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.

Can improv save the world? It can’t make it any worse!

July 16th, 2016

13692658_1039746996112840_4549062862761023753_nWhoa! There seems to be bad news around every corner. It’s a volatile and unpredictable time, and we all need to draw on all of our skills and resources just to cope, let alone, be of any use to others.

Applied Improvisation is one approach being used to develop people’s capacity to cope with change and uncertainty.

I’ll be taking part in a special humanitarian workshop in Oxford on August 10 and 11, to explore how individuals and organisation can become more adaptable, flexible, spontaneous and resilient.

Bringing together improvisers and humanitarian workers will help us develop a common understanding of the humanitarian context and the benefits and challenges of using applied improvisation techniques. In particular, we’ll explore how improvisation techniques can build resilience amongst humanitarian workers, and affected communities, before, during, and after disasters. We’ll be designing and implementing activities that engage communities and partners and illuminate even the most serious issue, while learning facilitation tips and tricks for engaging diverse groups.

Applied improvisation has been used for facilitation, capacity building and training, monitoring and evaluation, and learning events. Where else might it be used?

The workshop will also include a Design Lab, where you can bring actual, real-world situations and issues to see how improvisation techniques might be helpful.

Tickets are £129 and are available from here.


Becoming who we are not

February 11th, 2016

ImprovNotebookMy photocopier is broken. I’ve been searching for the manual. I haven’t found it yet. However, I did find a yellow notepad that I paid US1.49 for at the San Francisco Marriot in 2004. The price sticker is still on the back. I remember buying this notepad in the hotel gift shop. I remember walking along the waterfront, in the sunshine, trying to will jetlag away, and watching the planes land at San Francisco airport. I remember feeling like a fish out of water. Mainly because I was.

It’s hardly fathomable that 12 years have passed since then. My yellow notepad, foolscap of course – after all this is an American notepad – is well thumbed, but it’s years since I’ve looked at it. Possibly because many of the highlighted notes or margin annotations are now part of me. I no longer feel like a fish out of water.

Here’s some of my notes:

“Great exercise! Lots of applications.”

“Your job as a facilitator is to reconcile paradoxes, not to solve problems.” – Thiagi

“Performing is a creative activity. You build something new with others. Behaviour is following the rules, eg, stopping at a red light.” – Cathy Salit

“People who say they can’t tell stories really mean they won’t.” – Kat Koppett

This notepad is full of notes, activities that I experienced for the first time, connections to my existing work. I was a sponge, soaking up all the newness and the goodness. It was my first Applied Improvisation Conference, organised and hosted by Alain Rostain. I was in awe of most people. Actually, I was in awe of everyone, so I laid low. It changed my life.

Within months I was extolling the virtues of applied improvisation to my facilitation colleagues, or to anyone who would listen. They probably thought it was a fad. It wasn’t.

I returned the following year to New York, again jetlagged, awake at 3 am, seriously fading by 3 pm. Izzy Gessel and I were always the first at breakfast. I’d ask him to explain stuff to me, to help me build my improv vocab. He patiently obliged. I learnt. I played. I kept notes. I watched. I’d jump in – sometimes.

Embracing applied improvisation is still the best professional development decision I’ve made. Fast forward and applied improv has given me friends, inspiration, business opportunities, fun, games, trouble. Did I mention friends?

A few days ago Johnnie Moore recorded a pod-cast interview with Cathy Salit inspired by her work with Performance of a Lifetime and her imminent book Performance Breakthrough. It’s well worth a listen, if only to hear Johnnie and Cathy riff off each other’s ideas. Listen here. 

It also explains why applied improv opened up a whole new world for me during those few days in August, 2004. A world that I’m still exploring, still discovering, and still learning from – to continue to become who I am not.

What is Creative facilitation?

November 11th, 2015

And how does it differ from any other sorts of facilitation?

It took me a long time – literally years of trial and error – to find my own style of facilitation. It was helpful to see how other people facilitated and I would learn lots from them. But I was not other people. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say there were two huge influences on my facilitation: open space technology and applied improvisation. In-between I learnt lots of processes and techniques, useful of course to have many of these to draw upon, but alone, not enough.

Open space technology and applied improvisation provided a way of being a facilitator,not just doing facilitation. Eh? Does that sound a bit weird? Even if I am not specifically using open space or applied improv, the principles behind these approaches are always a part of how I facilitate.

For example, from open space I learnt to hand over responsibility to the participants, to step out of the limelight, to let people get on with it.

From applied improv I learnt to let go, to trust (both others, and myself), to commit, and how to perform as a facilitator.

Importantly, from both of these practices I learnt these things both cognitively and physically. Letting go is not just an abstract idea, it is a physical process.

Fast forward to 2010 when Johnnie Moore and I co-founded Creative Facilitation. Creative Facilitation embodies (literally) the best of open space and applied improvisation, and importantly, is based on this premise: that the participants in any workshop are creative, intelligent and want to succeed. With that in mind, we facilitate with people, not for people. It’s nuanced, and for me, it’s pivotal.

When improvisation meets Open Space

October 29th, 2014

Taiwan Open SpaceThere are few things that have influenced my way of working – and way of living – as much as Open Space and Improvisation. And it’s not so much what they represent, as the people they have enabled me to meet, befriend, and learn from.

I also see Open Space as improvisation in action. So I was thrilled to read this from one of the best and most respected improvisers on the planet, Rebecca Stockley. She was writing about a workshop she’s planning for newcomers at the annual Applied Improvisation Conference, coming up soon in Austin, Texas.

“I’m leading the Pre-Conference Workshop for our new-comers and would love to incorporate your ideas. Some of the ideas I am addressing so far include:

Create your own adventure
Learn – bring your Curiosity
Share – bring your generosity
Honor yourself – Law of Two Feet
Connect – Make new friends
Let your partner change you and Make your partner look good.”

Did you see that? “Honor yourself – Law of Two Feet”.

Yes. Yes.Yes.

Change, and strategy, and creativity – another take

July 29th, 2014

I love this! Change as creating. Did I mention how much I love this?

Congratulations to Karen Dawson, Julie Huffaker, Ian Prinsloo, Sarah Moyle, Andrea Grant and Leonardo Spinedi, and Laila Woozeer. Lucky people to have had the opportunity to work and play with each other and at the fabulous Banff Center in Canada. Jealous? Just a little 🙂

Researching applied improv – a project for 2014

December 19th, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven a cursory look at this blog will reveal my interest in improvisation. It started with Playback Theatre and ranged far and wide around different improvisation styles. Most improv happens on the stage, in theatres and bars. I enjoy this type of improv performance AND I’m also interested in how it can be applied off the stage – in communities, organisations and companies.

The biggest misunderstanding about improv is that it’s all about humour, about being funny.

The biggest secret about improv is that anyone can learn the approaches that underpin it.

The biggest fear about using improv is that you’ll look foolish in front of others.

The biggest untapped use of improv is helping people to do their work when they don’t know what’s going on around them.

The biggest question about improv is…

I don’t know.

That’s why I’m starting a research project to uncover some of the questions about applied improv, collect some data through interviews, identify some themes and questions that emerge from that and then see where that leads me. Maybe I’m developing a new form of research: improvised research (though most researchers I know would argue that all research is improvised). My friend Bob Dick gave me this advice: “It seems to me that researching an under-researched area is like managing complex change.  I therefore assume that wherever I start will be the wrong place, because I don’t yet understand enough to know where to start.  That indicates that my best strategy is to start anywhere promising, and make it up as I go along.”

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m starting, and I’ll make it up as I go along.

Feel free to add any questions you’re curious about, or let me know if you’d be up for a free-ranging chat about applied improv.



The introduction to a book I never wrote

November 19th, 2013

I wrote this in 2007, and published it in my blog in 2012. I found it again today, re-read it and thought to myself that I really should blog that. Luckily I checked before blogging it again.

Here’s what I left out of the blog post:

“This book explores what facilitators can learn from improvised theatre and the role of spontaneity in facilitation. We’ll explore what improvisers do to hone their skills, how they apply their improv skills and some of the ways these can be applied in facilitation.”

Here’s how my focus has shifted since then: just replace ‘facilitators’ and ‘facilitation’ in the above paragraph with whatever your profession is.


Using games from improvised theatre to build mental agility and responsiveness amongst humanitarian workers responding to disasters

November 1st, 2013

During the 2013 Melbourne Knowledge Week, I was part of a group of people exploring the role of (mostly video) games for social good, organised by Games for Change.  Here’s my contribution.*

I was in Perth in the 1980s at a conference about soil science. It was a very grown-up and serious conference. In 1983 in Melbourne, the whole city had been enveloped in a dust storm. Years of drought and land degradation caused soil from the Mallee in north-west Victoria to blow across the State. Some of that Mallee soil was eventually found on the ski slopes on New Zealand. So soil science was a big deal.

We had partnered with a local songwriter, Fay White, to write some songs about land degradation – erosion, salinity, soil health. Back at the conference in Perth, imagine 800 or so soil scientists sitting in a plenary session (and yes, your assumptions about soil scientists are probably correct: male, middle-aged, conservative, bearded) and me (female, younger, a bit weird and definitely not bearded) inviting them to sing along with Soils Ain’t Dirt, complete with hand movements? There was a mixed response, though we did get a picture on the front page of the WA newspaper.

It was (on reflection now) the beginning of my journey to explore ways to bring playfulness to serious issues.

I play lots of games from improvised theatre. Improvised theatre is where the players get up on stage without a script, take a suggestion from the audience and spontaneously, improvise a performance. They draw on their existing skills and knowledge, and whatever else is available, and each other. It is the best expression of collaboration and team-work I have ever seen. They can do this because they play games together. Not because the games are fun – they are; not because the games keep them fit – they do. They play games because it helps them hone a set of practices that they need to draw on when on the stage. The games help build their spontaneity muscles. The games themselves teach what it feels like to let go, to look out for each other, to notice more, and to be open to whatever happens.

Humanitarian workers are called on to respond to disasters in difficult conditions. They are often the first people on site after an earthquake, a cyclone, a tsunami. While there are plenty of protocols to support their work, the first 24 hours might be just chaos – and they need to call on their own resources, and that of their colleagues, to asses what the situation is, do something and save lives. It might well be the start of many months, or even years, of involvement with the affected communities. Many humanitarian workers helping out in an emergency are not specifically trained – they might be finance people, development workers, in marketing and communications. All of a sudden, their whole world has been turned upside down – they, their friends and families, may even be directly affected. It is in these situations that the training in improv practices comes into its own: the ability to let go of expectations and the way things were; the ability to notice more; to be open to possibilities and opportunities; to act when you don’t know what will happen or the consequences; to try something and if it fails, try something else.

In a situations like this, there’s no time for the ‘tyrannies’ that can envelop us and render us useless. There are three ‘tyrannies’ that we work with to try and overcome through playing and practicing improv games:

1. The Tyranny of the Explicit – the fear of not knowing enough

2. The Tyranny of Excellence – the fear of not being good enough

3. The Tyranny of Effort – fear of not trying hard enough

Improv games reveal these tyrannies in a playful way. They also teach us to do something even if we don’t have all the information, feel inadequate and could do better if we just tried harder. Improv games break these chains and enable us to contribute as compassionate human beings, comfortable that our contribution is enough.

And who wouldn’t want that?

* Of course, it’s not exactly what I said – I improvised a bit, threw in a couple of games, and had the audience select three of 50 slides I had ready for Popcorn PPT.



Poynton, Robert (2008) Everything’s An Offer “Notice More – Let Go – Use Everything”

Sawyer, Keith (2007) Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration “When people improvise together, they develop innovative responses to unexpected events…”

Block, Peter (2002) The Answer to How is Yes “We need to be willing to address questions that we know have no answer.”

Koppett, Kat (2001) Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership and Learning “The power of improv…is its ability to connect people to their intuition, their bodies, their intellect, and each other.”

Johnstone, Keith (1987) Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

A deepening understanding of status

October 20th, 2013

It was the end of a five-day workshop. What had been going well, suddenly wasn’t. I had to step in front of a group that felt there was still too much unfinished business, and time had run out. My thoughts were racing, jumping from conciliatory to rebellious. “Let’s not cave in,” said my co-facilitator. “We need to hold our line.” So I stood on the edges, and unseen by anyone, I changed my status from defeated (low) to confident (high). I raised my arms, turned my palms upwards, lowered my arms and stepped in front of the group. (It turned out well in the end, and that’s a story for another day).

Status has lots of meanings. Status updates are pervasive on social media. Status is often considered the same as our position in society.

At this year’s Applied Improvisation Network Conference in Berlin, Simo Routarinne and Barb Tint, shared their deepening understanding of status. I first learnt about status from an improv perspective from Simo and other improvisers. Keith Johnstone wrote extensively about status in his book Impro. He called it submission and dominance, and suggested we were too polite to refer to it that way.

In particular, status is how you behave towards others. Tim Minchin, in his recent speech at the University of Western Australia, said he will judge you by how you treat the wait staff in a restaurant. Fair enough too.

So what is status? It’s dynamic, constantly changing depending on our circumstances, and it’s relational – depends on who you are with. It’s how you behave towards others, and it’s always your choice. You can choose to be higher or lower status, or try and match the status of the person you’re with.

Higher status is characterised by bigger gestures, standing tall, taking up more space, making eye contact and deliberate movement. Lower status is characterised by trying to take up less space, avoiding eye contact, or looking away quickly, fidgeting and hesitant movements. There are innumerable choices to make in status, shifting a little or a lot, changing your own status in relation to others, or raising or lowering the status of others by your actions. Mostly it’s unconscious. There is much value in understanding status and knowing when and how to shift it to enhance relationships. It’s also useful to understand status and know when someone is trying to manipulate you!

My example at the beginning of this post was about me raising my own status by changing my body posture. By doing this I could step into a potentially hostile environment in a high status manner, and to boldly acknowledge the uncertainties in the group without being overwhelmed by them. This gave them, and me, confidence to move on.

Back to Simo and Barb’s work. They have identified other aspects of our relationship to others and our situation that is relevant to status.

Rank is our position in a hierarchy, it’s your designated role and describes what you are e.g. CEO (high rank), intern (low rank).

Power is something you have. It can be cultural. Power can be money, knowledge, influence, connections, fluency in a language…

Esteem is what you feel. It’s an external experience and can be changed by social feedback.

Status is what you do, how you behave. It’s relational, and it’s the easiest to change.

You can see this played out in any arrivals hall in any international airport. The immigration officer’s rank might be relevant within the organisation they work for, but for the everyday traveller, what’s important is that they hold all the power. Doesn’t matter who you are, what connections you have, they are in charge. You can’t use your rank, and any power you have is meaningless. What you can do though is use your status – something you can change and have control over – to  make the exchange as amiable and quick as possible.

What’s really interesting is the intersection between rank, power, status and esteem. And well worth further exploration in all human interactions.