Talking Improv Wisdom, an Interview with Patricia Ryan Madson

Patricia Ryan Madson, author of one of my favorite books on improv, Improv Wisdom, has been teaching for more than four decades, with a quarter century of experience as a instructor in improvisation.  I talked with Patricia about her book and the value of improv in life and the workplace.

Patricia Ryan Madson
Patricia Ryan Madson

To hear our discussion, check out the audio below:

Patricia Ryan Madson Interview

Highlights of our talk include:

  • What is Improv Wisdom all about? (0:43)
  • Want 40% higher self-esteem? Take improv classes. (7:10)
  • Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. (10:35)
  • Raise your hands and say, “Tada!” (16:28)
  • The value of stating the obvious. (21:15)
  • Improv makes really nice people. (23:56)
  • “Mommy! There’s a monster in my closet!” (32:09)

For more, check out:

Patricia Ryan Madson Transcript

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.

photo by ckornowski
photo by ckornowski

Patricia: Your blog has to do with humor.  A lot of people imagine improvisation is about comedy because we think of something like Whose Line Is It Anyway or the clubs where improv is done.  Improvisation can lead to comedy and the actors and players are doing this kind of improv theater.

But the ordinary person without any “comic ability,” if you will, will find that when they’re truly improvising, a lot of it is just delightful because it’s fresh and not calculated.  And that ends up providing a smile or laugh.  In my classes, we’re laughing all the time, but not because someone is making a punchline or saying a funny joke.  It’s because when you’re really not scripted, there’s something delightful, fresh, human, and alive that comes in a moment of true spontaneous response.  That’s the thing that everybody can benefit from.

So I encourage folks to try to find an improv class if you live some place where there might be one. It’s a great way to develop social skills, have a lot fun, and learn to be more playful.  All those things that I know are dear to your heart and are a part of your work as well.

Drew: Definitely.  You hit on an excellent point there.  There is a specific reason why the site is called Humor That Works.  Humor is often linked to comedy, and there are a number of advantages to people laughing more, but the reason I focus on humor and not just comedy alone is that humor by definition encompasses comedy and things that are funny, but it’s also anything that causes amusement or is incongruous.

To your point on improv, it falls under that umbrella.  Even if you don’t have people laughing hysterically, if you’re doing something unique in a presentation, like using pictures instead of words in your slides, it’s going to be humorous in the sense that people are going to remember it more because they are engaged.

Improv is the same way.   Humor and laughter will come up when you’re improvising, but the skills you learn aren’t limited to comedy–they are applicable in all of life.  You can be in a very serious moment and still take advantage of what improv has taught you.

Patricia: One of things that might be counter-intuitive is that a lot of people try to find interesting,witty, funny or outside the box things to say, and they miss the chance to be absolutely obvious or ordinary.  What you find is that the great improvisers are incredibly obvious; they are not afraid to say the most ordinary thing.

One of the maxims is “be average.” It sounds like really bad advice, especially given to my Stanford students who say, “What do you mean ‘Be Average?’ Aren’t I supposed to do my best and be excellent?”

But what happens when we try to be funny or try to come up with a witty this or that, is that we get outside of our human ability to relate.  If you just say or do what is the most obvious thing to you, it will often be a revelation to other people.

Don’t strive for innovation, just see what seems clear to you and put that forward.  I think we’re often desperately fearful of being dull or boring.  You won’t be if you’re authentic and you’re saying what seems really clear to you.

Drew: That’s one of the things you notice about people who are good at observational humor.  If you look at Jerry Seinfeld or other comedians, they say stuff that other people have thought or looked at, but bring their own unique personality and point of view towards it.  And that’s what makes it interesting and new.

Some of the best improvisers are the ones that state their obvious reaction to a certain situation, because they’ve been shaped by the experiences of their whole lives.  To your point earlier, everything leading up to the moment that you’re in has been preparation for right now.  The obvious statement to you could be revolutionary to others when it’s in the context of an idea, or absolutely hilarious if in the context of comedy.

Patricia: One of the maxims near the end of the book is to “take care of each other.”  I love being around other people who are improvisers because they are often incredibly generous.  They’re not so much looking out for themselves as they are trying to help me out.

I think that is a shift in focus from “how I’m doing and do people like me” to “how are you doing” and “is there something I can do to contribute to my part of your world.”

Taking care of each other on stage is something really juicy and wonderful about improvisers, and is one of the life skills we can from improv.  When we look out for the well-being of our co-workers, our bosses, and the other people we’re interacting with, when we’re generous to them, when we’re kind, and interested in their work, it improves everything.

I think it’s character-building.  I think good improv makes really nice people.

Drew: That’s a great observation.  Many of my friends are people I’ve met in the improv community because there’s an understanding for people to want to help each other.  In the long run, any help you give you’ll probably get that back ten-fold, but you’re not doing it for that reason–you’re just doing it because you know that’s what you can be doing.

So what have you been doing since the release of improv wisdom?

Patricia: It’s been marvelous because the book is like my child, circulating out in the world.  It moves around in different places.  In fact, it’s coming out next week in Germany, and soon in Korea.

Since the book has come out, I’ve gotten invitations to talk about Improv Wisdom or give workshops.  Last year I was in Mexico as the keynote speaker for the Remax Realtor Mexican Conference.  I’ve done a real cross-section of presentations for Buddhist women’s groups, or teachers and educators.  I did a speech at Google.

It seems that improv is one of those things that has applications to business, education, spiritual life and growth–all manner of things.  I have fun showing up to play games and dance, and talk about this.

And it’s brought me to meet someone like you. I’m indebted to Google because they sent me an alert letting me know your blog mentioned my book. I think the Internet is a miraculous way of connecting us all, it’s the ultimate kind of improvisation.

Drew: It really is.  I think one of the most interesting things is that ability to connect.  Actually, I think the Internet helped me find this book.  It was an Amazon recommendation based on other books I had read.  I read it, and by mentioning it on my blog, we were able to connect and discuss the ideas a little bit further.

I agree that improv has a number of applications.  I’ve heard of or have lead workshops for audiences of high schoolers, elementary school kids, at-risk teenagers, people who are working in various jobs–I remember reading a story where Charna Halpurn and iO taught improv to the people at CERN who were working on the Large Hedron Collider–very smart and intelligent businesses.  The applications are certainlty far stretching.

Before we go, is there anything you’d like to point the readers to?  I know you have the Improv Wisdom site, where you can find great information such as previous interviews you’ve done on the book, excerpts and reviews of the book.  You also have an Improv Wisdom blog out there.  Is there anything else that might be of interest to our readers?  Stuff you are working on or that you find interesting?

Patricia: The book is easily available at and–any of those online retailers.  If any of the readers are already fans of the book, something they can do is to mention the title to their local library.  Right now the book is in over 270 libraries.  It’s wonderful when a book gets in a library because then it’s there forever for people to read who might not find it otherwise.

Also any reader who gets the book and sends me an email, I will send them a hand-made, personalized laminated bookmark with my autograph.  My email address is [email protected] or [email protected].  I’d be happy to communicate with any readers of the book and send them an autograph bookmark.

improv-wisdomDrew: I think that’s great.  The book, at 150 pages, is one of those books that is a quick read, but at the same time, incredibly power in terms of its concepts.

You can tell you are very passionate about improv wisdom, just the fact that you’re willing to have conversations and continue to talk about it to different people–it’s very rewarding.  It great to be able to be read a book and then have conversations about it.

To wrap up, it is a humor blog, so do you have a humorous story or anecdote that you want to share? Either based on Improv Wisdom, or from your four decades of teaching?

Patricia: Well, a woman who was studying improv with me said, “You know we spent that week learning how to say yes to everything.  Recently my daughter came in and said ‘Mommy! Mommy! There’s a monster in my closet.’ And normally I would have given her a reality check and said, ‘No, Mary Lou, there’s no monster. Don’t worry, everything’s alright.’

But you know the idea of saying ‘yes’ sounded kind of–why not? So I said, ‘There is? Let’s go get it.’  I ran in with my daughter and we had this incredible adventure where we found the monster in the closet.  We wrestled it down.  We triumphed.  She screamed. We had a wonderful time.”

There’s something really terrific about saying “yes” to everything instead of always putting your reality hat on.  I love that story and it reminds us that if we can say “yes” more in our lives, we can have some more adventures.  And life might lighten up a little bit in all directions.

Drew: I think that’s a great example and a great way to end, on the power of saying yes.  Well thank you very much.

Patricia: I appreciate being invited, thanks to all the listeners and readers. I hope they have a great improvising day.

Note: This is the second Humor Talks interview, a series with some of today’s thought leaders on the topic of humor and fun in the workplace.  You can sign-up for the Humor Newsletter to stay up-to-date with new interviews.


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