What I learned about facilitating by doing stand-up comedy


July 16th, 2018

Earlier this year I co-hosted an experimental event called Radical Acts. The premise being that we need to do things differently – maybe not big things, sometimes the smallest of acts can make a huge difference. For many people attending Radical Acts was just that – a radical act of stepping into an experimental event, experiencing applied improvisation, and learning from each other in an unconventional way.

Being a host of Radical Acts got me thinking about what would be a radical act for me. And I think it’s an important question for those of us inviting others to step into the unknown, whether that be learning something completely new or putting their faith in us as facilitators. What does that feel like?

I’ve known Belina Raffy, the Big Kahuna of Sustainable Stand-Up for many years – we met at applied improvisation conferences and our paths have crossed around sustainability. Belina hosts Sustainable Stand-Up courses around the world – ‘helping important ideas become human, engaging, and deeply funny’. When a Melbourne course came up I thought I’d give it a go. To be honest, the main criteria for me putting my hand up were that the dates worked – I could do the on-line sessions, and I’d be available to travel to Melbourne for the face-to-face training and ultimately, the performance.

I’ve not done stand-up before. Like most of the people who sign up for Sustainable Stand-Up, I was a novice. I was surprised that a few people had come back for a second go. That’s promising, I thought – they want to do it again. How hard can it be?

I came very close to dropping out. A confluence of last-minute work, end-of-financial year administrivia, and yes, I have to admit, nerves, made me think it would be easier to just give up. What kept me going? Stubbornness (what, moi, stubborn?!) – I’d signed up so I should see it through; curiosity – I was genuinely curious about how I’d perform; and recognising that what I was going through – being a complete beginner at something – was a useful insight for when I’m asking others to step into the unknown and do something that is unfamiliar to them.

I struggled to write jokes, I struggled to be funny, I struggled to identify with being a comedian. That last-minute work was a godsend, it reminded me that humour is emergent. I’d spoken with my friend Izzy Gesell – someone who has written books on humour – and his advice was to notice stuff. I could do that, I thought. But I couldn’t find anything funny. I seemed to be looking in the wrong places, until I realised it was right there in front of me: facilitation.

Here’s what I learnt about facilitating from doing stand-up about facilitation (how meta is that?):

Cut the small stuff

Preparing a stand-up set is a lot about what is left out, paring back to the essentials, and then some. Facilitators can become attached to our processes and may be loathe to let go of that great activity, even though it will no longer serve the needs of the group. It’s what we don’t do that can be as important as what we do. That can be tough because clients employ us to do stuff, not to not do stuff. It might be what we don’t do that is the difference between being a good facilitator and a great facilitator.

Timing is everything

Say something one way and it’s not funny, say it with pauses, and it’s hilarious. It’s not the words, it’s the pauses that matter. As with facilitating, the spaces in between are as important as the content and the activities.

Perseverance matters – or does it?

How do you know when to call it quits? We humans are prone to the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ believing that we’ve put in so much time, effort or resources that we need to keep going. Knowing when to quit, and knowing when to keep going, is one of those intangible skills that facilitators develop over time.

You need to be creating new material all the time

By the time we reached the night of our performance all of us in the class had heard each other’s set multiple times – and it was no longer funny. That’s not really true, they were all funny, but not to us so much. Familiarity breeds, not contempt, but, well, familiarity. What we’ve heard and done before sometimes loses its capacity to surprise and delight.

Consider your material a playlist

Musicians use a playlist to determine the flow of their performance and to remind them of what they could do. Actually, I don’t know if this is true or not, because I’m not a musician, but it sounds good. And it’s what we do with a stand-up set, determine the flow of the piece, and if we leave something out, no-one will know unless we tell them. Did I mention that great line I forgot to say? You don’t have to use everything, do everything – remember cut the small stuff.

You can’t rehearse

Okay, yes you can rehearse, and you definitely should. It’s not the same as performing though. David Whyte talks about performing ‘half a shade braver’. Standing in front of a paying audience, as a comedian, or as a facilitator, is a performance. And being able to perform under stress is another intangible skill we need as a facilitator. Putting yourself into stressful performance situations aka stand-up helps build the performance muscle.

Nerves are a consequence of vulnerability and obligation

I can’t remember the last time I was so nervous. I can pinpoint the actual moment the nerves kicked in. It was the night before when I learned that I would be the opening act. From that moment everything started to unravel, and it was definitely too late to pull out. I had to use all of my skills (mostly skills I had learnt from improvisational theatre: commit, put down your clever, let go, and make your partner – the audience – look good) to tame those nerves to a manageable level. Those nerves were the greatest lesson of all about what it means to be a beginner again, to recognise that vulnerability and obligation can be uncomfortable at best, debilitating at worst.

Be radical

My radical act of performing stand-up was ultimately great fun. It was not without its challenges. Those of us in the class built a camaraderie around our shared experience. We were ably supported by Belina and Tejopala Rawls, local co-leader of the course.

Pablo Picasso said it well: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn to do it.”

There’s more about Sustainable Stand-Up here and you can watch my set here.

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