Improspectives

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See, Think, Design, Produce: Randall Munroe’s Presentation

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The last of the three STDP2 presentations I’ll review was by Randall Munroe, creator of the online comic xkcd. I’ve read xkcd for years and am constantly amazed at the quality of his work.

Munroe started out by noting that it’s ridiculously easy to get in your own way by trying to automate a process that can be done perfectly well by hand. As an example, consider a chart showing character interactions in the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movies.

movie_narrative_charts

Original source: http://xkcd.com/657/

 

Gandalf’s a plot hack.

                            – Randall Munroe

Munroe said that he tried for ten years, off and on, to develop a tool that could translate a script into a character interaction timeline. Finally, frustrated, he drew the graph for the original Star Wars trilogy by hand in an hour. I imagine the timeline for 12 Angry Men took slightly less time to complete.

Displaying data is easy, Munroe argued, but determining which data to show is tough. That said, some presentation modes are better than others. Once he finds an angle he likes, he looks for other ways he can leverage that approach. Recently, he published a graphic on California droughts that uses the physical shape of the state as its axes. I’d love to see this design metaphor used in other graphics.

california

Original source: http://xkcd.com/1410/

 

He makes his infographics more palatable by adding humor, such as asides about a specific data point or a joke to indicate that, while he takes the analysis seriously, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. That approach lets him reveal that the Environmental Protection Agency assigns a human life an economic value of $8.2 million when performing cost-benefit analysis without inciting his readers.

Munroe came across as a soft-spoken, gentle person who is still slightly uncomfortable speaking in public. That said, his resolve strengthened when he discussed his wife’s cancer diagnosis and how he communicated the realities of treatment and survival rates. The image that resulted, “Lanes”, is one of the most powerful infographics I’ve encountered.

lanes

Original source: http://xkcd.com/931/

 

He didn’t want to leave us on such a somber note, so he concluded by showing us a graphic called “Lakes and Oceans” that he thought was interesting but nothing special. It shows the relative depths of  various bodies of water and the ocean floor. He was surprised to discover it was one of the most popular things he published that year.

lakes_and_oceans

Original source: http://xkcd.com/1040/

 

I enjoyed my time in Seattle. The presentations by Jonathan Corum, Maria Popova, and Randall Munroe gave me a burst of energy that have let me approach my own work from a fresh perspective.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Maria Popova’s Presentation

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Maria Popova has produced Brain Pickings since October 23, 2006. What started out as an occasional email newsletter sent to coworkers at one of the four jobs she was working to pay for college has turned into a popular and well-regarded net resource.

Her presentation was substantially different from Jonathan Corum’s. Corum concentrated on his visual design process, but Popova focused on what she calls combinatorial thinking. Her goal is to combine lots of information with a little wisdom to produce an interesting and useful intellectual product that helps readers live reflectively.

Popova’s talk centered on the seven lessons that she learned from the first seven years of producing Brain Pickings. You can find the full post with commentary on her site, but I’ll summarize the points here as she did in her talk:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
  2. Do nothing out of guilt, or for prestige, status, money or approval alone.
  3. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life.
  5. Maya Angelou famously said, “When people tell you who they are, believe them”. But even more importantly, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. As Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. Debbie Millman captures our modern predicament beautifully: “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”

Popova went into points six and the seven in a bit more detail, offering quotes from Mary Oliver, Tchaikovsky, Chuck Close, and Isabel Allende to support her points. She also shared a link to an interesting visualization summarizing the sleep habits of successful writers. Though the data was necessarily a bit piecemeal and anecdotal, it appears that late risers, meaning those who typically awake around 10 AM or 11 AM, tend to produce more work but win fewer awards. For someone like me, who is firmly in the late riser camp, the good news is that there is no secret hour of awakening that means you will win a Pulitzer Prize.

She also noted that, in many ways, our work ethic fights us. American culture measures us by what we achieve and, while just showing up is important to success in life, she feels we can let ourselves fall into a routine of meaningless productivity without truly living.

Popova’s presentation was substantially different from Corum’s and, at first, I was a little put off by the lack of compelling visuals like those presented by a member of the New York Times media team. Once I realized that her focus was more on internal processes as opposed to audience-focused visualizations, I was able to appreciate her points and ended up getting quite a lot out of her presentation. She also landed me as a new supporter of Brain Pickings, earning her the price of a cup of tea each month.

Smarter than a CIA Agent?

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National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting piece on the Good Judgment Program, which is a trial program run by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The program’s goal is to find individuals who can forecast whether certain events will occur, such as a major attack on Israeli soil before May 10, 2014. The program’s trial period has 3,000 participants, each of whom makes predictions through a website. The NPR segment featured a 60 year-old pharmacist who is in the top 1% of the group, making her a “superforecaster”.

The question, of course, is whether this participant has any special abilities or insights. Program entrants don’t have access to sensitive data — indeed, the pharmacist says she simply does a Google search to find information about each question and makes her best guess. Just as some lucky individuals can win five, eight, or even 20 coin flips in a row, I’m curious as to how much of the participants’ success (or lack of same) is due to chance. I’m sure the intelligence community is, too. I’d love to see the statistical distribution of forecast success rates to see how it compares to random choices.

Despite the attempts to codify intelligence work in books such as Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, it’s much more of an art than a science. What’s worse, humans are notoriously bad at explaining why we did something. Research has shown that we often have no idea why we perform an action, but feel compelled to provide a justification afterward. That explanation is usually based more on how we perceive ourselves as thinking than it is on the actual process.

If you’re a performer and you do something good, try to remember the context of the scene and how you felt when you got the input that led to your good choice. Recording your performances lets you recapture more of the feeling than simple memory, which fades quickly and can be replaced by what you wished had happened. Then, the next time you’re on stage, try to recreate that feeling so your subconscious can make good choices on your behalf.

Review of Tim’s Vermeer

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Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter, created works that diverged significantly from those of his contemporaries. Though he painted domestic scenes and portraits, his works’ appearance shared more with modern photography than paintings of his era. Where he developed these skills is a mystery — there’s no record of Vermeer’s training, which is very uncommon for artists of the mid-17th century. Normally artists listed their apprenticeships and other engagements to enhance their prestige. His works also stood out through their lack or preparatory sketches on the canvas. How he produced his work is a mystery.

Tim’s Vermeer, a Penn & Teller Film, investigates Vermeer’s process. Penn Jillette and Teller, the taller and shorter halves of Penn & Teller, respectively, have in recent years branched out from their magic show at the Rio in Las Vegas. Their other projects include Penn’s appearances on Celebrity Apprentice and Teller’s well-received direction of Macbeth. The “Tim” of the film’s title is Tim Jenison, a technologist, inventor, and friend of Penn’s for many years. Jenison surged to nerd prominence in the 1980s with products such as DigiView and the iconic Video Toaster. His company, NewTek, produces LightWave 3D, popular modeling software for artists, designers, and engineers.

During a conversation with Penn, Tim casually remarked that he was trying to recreate a Vermeer painting. Tim’s not a painter, but he has an inventive mind, an eye for detail, and an understanding of light from his work as a 3D design software developer. He happened to read British artist  David Hockney’s 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which postulated that Vermeer had used optical aids to produce his work.  Over time, Tim intuited and tested a process that combined camera obscura projection and a series of mirrors to magnify the subject image and compare the subject’s color with that on the canvas. When there is no discernable step at the edge of the comparison mirror, a condition that surely brings joy to professional magicians Penn & Teller, the rendering matches the subject.

The film then describes Tim’s efforts to research the piece he has chosen to recreate, The Music Lesson, and build a full-size physical model of the scene in a San Antonio warehouse. One light-hearted moment comes when Tim and the gang visit London and request permission from the Queen of England to view the original work, which is in the crown’s private collection in Buckingham Palace. Originally denied access, Penn & Teller recorded a rant that could easily have fit into their Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Fortunately, just a portion of this segment played briefly and at very low volume while Penn’s voiceover revealed the Queen had changed her mind and granted Tim a half-hour viewing.

While in England, Tim had the opportunity to speak with several experts, including David Hockney. One shot in Hockney’s studio deliberately exposes the reflection of the director, Teller, and a cameraman in a full-length dressing mirror in Hockney’s studio. It’s a nice touch that reminds us we are watching a mediated depiction of a conversation about a mediated depiction of reality.

Back in San Antonio, Tim’s team constructs the set and he starts painting in earnest. There are many terrific moments in this part of the film, but I won’t spoil them for you. I will say that, at a late stage of the project, Tim’s dedication to detail threatened to turn part of the process from a Seurat-like pointillist rendering into a Sartre-like existentialist nightmare. To his credit, Teller chose not to hype Tim’s obsession on the project. Rather, he lets the viewer empathize with Tim by bringing to mind pursuits they’ve taken to unlikely extremes.

I recommend Tim’s Vermeer without reservation. It’s a compact film, running just 80 minutes, and I plan to buy DVD copies of it as gifts for friends. That said, I did have some small issues with the piece. There were several instances of double exposition, where an interview or voiceover repeated the same information in close proximity. Also, I felt that sped-up sequences where Tim shifted between views of the set’s LightWave 3D model were interesting eye candy but went on a bit long and added nothing to the narrative. I found similar set construction sequences to be effective, so maybe I didn’t see how the computer graphics furthered the story. 

Regardless of these minor complaints, I think Tim’s Vermeer is a terrific documentary that will appeal to anyone who has ever thought “That’s funny…” and followed their observation to its logical, or perhaps illogical, conclusion.

Tim’s Vermeer runs through March 20, 2014 at Cinema 21 in Portland, OR. You can find more information about the film, as well as showtimes and venues in other cities, at its dedicated page on the Sony Classics site.

Variety Keeps Things Fun!

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I cringe whenever I hear an improviser say, “Whenever someone does this, I always do that.” If you have multiple people doing that, you always get the same result. There are two improv games that rely on this gimmick: Mr. So-and-So and Pavlovian Response. In Mr. So-and-So, every time a player comes on stage, another player endows him with a particular characteristic. For example, a player could walk on stage and be greeted with, “Hello Mr. Yawns When He Talks.” When the player honors that endowment, he will yawn whenever he opens his mouth to speak.

Even though I say you shouldn’t repeat gags as you go along, I know that players with any significant experience will have characters and bits they can go back to when needed. They’re fine in small doses, but don’t depend on them.

In the game of Pavlovian Response, every player is given a trigger and an action that occurs whenever the trigger is noticed. A player might bark like a dog whenever someone turns away from her. You can have a lot of fun chaining these reactions together. Perhaps, upon hearing the word the, a player could respond by leaving the stage. Another player could be assigned to clap her hands twice whenever someone leaves the stage. If you want to get crazy, you can endow the light operator to turn the lights on or off whenever someone claps their hands twice.

In offstage life, not every interaction has to be unique. Companies have policies and procedures in place for very good reasons: legal compliance, standards compliance, and maintaining audit trails. For example, if you’re in a customer-facing position, you need to have a series of procedures you work through to be sure you weed out the simplest and easiest-to-fix problems. (You’re attempting to save your time at the expense of your customer’s autonomy, but that’s another story.)

One of the best interactions I’ve had with the company happened very recently. My house has a watering system from Rain Bird. After a power outage, the system turned on, and the only way to get it to turn off was to unplug the system’s control board. After working through the manual, neither my wife nor I could get the system to reset correctly. I called the company’s toll-free help line and, after a couple of questions to verify my information, the technician simply asked me to describe what was going on. Using his expertise with the systems, he was able to guide me to a solution very quickly. This interaction represented the best combination of procedure and allowing for open-ended input that I’ve encountered in quite some time.

In the end, your best bet as an improviser is to embrace the reality of the scene as you and your fellow performers have created it, and allow yourself to go in new directions. In business, you need to be ready to face the unexpected, but you should rely on existing procedures that help ensure smooth operations within your company.

Institutional Memory and Improv

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One of the best ways to pass on important information is to relate what happened on a trip, in a game, or during warm-ups. The more you know about the variety of situations you can face and how to handle them, the better off you are. Stephen Denning emphasizes the value of these stories in A Leader’s Guide to Storytelling:

Listening to these stories isn’t merely entertainment: it leads to the acquisition of vicarious experience by those participating. The limitation of sharing stories in an informal setting is that those who aren’t present to learn. This limitation was overcome by the Xerox Corporation in its Eureka program, in which photocopy technicians were given two-way radios so they could be constantly in contact and share experiences; the most useful of the stories were vetted and made available on the web to the entire workforce of 25,000 technicians.

In addition to our online forums, ComedySportz maintains an internal wiki of games and warm-ups. A wiki is a shared database of information that can be edited by any member of the group. Wikipedia is the most prominent example of a public wiki.

The Portland team also has occasional workshops in which individual players get 10–15 minutes to share knowledge on a topic we’re comfortable with. Some companies have brown bag lunches based on a similar theme. One project I haven’t started yet, but hope to soon, is something I borrowed from a former boss at The MITRE Corporation. He sent out a survey asking what languages people spoke, what skills they had, and so on. A spreadsheet or database that contains this information can be extremely valuable when a situation arises and you need someone who can read Gujarati or can recommend a business hotel in the South Kensington area of London.

Please, Be Easy to Work With

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Comedians make a living by pointing out what’s incongruent, unfair, or simply messed up in society. The hack phrase “What’s up with that?” (you know the line’s overdone when The Jester character on The Fairly Oddparents uses it as his catchphrase) expresses the premise nicely.

You’d think that stand-ups, improvisers, and writers would have a better sense of how to avoid the social traps we make fun of. Not showing up on time, being rude to the gatekeepers who can grant or deny stage time at will, and ignoring time or word limits don’t make for promising careers. Very early in my writing career, an editor told me that hitting all of my deadlines would automatically put me in the top 10% of authors. That’s kind of depressing, but I’m glad the bar was set so low. Once I broke into the writing field, good communication and attention to deadlines let me build up my portfolio and my network.

In an article published on The Atlantic web site, Peter McGraw (the taller and more academic co-author of The Humor Code) cited one of his studies investigating the personality traits of successful improv comedians:

The [Humor Research Lab] once studied 600 novices and experts in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv comedy troupe, and found that the only difference was that the experts were more conscientious, McGraw said.

“The really screwed up people aren’t comedians, they’re criminals. They’re in jails, and they’re not funny. They’re sad and angry,” he said.

“No, there’s something else that predicts success in comedy.”

The article goes on to cite studies that indicate intelligence is a good predictor for success as a comedian. It takes smarts and a certain social adeptness to find bridges between concepts, identify the incongruities, and shape them into humor. It also turned out that, at least in another study that asked undergrads to create captions for New Yorker cartoons, guys were funnier. Why might that be?

Part of the answer, from a sociological standpoint, is that women often use humor as a proxy for intelligence when judging potential mates. If a guy can make you laugh by identifying and commenting on the incongruities in life, you might have found a match. The other aspect is the interpersonal version of stage time and reps: guys attempt a lot more jokes than women in conversation. That’s good and bad — the guys get more practice, but the other folks in the conversation have to suffer through some atrocious material. Golf pros love and hate “Pro-Am” days, where they play with local amateurs. One golfer said he has a “Wednesday Face” that he puts on for pro-am days. He knows he’s about to hear Bill Murray’s “It’s in the hole!” from Caddyshack and other hack lines a few hundred times from amateurs who use them to crack up their buddies on Mondays.

Repeating bits isn’t intelligence. At best, it’s mimicry. At worst, it’s a slow torture visited upon someone who takes his craft seriously. Show up on time and be pleasant. Be funny if you can, but please don’t try too hard. You’ll just make everybody feel bad.