you face an opponent over the board by yourself, improvisers and business people have colleagues who are working with you toward a common goal. At least, that’s the ideal. You probably know what kind of disasters can happen when you and your colleagues aren’t all moving in the same direction. But why would team members work at cross purposes? One possible reason is that an individual’s incentives don’t align with the project goal.

As an example, suppose you’re a programmer tasked with shipping a product update one month from today. Further, assume your annual bonus and (possibly) continued employment hinge on releasing your code by the deadline. I can guarantee that you will do everything you can, including cutting every available corner if necessary, to get that software out the door 30 days from now. Doing so meets your objective of getting the software out the door, but does so at the expense of the company’s overarching goal of providing quality products to its customers.

Economists and game theorists call this practice suboptimization, where individuals focus on part of a process at the expense of the project as a whole. Chess players can suboptimize by trying to reach an endgame with very few pieces on the board, regardless of what the position calls for earlier in the game. Improvisers can suboptimize by “working on a character” or “finding a way to work a song into this scene” no matter what happens in a scene. And, as argued above, companies can make their employees suboptimize by setting incentives improperly.

I wish I had a good answer for the problem of suboptimization in organizations. It’s relatively easy for individuals to avoid it if they can identify the larger goals they’re working toward, but it’s hard for employees to consciously work in a manner that won’t be directly rewarded. If it’s a choice between getting paid and doing what’s best for the organization, I say take the money and work with your boss to restructure your incentives after you cash the check.

A Genius, in Retrospect

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Mikhail Tal, the Latvian chess grandmaster and one-time World Champion, played a raging, attacking, seemingly bizarre brand of chess. His willingness to sacrifice his pieces for nebulous compensation led to some embarrassing losses but resulted in many fantastic wins when his opponents couldn’t, as Tal put it, see their way out of a forest where 2+2=5.

As an improviser, I admire his courage to randomize a position and put both him and his opponent on the spot. It’s easy to think of his creations as “just games”, but he was a professional player in what was then the Soviet Union. The tournaments to which he was invited and, more to the point, allowed to participate in depended on both his style of play and his results. Of course, it wasn’t until a game was over and the chess world had a chance to analyze his moves that the verdict for a particular sequence was known.

The same consideration is true for improvisers. We don’t know whether what we do is brilliant or not until a scene is over, but we have the luxury of working with a team to make all of our choices brilliant. And that’s why I have such respect for a competitor like Tal, who told this story (paraphrased):

I was in the middle of a tournament game when I began to wonder how one might rescue an elephant stuck in a swamp. Over the next 45 minutes, I imagined a series of pulleys and levers arranged in various configurations but came to no satisfactory conclusion. Then, seeing that I was running low on time, I looked at the board and played the first sacrifice I saw.

The journalist covering the game reported that, “After 45 minutes of thought, Tal unleashed a deep and powerful sacrifice that resulted in a won game.”

We can, and should, look at the mechanics of our work, but we must never dismiss what the audience takes away from a performance. The show exists in their memory as well as ours.

How to Apologize

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It’s never easy to apologize, especially when you’ve angered the very people you count on for your livelihood. The National Hockey League, specifically its owners, potentially reversed seven years of increasing goodwill and fan excitement when it locked out its players in an attempt to force the players’ union to accept an odious Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The players (rightfully) dug in and, on January 12, the two sides ratified an agreement and 48-game schedule they could have reached months ago. So how do you make up for three months of no hockey and a loss of 34 games per team? One good place to start is by putting your money where your mouth is. The dispute was about money, so that’s the currency you use to apologize to your fans.

The social media team for the Calgary Flames, a team I’ve followed since I was an intern as the U.S. Consulate in Calgary during the summer of 1989 (the year the Flames won their only Stanley Cup), sent out these three tweets today:


For the first two home games this year, you can get a beer spilled on you at the Saddledome for half price, buy Flames gear for 50% off until the end of the first game, and have a guaranteed win of C$50,000 (with another C$50,000 going to charity) for the 50/50 drawings at the first two games. That’ll go a long way toward regaining their fans’ support.

Apology accepted, but this is the third time we’ve missed games during Gary Bettman’s tenure. Don’t let it happen again.

“Yes…and” isn’t always your friend in business

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Improvisers are trained to accept other players’ offers so scenes can move forward. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for an improvised performance to succeed unless the actors say “yes” to others’ contributions “and” extend or heighten those offers.

In negotiations of all types, and especially in a business context, part of the battle for victory hinges on establishing the reality you’re discussing. As a writer, I have to place a value on my services and the benefits they bring to my clients. A potential client who’s interested in getting the best service at the lowest possible price could point out that they are a new company acquiring lots of content, so they aren’t in a position to pay me what I think I deserve. The “Yes…and” approach pushes me to accept what they’ve said as truth and take the contract as offered. The problem is that I’m not in a scene meant to entertain an audience — I’m in a negotiation over whether I get paid what I deserve. Many factors influence the decision, such as whether I’m bored or need the work, but in the end I have to live with the consequences of my choice. Accepting less than I’m worth drives down my value and, worse, my self-perceived value. Unless the situation is dire, you shouldn’t bend to the version of reality they’ve put forth.

You should also watch out for internal battles at a company, even one where you’ve worked for a while and established a trusting relationship with your colleagues. Your co-workers might misunderstand a situation or, if you’re competing for a promotion or assignment,  want to influence how a situation is perceived. “Yes…and” can be a weakness others exploit. It’s tough to maintain a proper balance between acceptance and skepticism, but it’s worth the effort to try.

Introverts and Goals

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One frequent mistake introverts make is to frame our goals in terms of how others perceive us. Doing so gives others control over our feelings of self-worth, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. The other side of the coin is that we have to be honest with ourselves about our contributions. If we don’t add value to a relationship or a business, we shouldn’t expect to be rewarded.

Over the past 12 months, I’ve started using “To Do” lists to track my tasks for a day. Yes, they seem outdated and hokey, but they have helped me focus my efforts. Some of the tricks I use to create beneficial lists are:

  • Make it easy to tell when you’ve finished a task.
  • Make your goals personal. You can’t control how others perceive you, but you can control how you perceive you. Goals such as “I’ll work out for an hour four times a week” are personal and measurable.
  • Write down other things you accomplish and make them part of the list.
  • On a calendar, check off each day you complete your list. This is Jerry Seinfeld’s technique–he wants to write for an hour every day and draws an “X” in the box of every day he does so. Now he doesn’t want to break the streak. In a similar vein, one of the keyboardists from ComedySportz Portland has completed over 800 New York Times crosswords in a row, the seventh longest active streak.
  • Forgive yourself if you don’t quite make it through your list. You’re human. Be kind.

Introverts and Parties

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For an article with actual advice, see my update from December 2014.

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season, whether you celebrated Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Festivus, Saturnalia, none of the above, some of the above, all of the above, or something else entirely. And happy New Year!

As an introvert who does improv, I have the luxury of performing during the holidays. The fourth wall, the invisible barrier at the front of the stage that separates the performers from the audience, comforts me. What’s more, it lets me reach out across the barrier to make eye contact with audience members who are enjoying themselves and, best of all, understand they should stay in their seats during the show. Packing ’em in like sardines for a New Year’s Eve show so only the patrons on the end of a row can move easily makes it even better.

Introverts dread attending parties as a guest, but I can tell that we fear something else even more: attending a party as an outside solo entertainer. Yes, the dreaded walk-around entertainer who often, as Joe Buck said on a Fox NFL broadcast a few years ago, “Does card tricks nobody wants to see.” I perform more interactive pieces that are about the participants more than me, but I’m still the guy nobody knows. Even better, once they find out what I do, they wonder if I’m going to take advantage of their trust and embarrass them.

I did a gig for a Portland law firm this December and got the usual mix of tables — groups that were indifferent, groups that wanted me to leave right away, groups that loved everything I did, and groups that wanted to bust my chops. I only had one table that messed with me (my first, which had me worried), but that setback was balanced out by two groups and one individual who loved me.

The danger’s in the middle. It’s easy to tell when you should leave a hot or cold table, but what about the group that gives you lukewarm reactions? With a nod to Kenny Rogers, knowing when to walk away and knowing when to run is easy, but knowing how long to stay is hard. My wife’s socially fluent, so I let her call the shots when we’re at a party as a couple. When I’m solo, I follow the old Army boot camp maxim: never be first, never be last, and never volunteer for anything.