Facilitation tips for improvisers

September 27th, 2012

One of the ongoing themes around applied improvisation is the use of language, and recognising that improvisation has its own jargon. This jargon may sometimes be unhelpful when introducing people to the principles and practices of improvisation. I’m forever grateful to friends such as Izzy Gesell, and Simo Routarinne who helped school me in the jargon and language of improv.

There’s also jargon around facilitation. One of my big insights at this year’s Applied Improvisation Network Conference in San Francisco was about how to explain some facilitation concepts to improvisers, especially those who are mainly theatre improvisers, and maybe unaware of some of the traps of taking what works well on the theatre stage onto the corporate or conference stage.

I have learnt a lot about facilitating from performers – about being present, about noticing, accepting offers, about staging, about emotional movement, about pace and timing, about status (oh yes, status) and owning the ‘stage’.

Here’s what I can offer performers about facilitating.

Play with new formats

I love going to improv shows where a new format is being tried. I can imagine the buzz of creating a new format using the constraints of the theatre, and of performance. I can also imagine it could become boring doing the same format over and over (even when the content is improvised!) The same is true of facilitating. Play with formats, try out new approaches, remembering the constraints of the form. You’ll stay engaged and your audience will love you for it. In particular, try breaking out of the ‘sage on the stage’ format. Try sitting in a circle; try using the whole space, allocating different parts for different processes; use a walk and talk format; use the walls; use the floors; use your imagination. See the constraints – the room’s not quite right, the number of people is too large, the amount of time is not enough – as an offer. Accept, and move forward.

Learn about the bones of facilitation

To be able to break the rules, you first need to know the rules. There’s an underlying architecture to different performance types, just as there’s an underlying architecture to facilitation approaches. If you go to improv classes to learn or hone your improv skills, also consider facilitation classes to hone your facilitation skills. The combo is pretty irrisistable, and the skills are so complementary. For example, you can learn the skills of giving instructions to a group, of asking debrief questions, the role of intention in selecting activities, how to traverse the ‘groan zone’ and how to make the best use of your improvisational skills.

Status is your best friend

Trust me on this one, most facilitators know nothing of status. Bringing a deep understanding of status from improvisation to facilitation is probably your greatest advantage. You can use status in facilitating to establish authority with a group, to build relationships, to diffuse status attacks, to encourage participants to do things they would not normally want to do, and to get out of all sorts of sticky situations. For example, I will often use high status body and voice early on in a workshop, and when I want people to do an activity switch to low status body language combined with high status voice. Seems to work every time!

Let them do the work

On the stage, you’re doing all the work. After all, the audience are there to see you perform, they want their money’s worth. This is the biggest trap for facilitators – doing all the work on behalf of the group. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn. When facilitating, it’s important not to be the centre of attention. In improv terms, you are the chorus for the main players – the participants. You might kick things off by giving some instructions, by having an overall arc of experience designed for the participants, but they are in charge of what happens. They will create their own ‘show’.

And remember it’s theatre, but not in the theatre

Facilitating is performance. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have stumbled into improvisation and discovered the principles and practices that now are integral to my approach to facilitating. There are so many gems to bring out of the theatre context and share with the world – especially around staging, design, participant experience, and being changed by the experience. A trip to the theatre, attending a facilitated event – both are a diversion, not business as usual. We can use what we know about the experience of the theatre to enhance the experience of a conference or event.

Why this matters

Coming together is highly valued. We can stay connected, build relationships, plan how we will change the world, hear and read what people think, through our devices. Yet it’s still not the same as being physically present with others. There is something about being in the same time and space that creates a different sort of magic. We can combine our skills in improvisation and facilitation to create that magic.

Your turn. What facilitation tips would you suggest for improvisers?

4 Comments so far

  1. Teresa Norton on October 1, 2012 9:14 am

    Wonderful piece, Viv. I would add that as a professional actress/theatre director who began applying theatre-based approaches to communications training and coaching, facilitation was a fascinating and strange new world for me.

    The concept of not ‘directing’ the group to an outcome, but rather being responsible for providing the process and focus, was challenging.

    I was trained by a pair of exemplary pair of facilitators in John and Ann Epps who were purists and helped me understand the oft overlooked differences between running a brainstorm, for example, as a consultant vs trainer vs facilitator.

    When I think of how the lessons I learned from them can be applied to improv, these are a few things that come to mind:

    – Your job is to draw the best thinking out of the group – not pushing your agenda. You should arrive agenda free other than to help the group be successful in reaching their goal.

    – Leave your ego at the door . Facilitation is not about YOU it’s about the group

    – Step up and contribute when you are needed. Don’t ‘wimp out’ if the group is getting off track – your job is to help keep things focused

    – Listen to what is being contributed and honour the contributions made by members of the group, being careful not to ‘load’ what is said with your own stuff. What they have said is valid and it is your job to be sure it (and they) are valued.

    – Watch out for ‘blocking’. If you observe somebody’s suggestion being discounted/disrespected by a member of the group, make an effort to reincorporate/reintroduce/recapturing that idea so that all voices get heard and valued. This sometimes means tossing the ball back to the the person who made the initial suggestion or that you ensure it is captured when scribing.

    – You need to learn to be okay with the unexpected and this comes with practice. We humans like to feel we are in control of outcomes. As a facilitator (as opposed to a trainer or consultant) the content of the output of your session is a mystery that unfolds in the moment. Be gentle with yourself if this feels difficult at first. Being able to navigate a group through uncharted waters (especially when they are the ones creating waves!) is a skill not a gift. You can learn this!

    – Make time to reflect after a performance. Facilitation, like improvisation happens in real time – there is no rehearsal. When I worked as a theatre director and actress, the rehearsal period was where the director gave notes to the actors on where they need to make adjustments or to let them know what is working well. When facilitating the opportunity for learning and adjusting your performance can only happen either in the moment during performance or after the session is over. Make some quiet time after the fact to identify what worked well and note what you might do differently in similar circumstances next time.

    – Talk less. This was a big lesson for me when I learned facilitation. Avoid monologues. The more succinct and clear your contribution the easier it is for the group to be successful.

    – Get over it. While building rapport is important, your job is not to be ‘most popular’. If you find yourself amongst an unreceptive/hostile group (and that happens rarely in both worlds but it does happen. In improv it may be a nasty audience or it could be an established troupe who find it difficult to work with newcomers) don’t let it demoralise you. Do what you can to contribute effectively and don’t take it personally if you aren’t a good fit with the group. Keep your chin up and know that you and the group will both find someone who is a better fit down the road.

    What a great exercise this was for me, Viv! Helped me brush up on my facilitation learning of many years ago. Wonderful seeing you at the conference last week and looking forward to our paths crossing again sometime soon!


  2. Viv McWaters on October 2, 2012 10:50 am

    Thanks Teresa. What a wonderful gift to have you bring your experiences from the stage and facilitation. I think there is such a rich crossover between the worlds of the theatre and facilitation. I too learnt my early facilitation skills from colleagues of Ann and John Epps. I am forever grateful for that robust beginning and for the colour and nuance provided from learning from improvisers.

  3. Jonathan Hughes on October 2, 2012 10:00 pm

    Thank you Viv for pointing to this thread – to your thoughts and Teresa’s.

    I see I have a lot to learn. (No surprise there then!)

    I have stumbled into this world through another door from the two of you.

    My background – in one way – is as a Copywriter. A words & ideas guy who has moved through the worlds of advertising, branding and design.

    Over the last few years, I have gravitated towards facilitation and improv. (My degree was actually English & Drama.) As a volunteer with the Be The Change Initiative – I have led symposiums and designed and led three-day residential trainings – and through Belina, came across AIN.

    And – though I call myself a Facilitator (among other things) – I really feel I have some basics to learn.

    Many of those are on this thread.

    The ones around ‘status’ seem particularly key.

    Also – the point about not ‘loading’ things with my own views jumped out. As did the point about avoiding monologues, staying crisp, & not overly steering, & suppressing egoistic tendencies. These seem to all relate to one another.

    I also see that I had never thought about the different hats – as trainer/ consultant/ facilitator. So thank you for that, Teresa.

    To clients/participants – I sense a brainstorm is a brainstorm. So – I wonder about what the different framings would be. So that what’s delivered matches what’s expected. (As far as is feasible.)

    I sense that sometimes (perhaps with a trainer or consultant) – there IS a promised outcome.

    Whereas with a facilitator – it is much more about supporting insights to emerge – and there’s less of an attachment to an outcome.

    In both cases – I sense there is still a need to have a clarity about the purpose & the process.

    (Knowing the shape of the form – its architecture – feels key. Thanks for that, Viv. And I now hear myself wondering what the primary forms ARE.! ?)

    I was sorry not to make it to the SF event. (Esp with it being called Be The Change!)

    I see my new focus is around creativity. In three ways. (1)Building creative solutions. (2) Supporting others to connect with their creativity. (3) Helping to create creative spaces.

    I am now left with some questions about what ‘hats’ that requires me to wear.

    AND – to stay light – and to trust.

    While I don’t know what I don’t know (obviously!), I do feel a pull to help co-create playful and open learning environments.

    I do feel the business world is crying out for that. For some games (and other ways) that open a doorway to somewhere other than ‘business as usual’.

    Also – I feel drawn to partner with those who bring different skillsets to the table – so there is a shared learning. And greater learning for the participants.

    Excuse the amount of ‘me’ stuff in this thread. It felt right to give my thoughts a context.

    Big thanks to the pair of you for sharing what you have.

    Really VERY supportive and eye-opening, and shines some new light on the world that I feel like I am just entering. (Having played around the edges for some years.)

    Big hearty thanks


  4. Viv McWaters on October 3, 2012 4:32 pm

    Hi Jonathan, Thanks for chiming in. I think it’s good to remember that just about everyone who ends up facilitating comes to it from somewhere else, like in your case copywriting and advertising, or in my case journalism and communications.

    For years now I’ve been dancing around this whole intersection between the theatre, improvisation and facilitating. I’ve done LOTS of training in facilitation (and lots of facilitating), not so much improvising. So my attention has been focused on learning as much as possible about improvisation and applying that to my facilitation. It’s come as a bit of a revelation that the opposite might be true for some (not all) improvisers – and there might well be some fundamentals about facilitating worth sharing.

    BTW, I’ll be in London in early November. Maybe we can catch up? 9assuming you are in London?)

    Cheers, Viv

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