Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘recall

Remembering What Happens

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As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the real benefits of being an improviser is that you have no lines to memorize. Of course, the bad news is that you need to remember what happened earlier in a scene so you can make useful contributions later on.

Whenever I perform with a longform group, with performances that can last as long as an hour, I’m not afraid to write things down. For example, I often make a point of writing down character names as they are brought up or when the audience assigns them at the beginning of the show. The improvised Shakespeare group I was part of for several years let audience members define each player’s character, so it made sense to make a quick note so things didn’t go sideways during the 45-minute show.

Let’s say you’re playing a short form game such as Replay (do a one minute set up scene and then replay it several times using different suggestions to color the replays) or Forward/Reverse (the classic improv game where you start a scene and a controller can run the action forward or in reverse). The easiest way to remember what is happening is to make a strong physical and/or emotional choice every time there’s a beat in the scene. If all you’re doing is standing on stage talking, there is nothing to distinguish one moment of the scene from another; however, if you pair a statement with an action or emotion, you’ll find it much easier to remember what you said and did. In fact, you might find the words coming out of your mouth before you realize what you’re saying. The link between the brain and the rest of your body is that strong.

In business, you won’t often have to improvise something and then repeat it on demand. Even so, you can use these techniques to develop a presentation and add visual elements to your slide deck or presentation materials to cue you as to what is to happen next. As someone who focuses on Microsoft Excel, I will often build prompts into my spreadsheets to help me remember what I want cover. Friends of mine do the same thing with graphics, using images and edits to those images to guide them through their presentation.

Types of Memory

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When the average person talks about memory, they usual mean long-term memory. In other words, can you study a subject today and remember it for a test tomorrow or next week. There are many other different types of memory, each with its own function.

Short-term memory refers to the system you use to maintain small amounts of information for a brief period of time. In general terms, short-term memory refers to information you keep at hand for about 30 seconds and consists of seven items, plus or minus two. If you have ever tried to memorize a phone number and repeat it back, you’ve most likely found that you can remember the last seven digits with no trouble but can throw yourself off when you repeat the area code at the start. What happens is that recalling the area code of the number pushes some or all of the information out your short-term memory.

Two other types of memory that operate on an even shorter time frame than short-term memory are iconic memory and the phonological loop. Iconic memory is associated with vision and lets you retain an image of something you saw for about a second. The same is true of the phonological loop, except it works for things you hear. The best example of the phonological loop at work is when someone says something to and you say “What…oh nevermind, I heard you.” What happened is that you weren’t paying attention to what the other person said, but you were able to replay their statement using the contents of the phonological loop.

The final two types of memory I want to mention are episodic memory and semantic memory. Episodic memory is the more obvious of the two. As the name implies, it refers to your recall of events or episodes in your life. If I were to ask you about the last movie you saw in a cinema, you might have to think about it for a moment. By contrast, if I were to ask you to add 3+4, you would answer seven instantaneously. You have practiced simple addition so often that the answer just comes to you, but recalling the movie you watched most recently is a rare event that requires you to dig into your internal autobiography to find the answer.

These memory systems all play significant roles in life, improv, and business. I’ll take them on a few at a time over the next several posts.

Informative Listening

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In my previous post, I mentioned John Kline’s book Listening Effectively and mentioned that he identified five different types of listening. The first type, informative listening, is probably the first type of listening that springs to mind.

As the name implies, the goal of informative listening is to learn new information. In an improv scene, the players engage in informative listening from the start of the scene or game. If they’re challenged to a game by the other team, the first information they get is the name of the game they’re going to play. Then they get the suggestion or suggestions from the audience (more informative listening) and then someone starts the scene. From that moment on, every player must listen intently to get what they need to build a coherent, enjoyable scene.

One great informative listening exercise is to watch a scene and then recite its major actions in reverse order. Movies on DVD are great for this type of exercise because you can go back and check how close you came to getting it right. The next level is watch a movie scene and relate each of the plot points to something from your personal experience, such as a trip, a friend you knew in school, or your first job out of school. Then, instead of retelling the scene as it occurred, retell it through the associations you built while you watched it.

Except through rote memorization, you can’t remember something unless you build up associations to something you knew previously. The more associations you can build, the more likely it is the information will stick with you.

Finally, don’t forget to listen to yourself. I’m sure you’ve said something unplanned that everyone else thought was brilliant; unfortunately, you couldn’t remember what you said! Video recording performances is the best way to recall your exact phrasing, but don’t be afraid to ask audience members, fellow performers, or co-workers what you said. Even if they can’t provide the exact wording, you’ll get an idea of what you said and add that statement to your toolkit.

Written by curtisfrye

April 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm