Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘speaking

Do You Just Talk About It or Can You Do It?

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I just finished reading Gravity’s Kiss, a new MIT Press book by Harry Collins. Professor Collins is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Cardiff. In his book, he details the process by which researchers detected and documented the presence of gravitational waves. Collins himself is a sociologist, but he has been part of the gravitational wave community for more than 42 years. He’s picked up the language and understands the principles involved in gravitational wave science quite well, but doesn’t have the knowledge and training required to advance the science himself.

Collins is the head of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science, so he can offer keen insights into his role in the scientific community. Specifically, he distinguishes between interactional expertise and contributory expertise. Interactional expertise, as the name implies, allows individuals to converse with experts in a field using specialized vocabulary and accurate knowledge at a reasonably advanced level. Contributory expertise, by contrast, entails sufficient training and experience to further the study of a field through analysis and experiment. It’s the difference between being able to talk about something intelligently and knowing what to do with that knowledge.

I’m in the iMBA program offered by the University of Illinois, which is an online master of business administration program designed for individuals who want to advance to the senior management and executive levels of industry. In that sense, the iMBA program is similar to an EMBA (Executive MBA) program than a traditional program, which I refer to as a “practitioner” MBA. For me, the difference is that students learn a variety of skills in areas such as finance, economics, organizational structure, and marketing. The goal is to provide us with the knowledge to make strategic decisions about a company’s direction and to understand enough of the basics in our focus areas to interact with subordinates in everyday charge of those functions. In other words, we gain a fair bit of practitioner expertise and a lot of interactional expertise.

As the owner of a small business, this level of interactional expertise translates to having more intelligent conversations with my accountant and investment advisers. On the practical level, my studies will help me make better decisions about the projects I take on. As a speaker and author, however, it means I will be relatively fluent in the language of business and have a credential to back it up. Now when I make contacts with individuals around the business world I will have the knowledge from my MBA, interactions with colleagues from industry, and experience as a business owner to draw on. Properly applied, those resources will serve me very well indeed in the coming years.

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.

Law and Magic: Revealing the Links

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I had the very good fortune to speak at the Law and Magic: Revealing the Links conference, co-hosted by the Law and Humanities Institute and the Thomas Jefferson School of Law last Friday in beautiful San Diego. The conference was organized by Professors Christine Corcos of the LSU Law Center and Julie Cromer Young of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Licensed attendees could earn up to 6.5 hours of CLE credit.

As the conference’s name implies, the day’s presentations were about how the art and practice of the law intersects and interacts with the art and practice of magic and what Professor Corcos called the “crafty sciences.” I had the good fortune to perform a 30-minute show over lunch. Later in the afternoon, my presentation Rhetorical Mathematics examined how performers and lawyers can use and abuse math to further their arguments. Practitioners of both arts have a wide range of confusion-inducing techniques from which to choose: misstating probabilities, relying on unspoken assumptions, pulling numbers out of thin air, and many others.

I think my paper went over pretty well. I covered probability calculations that went beyond simple liability calculations such as the Hand Rule articulated in United States vs. Carroll Towing, so there was some head scratching at times. The most fun for me was when I presented the Monty Hall Paradox, which describes the math behind the game played at the end of Monty’s show Let’s Make a Deal. The idea of the game is that Monty displays three doors, two of which hide a losing choice, such as a goat, and the third a prize such as a new car. You start the game by choosing one of the doors. Once you do, Monty (who knows where the car is) opens a losing door. You can then either stay with your original choice or switch.

The question for you: does it matter whether you switch or stay? If so, what are your chances of winning for either strategy?

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.

Review of The Humor Code

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Title: The Humor Code

Authors: Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-451-66541-3

Length: 256

Price: $26.00

Rating: 93%

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book through the NetGalley service.

The Humor Code, written by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, traces the pair’s global journey to investigate McGraw’s “Benign Violation” theory of humor. McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL). Warner is a professional journalist. Neither he nor McGraw had any significant performance experience, but they did have a taste for adventure that took them to some complex and potentially dangerous locales, such as remote Tanzania, Palestine, and Los Angeles. Neither author shied away from jumping into an unheated Peruvian military cargo plane with a load of clowns.

No, really—a planeload of clowns. More on that later.

Not Off to a Promising Start

When we first meet our heroes the Professor, sporting his signature sweater vest, is about to do a few minutes at a stand-up open mic night. The bad news is that the crowd is known to be tough and they’re expecting anatomy jokes. You probably won’t be surprised that the guy with the Ph. D. bombed in that environment. This expected and very forgivable failure is brought into sharper relief when you realize that the goal of the exercise is to help prepare McGraw for an appearance at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.

Comedy is hard. Social interactions with comedians are exceptionally hard. A few pages after the introduction, the authors related how they took the wrong approach to their backstage meeting with Louis C. K. The comedian probably expected academic or thoughtful questions, but McGraw went straight for the anatomy joke, which probably conjured up bad fan interactions and led to an early exit. They were better than most amateurs in that they seemed to understand they’d crossed a line and it was time to leave, but what they didn’t get at that point in the narrative was the vulnerability required to step on stage and do Louis C. K.’s material. You have to be in the proper emotional place to get there as a performer; two guys interviewing a hungry comedian before a show and going all awkward fanboy will kill the mood immediately.

Theory of the Benign Violation

The given circumstances of the book are the authors’ attempts to investigate McGraw’s theory of the Benign Violation. I first learned about the theory from McGraw’s guest lecture for Dan Ariely’s online course A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, presented through Coursera. The basic idea is that humor requires a certain level of discomfort. In this construct, a statement or concept can be:

Benign, which means minimal or no discomfort;

Violation, which maximizes discomfort by challenging deep convictions or evoking disgust;

Benign Violation, which involves enough discomfort to throw the listener off balance, but not enough to disgust or challenge deeply held beliefs.

McGraw argues that, once the listener is uncentered but not overly offended, the comedian can use exaggeration or another technique to twist the reality and generate laughter. It’s an eminently reasonable take on comedy in the English-speaking world, but the question is how well it would hold up internationally. Part of the answer could come from determining why people laugh in the first place.

Why Do We Laugh?

Nobody knows.

The Journey

To start, the authors sampled dishes from the U.S. comedy scene, including stand-up performances and an improvisational comedy workshop with an Upright Citizens Brigade teacher in L.A. I’ve been a professional improviser since 1993 (and, like McGraw, failed horribly at stand-up) and agree with the authors that stand-up and improv are two different worlds. Stand-up comedians go on stage by themselves and (mostly) deliver prepared material, but improvisers usually perform as part of a group, don’t have to carry the load themselves, and ego-involve the audience by using their suggestions.

As the authors note, improv classes often attract serial workshoppers who might have no hope of performing due to job or family demands or a debilitating lack of funny, but who enjoy the social experience:

Our UCB class lasts for hours, but the time flies. Improv is play, and it’s a lot of fun. Afterward, at a nearby coffee shop, the students seem ready to do it all again. “I love using another person to succeed or fail on stage,” one of them tells us. “It’s freeing,” says another. “It’s like therapy-light,” raves a third.

It’s not at all uncommon for participants in an improv workshop to go out for drinks afterward. I’ve certainly benefitted from the social aspects of improv and hope to do so for many more years.

From Boulder, L.A., and New York they went on to destinations including Japan, Scandinavia, Tanzania, and Peru. That last destination cast McGraw and Warner as clowns on a team led by Hunter “Patch” Adams (made famous by the movie starring Robin Williams). The team’s mission is to bring relief to a village in the Peruvian Amazon. McGraw started as a clown but transitioned to the role of civilian guide and overseer, as befitting his experience as an impartial observer of humor. Warner, the journalist, dug into his role as a clown…he is told and personally discovers that, when you put on the nose, you have permission to “go insane” in the sense that you become someone else.

That sentiment, of losing oneself in your clown character, echoes the thoughts of Keith Johnstone. Johnstone founded the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary and invented Theatre Sports (the inspiration for ComedySportz, the organization I’ve performed with since 1996). In his classic book Impro, he described mask work as an opportunity to lose yourself in another entity. The pull can be so strong that everyone must agree to take their masks off when directed to do so. It’s a powerful technique and should not be attempted by beginners.

The Book as a Book

I enjoyed the progressive narrative, which chronicled the authors’ experiences and worked McGraw’s theories into the story’s flow. This approach stands in contrast to other recent participatory journalism titles I’ve reviewed, which alternate between the author’s experiences and history or theory. For example, Tower of Babel alternates between chapters about extreme language learners of the present day and the history of an Italian priest who was famous for his linguistic skills. Similarly, Moonwalking with Einstein alternates between the author’s preparation for and participation in the U.S. national memory competition and the history and practice of memorization. There’s nothing wrong with either framework, but I personally enjoyed a break from the strict alternating chapter approach.

I also appreciated the authors’ journey as human beings. Their work as part of the clown mission to the Amazon village came at the end of the arc that started in the developed world, continued through developing Africa, and ended in a subsistence-level community. Though they never explicitly stated that they understood at a visceral level where they’d gone wrong with Louis C. K., I bet they knew.

Conclusions

At the end of The Humor Code, McGraw goes on stage in Montreal and doesn’t bomb. I’ll leave the specifics of his solution as a surprise for when you read the book, but as a nerd who does comedy I appreciated how he solved the problem of presenting at a comedy festival without being an experienced comedian. Highly recommended.

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 more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Where the Illusion of Psychic Powers Might Come From

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Humans build cognitive models by taking in the world and learning how to interpret the input. Children learn language inductively by listening to their parents and other speakers, gradually building up their comprehension and productivity. That strategy never fades — we all take in information about our surroundings and use it to make judgments.

Of course, the world is a busy place, so our brains avoid taxing our cognitive resources by learning what is safe to ignore. The vast majority of sensory inputs never reach our conscious minds, but our brains process environmental inputs and use them to guide our thoughts. This result isn’t surprising on an anecdotal level, given that we all have insights and “feelings” that we can’t pin to a specific input. What’s interesting is how Piers D. L. Howe and Margaret E. Webb from the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne tested this “knowing without knowing” process.

Howe and Webb presented subjects with 1.5-second glimpses of one photograph, followed by a one second blank gap, and then another 1.5-second look at another photograph of the same person. Some pairs of the photos were identical, but some had subtle differences, such as hair position, clothing change, and so on. Subjects were asked if the photos were identical or different. Even though the differences were subtle and exposure relatively quick, subjects were able to detect that the photos were different even though they were often unable to articulate the difference.

The authors conclude that this “knowing without knowing” process could explain the “sixth sense” phenomenon, where individuals seem to gain information without specific input. Their article, published in the online journal PLOS ONE, provides significant evidence in favor of the theory that our subconscious processes information in a way that lets us make decisions about situations and individuals without understanding why we had those thoughts.

This result is exciting, but also a bit sobering. Security professionals have long known that their instincts serve them well. If something “just don’t look right” (JDLR), even if they can’t articulate why, they should pay close attention. Situations change, though, particularly in social settings so we have to be on guard against mental models that bias us against groups or situations where no threat exists. It’s a tough balance, but it’s all part of being human.