Talking Improv Wisdom, Part 1


Note: This is part 1 of an interview with Improv Wisdom author, Patricia Ryan Madson.  For the audio of the interview, check out Talking Improv Wisdom, an Interview with Patricia Ryan Madson.

Patricia Ryan Madson

Patricia Ryan Madson

Drew: Welcome everyone to another Humor Talks interview with a thought leader on humor in the workplace and in life.  Today we’re talking to Patricia Ryan Madson, who is an award-winning teacher and author of Improv Wisdom, a great book on the wisdom that comes from the art of improv.  Welcome and thank you for joining us today, Patricia.

Patricia: Thanks for inviting me, Drew.  It’s an honor to be here.

Drew: So Improv Wisdom is the title of the book you have written, but what is “improv wisdom” as a concept? What does that title mean?

Patricia: What it means is that inside the study of improvisation are rules, maxims, or principles, if you will, that make improv work.  I think a lot of people think improvisers are just really talented people who are somehow born knowing how to think on their feet and be witty.

But after teaching improvisation for more than 25 years at Stanford, what came to me was that inside the study of improvising are rules for how to do improv, which can also be applied in a broader context to how we live, how we do business, and how we think about our lives.

The book was designed to be a manual of those principles, separate from trying to teach someone how to improvise.  There are some good books that teach you how to improvise; I wanted this to be a philosophy book about what improv means, and to point the reader, who might not consider themselves an improviser, to techniques and ideas that could enhance their living.

Drew: That’s one of the things I enjoyed about the book.  Because improv, by it’s nature, is experiential and is something you learn by doing the exercises.  But Improv Wisdom is more about the external benefits you’ll get from learning improv.

In the book, you mention there are 12 maxims of improv.  Is there one in particular you think is particularly relevant in today’s world and the workplace?

Patricia: One of my favorite maxims is the maxim about “notice the gifts.”  It seems to me that an improviser on stage is looking at everything that comes his way, whatever his partner says or does, anything in the environment, as a possible offer out of which he can create a story, scene, or interaction.  What I learned about improvising is that everything is a possibility, that everything is offer, and that gifts are everywhere.  If you start to see life not as a series of problems that are in your way, but as a series of opportunities and gifts, it changes the color of your world.

I think it’s something as simple as seeing the glass half full.  My mind tends to go to the negative or to see what troubles me or what’s a problem, but somehow the improviser develops the muscle that looks at things from a positive point of view.

The other maxim like that is “Say yes.”  Basically it says to build on what’s going on rather than find fault with it.  I think that’s something that’s important for business.  A lot of business meetings tend to be “yes, but” meetings where someone will make an idea or bring up a possibility and everyone will shoot it down, looking for what’s wrong with the offer.

But you can start to develop the muscle that looks at what’s right or what’s possible, even if you’re not sure where you are going.  In fact, if you think about it, improviser’s are never sure because they have no idea, but they’re gleefully willing to go somewhere and hopefully have a good time doing it.

Drew: I definitely agree.  I would say those are two that great maxims, “Everything is a gift” and to “Say Yes.”

Often times when you first start talking about improv concepts and people are learning about “yes and,” they confuse it with a “yes man” mentality, where you’re always saying “yes.”  “Yes and” isn’t about that, it’s about “how can I take what was offered and build on it in a direction that can work.”

When I first started in the corporate world, I thought it was funny because one of the things I learned was that my company didn’t have problems or issues, we had opportunities and challenges.  It’s a funny verbal thing that I thought was interesting, but if you think about it, it makes sense.

“Yes this might be perceived as a problem, but there’s also an opportunity in it. This is our opportunity, how can we turn it around, and  turn what might be seen as negative into a positive.”  Having that mentality is training the brain to think more optimistically.  And various studies show that people who think optimistically tend to attract wealth and long-term success because they believe in themselves and other people.

photo by baikahl

photo by baikahl

Patricia: There’s science on our side.  Recently a study was done at Stanford of students who had taken an improv class.  The interesting statistic was that students who had taken the improv class had a 40% higher self-esteem and were happier than those who had not taken it.

The study of improv boosts your ability to feel good about yourself.  If you’re learning how to play with each other, accepting your own mistakes, and trying things and failing generously, there’s something about it that is not like being a “yes man.”

There are two ways we look at people who say “yes.” One is the “yes man,” who’s pandering, who doesn’t have a mind of his own and just agrees with everything stupidly.  Then there’s the “can-do employee,” the person who always finds a way to make something happen.  And we think of him in a positive way.  Someone who’s a “can-do person” is someone we want on our team.  Thats my idea of an improviser, someone who shows up and will help make it work.

Drew: That study with Stanford is very interesting.  One of the things I’ve learned from improv class is that if you treat your fellow players like geniuses and poets, they’ll become geniuses and poets because you’ll always be “yes anding” their ideas.  That’s something that applies to the work world as well.  When I teach people improv in the corporate environment, one thing I focus on is getting them to trust themselves with their own material.

Something you mention in the book, that I think is a great idea, is not over-rehearsing a presentation.  You want to have a good understanding of what you need to talk about, but not script it line by line.  By doing that, you’re trusting you know the material well enough and believe in your ability to present, and you’ll give a much more conversational presentation, as opposed to the stiff “I’m reading from a notecard” presentation that everyone falls asleep in.

Patricia: Absolutely.  The exercise I suggest is that instead of writing your speech out word for word, write questions to yourself.  Make a series of questions like “How did I come to know about improv?”, “What is the most important thing you want to tell someone?”, or “What are the three things I learned while teaching?”  If that’s on your notecard, it provokes a naturalness in speech.  It’s a very different quality than if someone is reading a prepared speech and we’re all just looking at our watches.

And though the book’s subtitle is “Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up,” it’s not that I’m against preparation.  What I would suggest is to go ahead and prepare, but then put that away–really show up and use your natural ability to speak and answer questions to run the show.

Most of us wouldn’t dream of not preparing at all, and I’m not suggesting that.  In fact your life is your preparation.  Everything you’ve done–every conversation you’ve had, every movie you’ve seen, every blog you’ve read–are all part of what brings us to this moment to be able to be in an intelligent responder.

Drew: I think that speaks to one of my favorite quotes from the book–“the mind that is occupied is missing the present.”  It’s great to prepare but if you’re so worried about what’s coming four slides from now, you’re missing what you are currently presenting, or if you’re in a conversation, what’s actually being said in that moment.

Patricia: Exactly.  It’s true, and yet most of us imagine that if we’re preparing, that’s what we ought to be doing.  If you are in a circle of people, and everyone is supposed to go around and each tell something about themselves, it’s measurable that you will know zero about what the person just before you and just after you said because you’re preparing your own remarks or you’re worrying about what people thought about you

It’s a challenge to stay in the present.  We’re used to thinking ahead or letting our mind go somewhere else.

Drew: In the book, you have over 40 “try this” experiments.  What would you say is the value of these experiments?  Do you have 1 or 2 that you recommend people take a moment to try?

Patricia: You were right before–you learn improv by doing it, not by reading a book about it, no matter how wise the book may be.  My hope was that people would take these “try this” experiments and learn through their own experiences.

One is as simple as going home a different way.  We tend to be creatures of habit.  If we’re driving home, we go exactly the same way, and our mind goes on automatic.  I suggest, on purpose, go from point A to point B a different way.  Use it as an opportunity to wake up your attention to what’s around you.

There’s something about change that helps us wake up our lazy minds. Improv is about waking up to the reality around you.  It sounds easy enough, but it’s not because they’re are a lot of ways the mind likes to go to sleep and go on automatic.

So that’s one, go home a different way.  A different exercise is to notice something new.  The next time you take a walk on even the same route, see if you can give your mind the challenge of noticing something different.  What is it in the environment that you’ve never saw before.  Challenge yourself to see if you can find 5 new things.

I was doing that this morning on one of my usual routes.  I asked myself “what is it that I haven’t seen before?” “Oh, there’s a bench there.” “Someone put up a sign.” “Someone took down that cross barrier.”

Part of improv training is just waking up to the life that’s around you. Reality is in our face all the time but we stop seeing it because the habit we have of going to sleep.

Drew: That was one of the experiments I liked as well because it goes back to that aspect of paying attention. “What we notice becomes our world” was another quote I highlighted because it’s true.  You can travel the same route every day, but if you can notice what’s different, you can change your perceptions.

I also really liked the “take a circus bow” challenge. If something doesn’t go quite as planned, take a bow anyway.  I did that once when I tripped over something and fell down.  I got up and took a bow.  It helped me to have a laugh, and the people watching me had a laugh as well.  Instead of feeling embarrassed and walking away with my head down, it changed into the mentality “stuff happens and I can laugh about it and other people can laugh as well.”

photo by Randy Son of Robert

photo by Randy Son of Robert

Patricia: It’s a lot of fun when I have 20 students in the classroom and we learn that exercise.  When we take the circus bow we raise our hands in the air and say “tada, tadaaa, tadaaa.”  So I get everybody standing up throwing their hands in the air saying “tada.”  It actually feels really good to say that and take a bow.

The idea isn’t that I’m stupid, but maybe I did a weird thing, fell over, or made a mistake.  But if we celebrate our mistakes, rather than stick our head down in embarrassment, it just makes life better.

For the second part of the interview, check out Talking Improv Wisdom, Part 2.

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