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.

Games connect

April 28th, 2017

Ghost-MongoliaOn our recent trip to Mongolia, in winter, I knew we’d be spending a lot of time indoors, with host families and with each other. It seemed like a good idea to take some table-top games to play. I chose games that did not require any understanding of English: Ghost Blitz and Skip-Bo

Both games were a great hit. It seems easy to forget the power of games to connect.

We learnt games from our Mongolian hosts too – mainly games using sheep or goat knucklebones, those things we used to call ‘jacks’. DSC01340 (1)A game of pure luck soon became boring; another game combining luck and skill was a lot more engaging, if often frustrating. A third game – Shagai, also known as knuckle-bone shooting – was surprisingly fun to watch. Teams of six to eight flick a token along smooth wooden tool towards the shagai bones, about 10 metres away, while singing traditional melodies and songs.


More recently my friend Lee arrived with the game Pandemic. Pandemic is unusual in the board game genre in that it is a cooperative strategy game. Four of us (including a real live immunologist) played it multiple times. It’s engaging, and addictive – and hard to beat the diseases, but importantly, not impossible.

Fast forward to the last couple of days where we have hosted our Creative Facilitation Master Class on Designing for Aliveness. There’s a lot of games in this workshop – games we play to understand the different mechanics of games and the effect of simple tweaks on the player/participant experience – and games we designed.

Some people tell us that they hate games. They say they don’t play them, and don’t want to play them. That’s a pity, because there’s much to learn from playing games, and from playing with others. Some of the newer games, like Pandemic, can be a revelation. People enjoy them, and learn something.

The Surf Coast Shire’s Fire Game is another example. It’s a game about a very serious topic – being prepared for bushfire risk. IMG_1881

There’s a very popular board game that’s been around since the 1950s called Risk. It’s a strategy game of diplomacy, conflict and conquest. It has simple rules but complex interactions.

That pretty much describes what it’s like for me as a facilitator to play games in workshops. It’s not so much the game of Risk – more the risk of games. One that I’m willing to take.


Imagine if you were the type of leader YOU would want to follow

December 15th, 2016

Fancy three days of fun, engaging learning on a theme of leading creative teams?

Johnnie and I are bringing our Creative Leadership workshop to Melbourne, February 7th to 9th.

Here’s some reflections from those who came to this workshop in Cambridge earlier this year.

Lots more info and bookings here

The two not-so-secret secrets about Creative Facilitation

October 24th, 2016

bringingThere’s no big secret to Creative Facilitation, it comes down to two things: using creative processes that allow people to really participate, and showing up as a facilitator that people feel able to trust.

The hard part is letting go of all those practices that squeeze the life out of meetings. We are social creatures, fundamentally wired for socialising, playing and creating together.  To release energy into our meetings, we need to disrupt some conventions.

We need to have fewer presentations and more conversations.

We need to free people to move around, rather than remaining pinned to their chairs.

We need to give participants autonomy: instead of telling them what to do, we create choices for them about how to participate and collaborate.

We need to create a more level playing field in meetings, a space in which everyone feels able to contribute, so we don’t just get stuck listening to the usual suspects.

We don’t believe in facilitation-as-usual and therefore don’t do training-as-usual. There will be movement, surprise, emotion, engagement and fun. We learn our most powerful lessons from experience, not from lectures. The greatest value in workshops comes from sharing experiences, rather than taking notes from the “sage on the stage”.

If you’d like to learn more, I have a one-day introductory Creative Facilitation workshop in Melbourne on November 18th.

And Johnnie Moore has a two-day workshop in Cambridge – that also covers how to perform as a facilitator – on January 9 and 10.

Best summer ever!

September 15th, 2016

I’ve just had the best summer. Yet it wasn’t summer. Not here. And I wasn’t here. I was there, in the UK, hanging out with my friend and business buddy Johnnie Moore in Cambridge. There’s many reasons that it was a great summer, and one was the fun and connection we had in making a couple of little videos about our work. Our director, Colin Ramsay, is amazing. He’s calm, professional, patient (OMG, so patient!) and loves what he does as much as we love what we do. I think this comes through best in this blooper reel.

There’s so much to learn about ourselves and others through ‘trying stuff out’. As Johnnie says, “There’s a lot of creative energy in failure, if you don’t take it too seriously…Quite a lot of our training work uses rapid, playful failure as way to learn – a much richer experience than giving out right answers.”

Right on!


February 17th, 2016

GobiSanddunesHave you ever been to an event that is talking about being one thing while being something else?

For example, a conference about innovation that uses well-established, mainstream and predictable processes? Or more specifically, focusing on creativity, for example, while sitting in ferried rows listening to an ‘expert’ speaker using poor powerpoint slides? With questions, taken in threes, at the end? Where did that custom of taking questions in threes come from? But I digress.

It’s easy to think about being different, much harder to do. I can think about being fitter, it doesn’t make me fitter. I can think about being creative, it doesn’t make me creative. I’m not advocating not thinking. Heaven forbid, I spend more time in my head than many, I suspect. And inspiring speakers can sometimes inspire us to action. Sometimes.

I was at such an event recently. I started thinking (yes, indeed) how easy it is to slip into talking about being one thing while being something else – to talk about creativity, innovation and change while reinforcing existing norms. Which got me thinking about fractals.

Here’s an explanation of fractals, according to the Fractal Foundation,

“A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Fractal patterns are extremely familiar, since nature is full of fractals. For instance: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc.”

What if our organisations, our communities, our cities, our countries, are also fractal? What if what we do at the smallest scale is representative of what happens at a larger scale? What if we want to transform our company or our community, we start with transforming the way we even talk about that transformation?

What if we started acting our way into a new way of being instead of thinking our way into a new way of being?


Serendipity and discovery

February 1st, 2016

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s hard to get back into work mode after the holidays. It’s tempting to put off the inevitable, but today I had a couple of meetings to go to in Melbourne with some spare time to wander the streets. A bookshop beckoned. There’s not many bookshops around these days, so I was tempted. I never really wanted to be a librarian, as much as I admire their work, but libraries. I could lose myself in a library, making  discoveries. I’d sit on the floor, surrounded by books, lost for hours.

I’ve been tinkering with a taxonomy of improvisation. I thought it would be straightforward. It isn’t. I was thinking about this as I perused the cookbook section of this large bookstore, as I tried to work out how they organised the books. Was it by author, or by cuisine, or by course (entree, main, dessert)? As it turned out, yes. All of the above. It was slightly logical, in a confusing sort of way. I haven’t bought any cookbooks for years – there’s enough already on my shelves and Mr Google is my friend when I need instant inspiration. Nonetheless, I walked out with two books, and it was only through a great deal of restraint that I didn’t walk out with an armful. They are so beautiful to hold, to flip through. There’s always that potential for serendipity and discovery.

When I’m in a new city, or even one I know quite well, like Melbourne, I like to search out street art. The pic accompanying this post is from Lisbon, found in a very obscure, out-of-the way part of this great city. Serendipity and discovery.

Back in my office, I was searching through piles of old notes looking for something. I found myself reminiscing as I’d look at some notes and instantly recall the moment I was taking them – the ICA course I took in Toronto, Canada; the Casuarina Project I was delivering here in my own back yard. I even found an activity, long forgotten, that would explore this whole taxonomy business. The point is, if I did have everything ordered in a way that I could immediately put a finger on what I wanted, (and it’s effectiveness would depend a lot on my memory and my system of cataloguing) I might indeed gain some time but at the loss of serendipity and discovery.

Search engines, taxonomies, train time-tables, indexes – I love them all. And possibly, I love serendipity and discovery even more.


Learning is an adventure

May 30th, 2015

ExperiencesTraining is on my mind at the moment. I’ve always believed in the importance of helping others learn to do what I do with facilitation, and more, rather than build a dependence. The next couple of weeks are chocker block full of creative facilitation training – one of my favourite things to be doing. So it’s appropriate that Johnnie Moore and I are about to release our new book. Here’s a snippet. Oh, and I just love the illustrations created by the amazingly talented Mary Campbell.

Experiences over Explanation

In his book, Friends in Low Places, Dr James Willis describes research in which two groups of people were shown a photograph of a face. After seeing the photo the first group was asked to recall details of the face. The second group didn’t have to do this.

Later, each group was tested to see if they could remember the faces they had seen in the photos.

The second group – those left to use only their innate and wordless ability to remember a face – were twice as likely to remember it.

By attempting to make people’s learning more detailed and explicit, we may be getting in people’s way.

Malcolm Gladwell relates the studies of tennis coach Vic Braden. Braden would ask top tennis players the “secret” of their technique. He found that although they had detailed explanations for how they did what they did, these descriptions were inconsistent and often false. Famously, Andre Agassi insisted that he would roll his wrist as he hit his forehand shots. In fact, stop motion photography showed that this simply wasn’t true. The fancy term for this mistake is confabulation.

Our rational mind invents a plausible explanation for a behaviour, and believes its own propaganda.

Fresh experiences beat old explanations.


Creative Facilitation – New stuff. Yay!

April 23rd, 2015

CF-2day2015Flyer.pdf (1 page)How does a facilitator announce new stuff? A musician brings out a new song or album, an artist has an exhibition of their latest paintings, a writer releases a new book or poem – and a facilitator announces…”I have new stuff to share with you.” Sounds a bit lame really.

Nonetheless, I DO have new stuff to share with you – gleaned from a trip to that other hemisphere where I took part in an improvisation retreat and a learning village, hung out with some seriously cool people, finished a project that’s been on the go for a couple of years, explored street art in Shoreditch (oh, I’m getting distracted now).

It’s boring to talk about this stuff – much better to do it. So I’ll be sharing my new stuff on June 17 and 18 at my favourite venue, the Donkey Wheel House in Bourke Street Melbourne. I hope you can join me. Use the promo code newstuff2015 for a 20% discount. Yay!

Kinetic type AND language AND Stephen Fry

September 28th, 2014

In my last post about interests, I mentioned that one of them was kinetic type.

This can be traced back to early days in my career when I worked with a hugely talented graphic artist, Frank Moore, who taught me the ins and outs of typography (not to mention layout and design, pre-internet no less). On a recent visit to Oxford, a highlight was a visit to the Oxford University Press Museum to see early examples of type and book production.

So I obviously love this Stephen Fry  kinetic type video. Its topic is about another love of mine; language. Enjoy.

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And if you enjoyed that, you might also like this one I made a few years ago about facilitating. Maybe it’s time for a new one?