We are all Michael Bay… or are we?

In case you missed it this week, Hollywood director Michael Bay had some problems presenting at the Consumer Electronics Show event sponsored by Samsung.

Here is a link to coverage of this epic “meltdown” on Business Insider.

First, I would like to express compassion for Mr Bay. This kind of experience could happen to anyone; such is the stuff from where nightmares are woven. Apparently, he had been hired to be what we used to call a “booth babe” in Comdex days – someone hired to stand in the booth or on the stage who has little knowledge of the product or connection to the company. Calling it a “meltdown”, as Business Insider did, isn’t accurate. I’d be happy to demonstrate what a meltdown looks like if they want to Skype me.

The teleprompter went out. That happens. Even though the Samsung Exec onstage was trying to help, Michael couldn’t continue and left the stage. The “smattering” of applause is painful.

We all face these challenges from time to time. I’ve had projector bulbs blow out, cables fail after being tested and no projector at all, even though one was specified*. You simply have to be ready for things to go wrong.

  • Take an improv class. I certainly recommend the organizations in the ComedySportz family, and there are other good ones as well. Improv teaches you flexibility, to respond to the unexpected, to be inspired by events as they occur and to connect with your audience in the moment as it is. You learn that perfection is a myth. You also learn that mistakes are opportunities instead of death sentences.
  • Limit yourself to doing events that emotionally connect with you, your life and your values. If something goes wrong, you can feel what needs to happen.
  • Understand the selling point of the event. Do your homework. Have some talking points ready.
  • Have a sidekick ready. Sales teams are more effective than lone wolves. Michael didn’t recognize that the other person onstage was there to help him.
  • Make the other person look good. Whether it’s the tech team, your co-presenter or your audience, don’t throw anyone under the bus. Make them look like heroes for sticking with you.
  • Tell your stories. Whether to kill time until technology gets fixed or to connect with the audience, your stories matter, as long as they are real, a little bit self-deprecating and most of all, told with heart.

A little improvisational training could have prepared Michael Bay and made him a hero. He got hired for something he wasn’t passionate about, and he clearly did not prepare. Everybody lost. It must have been painful to be in the room. Audiences want you to succeed, and they take it pretty hard when you give up.

I personally know hundreds of talented improvisors who would have seized that technological failure as a huge opportunity. I’ve led Applied Improvisation Training for hundreds of companies and thousands of people who, with what they learned in the few hours we spent together, would have stayed on that stage and sold that product hard.

I’ll see you in Improv Class or at an Applied Improvisation Workshop.

* If someone forgets to provide a projector, you can pretend that one is there and talk about your “slides” anyway – I learned that as a joke at an AIN Conference but actually used it with a paying client audience a few months later. They thought it was hilarious and even asked questions about my “bullet points”.

Patrick Short will be the MC at an event in February, for 270 people from 60 companies, and he can’t wait for something unexpected to happen.

Yay for Microsoft and Boo for Yahoo!

Huffington Post posted an interesting item in their Tech blog on November 13. Read it here and then come back and talk. We’ll wait.

After years of grading employees on a Bell Curve and dumping those at the bottom, Microsoft figured out that they were destroying collaboration, trust and teamwork. High performers didn’t want to be on the same team as other high performers, because they would be graded against them.

I am amazed that a company as “smart” as Microsoft would ever fall for such a concept, but I’m delighted that they are dumping it now.

And now Yahoo! starts it up:

“CEO Marissa Mayer had recently begun implementing this exact strategy at Yahoo. AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher reported that Mayer asked managers to rank their workers on a curve, and more than 600 people have been fired in the past few weeks.”

Nothing says caring, justice and employee engagement like grading people on a curve.

Employees are not “assets”. They are people. Giving people opportunity for advancement is one of the top things they crave in work. Helping people improve and adjust is hard work, though, so some companies, whose CEOs are so far removed from real work that their people become numbers, opt for the easy grading system – and they let other people do the firing too, I’m sure.

Employee engagement is real, hard work, and it can be fun, too. It’s easily the best way to create an atmosphere where collaboration, trust and excellence bloom.

If you’re not sure how to get there, talk to me. I know how to get it started, and I know people who can help.

Patrick Short is currently re-learning the art of middle management as music director in the da Vinci Arts Middle School production of I Ain’t Got No Home, written and directed by his wife, Ruth Jenkins. This week, he taught a workshop for Siren Nation. Next week, he’ll work with an architecture firm on integrating their 18 new employees into the firm of 44 people.


Frames for Improvisation Training

You can live, you can get along, or you can thrive. You can create or destroy. You can learn in different ways. You can command or connect.

These are true about people, and they’re also true about companies.

As a member of the Applied Improvisation Network, I’ve attended conferences for the past few years to exchange ideas, gather new exercises, get inspired by people from 30 countries doing this work and to develop stronger and more meaningful frames for our work. I’ve always been good at fitting improvisation to a goal, or set of goals, on a departmental level for our clients. When asked what my long-range hopes for improvisation are, I’d usually say, “Two things: World Peace and an end to the phrase, “It’s Not My Job.”

In Berlin this year, I found a number of very powerful frames.

One of them comes from Montreal; Michelle Holiday and the always delightful Belina Raffy presented a workshop on Thrivability, and they are proposing a series of events beginning in 2014 to explore the concept around the globe.

The frame is simple. Life itself is improvisational. Michelle talked about it in a 2012 blog post:

“Improvisation is the way life works.  

Here’s what I mean.  Living systems (like plants and people and companies) appear to be static things, but in fact, it’s more accurate to think of them as pattern and process.  They create themselves continuously through ongoing interaction with their environment.  And their environment is constantly throwing new, unpredictable things at them.  So what do they do?  They respond creatively and collaboratively to unexpected circumstances.  This is how all the parts of your body manage to maintain homeostasis (and you!), for example, even as you spring sudden changes of temperature, strange new foods and weird chemicals on them.  They improvise.”

The way we’ve arranged and run organizations has moved us away from the skills we naturally possess, and like anything else, without practice, we lose our ability. Improvisation can bring those skills back. It truly is about world peace, or at least saving the world. Read Michelle’s full blog post here.

Brent Darnell compared improvisation to Medina’s Brain Rules. I will explore this more in future posts, but it’s a mind-blowing frame. Improvisation is connected to virtually every way we learn.

Gijs van Bilson, Joost Kadijk and Cyriel Kortleven talked about corporate culture and multiculturalism, putting a whole new frame on improvisation and “getting to know each other better” requests from our clients. Organizations can destroy other cultures, equalize everyone (nobody is different) or create using cultural differences.

Alike van der Wilke and Henk van der Steen framed the old ways of companies – the “Anglo Saxon Way” in comparison to what’s happening now – the “Rheinland Way”:

Command, Control and Communication is being replaced by Connection, Craftsmanship and Trust.

In three short days, I was gifted with frames for applied improvisation in the following ways:

Improvisation is about life itself and how we thrive.

Improvisation is about how we learn.

Improvisation can help us create with our cultures, instead of destroy with them.

Improvisation is about how we organize.

We need improvisation training for what lies ahead. AIN President Paul Z Jackson says we need improvisation “to engage more fully in the present, and to prepare for an unknowable future.”* Yes, that is yet another frame.

We can get rid of the phrase, “It’s not my job.” Can world peace be far behind?

Heroic Improv: Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz

Alert – Accept – Focus – Move

Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz brings improv to disaster preparedness with Heroic Improv, a method found in her upcoming book and workshop series.

Things happen fast during a disaster and that means officials must respond even faster. Traditionally, emergency professionals relied on “playbooks” to inform their choices. These scripts provide step-by-step instructions on how to respond to a variety of scenarios from chemical accidents to nuclear bombs. The problem: “Disasters are dynamic, not linear,” according to Mary Tyszkiewicz, PhD. Knowing catastrophes rarely play out neatly she has devised a solution: Heroic Improv. This technique uses improvisation to both train responders and respond to situations.

Tyszkiewicz, who holds a PhD in public administration and studies American Emergency Management, tried improv over 20 years ago and found it frustrating. “My analytic mind wanted to make the ‘perfect’ choice so I mostly ended up frozen in place,” she says. “It wasn’t much fun so I gave it up.” Yet she remained curious. Inspired by her mother, who participates in community theater, Tyszkiewicz gave improv a second try. Not only did she find herself enjoying it more, she realized its worth in training the gamut of emergency responders, from private citizens to professional responders to elected officials.

“The beginnings of a catastrophe are chaotic,” she says. “There’s a lot of confusion and one lone person cannot make a difference alone. To best respond to a crisis decisions must be made as a group.” Tyszkiewicz saw the parallel to theater improv immediately. “Theater improv in a group is closely related to catastrophic decision making. At first there is chaos, people are scrambling until they form a team that connects, chooses, and ultimately acts.”

The skills that make an effective improv team – flexibility, speed and creativity in the moment – are the same skills that Tyszkiewicz hopes to hone in emergency responder teams. And the best way to do that is face-to-face practice with all of the stakeholders. While professional emergency responders practice this decision making process all of the time, they are only part of the equation. Elected officials and private citizens are vital parts of the team, yet they hardly ever run though simulations. This makes initial group decisions harder. “Often an elected official’s first time learning about disaster response is during that first disaster when they are in charge,” laments Tyszkiewicz.

Heroic Improv promises to change that scenario. Starting with simple improv games, (yes, that means Zip Zap Zop) and moving to more and more structured exercises, Tyszkiewicz’s method would eventually simulate the chaos of an actual disaster where all of the stakeholders, from elected officials to professional responders to private citizens, could try out their plans. “It is important to get everyone together for the exercises,” she insists, “not proxies or subs but the actual decision makers.”

Tyszkiewicz bases her workshops on four concepts: alert, accept, focus and move. Alert is recognizing that there is a situation and using all the senses to take in what is happening. Accept means accepting the chaos of the situation, accepting the people who make up a team and trusting that team immediately. “Trust usually takes time to build, but in a crisis time is one thing you don’t have,” she says. “In this case trust is not earned, it’s given.”

Next is Focus, where the team decides where they will put their energy and expertise. It’s during this phase that a leader usually emerges; someone with a strong and specific skill that the other stakeholders can support. Finally the team Moves, making decisions and enacting plans. “As the team moves they should ask themselves, ‘if this is true, what else is true?’ just like in an improv scene,” says Tyszkiewicz quoting part of Occam’s razor. “The answer should guide them to the next step and the pattern will repeat.” As the team goes through the concepts over and over, new leaders will emerge based on circumstance and skillsets.

Tyszkiewicz tested the Heroic Improv concept while observing a group of youth volunteers during Hurricane Sandy last year. She tells of the youth being stationed on hard-hit Staten Island, at a section with no power. “Verizon wanted to help so they sent a trailer equipped with computers, lights and power. They set it up and walked away,” she reports.

The youth volunteers quickly mobilized to take advantage of this resource. “The volunteers knew how to navigate the FEMA application process on the internet so when survivors showed up they initiated that service for them,” she says. Eventually the trailer morphed into a donation center and the same youth volunteers took charge of organizing those resources as well. “None of this was written in the playbook, the youth volunteers improvised all of their actions. The reason it went so smoothly is because they trained as a group before the incident and were willing to improvise to respond to survivor needs.”

With disasters, both natural and man-made, a reality of life, preparedness remains key. And with plenty of examples of mismanaged efforts (read: Hurricane Katrina), now is the time for professionals, elected officials and private citizens to up their game. Will improv training lend the edge we need? “It is a powerful technique to train in as a group,” says Tyszkiewicz. “It allows everybody to explore a space outside of their ordinary lives and really understand what group action in chaos is like.” And it allows people to become the heroes we all need.

Dr. Tyszkiewicz presented at the AIN World Conference in 2012. See her presentation here.

Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz was interviewed on August 29, 2013, by Patrick Short and Amy Milshtein of CSz-Portland. The article is by Amy Milshtein.


The Improvisational Response to Disasters

The recent flash floods in the Front Range of Colorado bring several thoughts to mind.

First, our thoughts and prayers go out to those who have lost or missing loved ones, and those whose homes and favorite places have been damaged. One flood seems like quite enough, yet the rains keep coming and streams like Boulder Creek, Four-Mile Creek, the St Vrain River, Big Thompson River and others keep roaring down toward towns, homes and businesses.


The above image shows Highway 36, just north of Lyons. Yes, that’s the main highway between Boulder and Estes Park.


Above is Highway 7, about 12 miles west of Lyons, up the canyon toward the Peak to Peak Highway.

Our family enjoyed a reunion week this past summer in Lyons. We stayed at the Stone Mountain Lodge just past Lyons, enjoyed hiking up along the Peak to Peak Highway and even rafted on the gentle St Vrain River. Today, Lyons is cut off from the world. No electricity, no water (the city supply was overrun and breached) and no passable roads in or out. I’ve seen these beautiful places minus the water, and my heart goes out to those affected.

How does a town / county / state / nation respond to a disaster of this kind?

Of course, there’s planning. Maybe even preparedness drills. But what if the assumptions all change?

  • a 100-year flood event
  • part of the deluge hits areas that burned in the last three years, so there’s a greater tendency for landslides
  • the rain keeps coming after the first wave of flooding
  • roads cut off – and we’re not talking about places where you can “go around the other block”
  • helicopters can’t fly in the continued bad weather
  • many of the mountain residents are completely out of reach; some stay out of reach in normal times

What skills would allow for teams to adapt to unexpected circumstances?

Yes. Improvisation skills, applied to emergency response. (You probably knew that was coming.)

It’s not possible to adequately respond to disasters with pure improvisation. Life is far to complex for that. (Just think about all of the different pieces of our infrastructure that must be accounted for.) But once the plans are in place, and a disaster occurs, the actions the teams take must have elements of improvisation to succeed. You can’t apply an evacuation plan with helicopters if the helicopters can’t fly. Even more important, how do you get disparate teams to work together under that kind of pressure?

Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz has explored the links between improvisation and disaster response. She calls it Heroic Improv, and we’ll introduce you to her in a blog post very soon.

Patrick Short fell off of his inner tube in 4 feet of water on St Vrain River in July. That was on a rapid with a difficulty rating of maybe .25.

Company Culture

Your company culture is not just fun and games.

Lots of people, including us, are talking a LOT about “corporate culture” these days.

Without understanding some basic things, it can get twisted into something dangerous, and possibly outright wrong. Is “fitting in” to company culture important? Or does “fitting in” become its own culture?

This Bloomberg article, for example, talks about companies who are interviewing and hiring based on concepts that are beyond the qualifications of the candidates. The focus of these HR groups, aside from trying too hard to be cool and hip (“Star Wars vs Star Trek”) seems to be weighted toward a “will they fit in?” bias. And that can absolutely lead to real bias. Highly skilled interviewers can certainly get a feel for how a candidate might fit in, but poorly-skilled interviewers – and teams who get to interview candidates, can easily fall back on racial, gender and cultural stereotypes to make decisions.

In our own company, we have enjoyed the luxury of promoting people to our professional team from our Farm Team, a “minor-league” team of people in our classes. This means we’ve never had to have an audition to “cast” people for our mainstage shows. (Some CSz groups do have auditions; the situation and need varies from city to city.)

Unlike some of the companies in the Bloomberg article, we are looking for people who bring something to the team that we don’t already have – it could be skills and talents or it could be more diversity or it could be both. The Farm Team gives us the time and opportunity to truly understand what a candidate is offering; we also get to see if they show up on time, commit to the long term, smell good and play well with others. We don’t require that they are just like the other members of the team, but a demonstrated capacity to live our values is critically important. This sometimes brings us nice people who are, perhaps, slightly less talented than other people out there. Our company has the ability to train the talent. We can’t necessarily make better people. We’ll err on the side of choosing good people and trusting that our team will bring out and/or enhance their talents.

Yes, we still want people who will “fit in”. We also want people who will change us, challenge us and make us better. We just want them to show up on time, support their teammates, use personal hygiene and understand the long game – the mission. Most of all, we want people who will live and communicate our company’s values.

Blogger and Moz co-founder Rand Fishkin got it just about right: company culture is not whether you have beer blasts or Nerf-gun fights at work: it’s about values.

“Your company’s culture is three big things:

  1. Your values – those you state with words and those you exhibit through your actions
  2. Your mission & vision – the goal you’re driving toward and the force behind that goal
  3. Your hiring, firing, and promotion criteria – the reasons you bring people onto the team, the reasons you let them go, and the reasons you promote/reward them”

The improvisation mind-set helps support these cultural attributes in many ways.

  • We help surface values and their attributes
  • We teach skills that allow people to understand their co-workers
  • We teach skills that make people better co-workers
  • Through jolts, we help people find connections with each other
  • Through jolts, we help people realize the effects of their actions
  • We show the power of a culture of celebrating victories
  • We empower leaders with new skills and outlooks
  • We help people realize that “it’s not about me”
  • We help people find fun in their work
  • We create a “we can always be better” mindset

Zip-lining and bowling with your co-workers can be fun. Applied Improvisation workshops can be even more fun and create lasting value in supporting your company culture.

We have to live our own values and culture before we can help with yours. And we do that, to the best of our abilities. We truly believe in what we do, and that it can make your company better.

Your company culture is more than fun and games.

Boomers vs Millennials

Yes, different generations have different working styles.

Nothing like a good set of stereotypes to build walls in companies, is there?

A recent AP article by Matt Sedensky focuses on “training” by “experts” that bridges the gap all the way from the “Silent Generation” to the latest unnamed, and as yet, un-pigeon-holed generation.

Employees are taught about the characteristics that define each generation, from their core values to their childhood and adolescent experiences to the type of figures they regard as heroes. Then workshop leaders typically drill down into how those attributes play into the strengths and weaknesses each age group offers on the job.

Read the article. Look at the picture.

Nothing breaks down barriers like sitting in a classroom behind tables set in rows while someone lectures you on stereotypes. (This was sarcasm.)

Maybe we should try experiential learning that shows you who the actual people you work with are, what they care about and how they communicate best. We call it Applied Improvisation.

Improvisation brings a mindset that everyone can use, from the “Silent Generation” to teens – even pre-teens.

We need to be learning new tools, and learning about the people we work with, not the generalizations that someone drilled out of research or popular culture. Let’s go!


Patrick Short thinks his 94 year-old mother is part of the “Greatest Generation”, because there is no way she’s part of a “Silent Generation”.


Improv Connects to Social Media for Companies

As more and more people become aware that improvisation has something to bring to companies, the questions start to get more specific.

How do we apply this stuff? How do we justify spending money on improvisation training?

Previous posts have explored:

Now, a blog piece from social marketer Kelly Jo Horton ties improvisational skills to how companies manage their social media – image, customer service and more.

You need people who live to find ways to collect, segment and report on data. You obviously need good storytellers. And you need that “secret sauce” that can’t be taught in a college course but comes from life experience and maybe, just maybe, taking an improv class.

Kelly sums it up with these bullet points:

  • Say. “Yes, and…”
  • Listen to your audience
  • Improv is a 2-way conversation
  • Improv artists fail 20% of the time
  • You are never in complete control

She also gives our organization a nice shout out. Much appreciated. She learned well, and in turn, is teaching people well.

One more thing: to effectively implement the improvisational mindset, you do not have to be a public-performance level improv “artist”. Anyone can think this way – they just need the door opened for them.

Improvisation plays an important role in corporate social media. Read Kelly’s blog piece here.

Patrick Short taught the ComedySportz 101 class that Kelly Jo Horton took 10 years ago. His next class kicks off September 9th, 2013. Many other CSz players have taught her since then in our Farm Team classes. CSz is in 24 cities, and we can find a space for you, too. Find a ComedySportz City near you. Tweet us @comedysportzPDX.

The Sounds of Silence

This is a very difficult concept for some people, and I am well aware that it applies to me.

Sometimes, we just have to stop talking and let other people teach us what we need to know.

At some point in their careers, stage improvisors have usually experienced the sense of panic and doom when there is silence in a scene, and silence in the audience. We’re taught to embrace the silence, but achieving that level of calm takes time – and agreement from the rest of your team.

Of course there’s a connection to business!

Drake Baer writes in Fast Company that if you want to get ahead, you have to stop and listen.

“This is also something you learn in journalism school: that during an interview you don’t need to fill the space with your questions. If a source finishes her sentence, but doesn’t answer your question, you can let the silence hang–and the elaboration will (most likely) follow.” What works for journalists also works in sales.

We most often associate salespeople with fast-talking, manipulative methods. That’s why most salespeople drive us nuts. The best salespeople listen, both to hear what the customer really wants and how they want it sold to them. If you are patient, your customer will help you by elaborating. Being a good, focused listener also helps the client realize that they are in a partnership.

An exercise we use in our Applied Improvisation training, called First Letter, Last Letter, has participants in a dialogue where the first word anyone can use starts with the same letter as the last letter of the last word their partner used. In addition to finding out who struggles with spelling (not important) and who likes to make life difficult for their partner by constantly ending in the same letter or using x a lot (which could be a more important insight), participants are pushed by the game format into listening all the way to the end of their partners’ statements. Instead of deciding on a response and waiting to speak, the partners listen with intensity and focus – and hear things they would have otherwise missed. During our debrief of the exercise, I’ve frequently heard people say, “I really felt listened to!”

And while a source for Baer’s article says that ” ‘You learn nothing by saying something,’ since, by definition, you already know what you’re going to say.” I don’t think that’s entirely true. Many people solidify what they know, place things in memory and test theories by telling them to others. That’s absolutely the way my storytelling family works. Don’t immediately judge those who talk a lot – they may just be learning with you.

Respect that. Listen. Be a good partner.

Here is the article from Fast Company.

Patrick Short is one of those people who learns by talking, but he also learned to stay as quiet as possible on sales calls and maintains a pretty good closing ratio.

Whose Job is it Anyway?

“Nobody told me.”

Hearing that phrase from an employee or associate can be a little hard on a person. When your company communicates in meetings, via e-mail, in forums, on a website and in other materials, it’s a little disheartening to know that the resources weren’t used.

When talking about employee engagement, most thought leaders focus on management’s responsibility.  What does management need to do to increase employee commitment and excitement?

  • Clear vision, mission and strategy
  • Communication
  • A chance for employees to make progress
  • Pleasant work atmosphere
  • Interesting work and challenges
  • A sense of team
  • Participation in the outcome

You can do all of those things in your company – make all of them available to your people, and still not get to where you need to be.

Your people need to do some of the wagon-pulling to get to a state of employee engagement.

Kevin Kruse, author of Employee Engagement for Everyone: 4 Keys to Happiness and Fulfillment at Work, blogs that a great deal of the responsibility for employee engagement falls on the employee side. Employees need to:

  • Partner with their bosses
  • Identify and focus on areas that matter to them most
  • Be mindful of what their companies are already doing to communicate and drive engagement

And here comes the sales pitch.

Applied Improvisation training can support all three of those employee-side drivers. Our training humanizes participants, allowing them to become more than job descriptions to each other. We lead them to discoveries about each others’ skills and interests – even to their own skills and interests. Every well-executed AI training increases mindfulness – of our effects on others, on how we communicate, on how we listen and how we relate. Once people have fun together, it’s hard to use the phrase, “It’s not my job.” Our training makes engagement more likely.

“Everyone should have “driving positive engagement” as part of their job description.”

Here is Kevin’s blog piece.


Patrick Short is not a sole practitioner. His company, CSz-Portland has over 40 part-time employees; people get paid – in an industry (improv performance) where that’s rare. Half of our founding members from 1993 are still with the team – that’s astounding. He also coaches U-14 girls soccer. On the LSC Roaring Lions, player engagement is definitely a partnership – and our winning record over the last few years shows how well Applied Improvisation training works.