Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘semantic memory

Memories Change Over Time

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Memories of dramatic events seem to be burned into our minds. It seems easy to recall where we were when we learned JFK was assassinated (before my time), Ronald Reagan was shot (middle school gym at the end of the day), Elvis died (in a car near the top of Massanutten Mountain on our way to my grandparents’ place), or on September 11, 2001 (checking email after sleeping late).

It all seems so clear, but how reliable are our memories of the events and the circumstances surrounding them? Not very, especially as time passes and discussions of the events contain information not available at first. For example, a Smithsonian magazine article notes that Karim Nader, a neuroscientist, examined his own memories of September 11 and found he had made some mistakes.

Nader, now a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, says his memory of  the World Trade Center attack has played a few tricks on him. He recalled seeing  television footage on September 11 of the first plane hitting the north tower of  the World Trade Center. But he was surprised to learn that such footage aired  for the first time the following day. Apparently he wasn’t alone: a 2003 study  of 569 college students found that 73 percent shared this misperception.

These changes are normal and expected. You store long-term memories by associating new information with things you already know. As you continue to receive information about an event, it becomes difficult to distinguish what occurred when. That’s why legal experts view eyewitness testimony as unreliable – humans are fallible, our memories especially so.

When you’re an improviser, this fallibility works to your advantage. Long-form shows can run for 45 minutes or more and, given the huge number of choices performers make, inconsistencies crop up all the time. The good news is that your audience wants you to succeed and, unless the error is too big to ignore, they’re almost always willing to go along with the new reality. Not doing so would undermine their enjoyment of the show, so they have an incentive to play along.

This forgiving atmosphere isn’t present in politics and business, at least not for your competitors. They want you to fail and will bring up every instance of you ignoring or, in their opinion, attempting to mischaracterize the past. It doesn’t help when a campaign adviser admits that’s what you plan to do. As reported in a article on March 21, 2012:

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s senior campaign adviser, was asked in a CNN interview Wednesday morning whether the former Massachusetts governor had been forced to adopt conservative positions in the rugged race that could hurt his standing with moderates in November’s general election.

“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes,” Fehrnstrom responded. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”

Ouch. I anticipate the Etch A Sketch will be a theme in the 2014 and 2016 election cycle. Regardless, the lesson to draw from this incident is the same for both improv and business: Don’t abuse your audience’s goodwill.

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Semantic Memory: It (Can Be) a Trap!

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In my previous post, I talked about the difference between episodic memory and semantic memory. Episodic memory, as the name implies, refers to memories of episodes in your life. These memories don’t always come back quickly, or at all in some cases, and they can change over time. Semantic memory, by contrast, refers to items you can recall instantaneously. Knowledge of simple arithmetic is a terrific example what’s contained in your semantic memory.

Episodic memory provides a nearly endless source of inspiration for improvisers and business people alike. Not only can you drawn your personal experiences to create scenes are presentations, you can use your knowledge to understand another person’s point of view. And, of course, if you don’t share another individual’s experiences, you can use your interactions as a tremendous learning opportunity.

Semantic memory can be a bit of a trap in both improv and business. The things that you know and feel that become ingrained enough to become part of your semantic memory can trap you into always reacting the same way to a particular stimulus. For example, you might give a presentation to a prospective client in an industry you’re not familiar with. If they ask a question you’ve answered many times before, you might give an answer that’s appropriate to your previous clients but not to the new client’s circumstances.

In improv, relying on semantic memory results and repetitive scenes and quick burnout. Audiences can be creative, but many times you’ll find that they tend to give the same suggestions. You have to find new ways to ask for input to avoid that repetition or, alternatively, constantly find new ways to build scenes around the suggestions of monkey, banana, and Jell-O. You and your audiences will be happier if you do, especially if you tend to have a lot of repeat audience members.

Episodic and Semantic Memory

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If I ask you to tell me what 3+2 equals, you would probably do so instantly. On the other hand, if I ask you to name in the last movie you saw the theater, you might have to think about it for a second or two. Those two different types of recall illustrate the differences between semantic memory and episodic memory.

I’ll start with episodic memory first. As the name implies, episodic memory is a form of long-term memory that records events from your life. Such episodes might include your wedding, the birth of a child, or something as mundane as getting out of a cab and stepping directly into a puddle. These episodes make up your internal autobiography, which is your personal record of your experiences.

Semantic memory, by contrast, refers to a subconscious knowledge that forms the basis for how we speak our native language, perform tasks we’ve done thousands of times, or interact in social settings. Semantic knowledge is often tacit, meaning that it is hard to quantify or describe. In many cases there is no need to write down the rules of behavior because everyone in the situation knows precisely what they are supposed to do. You’ll find this is true of families around the dinner table or groups of friends who go out for drinks after work.

Episodes from your life provide terrific fodder for scenes if you’re an improviser or for presentations in business. The trick is to find episodes that are directly relevant to your audience’s needs and to resist the temptation to stray too much from the truth. It’s one thing to tell your significant other a slightly exaggerated version of your exploits, but it’s quite another to tell an obviously untrue story in a business presentation. Conference goers have seen lots of presentations and they can smell a fake a mile away. Play it straight—don’t give in to the temptation to exaggerate too much.

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.

Memory, Improv, and Business

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One of the great things about being an improvisational performer is that there are no lines to memorize. All you have to do is get on stage and start making up stuff with your friends. Of course it’s a lot harder than that — anyone can stand in front of a group and make things up, the question is whether what you’re creating is worth watching.

Improvisers often talk about offers, which are statements or actions that occurred earlier in the scene and can be used as a jumping off point for further work. It doesn’t make much sense to do a scene where names, locations, and motivations change without warning. It would be impossible for the audience to follow as a story, reducing their personal investment in the narrative. Sure, you could do a brief surrealistic scene as part of a replay or when it’s the known genre for a show, but in general humans are narrative creatures and prefer their stories to have a beginning, middle, and end.

You keep track of the offers in a scene or longform show by using your memory. There are different types of memory: short-term, long-term, episodic, semantic, and many other varieties that play various roles in the improv and business. There are few things more embarrassing then forgetting the name of another character in a scene, especially if you gave them their name in the first place.

Memory takes on even greater importance in business. You must have a sense of where you’ve been and the work that you’ve done to move forward and avoid repeating work. If you’re in advertising, and all of us are regardless of our actual job descriptions, you want ensure the public remembers what you’ve done and what you have to offer.

Over the next several posts I’ll explore the different types of memory, give you strategies for augmenting your memory, and show you how to avoid the traps that can befall business people and improvisers alike.