Improv skills lead to success

Archive for September 2013

Improspectives Session at ASTD-Cascadia this Friday

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I’m preparing to lead a concurrent session at the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) Cascadia chapter’s annual conference this Friday, October 4. I’ll feature some of the core concepts from my book Improspectives and offer my participants a wide range of exercises they can take back to their workplace to help develop their teams and build narratives for their organizations and customers.

I’ve divided my presentation into four sections:

  • Fundamental Theorem of Improv
  • Listening
  • Playing games for fun and profit
  • Developing narratives

I hope to see some of you there!

A Playful Attitude Makes Life Easier

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News flash: life ain’t easy. I used to hear that being an adult wasn’t easy, but with the piles of homework and outside activities heaped on kids these days it’s fair to apply the statement to everyone. George Carlin opined that every kid’s daily schedule should include a couple of hours staring out the window — I think that’s a terrific idea.

Having time to yourself gives you the freedom to think about whatever comes to mind and combine ideas in new ways. In other words, to play. This attitude can become a habit, letting you see the unconventional and humorous sides of issues even though you take them seriously.

I discovered a terrific example of this approach in the description of the Wharton School of Economics’s course An Introduction to Operations Management on The FAQ list contains this bit of whimsy:

What is the coolest thing I’ll learn if I take this class?

You will look at the world with different eyes – you will start to detect bottlenecks, identify productivity wastes, and come up with ideas to improve business processes. A known side effect of these skills is that you might drive friends, family, or co-workers crazy when you point to their improvement opportunities…

The descriptions for the other three Wharton classes contain similar humorous elements. This approach should appeal to casual learners the Wharton School wants to engage with (it certainly caught my attention) and makes the prospect of taking a MOOC offered by a prestigious MBA program a little less imposing. I like their thinking and can’t wait to get started.

Improv, Business, and Emergent Behavior

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One of the joys of improv is not knowing exactly what will happen, but improv isn’t unique in that respect. I didn’t get a script when I woke up this morning and I’m guessing you didn’t, either.

What I did have in place when I woke up was a context. I’m in a society with rules, both internally and externally imposed, that guide my behavior. I also interact with other individuals. Mathematicians and computer scientists study simple versions of these interactions using models such as John Conway’s Game of Life. The Game of Life is a model based on a grid of cells. Some of the cells are turned on and others are turned off. At the beginning of a turn, each cell compares its state to its neighbors’ states and turns on, turns off, or remains the same based on a set of rules all cells have in common.

If you follow the earlier link to the Game of Life Wikipedia page, you’ll see that interesting behaviors emerge from various Game of Life starting configurations. The phenomena are interesting enough for researchers to create a new field of inquiry, complex systems science. According to Dr. Melanie Mitchell of Portland State University and the Santa Fe Institute, complex systems is:

…an interdisciplinary field of research that seeks to explain how large numbers of relatively simple entities organize themselves, without the benefit of any central controller, into a collective whole that creates patterns, uses information, and, in some cases, evolves and learns.

— Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour

Complex systems is new and, while it’s provided some interesting insights into some systemic behaviors, it hasn’t resulted in models that predict how consumers or businesses will interact in an environment (e.g., the internet) or with a product. The good news is that you can do field experiments and see what behaviors emerge. Some marketers use the “cool kids” strategy, where they make a few dozen units of a new product and give it to the cool kids in a high school to see what they do with it. As William Gibson noted in “Burning Chrome”, a short story first published in the 1982 collection Hackers, “the street finds its own uses for things”.

A similar rule applies to existing products. If your bosses panic when customers use a product in unintended ways, call a meeting, brew some herbal tea, and figure out how to take advantage of the gift you’ve received. You’re not wrong or stupid for not having foreseen every possible way your products could be used, but you are both of those things if you let your ego get in the way of capitalizing on what your customers tell you they want.

Accidents Can be Fun and Useful

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Robert K. Merton, a sociologist who worked primarily in the mid-20th century, popularized the notion of unintended consequences, which he defined as “outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful action.”

The notion of unintended consequences is obvious and was around long before Merton, but the term is often interpreted as meaning an action can have unintended negative outcomes. Fortunately, good things can happen by accident, too.

You’re probably familiar with the story of how a scientist at 3M invented the glue used on Post-It notes — he tried to create a super-strong glue, but ended up with a weak glue that barely held anything together. It wasn’t until years later that he thought to use it to adhere pieces of paper to vertical surfaces, but when he did his “failure” turned into a gold mine. Similarly, scientists at Cornell University created the world’s thinnest sheet of glass (literally a single molecule thick, making it technically a 2-D object) when oxygen infiltrated a chamber in which they were attempting to make graphene.

Improv relies on unintended consequences. Because improvisers don’t have a script, they make offers and trust their fellow performers to advance the scene or game. There are times, especially when you’re “in the zone” (what Chris Csikszentmihalyi calls a “flow state”), that you have no idea what’s coming out of your mouth until you hear it. With experience, your contributions come with increasing ease and provide a solid base for your scene.

In my next post, I’ll extend the concept of unintended consequences to business.

Always Be Ready

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Performers should always be ready to go. If another group doesn’t show up or someone gets sick, you can step in.

I did the regular show with the ComedySportz Portland group last night, during which our referee hyped an after hours show by another group. Unfortunately, that group had cancelled their show, but the message didn’t get to anyone in the show that night. We had a significant portion of the regular crowd stay for the after hours show, but there was no one there to do it.

Most of the players in the ComedySportz show had had long days, but they were willing to hang around and do a show for the folks who stayed. I always carry the materials I need to do Magic of the Mind (and my wife’s out of town visiting family), so I volunteered to do the after hours. Part of the team stayed to do a quick Q&A session with the fans while I set up, but after those five minutes it was business as usual. Well, as usual as it can be when you’re doing a show in a t-shirt and cargo shorts.

As an aside, I actually have two emergency Magic of the Mind kits: one in my ComedySportz bag and another, more complete set in the trunk of my car.

If you’re a speaker, you should always have a digital copy of your slide deck with you in case a scheduled speaker isn’t able to go on. I recommend preparing three versions of your talk: 50-minute, 25-minute, and 5-minute. The long version works for conference presentations, the middle for a half-slot, and the short version as program filler or for a quick presentation during a break. You can use the Ignite conference series model to create your 5-minute piece. Ignite presentations consist of 20 slides displayed for 15 seconds each. The slides are on auto-advance, so the presentation lasts exactly five minutes. The format requires some extra rehearsal, but it’s great for boiling your presentation down to its essential elements.

If you have a few minutes of down time in an airport, on a plane, or in your hotel room, take a few minutes to flip through your slides and notes to review your talking points. Stepping up to help a meeting organizer and delivering a polished, professional presentation is good for everyone and can lead to future speaking opportunities.

Gamification: Game Design and Addiction

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I’m the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews, a site I founded in February 1998. I recently reviewed Natasha Dow Schüll’s book Addiction by Design, which makes many points relevant to my post on the ethics of gamification. The full text of my review appears below.


Title: Addiction by Design

Author: Natasha Dow Schüll

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Copyright: 2012

ISBN13: 978-0-691-12755-2

Length: 444

Price: $35.00

Rating: 89%

I purchased this book for personal use.

Natasha Dow Schüll, an associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, explored the allure of food in mass quantities in her documentary Buffet: All You Can Eat Las Vegas. In her new book Addiction by Design from Princeton University Press, she examines how machine and game design facilitate addictive behavior.

Human Side of the Equation

Schüll begins by describing the human cost of gambling addiction by profiling several individuals, all of whom have driven themselves and their families into difficult situations because of their gambling. One woman interviewed by the author has structured her daily routine to visit a circuit of gambling establishments, including casinos and grocery stores with video poker machines. The small footprint, low operating costs, and revenue generation capacity of machines means that table games such as blackjack and craps have been squeezed into increasingly smaller spaces. Mirroring this trend, the typical problem gambler has changed from a middle-aged man who bets on sports or blackjack and waits ten years to get help to a 35 year-old woman with two kids who plays video poker and seeks help after just two years.

The financial windfall generated by problem gamblers is staggering. One study by Tracy Shrans indicated that gamblers who follow the industry’s “responsible gaming rules of conduct” (e.g, setting time and money limits, understanding the odds of the games, and not gambling when you’re lonely, angry, or depressed) generate just 4% of gambling revenue. A slew of studies, notably work published in 1998 by Lesieur (cited p. 16), estimate that problem gamblers generate between 30-60% of casino revenue. Part of gambling’s attraction is the possibility, however remote, of winning a significant amount of money, but the varied reward schedule plays a significant role as well.

Entering the Machine Zone

The effectiveness of a varied reward schedule holds true across the animal kingdom. Rats that press a lever and receive a food pellet every time will press only when they’re hungry, but rats rewarded on an irregular schedule, where they have no idea when the next food pellet will drop, will press the lever until exhausted. When the rewards come not from food but from direct stimulation of the endogenous reward system, the effects are even more pronounced. In her Great Courses video series Understanding the Brain, Jeanette Norden notes that rats with wires inserted into their brains, allowing them to stimulate their pleasure centers by pressing a lever, will forgo all other activities — including but not limited to sleeping, eating, and sex — to press the lever. She described the scene of an exhausted, filthy rat collapsed on the floor of its cage, reaching with its last bit of strength to press the lever just one more time.

According to Schüll’s analysis, the analog for humans appears to be entering the “machine zone”, where the player is engrossed in the game and their interaction with the machine. Unlike poker and other table games that provide experiences mediated by other humans and offer occasional thrills, machine gamblers are able to maintain stimulation for as long as their bankroll allows. The rhythm of their interaction with the device induces comfort and, most importantly, lets the player escape from the world for a time. Game designers have capitalized on this trend by offering multi-line video slot machines with as many as 100 payouts. The result is that most spins pay something, but the majority of spins pay less than the player wagered. Rather than a singular win or loss, these fractional payouts provide a smoother ride down as the built-in house advantage grinds away at the player’s bankroll.

Nevada is arguably the most libertarian state in the U.S., so it’s no surprise the gaming industry bases its arguments against limiting game design and player tracking on the grounds of personal responsibility. Schüll implies, but never as far as I could tell directly states that the games’ design promotes addiction. She probably couldn’t do so because of legal concerns and the inherent difficulty in proving such a statement, which is fair enough. That said, if there ever is such proof, it’s likely that the self-exclusion policies in other gambling jurisdictions such as British Columbia, Canada, and Australia would be replaced by stricter rules.


Schüll goes beyond the basic “reward schedule” addiction analysis so common in the literature and casts the role of casinos and their visitors in terms of the social theories of Weber, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault, mirroring the theoretical underpinnings of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. (Though this publication and the program have similar names, we are not affiliated.)  I thought her analysis added value to the book, but the sections didn’t feel tightly integrated with the rest of the narrative. Schüll wrote the book over several years and the book’s cohesiveness might have suffered a bit because of it. Important life events take priority, of course, and despite some small shortcomings Addiction by Design is a detailed, useful, and readable analysis of machine gambling and the players on all sides of the game.

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

You Might Not Have a Book in You…Yet

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A book with your name on the cover is a badge of honor. Many individuals find writing anything longer than an e-mail too painful to contemplate, with good reason: writing your first book-length manuscript is hard.

I’m preparing for some upcoming speaking engagements, so I took the time to re-read Million Dollar Speaking by Alan Weiss. Weiss has made a very (very, very) good living as a speaker and trainer and came highly recommended from a friend who makes a very (very) good living as an entertainer on the college and corporate circuits. In his book, Weiss explodes the myth that says “if you have a speech, you have a book”:

This should be restated as follows: if you have a speech, you have an excruciatingly tiny book. Speaking and writing are discrete skills, sometimes synergistic but not at all equal. Don’t give the published work short shrift: books require extensive research; tight, Jesuit-like logic; brilliant metaphors; and immaculate construction. If that sounds like it doesn’t resemble a lot of books out there, that’s because most books are not very good.

Improspectives runs 126 small-format pages and, according to the word count feature in Microsoft Word, contains 28,807 words. Most business books are 250 pages in length; at 350 words per page, you’re looking at 87,500 words. That’s a lot of information. Consider this: if you speak for an hour at a rate of 150 words per minute, you will have spoken 9,000 words. The spoken word and, by extension, video, are low bandwidth when you’re not presenting graphical content. it’s easier for you to talk for an hour than to write 9,000 words and, yes, video can be more fun to watch (though Weiss gives the example of a speaker whose video showed him writing on an easel pad), but you’re trading your convenience for the amount of information you deliver to your audience.

I dislike giving bad reviews to books, but I did want to give a real-life example of how having a speech or, in this case, a workshop doesn’t mean you have a book. Red Thread Thinking, by Debra Kaye (with Karen Kelly) describes Kaye’s “red thread” approach to finding connections between ideas for profitable innovation. I’ve been in and led enough corporate training sessions to see the value in her approach and believe her workshops would be valuable to many businesses. Unfortunately, so much of the good that comes out a workshop is unspoken and difficult to quantify. Many workshop leaders walk into the room with at most five or six pieces of paper with their outline and rely on the participants to provide the fuel for the day. Even success stories, if you can share them because of confidentiality concerns, can get repetitive when they rely on the same methods.

That’s where Karen Kelly comes in. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess the main author, Debra Kaye, had difficulty generating a manuscript that met the 250-page ideal for business books. The “with” credit on a book indicates the secondary author took on a significant role, which in this case meant lengthening the book by pumping the main author for more talking points, stories, and supporting research. Using that additional input, the professional book doctor can remix material, restating it in slightly different ways to change the emphasis and illustrating the points with new examples. If you add in a prologue and appendices and trim the target page count a bit, you reduce your writing burden from 87,500 words to around 70,000.

Once the first draft is in place, the developmental editor flags obvious repetitions and incongruent material so the “with” author can adjust the manuscript as needed. As an experienced author, I can see where Karen Kelly helped the Red Thread Thinking manuscript along. I think she did a great job, both due to her professional skills and because Debra Kaye’s basic ideas are sound.

My advice to anyone who wants to create intellectual property to support your work and sell in the back of the room? Don’t be afraid to write a series of short pieces at first. A 10-page white paper or 30-minute podcast is far better than a book that’s 90% fluff. Build your material gradually and, when you have enough of it for the type of book you want, bring it together into a coherent whole.