Improv and the Art of Diagnosis

“How long do I pay you to figure this out?”

This month, my Triumph Bonneville suffered an intermittent starting problem. The darn electrical issue plagued me for weeks; I spent hours on forums and eventually paid for hours with a mechanic. Six hours later, the shop had not found the issue.

So I paid them $115 an hour for their efforts, rolled the bike to a stall and sighed.

While I Ubered home with my helmet, I thought about the volatility of the cost of diagnosis across industries. We see it in medicine when we get second opinions on puzzling symptoms. We also see it in software – every programmer knows it can take anywhere between 30 seconds and 30 hours to get to the bottom of a bug.

Putting a price on diagnosis time is a tough spot for both customers and professionals. Other industries have it easy! Could you imagine walking into McDonald’s and ordering a Big Mac, only to hear:

“That’ll be either $3 or $300.”

“What? How?”

“We’re not sure if we can get the burger together in time. Or if it’s even a burger that you need.”

“I need a burger. When will it be ready?”

“Either tomorrow or this Fall.”

The hard skills behind making an accurate, timely diagnosis are well documented in the blogosphere. Ignore extraneous information. Focus on cause and effect. Don’t mix two separate issues.

But soft skills, those that I learned through improv, are comparably important: Focus. Just listen. Don’t freak out!

Ignore the pressure of the customer, boss, patient or the consequences of messing up. That won’t help you find the root cause any quicker.

In improv, we have the luxury of writing the script on the fly. An improv scene is problem solving in reverse, exposed bare: improvisers create the consequences, even the logic, and the audience judges them on their ability to follow their own rules.

When the scene ends, the audience asks themselves, “Did that make sense? Were the characters true to themselves? Was that scene believable given the context established?”

Remember those math problems in school where the teacher would give you credit if you showed your work, even if you didn’t arrive at the correct answer? In an improv scene, there usually is no “one correct answer” – the audience gives full credit for showing your work.

What does that mean for diagnosis? Of course, we need to find the correct answer in the professional world. But improv helps us focus on the process of diagnosis rather than getting caught up on a result. It prevents us from the pitfall of jumping to conclusions while ignoring a key data point or before knowing all the facts.

And very importantly, it helps us articulate the logic in our minds to an audience to get our customers on board. How many times have you had a mechanic or physician explain what they plan to do instead of first telling you why they plan to do it? As a customer, I’m much more willing to keep paying a professional when he or she can bring me into their logic.

My favorite, fun improv scene games that address these logical steps are Creation Myth, where the improvisers have to fabricate the “Aha!” moment of a famous invention, or Commercial, where improvisers pose as a creative agency to come up with a marketing campaign on the fly. Both games shift focus away from the result and onto the logical steps that get us there.

Chris Severn delivers corporate trainings through improv comedy techniques for organizations in the Bay Area. Visit improvbridge.com  or email chris@improvbridge.com to schedule an introductory class. 

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“Can I Finish?” Avoiding Interruptions in Meetings

In the conference room, frequent interruption is not only a sign of team discord, it’s —

— I totally agree! I was going to say something about interruption as well. What I think about interruption is…(OK, you get the point).

When I worked in healthcare consulting, I quickly learned that I had to fight a tendency to interrupt. If you’re a self-aware interrupter, you’ve probably spent some time reflecting on the root cause of the bad habit. For some it’s ego, or its close cousin stubbornness. For me, it was simply impatience. Does this meeting have a fast forward button?

No matter how you shake it, or what value you think you’re adding to the dialogue, frequent interruptions come with a social cost.

If your meetings are plagued by interruptions, design better meetings.

It’s up to the meeting organizer to clarify the context of the meeting: How much time do we have? What is the agenda? Is the purpose of this meeting to make a decision or to open a discussion?

By communicating clear expectations for a meeting, managers give themselves social permission to move the conversation along.

It’s also worth noting that meetings with frequent interruptions may be overcrowded. If you’re worried about everyone getting their two cents in, maybe you should cap the meeting at a dime instead of a quarter.

If interrupting is an epidemic for your team, it may be worth exploring the art of the transition.

There’s a fine line between an interruption and a transition. Learn it.

 

Simply put, a transition occurs at the end of a complete thought.

If Andru says, “I think we should switch from on-premise servers to cloud because –”

You would be interrupting until Andru tells us the “why.” If, he finishes the “why” and you can tell that the discussion on servers will not be resolved, you could then invoke a transition.

“Andru, I see the pros and cons of both. Let’s take this offline.” Or, “Let’s discuss at our meeting next week.”

Active listeners speak by building off the last statement.

In improv, there’s a common exercise called Yes And. The gist is simple: speak in response to the last thing said. By focusing on the last sentence uttered, you avoid getting trapped in your head with expired thoughts. Oh – I have a thought about servers too! I’m going to say it. Because I was looking at our storage the other day, and it’s a lot cheaper to go cloud. And I know how to migrate the data too, and I’m going to say that too…

As you meticulously assemble your perfect thought, your window to add relevant information has passed. In fact, Andru might have just said your same thought and you totally missed it! If only you had trusted Andru to bring to the table the same brilliant thought that you had, you wouldn’t have embarrassed yourself by interrupting with redundant information.

Beginning improv technique teaches a group to speak in one voice by establishing trust. If you’re not the one to say “the right thing,” someone else on stage will. And if they don’t, the group artfully works together to bring the message back on track.

Discord becomes fleeting, transitions fluid, and teams become happier. For a quick not-that-weird active listening exercise to try out in your next scrum, check out Word at a Time Story. For more thoughts on active listening, have a look at Improv and the Doctor Patient Relationship.

Happy Meetings to You All –

Chris


Chris Severn delivers corporate trainings through improv comedy techniques for organizations in the Bay Area. Visit improvbridge.com  or email improvbridge@gmail.com to schedule a an introductory class. 

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Stress Relief Through Improv Comedy

By now, we all know what stress is. It’s the tension in our muscles, in the room, the jagged flight of our deadlines, to-dos, and should-have-dones as they whiz around our brain. Stress is a roundhouse kick to your night of sleep, it sets your heart rate to an awful 80’s techno beat, and it causes us to join conversations via satellite.

Managers know the negative consequences of a chronically stressed team. Tired employees submit error-prone work as they quietly ignore lunch, exercise and one another. Before long, something breaks. A deadline gets missed, emotions in a meeting boil over, and that tight rubber band ball of stress that had wound itself around your team snaps undone…

…Leaving us shards of rubber bands to shoot at each other as we laugh and unwind in a nice afternoon improv session.

Improv comedy is the antithesis of stress. Where stress preys on future anxiety and past regret, improv comedy focuses solely in one moment: the now.

For years, I’ve relied on evening improv comedy sessions (with friends or coworkers) to center my focus on the present. I’ve taught my students to consider improv on par with yoga, running, and athletics as an “active psychological de-stimulant,” though largely more mental than these counterparts in practice.

By allowing you to jump characters, settings, emotions and stories, participation in an improv scene causes you to separate your daily anxieties into a “not now” category that has no bearing on the present moment.

In improv, there is simply no time nor brain space for stress.

Imagine, for example, whilst in line at the grocery store on an exceptionally stressful day (bills are due, you have to go to the DMV tomorrow, you’re supposed to be home, but you forgot the bay leaves), you run into the one and only _________ (insert a personal celeb icon here). For me, I’d say Steph Curry from the Golden State Warriors.

Steph looks over and says, “Hey – what did you think of last night’s game?

Stumbling over words, you proceed to chat with Steph Curry, totally star struck. Blood rushes to your brain. You can’t believe it. Do you think that, during this short conversation, you would think about tomorrow’s trip to the DMV? Or your phone buzzing in your pocket? Not a chance. You were too busy thinking of words to say in this wholly important, life-altering encounter.

In improv, the need to actively listen and create drowns out the voices of anxiety.

This same “brain CPU-usage” phenomenon also happens in athletics and public speaking — it’s adrenaline-aided focus. In improv, the adrenaline comes from the healthy dose of uncertainty surrounding the success of the scene. Will it be funny? Where are we going with this? How do I react to a panda being in the kitchen? In an effort to establish a context in every foreign situation, the improviser leaves behind the context of the day to day grind.

If you’re tired of the same old attempts to relieve stress (and you laugh too much during yoga), there are several improv exercises for bringing a group of distracted, tired, stressed into the present. Both are easy and take less than 5-minutes. Give them a try at your next scrum:

Giving Fake Presents

Simple (or not so simple) Word Association


Chris Severn delivers corporate trainings through improv comedy techniques for organizations in the Bay Area. Visit improvbridge.com to schedule a class. 

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Podcast Appearance and Everyday Improv Exercises

I’ve gotten a lot of questions lately along the same vein as this:

“How can I practice improv in my everyday life?”

The most recent to ask this was Christian Edwards, the multitalented curator of the Morning Brief and the Christian Values Podcast. You can listen to the May 13th episode I appeared in by clicking here.

Seeing that improv is usually performed in front of audiences with a group of people, it’s a difficult question to answer. So many of the tenets of improv require having others around (saying “Yes and,” accepting the offer, making your scene parter look good). This question forced me to go on a long, quiet walk around the panhandle and brainstorm some ideas.

At its core, improv comedy requires using a limited set of context clues to construct an imaginary world. Here’s a mental drill for exercising the imagination:

Mental Interrogation

I’ll play right now. I’m sitting in a coffee shop, perched on a counter chair with a clear view of the door. Two ladies just walked in, about fifty years old apiece. They wear solid blouses, red and blue. One carries a bag from the De Young museum and takes a deep breath while the other inquires with the barista: “What is this place? When did it open? It’s beautiful…” This one has the habit of touching the barista’s arm when she talks. These women both look slightly athletic.

I’m in a touristy part of San Francisco and in a museum-like cafe. I’m guessing these women are tourists wandering around Fort Mason. The end?

In “Mental Interrogation,” you first make this initial snap judgment and then try to move as far away from it as possible by letting your imagination run wild. In a minute, try to come up with five different contrasting scenarios. Here I go:

  • The museum bag contains a stolen jewel. The cops are in hot pursuit of these women, and they ducked into the cafe in desperation to avoid arrest.
  • These women are Italian billionaires looking to invest in San Francisco real estate. If the barista sells them on the shop, the red-bloused lady will pull out her checkbook and write a four million dollar check on the spot.
  • They’re two out of towners looking for a hot date. They’ve noticed the barista from afar and plan to woo him, a much younger man, into spending the evening with them.
  • The barista has severe amnesia. These women are actually his lesbian moms that he has totally forgotten about. They come by every day to see their son, hoping that one day he’ll see them walk through the door and yell, “Moms!”
  • The women are professional line dancers looking for a place to have a hoedown. While one schmoozes the barista, the other takes mental measurements of the place and tries to decide if their hoedown could fit.

This practice of interrogating the situation is not only a good way to pass time and weird out your friends, it’s a solid mental exercise. Most of the time our snap judgments are correct, but there’s always a slim chance the true situation is not as it seems. And who knows, one of those times you might suddenly get invited to a hoedown.

I’ll be coming out with more solitary improv exercises in the months to come.


Chris Severn delivers corporate trainings through improv comedy techniques for organizations in the Bay Area. Visit improvbridge.com to schedule a class. 

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Improv and the Doctor-Patient Relationship (Part 1)

You’re in the interior of an exam room. Outdated drawings of kidneys hang on the wall, washed out by sterilized light.

“Can I have a word?” your doctor asks.

“Yes, of course,” you say. You’re concerned he’s seen a drop in your Vitamin D.

“What’s an adjective that starts with J?”

“Huh?”

“You heard me.”

“I’m not sure I understand…”

“How about a teen icon from the 90’s?”

“Doctor Beans…this is serious, it’s my health we’re talking —“

“Ok fine,” he says. “I was going to deliver your results in a funny accent…hoping you’d say Jolly Justin Timberlake.”

“What the…”

———

If that’s what you think of when you combine “improv comedy” and “health professional” (yes, Dr. Beans is unfortunately fictional), you’re like me about a week ago. After teaching a class to an awesome group of chiropractic students at Life Chiropractic College West this week, I’ve discovered that improv does have a place in the ol’ doctor’s office. Here are some parallels to draw between improv technique and patient care…just call it med school.

What the Patient Wants to Hear, What the Doctor Needs to Say

Last time I went into my primary care physician, I steamrolled my way into the exam room, put my foot down and told him I had a sinus infection and needed antibiotics. After he talked me down, it turned out I just had the sniffles. Pollen or something. Was fine in two days. Let’s take a look at how that played out.

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Most doctor-patient convos go a little something like this. The patient’s a WebMD elite user, and the doctor, well…went through a decade of schooling.

The doctor needs to get his message across. The patient needs to feel heard (read: be actively listened to). The stakes are high (the patient’s health), and both parties want the best outcome for it.

Where Does Improv Come In?

In successful improv scenes, each character has an agenda. The scene starts, maybe off the suggestion “toaster,” and I decide I’m a sleepy, out-of-work husband making toast.

My scene partner, seeing that I’m making toast, in a home presumably, assumes she’s my wife.

At that point, we need to make choices. No one wants to see a scene where I ask her if she wants whole grain or white, runny egg or scrambled, not without emotions or angles. My angle, all I want, I decide, is for her to notice that I washed my robe, and to see that as a sign of progress. I’m on the rebound!

She decides she likes me at home, loves having breakfast made for her, and wants me to feel like I’m not cut out for the workforce anymore. These two agendas are bound to conflict. 

As improvisers, we have to figure out what the other performer wants, or else we won’t find the comedy. How do we do that? Listening! Physical cues! Long pauses! The same as real life.

The stakes of “comedy scene” are not nearly as high as a patient’s health, but the pressure of an audience makes our behavior similar. I might interrupt, going for the quick joke (“Our marriage is toast!” (Ha)), or might think too much about what I want to say and not hear what she says. When we lose our connection, the audience loses their connection with us, and the scene’s in Yawntown, USA.

Just like in the doctor-patient scenario, the two of us need to listen and react to one another to have the best possible outcome.

An Exercise – Just What the Doctor Ordered

At Life Chiropractic College West, we did a hilarious exercise called “What Do You Want?

It involves two performers, and they’re both endowed with a secret desire. One future back doctor (no, not Doc from Back to the Future. Ok, I’ve been waiting to say that) only wanted his scene partner to say that she loved him. She, on the other hand, just wanted him to tie her shoes.

When two performers have different agendas, often in direct conflict with one another, it’s hilarious. The audience is dying to see them listen and either give in (just TIE THE SHOES! Noooo, not a foot massage!), or ridiculously withhold (“I don’t know if we’re ready to tie the knot…”). It’s also very difficult to get your desire across while hearing out your partner.

I dare you to give it a try, med school friends.

Fascinated by this whole doc-patient, improv connection – expect to see more posts in the future.


Chris Severn delivers corporate trainings through improv comedy techniques for organizations in the Bay Area. Visit improvbridge.com to schedule a class. 

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Improv is for Lovers

If you’re spending this Valentine’s evening in a restaurant (the type with entrees and a wine list and a waiter named Pierre) and not at home with bagel bites and “my true love, Netflix,” then this article is for you.

After years of relationships and years of performing improv, I can say that the tongue-tied, sputtering, cluelessness in a bad improv scene is just like that in a bad scene in real life. For instance, say you screwed up flat out, or maybe there’s a possibility you hurt your significant other’s feelings because she’s shrugging, communicating in grunts, and watching QVC rather than talking to you.

Your next move is crucial. It must be subtle as to not seem forced, careful to bomb squad standards, and timed to Hollywood perfection. The stakes are high. In love, you may lose the night or prolong a fight. In an improv show, you can lose credibility with the audience and similarly lose the night (yes, an improv audience is about as forgiving as a scorned girlfriend).

Here are three Valentine’s Day-inspired improv fundamentals that, when practiced and striven for, can go a long way to improving relationship communication.

Say Yes

In improv, saying yes has a totally different meaning from real life. If your girlfriend says, “I’m fine, I’m, (sigh), fine. Let’s just watch QVC,” please don’t agree to watch QVC just because you read only the bolded titles in this article.

Saying yes means accepting every communication as a fact that must be explored and addressed. Whether it’s a sigh, a shake of the head, or atypical behavior, it happened and usually cannot be ignored, especially if it conveys an emotion.

In a bad improv scene, the boyfriend may say, “OK, let’s watch QVC,” and then there might be a knock on the door, and it’s the kooky pizza man, Davey, and it’s their favorite pizza, and all is right again. But ultimately, the audience knows that the girlfriend’s sigh was too heavy to be resolved by the perfect pizza, and the resulting disconnect will leave them unfulfilled.

In life, it’s easy to apply those bandaid fixes as well. Perhaps we change the channel and a better show is on, and the night becomes bearable. Ultimately, the sigh will have to be addressed to alleviate tension, or it’s pushed off to a later time (and collects interest).

React to the Last Thing Said

“Were you even listening?” is something I’ve heard a lot. I like to call this problem “via satellite” communication, you know, like those reporters that awkwardly respond on a five second delay.

When we get in our heads, we start plotting. “Oh, she said that, I could really make my point if I said this back, because it connects to my earlier point, but now I just have to wait my turn…” By the time we’ve thought like this, the topic has either changed or progressed. When we’re too busy planning our next line, we miss opportunities to move an issue forward.

Successful communication is all about getting on the same page. Extending the metaphor that the audience is the girlfriend in an improv show, they will notice when you fall behind or weren’t properly listening.

Naturally, they’ll suppose that if words being said aren’t even important enough for the improvisers to listen to, they shouldn’t either. Then we all just end up looking at our watches, playing Trivia Crack, and waiting for the curtain.

Listen, Respond, Then Maybe Use Words

There’s a notion in improv that words have utmost value. So much so, in fact, that their scarcity only increases it.

In a relationship, at work, in improv, it’s exceptionally difficult to listen silently, especially if you’re the one taking the blow. The most impactful decisions, though, come from a wide base of thought and information. By treating listening the same way you would treat researching a thesis, as if building a base of knowledge from which to communicate, you have much higher odds of delivering a concise, impactful message.

Our temptation is to calm the storm before we understand it. “No, that’s not what I meant,” or, “I’m sorry, I’m SORRY!” or “I don’t even like going out with my friends, I’d much rather always stay in with you!” Not only do we end up saying empty words, we run the risk of making promises we can’t keep.

Effective listening discovers the source of the problem. Effective communication addresses that source directly, whether through actions or words, it doesn’t really matter.

Stay safe on those moonlit walks tonight, everyone. Or, cook those bagel bites at a responsible temperature.


Chris Severn delivers corporate trainings through improv comedy techniques for organizations in the Bay Area. Visit improvbridge.com to schedule a class. 

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You’ve been doing improv all along.

Here’s something I’ve heard a lot over the past ten years: “Improv, what, like Whose Line Is It Anyway? I could never do that.”

It’s true, most of us aren’t as goofy as Ryan Stiles, filled with dry wit like Colin Mochrie, or brilliant enough to sing about a bus driver as Michael Jackson like Wayne Brady (watch it, it’s good). There’s also the notion that most of us fear public speaking over death itself.

Despite your fears or lack of familiarity with improv, you’ll be surprised to learn that you’ve been doing it a long, long time. There are more definitions for improv comedy out there than social media apps, but most of them boil down to one: making things up on the spot (to entertain people).

Everything we say, every day, is totally made up. We’re not acting off a script, we just really know our character (ourselves) and our contexts (family life, friend life, work life, things that are socially acceptable on the bus). We know what to say in these contexts, and most of the time, we’re not afraid to screw up.

Congratulations! You’re a veteran. You don’t even need a class from Improv Bridge.

Just kidding, not so fast. What happens when we’re thrown into an unfamiliar or uncomfortable context? What if Terry interrupts me during a high pressure pitch? What if I lose my train of thought in an important meeting with that elusive Swiss chocolate client? What if the stupid computer freezes during my Prezi?

Exceptional leaders excel during these hiccups. Exceptional teams turn these hiccups into opportunities and advantages.

In the process of learning improv comedy, you will be thrown into several unanticipated, outlandish, downright ridiculous scenarios. With Improv Bridge, you’ll go through these scenarios with your coworkers. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can adapt the “make-things-up” skills you already exercise every day to these uncomfortable situations, and how well you can use those skills to support your coworkers. To an extent, all the “Whose Line” guys do is act as quickly as you and I do in our normal lives, but in much wackier contexts (OK, and they’re funnier than us).

Pretty soon, you won’t fear the hiccups. You’ll look forward to them.


Chris Severn delivers corporate trainings through improv comedy techniques for organizations in the Bay Area. Visit improvbridge.com to schedule a class. 

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