Learning with the Head and the Heart

In my previous life as a screenwriter, there was a note a writer would see quite often on their screenplays: “Make your character more like-able”.

Why like-able?

Well, a protagonist (the main character, often the hero) had to be at least a teeny bit likable (yet flawed) so that the audience would stay invested in the character’s journey. A like-able character means we’ll likely root for them and care about what happens.

An audience wants to be emotionally invested.

This is normal and natural, whether your audience is in the theater, a movie, or in the classroom. The audience want a reason to care beyond a rational, logical reason to. In the example of screenwriting, working to make our character a little more likable increases the chances that we as an audience will find something in ourselves that bonds us with this person on-screen. When we’re emotionally invested, we pay attention and don’t fast-forward or tune-out. Hopefully we’re changed by this character’s journey as well.

Turns out, this note extends beyond screenplays and creative projects. But in learning and development we’re focused on the learners journey, not the characters.

In my experience it’s common to see learning or change initiatives that stay at the rational-only level. We may assume participants will pay attention because they are there physically. Too often though, students, employees, and stakeholders often lack that emotional connection to the material. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t invited to, or this isn’t given nearly enough thought in the design process.

This often happens when we teach classes or put forth plans that teach the logical steps, but lack the mental or emotional thinking behind it. 

I’m not necessarily advocating to make our work more like-able. But, we can’t assume our students have a reason to pay attention, even if they signed up (or the equivalent of buying a ticket to a movie).

More than just paying attention we want our learning and change programs to stick, to spread, and for our students to be changed by the experience. That rarely happens on a rational/logical-only level.

They need a reason to care, a personal one that ideally comes from intrinsic motivation and a personal connection to the material.

Encourage them to use their experiences, share them, connect to the material and to each other. Then you’ve got a room full of editors, writers, directors, producers who are taking the material and making it their own because they believe in it.

What’s the Drill – Sep. 29th: Foundation or Decoration?

There are many metaphors we can use when talking about organizations.

My new favorite? Organization as a house.

When you’re implementing Learning and Development into your organization consider whether you are merely decorating, or building your foundation. Sometimes it may seem like you’re doing both, at the same time.

Some initiatives are simply there for decoration. We’ll add some nice curtains and we’ll paint the walls. They are nice to have, but not always necessary, and wear over time.

Other initiatives are foundational, but treated as decoration.

Learning and Employee Development is a strong lever to pull towards change, but it rarely sustains its impact when done in isolation, or when looked at as merely decoration.

A strong L&D program is built into the foundation of the company, and that foundation is squarely in place before the decorations are added.

Building that foundation takes time and care and deliberate choice.

If you are the “architect” or “contractor” of your company, learn to both acknowledge, advocate for, and understand the difference between foundational initiatives and decorations. Learn why your client is asking for each and help them understand these tradeoffs as you navigate it together. Build a house you want to live in and are excited for others to visit and call home.

What’s the drill – February 20: A creative confidence booster

According to Tom Kelley of IDEO, a fear of being judged is the number-one reason why we’re not more creative.

It’s not due to a lack of ability…this is a matter of creative confidence.

We all have the natural ability to come up with novel ideas (yes yes, even you shaking your head in the back of the room). But not everyone has the courage to act on these ideas.

What if we did? How could increasing our creative confidence change our self-image and our capacity to have influence on the world?

Kelley’s mission to boost (nay, rocket fuel) the creative confidence of others is one I find myself equally passionate about.

Unlocking your creative potential can start with a simple re-frame of how you present your creative ideas. Here’s an example straight from Professor William Duggan at Columbia Business School:

When we present ideas we often end by asking the age-old question, “so what do you think?”. A useful question, yes, but one that can open the door for negative feedback and instant confidence deflation.

What if instead we simply said, “anything to add to my idea?”.

Presented in this way, we’re immediately signaling that there is room for the initial idea to expand. We still expect and desire honest feedback, but with a slight re-frame we are boosting collaboration, and hopefully over time, creative self-efficacy.

What’s the drill – May 30: A break from the routine

Hello dear blog readers and faithful spam trolls, it’s nice to see you again. Despite best intentions and dozens of saved blog drafts, it’s been a few weeks since my last posting.

In learning how to balance grad school, life in a big city, and work, something had to fall away – and truthfully, I don’t know how The Hungry Toolkit does it. If you are not reading this blog, written by the wonderful and inspiring Julie Huffaker — you are missing out! Meeting her in 2010 changed my life in many ways, I hope that reading her work will change yours even in some small way.

Julie wistfully combines her grad school learnings, vast vats of knowledge, and anecdotes into perfect pairings and easy reads.  Her work lies at the intersection of the arts, business, and human behavior — ya know, if you’re into that sort of thing!

I’d also like to introduce you to more bloggers and friends that have influenced me over the past year… Each has a distinct point of view that I greatly admire.

1. Phil O’Brien – founder of Climbing Fish, a social actualizer passionate about building capacity for human connection.

2. Carol Ross – coach extraordinaire, boundary crosser (and one heck of an Improviser…shhh, don’t tell her!)

3.Mark Guay – a passionate teacher changing the face of education and personalized learning

4. Charlie Todd – creating joyful, spontaneous “scenes”, founder of Improv Everywhere.

I’d love for you to check out these sites and take a break from your usual blog and web reading routine.

This summer I’m taking a cue from Ms. Huffaker and testing assumptions  with a learning experience that’s taking me far outside my comfort zone (grad school was just the beginning of that experiment). I hope to report on the experience via this blog, but if it’s less often than I’d like, I hope you’ll take these next few months as an opportunity to spend some time outside your comfort zone – whether it means on an Improv stage, in a new city or country, or “yes, anding” an experience or offer you normally wouldn’t.

Then, come back and tell me how it went!

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.


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What’s the drill – February 26: Controlling the outcome

Try as we might, we can never really know the outcome of anything. My book might not sell, I may not get hired for a job, the group project may actually exceed expectations.

The more we try to exert influence over circumstances we can’t and don’t actually control, the more frustrated we can become.

Beginning Improvisers are often fearful their first time taking the stage. Neurologically they feel threatened, and this fear shows up in different behaviors. Often times the feeling of threat or lack of safety makes us want to control the scene because we think we can control the outcome.

In spite of what we think, we never know the outcome of anything.

When the stakes are high, our task to not control the outcome gets tougher. We feel that we have something to lose. When money, pride, reputation are on the line, the job gets even tougher – especially if you are a leader.

Teaching others to let go, accept offers, and say “yes, and” means controlling less and supporting more. It can be a fundamental shift to our psychological and neurological safety.

In tough, stressful and threatening situations, we revert back to our natural instincts and habits. If we are to help others lead through change and high-stakes, it will take practice and it will take work but the outcome will be worth it…of that we are certain.

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’s the drill – October 2: What job do you need done?

FutureThink and The Energy Project are two brilliant consulting and training companies that are on my mind this week. Their value is clear, their brand is unique, and the ROI? Obvious… at least to me.

What they offer fills a need, and not just a want. It’s not just a “oh, that sounds nice”.  Every company wants to be more innovative and to harness the energy of their employees for a more productive and focused workforce.

It begs the question – how do you market your services – whether you are a job candidate, or a consultancy looking to increase your client base. How do you clearly and effectively communicate what you have to offer?

Author and distinguished Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christensen urges us to ask this question:

What job do you need done? 

For example, I need a way to quickly establish trust in a new group. Or, I need my team to develop their presentation skills.

If they don’t know that you can get the job done, why would they hire you? Make it simple –  take away the guesswork, and connect the dots for them.

No one is buying “Improv” – they are buying the result, the outcome.  We can’t assume that everyone needs Improvisation – but they do need teams that communicate more efficiently, and collaborate more effectively.

Turns out, everyone needs that.

So. Start with this: what job do you need done?