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The Spirit of Improv

Young male actor making a face on the stage

Dianne McCoy

How to roll with it when an event suddenly goes south

By Dianne McCoy

Fall 2013 – Have you ever had a meeting ruined by the unexpected? Whether you are planning a large event, hosting your own workshop or facilitating for someone else, learning from the field of Improv increases the likelihood of innovative and effective responses to the inevitable surprises that crop up.

Improv is short for improvisational theatre in which actors practice developing their skills without a script. Their emotions are stimulated by a word, action or thought that generates an immediate response. The actor works on the fly, making up the words, movements, character and story as things progress. Improv is acting in the moment and being open to the unplanned discovery of whatever comes next.

Speaking in front of audiences in various venues across the country offers many opportunities for thinking on your feet when things do not go as planned. Michael Kerr, CSP, HoF, is an expert at Improv. He refers to Improv as “skills-based learning” and as a “metaphor for life.” He teaches Improv skills to senior executives in his leadership training business and he uses these techniques in his own life.

Even the most experienced event planner will have things go wrong. “You learn from experience‚“ says Dallas Ballance, CMP, of GoodwinBallance Communications, a Winnipeg-based PR and event-management company. “You should always be ready for the unexpected.”

Dallas recently attended the MPI-TEC 2013 conference, where organizers brought in experts to teach Improv techniques. She says that learning to work or play outside our comfort zones has immense value, especially in dealing with the unexpected. “Any technique that increases communication is a benefit. Improv’s focus on listening and adapting to a situation includes supporting each other individually and as a team,” she says. This also means trust, taking risks and recognizing that problems do happen but are seldom insurmountable. “What does matter is how planners, speakers and meeting suppliers deal with those moments,” says Dallas.

Improv Saves the Day
I took Improv classes to sharpen my speaking skills, become more comfortable in social settings and increase my ability to think creatively. What I didn’t anticipate was how it might help me turn a tense situation into a fun adventure. Three years ago I was invited to emcee a conference in rural Manitoba. The morning of the event was stormy with snow and sleet. The organizers met to determine whether the event should be cancelled. Despite the early hour, they learned that some buses were already rolling and, since they had an action-packed agenda with some presenters travelling a long distance, they decided to forge ahead.

I watched as bus after bus pulled up to the community hall. Some of the buses had traveled more than two hours, but most of the 300 seniors who showed up did not seem daunted by the howling winds or blowing snow. Instead, they seemed to be enjoying the adventure.

We started the event a little late with at least one presenter missing in action. At coffee break he had not appeared and he was next to go on. We extended the break and brainstormed how to deal with this challenge. One organizer had heard I facilitated Laughter Yoga and asked if I could fill in until the presenter arrived. I had never worked with a crowd that large but, given the difficulty we were facing, I agreed.

The caterers arrived during my presentation and started bringing in their supplies, but still no speaker. We were enjoying the last yoga exercise and laughter filled the room, when the hall plunged into darkness and total silence – no power, no microphone, only dim lights and a room full of suddenly talkative seniors.

The main organizer joined me making a request for the local participants to call anyone they knew for flashlights and candles. Within 15 minutes, cars and trucks were pulling up to the hall and flickering lights were set throughout the building – including the bathrooms, which did not have emergency lighting.

Everyone was requested to stay in their seats as we debated how to manage the situation especially for those with mobility issues. The thought of how airplanes are boarded flashed through my mind. A quick conference on the strategy and we moved into action. Each table was requested to identify those who required assistance and who would assist them. We had no idea how long the power would be out or how soon the buses could return to retrieve participants.

When the caterer gave me the signal that the food was ready, we moved on to the next problem. How do we make sure everyone gets their food and makes it back to their table safely and efficiently?

Since we had a system using the “airplane boarding” Improv strategy already in place, we called up that group first. Once they were looked after, we used the more familiar method of calling up each table. The participants responded with enthusiasm.

A group of musicians arrived to play after lunch. Most of their instruments required electricity and since there was still no power, they offered to improvise and play what they could without plugging in. The crowd was delighted. Dancers arrived and they, too, improvised, scaling down their performance to ensure no one was at risk of injury due to dancing in the dimly lit hall.

When the power stubbornly refused to come back on, the organizers decided to end the event an hour early as the buses were now on their way back. It was two in the afternoon and we had managed to run a conference without power for nearly three hours.

Improv Lessons Learned

  • Engage in play – When was the last time you played? Playing unleashes creativity and innovation. It assists us to relax and energizes us, which helps us discover new ways of thinking and behaving. It also enhances our relationships as we are easier to be around and more supportive of those around us. Kids intuitively know this, but many adults seem to have forgotten. In the story, a playful attitude turned a potential disaster into an adventure for everyone involved.
  • Failure is an opportunity – Getting comfortable with failure is not easy. Each time we encounter failure, we learn about ourselves and what we have to overcome. In Improv, as in life, failing does not mean that you have failed but that your plan has failed. We learn to get back up and try it again because others, like those three hundred seniors, are counting on us.
  • Listen – There are many messages transmitted by one person to another. In Improv, listening with your whole being provides the opportunity for responsiveness to occur on the cues of others. In the story, we listened for the needs of others, then used that information to assist the event organizers in determining what to do next.
  • Say yes – Saying yes invites others to collaborate with you. It is an invitation to discover shared meaning and unleashes the possibilities of what we can be together. When you say yes, you are demonstrating that you are listening and supportive of that person and their thoughts.
  • Play within the rules – Rules are everywhere, and if we think of them as being limiting and restrictive they can shut us down. On the other hand, if we see rules as being the framework in which we can play, it frees us up to be creative. Freedom from worry releases energy to engage more fully with each other. At the hall, knowing who needed assistance and how that assistance would be provided allowed us to keep people safe without having it take over our teams’ focus.

What I have learned about Improv is that it is not just about techniques or skills, nor is it about the application of these skills to one profession or another. Improv is about attitude, a way of living and a way of being, applicable to everyone.

Dianne McCoy is a facilitator and executive coach assisting her clients to step up and make the shifts they desire in their lives and in their careers.

Appeared in Speaking of Impact, Fall 2013 Edition

3 Comments on The Spirit of Improv

  1. Sharon Helman // October 10, 2013 at 9:43 am //

    What a great story Dianne,
    I have always believed in Plan B productions.

    I also have to say that the seniors are a hearty bunch and have a great spirit,
    take care,

  2. Laverne Wojciechowski // October 11, 2013 at 5:13 pm //

    Great Article! I so agree “failure is an opportunity”. Sometimes things don’t work out but in the end you make things work (maybe by thinking outside the box) and sometimes it turns out better in the end!

  3. Yes, I agree. Having an improv background has been incredibly helpful as a speaker. I highly recommend it! Sometimes the best events are the ones that have some unexpected surprises. That’s why it’s good to be prepared for them.

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