What’s the drill – June 5: To push or to yield?

Last night I enjoyed a get together with the wonderful community of Bay Area Improvisers that feels like home to me, and in conversation with one good friend I asked:

What is the one most important thing Improv has taught you?

Her answer was short and sweet: It taught her to push and to yield.

Pushing and yielding may also be defined as give and take, dominance and submission, saying yes or saying no…etc.

Improv taught her, and teaches many people what it means to push and yield, what your own tendency is, and how and when to play either role.

But I’ll give you a secret – knowing when to push or to yield isn’t really about you. It’s about the other person. If you put all your attention and focus on the other person in your meeting, presentation, conversation, or improv scene – well, then you’ll pick up on how much to push or to yield.

It’s important to know how to play each role, and to have the confidence and self-awareness to do either. But the other person (your partner) will give you the clues and signs you need along the communication highway.

The five-word secret to building better connections

The secret to successful human interactions is hopefully not a secret, but a way of life.

On a stage, Improvisers drill and practice this “secret”, to form a new habit and a way of interacting on stage that builds support and trust amongst individuals and teams.

The secret?  Make your partner look good.

From customers to clients, friends, co-workers, hiring managers, and partners your job on stage and off is to make the other person look good – especially when you are interacting with someone new.

It’s a fundamental switch from ‘what’s in it for me’ to, ‘what can I do to help and support you’ because those who know this secret also realize that if I make you look good, we all look good, and that the efforts of a team are more important than the individual.

This post from Seth Godin skillfully highlights the hierarchy of business to business needs. Whether you are trying to help someone avoid risk, avoid hassle, or gain praise in business interactions, the focus remains on helping to make them look good.

To understand their needs is to empathize, listen, and help make them look not just good…but spectacular. For, when your number one job, on stage or off, is to support your fellow team members, well, you’ve got the secret to a winning team.

What’s the drill – May 23: What’s your listening ratio?

What’s your listening ratio?

With the increased reliance in social media, emails, texts, etc we’re taking in more information with our eyes, than perhaps with our ears.

We’re putting a lot of the focus of communication on what we read, and perhaps not enough on what people say in conversation.

Great cultures, great customer experiences, and great interactions grow from listening.

What’s your listening to talking ratio? Consider, is it 2-1, proportionate to having two ears and one mouth?

Sit down regularly with your team and find out what is going well and what isn’t.  Try to spend more time listening than talking. Listen with all of your senses.

Take an extra step and go beyond what you read. Be curious, ask questions, engage.

And, then listen.


What’s the drill – May 17: The three pillars of persuasion

As the saying goes, everybody wants to buy, but no one wants to be sold.

We are all selling something every day – ideas, products, choices, points of view – persuading someone, somewhere to “buy”, varying our level of persuasion with each.

Aristotle gives us the 3 pillars of persuasion:

  • Ethos: credibility of the speaker
  • Pathos: emotional connection to the audience
  • Logos: The logic of our argument

Together, these pillars are the essential qualities that your speech or presentation must have before your audience will buy in to your message.

Consider which of these 3 pillars is easier for you and which one you tend to rely on or start with.

Do you agree with the notion that we buy on emotion and justify with logic later?


What’s the drill – May 15: Give your presentation skills a boost

Are you a detail or big-picture person? Do you describe or present information with all of your senses?

One simple exercise changed the way I look at presenting information – and its applications stretch from vision planning, leadership, presentation skills, story, learning retention and more.

It’s an exercise I first learned in an Improvisation class at BATS Improv, and then continued to read about in Kat Koppet’s book, “Training to Imagine”, and then applied to my workshops at DreamWorks Animation.

It’s called, Color/Advance.

Here is a basic example of how it works: Grab a partner and pick one of you to begin describing your day.

At any point, your partner can say, color… or, advance. Color means to add more description to your story – use all of your senses. When your partner says Advance, it is your job to then go back to advancing or continuing the story. Continue to switch back and forth, with the direction given by your partner.

Give your storytelling, imagination, creativity, and presentation skills a boost.

Also use this tool to learn what inspires or interests your audience – see what they want to learn or hear more about.

Color. Or Advance? Why not add both to your toolbox.

TOOL: Delight and engage your audience with reincorporation

Improvisation as a communication tool can be broken down into two steps:

Listen, then react.


Without being able to plan ahead in the conversation or the scene, Improvisers are skilled at being present and in the moment, fine-tuning their listening skills to yield honest reactions that keep moving the story and conversation forward.

Skilled Improvisers are also excellent at re-incorporation, or “the call-back” as it’s coined in the comedy world.


Reincorporating a piece of information, a line of dialogue or a small moment from earlier in the scene or story usually results in a big laugh. Reincorporation is a favorite of Improv audiences because they are amazed we remembered such details, and what is familiar usually get a laugh.

Without superb listening and awareness skills, reincorporation wouldn’t be possible.

But, reincorporation can delight more than just Improv audiences. 

Its applications stretch from presentation skills to interviews, praise, and building connections with everyday conversations.

Reincorporation really just means we’ve been listening, and it always feels nice to know you’ve been listened to. It shows that you care, and you are paying attention – imagine the delight and surprise when a small piece of information is reincorporated in an improvised story, perhaps an hour after it was first introduced. Reincorporating an idea, or an employee concern, or praise of a job well done can have the same effect.

Specificity plays a role here too. The more detailed the reincorporation, the bigger the reaction and delight you are creating.

As a presentation tool, reincorporation helps with retention, learning, and information summary. Repeating key points or key themes  in a presentation is a strategic tool.

Listen, then react… with an emphasis on the listening.

What’s the drill – May 2: A simple exercise to boost your listening skills

How many conversations are you a part of every day? And, how many times have you found yourself a part of several conversations at once, and you struggle to keep an ear in all of them?

Try this simple and easy exercise to work on your listening skills. All you need is a group of 3 people.

Choose one person to stand in the middle. The two people on either side  carry on simultaneous, separate conversations (each on a different topic) with the person in the middle. It is the goal of these two people on the side to get the person in the middle to pay attention to their conversation.

The person in the middle works on their listening skills by staying present and engaged in both conversations at once.

After you do this once, notice the tactics you used to get the attention of the person in the middle. See you if you can try again but keep your voice at a normal level.

To the person in the middle, notice what happens when you agree and “yes, and” what the other people say, as opposed to engaging in arguments or a discussion. Is it easier to pay attention and stay a part of the conversation this way?

TOOL: Make a strong choice

There’s a new dance craze sweeping the nation – maybe you’ve seen it where you work or in social interactions, or at a company presentation, or on an improv stage.

Let’s call it the “polite dance”.

It usually looks like this, “you go”, “no – you go”, “no, YOU go”, “oh please – no you, please. I insist”.

Politeness paralysis.

The polite dance is one we often revert to for many different reasons: we don’t want to offend, we are unsure of our own choices, are more comfortable following than leading, are unsure of a direction, etc.

One tool in the Improvisers toolbox is the ability to make a strong choice.

Making a strong choice means learning how to trust instincts, give and take, develop the confidence to speak for ourselves, to make a choice rather than waver in indecision-land — which also happen to be key skills leaders need.