I’m going to tell you the secrets of the universe

But first, a story…

I even remember the bench. I had walked out of the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park in a trance, in need of a seat. I immediately texted my friend Kelly but the exclamations points didn’t do the experience justice. Though we had just finished watching famous actors recite Shakespeare, my mind was fixed on the “performance” that followed; Harvard Professor Michael Sandel brilliantly facilitated an 1,800 person conversation on morals, ethics, and morality. A few microphones, some well-placed questions, and just the right amount of context created a beautifully moving piece of art. That night, I had found real inspiration and possibility for my work.

People often label what I do as training. Though I want to correct them I hardly ever do.

Instead, my mind races back to that night, almost four years ago, and to other work I’ve studied and borrowed from, from great musicians, to comedians, professors, executives, religious figures, and performers.

We seek to bring groups and people together around a common goal.

Though their vehicle is different, the greats I admire have a few things in common that apply back to the classroom:

  1. They have the reigns: 
    • People want to feel that you’re in control. A professor once advised me on the perils of Improvisation. “Yes, leaders need to be in the moment and often improvise…but “improvisation on the spot” can be seen as insufficiently thoughtful and attention seeking”, he said. Safety is important to learning, and providing your students with some certainty quiets the brain enough to help them feel safe and pay attention to what matters. People don’t just want to know when the breaks are – they need a sense of the path, and confidence that you’ll help them get from A to B.
  2. They build community: 
    • The beautiful thing about live theater, live training, live…anything, is although we all experience it differently, everyone in the room is sharing in something similar. Great craftsmen and women use this to their advantage to create a strong in-group sensation that binds a group of people together in time. Words fuel emotion which fuels connection and a sense of relatedness and togetherness, contributing to powerful dopamine spikes that open up the thinking centers of our brain with lasting positive effects.
  3. They are experts in motivation: 
    • The key to “pull” learning is to draw in people who want to learn or experience what you have to offer. Master teachers expertly play upon the gap between where students are and where they want to be. They play with suspense, and scaffold the learning in such a way that you want to stay on the journey until the end. A professor once described how he taught a subject that was often met with early skepticism and cynicism: “there is a golden ore I’m holding out for them the entire semester. But I can’t force it on them, I slowly reveal more and more of what it is until they can and want to reach out and grab it”. 
    • At a recent show, Comedian Mike Birbiglia appeared on-stage with a journal in his hand and carefully set it down at the edge of the stage without explanation. The audience didn’t forget it was there, but when he picked it up and read from it 45 minutes into the show, the build-up to that moment was so satisfying. By putting the journal on the stage, he was signifying an implicit promise to his audience and delicately toying with our curiosity.

Trainers and teachers who promise the moon-and-stars, guarantee perfect performance, and the secrets of the universe may truly want to do these things, though I am weary of the ones who declare a guarantee. Those whose work I admire most seek to create a genuine connection with their audience and leave them changed for the better. Sometimes that change takes months, weeks, or years to transpire, but if you’re like me, you remember its lessons forever. 

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Can People Change?

“Can people change?”

A great learning experience, like a memorable play or an important book asks a central question.

And this is the question I’ve been mulling over for the past 15 years. Though this notion of ‘change’ has always been a central theme in my work, it has bobbed and weaved through several different creative pursuits: from the behavior of television characters to the behavior of organizations.

What propels someone or something to change either alone or with another? What magical forces of power, will, circumstance, emotion, or luck get us from A to B? (Hint: it’s not a gantt chart). Whether we write the experiences to propel change for others, or face it head on ourselves, change is constant but never comfortable.

Having just led a major change initiative in my organization I was reminded of what it takes to hurl yourself into the middle of a ‘change’ tornado and the high-stakes risks you face when you take the lead. When you’re no longer just the writer behind the scenes, but the writer, producer, director, actor, and editor too… how can we ensure a fairytale ending?

We all want to belong

Groups are powerful players in the change game, often much stronger forces than individuals alone. At the end of the day, we crave belonging. A sense of belonging and of not being alone is often overlooked in why we do or don’t change. Yes you can pull on someone’s heart-strings, but a pull towards being a part of the in-group is often an even more powerful motivator. Relatedness is your friend, not your foe.

Make it universal

There’s a reason why we remember fables and the morals of our favorite films – they are relatable, digestible, and universal. How can we lower the risk of change or translate jargon into something meaningful? Use a metaphor, analogy, or a story. Like attracts like, and our brains attach to what we already know.

Be wary of the resistance

Who said change was easy? Change that truly transforms a company (or a person) demands that people give up something they care about (habits, ways of working or thinking, etc). Movies have villains (or the change resistors that will get in the way), but at work we have equilibrium to go up against. It’s natural for people to resist change – this reaction keeps us safe, whereas the new invites discomfort. Thwarting tactics may appear, but it’s only done out of aversion for the new, loss of the old, and a desire to maintain what’s familiar. As the saying goes, it’s (usually) not you…it’s them.

But just like the classic Hero’s Journey there will be someone who comes along at your low point to remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing (Thank you Adam Grant).

Use your voice

As a writer it was easy to hide behind a laptop and let my characters say the hard things. But when you’re leading change the risks don’t disappear – instead, you learn to say the hard thing and to be alright (over time) with others not wanting to hear it. The more visible we are, the more we open ourselves up for unwanted feedback or projections. If leadership is about taking risks, bolder choices come with the territory. So does criticism.

Being able to understand change for what it is, with all of its intricacies and dynamics allows us to be both observers and participants at the same time.

Change can be incredibly rewarding. Whether you’re the one going through it or helping facilitate behind-the-scenes, it is a process of asking people to move to a place they are often frightened to go. But, there is a more promising future on the other side and it is that hope that reminds me that yes, people can and do change with the right amount of support and challenge.

The story secrets of organizational change

In the world of Storytelling and Organizational Consulting, similar mantras are drilled into us – different words, similar meaning:

1. Make the audience the hero

2. Meet the client where they are

Both of these mantras speak to empowering people and companies, to help them feel, think, do, and see things differently so that they are called to action to enact change.

What this boils down to is – I see you (the client, the character, the company), where you are, for what you are…and I believe in you.

What this requires of us (those who lead change efforts and write the words to inspire) is patience, and a bit of scaffolding.

The best example I’ve seen of living out both of these mantras was Columbia University Professor William Duggan. I write about him often, and, nope, I probably won’t stop.

He had important words say, to teach, and to share. He drew us in carefully and artfully, by speaking the audience’s language (read, mostly MBA students), and skillfully partnering with them to help students come to important realizations themselves. Three acts. Small steps. A slowly built narrative balanced with equal parts logic and emotion at just the right times, each chapter asking for a bit more of us as we went.

In awe of his art, I asked him how he crafted his semester-long class. What was his secret?

Make the audience the hero. Meet them where they are.

He was teaching a slightly unconventional topic and wanted his students to come along for the ride. How often have we too had a great idea, something we care deeply about sharing, and want others to join in on? Hands up, everyone! I see you.

His reminder – you can’t do that by forcing an idea. That’s all head, no heart. He metaphorically held the idea and the a-ha out for his students in his out-stretched arm. And carefully crafted a sequence of steps where they’d be encouraged and motivated to keep reaching. One class after the other.

It’s not too much of stretch to equate this art to leadership.

But how often does our desire to push and prod instead of join and co-create take over our best impulses – especially under stress and threat?

How often does our desire to be seen as the hero and to not quite understand or empathize with where the client could be force us to push too far and stop the story? I’m certainly guilty.

To meet the client, the student, the reader where they are and to help them see that they are the hero is to recognize that we aren’t writing the story by ourselves. It’s not our story. It’s theirs. It’s not my change effort. It’s ours. Or, in many cases… it’s just theirs. And that’s a happy ending.

The Role of Educator as Storyteller

The role of storytellers and educators (who are masters at storytelling) isn’t all that different: help your audience see that they are the heroes of the story you are telling, the change initiative you are working on, or the learning program you are facilitating.

Leave space for the audience to be a big part of the narrative, so that they can see themselves in it,  believe in it, and themselves.

The best facilitators, professors, and change practitioners  I’ve seen can tell great stories, but they always find a way to point out the audience / client / learner as the hero in the story.

“It’s not me, it’s you”.

The more we can help others see and feel that, the better equipped others will be to craft more powerful stories and have the confidence to go after the challenges, opportunities, and allies that they need for each chapter of their narrative (or, lives).

Learning and teaching as art: The best, most inspiring example of this I’ve seen recently was as a student in Professor William Duggan’s class at Columbia Business School. All semester long we studied the hero’s journey of ‘famous’ businessmen and women, military leaders and cultural icons.

We were inspired by them but their stories of personal and professional triumph never felt out of reach. Their stories were not fairy tales.

We can study and learn from the quests, obstacles, and successes and failures of others and their stories – but none will be as powerful as putting ourselves and those we help in the driver’s seat of their own hero’s journey.

 

What’s the drill – March 21: StorySlam’s 5 minute storytelling challenge

In January I accepted the challenge to talk about what matters to me, in 140 seconds.

Tonight, I ventured downtown to check out another public storytelling test-kitchen… the Moth StorySLAM — an open-mic storytelling competition held weekly in NYC and across the country. Here, the rules were a bit different. Brave participants had 5 minutes to tell a true story related to the night’s theme.

What happened in the room tonight was simply inspiring and beautiful. Not only were the 10 stories remarkably polished and moving, but the support, engagement, and positivity emanating from the 200+ people in the crowd was an incredibly special feeling.

The event got me thinking about learning communities, trust, tribes, and the power of story, vulnerability, empathy, and theme to inspire positive change — not just in a 5 minute story, but in a lifetime.

StorySlam events are held in big cities across the USA. Check out the calendar, here.

 

photo (16) photo (17)

 

 

What’s the drill – February 22: Know your objective

‎”Whenever someone comes to me for help, I listen very hard and ask myself, ‘What does this person really want? And what will they do to keep from getting it?” – William Perry, Harvard Professor of Education

Navigating life without a script means finding the balance between freedom and structure. For Improvisers, it means getting clear on the basics of the scene, feeling grounded in the structure so that we can move and build new ideas with complete freedom.

A trick we use to keep us centered, motivated, and able to navigate ambiguity is to know our objective in the scene. What is it that my character wants, and why?

Once we get clear on these answers, a scene can really flow.

But, how often do we go into a scene, a meeting, a phone call, a class, an opportunity and truly know what our objective is?

Getting clear on our objective does more than just help you – it helps your partner in crime. If I don’t know what it is you want, how can I support you?

For me, the most memorable Improv scenes to watch and to play in are those where characters have a clear objective that comes from a very truthful, sometimes vulnerable place. For example, they don’t just want to win the science fair, but they want someone to tell them how great they are… for the very first time.

Having a clear objective is a way to measure change. Did we get what we wanted? Did it mean something to us? What’s my temperature reading before and after? How am I progressing?

When I’m coaching Improvisers or those in a professional development setting, it’s common for people to either not have an objective or to not verbalize it.

We can’t always think of the objective spontaneously, but we can tune into the character, or ourselves to think about what is it that I really want? Sometimes it takes some work, and some encouragement:

  1. Know the “why”, not only the “what” – figure out why your objective matters to you. Sometimes asking “The Five Why’s” can help with this. 
  2. Be open to your objective changing. Don’t hold so fast to it that you close yourself off.
  3. Finally – don’t be afraid to ask for help.

 

 

 

What matters to you? Seth Godin’s 140-second challenge

What do you care about? You have 140 seconds to share it with a room full of strangers. Ready, go!

Last night in NYC I took part in a noble experiment by marketing and creativity author and guru Seth Godin.

As part of the release effort for his latest book, he let out a rally cry for individuals to get together and share their passion.

The event provided a unique and thrilling opportunity to be vulnerable, courageous, succinct, clear, and focused…in 140 seconds. This may sound difficult to some of us, but we’re each given numerous opportunities throughout the year, week or even day to present what matters to us in a clear and hopefully, authentic way. Why not practice?

 

I’m curious to know what you would talk about in your 140 seconds?

I challenged myself to improvise much of my talk but here’s what I ended up saying:

My name is Lindsey, and I am an Improviser. Usually when I tell people this, especially if I am outside of New York, I hear one of three reactions:

“Oh, you must be funny, then”, or “Is that like, ‘Whose Line is It Anyway?'”, or “I could never do that”.

Here’s a secret. Everyone is an Improviser. Everyone in this room is an Improviser. No one has a script when they get up in the morning.

But here’s how I really know that everyone in this room tonight is an Improviser. Improvisers are really good at doing these 3 things:

  1. Taking Risks
  2. Embracing Failure
  3. Saying YES to opportunities 

Everyone in this room took a risk to come here tonight. Everyone who got up here and shared their art is embracing failure, and everyone said yes to an opportunity even if they were unsure of what this was. 

5 years ago, almost to this day, I took my first Improv class. Now I work with corporations, teams, and individuals to help them cultivate their inner improviser because I believe that these skills matter. Imagine what the world would look like if everyone learned these skills? Well, I imagine it would be similar to this room here tonight, a room full of people who took risks, embraced failure or re-defined what ‘failure’ meant, and said yes to opportunities. I’m really excited about that world.

My hope for today is that when you leave this room tonight you’ll help someone else unleash and embrace their inner improviser, that you’ll keep taking risks and saying yes to new things, and exercising the muscle that brought you here tonight – then maybe someday we’ll have the courage to throw away the script. 

The year of Daniel Pink

Little did he know it, but in January of 2012 famed author Daniel Pink was already applying some of the tools he talks about in his latest book (out today!), “To Sell is Human“.

I’ll explain. It was December of 2011 when I finished reading his earlier work, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” . I was enamored with the material, and overjoyed that his words seemed to validate my career path, and passion.

On a whim I sent Mr. Pink an email. I complimented him, pointed out our mutual connection (Go ‘Cats!), and…well, asked if he had some time to talk. I may have even quoted Oprah?! Silly me, I thought. But, I had nothing to lose.

I was sitting in a quiet cafe on Polk Street in San Francisco when I received his prompt response:

“hi, lindsey. thanks for the note.

i’m happy to talk, but only on the condition you share with me one or two tips for getting better at improvisation. (as it happens, i’m doing some research that’s kinda, sorta on that topic right now.)”

I screamed. There were some odd looks. I didn’t care – to me, Daniel Pink is a rock star and this was the equivalent of a backstage pass.

Almost a year later Daniel Pink finished the project he alluded to and released “To Sell is Human”. It is a fascinating, thought-provoking read that I highly recommend.

Pink devotes an entire chapter to Improvisation and the tools we use as Improvisers to improve communication, presentation and even, authenticity. Just like in “A Whole New Mind”, Pink has validated, supported, and encouraged the use and application of these tools to a broader base and signals the growth of this field for years to come.

Our conversation in January was one of the highlights of my year. Daniel Pink said “Yes, and” to my request to talk and it is something I will never forget.

In December of 2012 I was chosen to be a part of a small group that would serve as a launch team for “To Sell is Human”.

Small actions (to say “Yes, And”, to help make someone else look good, to practice generosity and taking risks) help to create memories and connections that we don’t soon forget.

Here’s to a new year of saying “Yes, And”,  and to being uncertain but taking a risk anyway. You never know where it will lead.