Improv skills lead to success

Archive for the ‘Listening’ Category

In Praise of Room Tone

leave a comment »

As an online course author, I record content that video editors, graphic artists, compositors, and other professionals transform into a final product. I edited two of my own courses, so I can say with certainty that there are plenty of folks out there who are much better at it than I am and deserve to be paid well for their work.

Room tone, a recording of silence in the area where the course is recorded (in my case, a sound booth manufactured by WhisperRoom), lets editors smooth out the rough transitions that result when they cut out part of a track. The team asks authors to provide 30 seconds of room tone so editors can lay it under multiple cuts without too many paste operations.

I use those 30 seconds to reflect on the course I just recorded, remembering the work it took to put the raw materials in place for the production team to work their magic. I say “magic” intentionally–if something seems effortless, you know a lot of work went into making it look that way. As I remember my own efforts, I reaffirm my appreciation for the work the rest of the team does to create, distribute, and promote the course.

Written by curtisfrye

February 16, 2017 at 4:29 pm

Introverts at Parties: Part 2

leave a comment »

About two years ago I wrote a quick post on how introverts can survive at parties. It was a good idea but, upon rereading it at the end of 2014, I realize I didn’t include a lot of usable advice. Therefore, in the proud tradition of the internet, I present this listicle:

  • Go with a friend. Partying can be lonely work when you’re there by yourself. If you can, find someone to attend the party/affair/function/whatever with you.
  • Practice your introduction. Neil Gaiman, a famous writer, follows a script. “Hi, my name is Neil. I’m a writer. What do you do?” If it’s a party without name tags or place settings, you could modify that statement to: “Hi, I’m Curt. I’m a writer. How about you?” Learning and remembering names helps establish yourself as a good conversational partner.
  • Arrive a little after the start time and leave after about a third of the guests have departed. Arriving too early is awkward and leaving too soon implies you’re not having a good time, but if you’re tiring and need a break, having a guideline in place can help take the stress off. That said, if you’re truly uncomfortable, make your apologies and head home.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. Alcohol is a social lubricant, but the first thing it affects is your judgment. It’s also a mood enhancer, meaning that it makes your emotions stronger. If you’re feeling crowded and overwhelmed, consuming alcohol can make it worse. In a similar vein, alcohol removes inhibitions. That might sound like a great thing for an introvert, but remember that if you’re not used to being outgoing you could easily overdo it and make a fool of yourself (see “affects your judgment” above). Feel free to drink a little, but one serving (1 ounce of whiskey, 4 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer) per hour is about right for the average person.
  • Share the wall. Standing with your back to a wall or in a corner provides literal support, but anyone facing you must at least partially block your path forward. If you’re in a one-on-one conversation, turn so you’re both away from the wall and can move as freely as furniture and other guests allow.
  • Spread yourself around a little. As an introvert, I often hoped to find one person to talk with for the rest of the evening. For most party-goers that won’t be possible or desirable, so be ready to move around and don’t take it amiss when the person you love talking to moves on.
  • Thank your conversation partner. My wife and I took ballroom dance classes for about a year and, while we no longer pursue it as a hobby, I do like the practice of thanking your partner when you switch around. Smiling and expressing appreciation reinforces that you’re a pleasant person others will enjoy talking to, which makes starting the next conversation easier.
  • Learn more about your introverted self. The best book I’ve found in living as (or with) an introvert is Quiet, by Susan Cain. I’m not severely introverted, but I found lots of useful insights in her book.

I hope this advice helps. Remember: be open, be honest, and understand we’re all works in progress. If something goes wrong this holiday season, do better next time.

Written by curtisfrye

December 27, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Introverts and Parties

leave a comment »

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.

Connections and Revelations

leave a comment »

Del Close, the legendary improv director, once said: “Where do the best laughs come from? Terrific
connections made intellectually or terrific revelations made emotionally.”

A well-rounded player can take both approaches, but so many players rely on one approach to the exclusion of the other. I’m definitely on the intellectual side of that equation. For many years, I didn’t pay much attention to how I (or my character) felt about what happened in scenes. Instead, I focused on the “what” of the scene and tried to explore it instead of the character interactions. I’ve definitely become a more successful player, both as an individual and as part of a group, now that I’ve added some emotional range to my work.

Other performers I’ve worked with focus so much on emotional connections that they ignore the substance of the scene. Not reacting to an offer to explore the “what” of the scene is just as much of a denial as my reluctance to engage on an emotional level.

You’ll often run into the same split in business environments. Many executives disdain the emotional side of decision-making and choose to focus on the numbers. I think most of this approach is due to the fear that allowing emotions to affect them implies they can be manipulated. Marketing and sales professionals try to get their customers to engage emotionally, so their approach is often at odds with those of their technical and executive teams.

What’s the best combination of emotion and number sense? There’s no set formula, just experience and the intangible ability to judge which moves to make. Just be ready to meet your team members on their own ground every now and then.

Written by curtisfrye

September 2, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Learning from non-Improvisers

leave a comment »

My current favorite improv book by a non-improviser is Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. Frederick distilled the wisdom he’s developed over his career as an architect, urban designer, and instructor into 101 aphorisms meant to help burgeoning architects deal with the rigors of their undergraduate training and assimilate that knowledge into a viable creative process. As it turns out, most of his advice applies directly to improvisational comedy and to the business world.

After noting that architectural design springs from an idea, Frederick states that “the more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be.” His example shows two churches, one that represents itself as being for everyone and the other for purple-striped vegetarians. The church that’s targeted at a very specific group is much better attended than the other generic church.

Improv scenes are based on offers, which are scene details that come out of a player’s statement or action. An offer such as walking through a door; stamping one’s feet; and then taking off earmuffs, coat, and gloves tells us that the character just came in from the snow. The player’s emotion and intention give even more information. If she moves quickly and yanks off her hat, it might mean that it is bitter cold outside. If she moves slowly and sets down her purse before taking off her cold weather gear, she might have trudged for half a mile through foot-deep drifts because the bus was on a snow route and couldn’t get up her hill.

Frederick’s nineteenth dictum, that one should start a composition with general elements and add details once the outline has been drawn, fits well within the context of improvised theatre but does have its limitations. An offer such as the one I just described, which provides details but doesn’t drive the scene in any particular direction, gives the second player a lot of room to work. He could open a window, for example, signaling a conflict between his perception of the room as too hot and the first performer’s obvious chill.

In business, this type of conflict occurs in many contexts. To move forward through the conflict, you must find a way to honor what your colleagues have said and done while making progress toward your goals. And you do have the same goals, right?

Discriminative Listening

leave a comment »

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

Critical Listening

leave a comment »

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

Language and Acceptance

leave a comment »

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

leave a comment »

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

leave a comment »

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