May 22nd, 2010

There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells. -Flannery O’Connor

HT – Patti Digh

Living an improvised life

February 1st, 2010

The third and final day of our Playback Theatre Summer Intensive Workshop presented by Melbourne Playback Theatre Company brought together a number of disparate threads – and brought to mind some of the key lessons I’ve learnt over the years from improv theatre in its various forms. Lessons learnt and still being practiced in that unending journey towards mastery. Here’s what I was reminded of this weekend.

Your body knows before your brain
I catch myself over thinking. I can see others thinking too, coming up with an idea or a plan before doing anything. Hesitating. Rejecting the first idea because it’s not ‘good’ enough. Trust. It comes back to trusting that the movement in your body will spark something in your mind. I can’t tell you how often I have proven this to be true. Not knowing what I’ll say or do, just moving into the performance space, whether that be on the stage or in a workshop, and trusting that whatever I need will surface when I need it. Would I do this all the time, or in every situation? No. But I can train myself to do it on those occasions when that’s what’s needed. When more thinking, or more planning, will not add an iota of value.

Start anywhere, and just start!
When faced with not knowing, complexity and no right answer, where is the best place to start? That question has no answer. It’s nonsensical. Start anywhere and see where it leads. If it leads to a dead-end, try something else. The trick is to just start, and to start anywhere.

Strong offers are worth their weight
A strong offer is clear, it’s robust, it’s obvious, it’s easy to respond to. A weak offer, like a hint, doesn’t support your partner or others, and it’s ambiguous. Support each other by making and responding to strong offers.

We learn, and connect,  from doing and watching
We learn different things from doing – being in the work – and from watching others do the work. This is true of Playback. The perspective of a player (the actor) is quite different from the perspective of the teller (of a moment or story), and is even different to each and every audience member. Yet we remain connected – the players, the teller, and the audience – through our common experiences, our empathy and our differences.

It’s okay to do nothing
Sometimes, our presence is enough. We don’t need to be doing something, when others know we are there supporting them. Our presence is enough. That’s all.

Our stories reveal a lot more about us than anything else
I might tell you about what I do, where I live, my family, my work – and you will know me through that lens. Yet if I tell you my stories, if I reveal my vulnerabilities, and you can share my laughs and my tears, will you not know me a lot better? Playback Theatre embodies that sharing.

Thanks to Mike McEvoy, Ian David, Glynis Angell, Andrew Gray and Ernie Gruner – all from Melbourne Playback Theatre Company – who  conducted the workshop and contributed to my learning. And thanks too to my fellow participants, who so willingly and generously shared their stories, and themselves.

From complex data to an understandable message

January 18th, 2010

Here’s a great example of explaining a complex concept simply. Hat tip to Nancy Duarte over at slide:ology where there’s more great examples of simplifying your message. I like this comment from Nancy:

“How would you explain your story to a friend who knows nothing about it? How would you get your grandmother to understand and be moved by your message? Before jumping into your next presentation, take a deep breath and remember that for an audience to comprehend your message, you’d have better luck by making it comprehensible.”

Playback Theatre Workshop

December 24th, 2009

WooHoo! This is just the ticket. Melbourne Playback Theatre Company is offering a weekend intensive at the end of January. I wrote about Playback Theatre and community building here. I can’t think of a better way to ease into a new year. Wanna join me?

Summer Weekend Intensive

Melbourne Playback Theatre Company is proud to offer a weekend of training in Playback Theatre Practice.

There are 3 workshops over 3 days (with just enough space for your family duties!)

Friday         29 January         7pm to 9.30pm
Saturday    30 January          12.30 to 5pm
Sunday       31 January         12.30 to 5pm

VenueDancehouse , 150 Princes Street, Carlton.

“Investigating Story”

The great pleasure in Playback Theatre is seeing a story retold and transformed.
In this workshop we will continue our investigation of what it is to tell and re-tell stories, and how it is to hear stories from different perspectives. As part of this we will explore physical storytelling and non-linear narrative.
Whether part of your professional development or personal creative exploration, these workshops are designed to:

  • Improve your listening skills.
  • Play with ways of communicating.
  • Discover and harness your natural storyteller.
  • Explore ways of telling and composing story.
  • Practice performance and presentation skills.
  • Learn the Playback Theatre form.

Your facilitators are Glynis Angell, Ian David and Mike McEvoy.

Cost: Full – $250 / Concession – $220
Enquiries: Phone (03) 9690 9253  or email:
Places are limited to 14 participants- book early!

Download flyer and registration form

Community building with Playback Theatre

November 23rd, 2009

We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own. Ben Sweetland

Colour BurstMy introduction to improvisation was via Playback Theatre. Playback is a form that uses real stories – moments and stories from the audience – as a basis for the enactment. The players use deep listening skills and metaphor to play back the stories capturing the emotion, and sometimes the sub-text. It can be funny or moving or tragic. Anything really. It’s great fun, and a privilege, to perform.

The folk from TrueStory Theatre were at the Applied Improv Conference and provided a great platform for us – newcomers and old hands alike – to explore playback.

One comment that stayed with me was from Christopher Ellinger, who said that “the purpose of playback is community building”. Improv is not usually associated with community building, so maybe this requires some exploration.

It’s described by TrueStory Theatre like this:

The mission of True Story Theater is to promote social healing by listening deeply to people’s stories and transforming them spontaneously into theater. Our events create a respectful atmosphere where every voice can be heard and any story told — however ordinary or extraordinary, difficult or joyful. True Story Theater offers audiences fresh perspectives, deeper connections, and a renewed appreciation for our common humanity.

I’m reminded of my own experiences learning playback and performing. We built community amongst our dispirate troupe of newbies grappling with the form by turning up each Tuesday evening and telling our own stories: there was the woman minister dealing with the hierarchy and expectations of the Church and her family; the daughter of social workers who had grown up in institutions; the male beautician who went on to become a regular playback performer; the young couple just starting an organic fruit and vegie business. Oh, and I was there too, just starting out on my own in business – and exploring improv for the first time.

We’d share moments from our week, and stories that grew and developed. It was like living in a real-life melodrama serial. And all the while we’d practice listening – listening for the essence of the story, a metaphor, what’s not said and how it could be restated as three sentences. We’d practice each of these in turn, and then we’d practice listening for all four at once. It was the most authentic listening training I’ve ever done. We’d practice playing back, taking on different roles and using different forms. We’d practice accepting offers, and moving the action on. We’d practice speaking up and shutting up. We’d practice making our partner look good. And we’d practice giving, because that’s what playback is all about – the teller giving their story to the players, and the players reshaping it and giving it back. That’s why I also think the essence of playback is community building – it creates shared stories. Your story becomes my story. It creates shared understanding – I can empathise with your experience. And it creates a shared experience, that bonds us and builds connection.

Playback is another manifestation of the power of conversation, telling stories and human connection. And it’s great fun!

Nick Owen keynote at the improv conference, Portland Oregon

November 15th, 2009

Thought I’d try some live blogging. I’m at the Applied Improv Conference in Portland Oregon with about 100 other people. It’s day two – and Nick is our only keynote. The title of his session is called Touching the Heart: Exploring Core Values through Personal Storytelling.

He’s doing some introductory stuff – building rapport with the audience (that’s us). He’s doing that by telling personal stories – and he has some ppt slides that support, rather than distract. He’s now telling a fable – 17 camels – and you can hear a pin drop.

Leadership themes that emerged from the story – generosity, saving face, give it away and it comes back, noticing more, being grateful for the smallest things, imparting knowledge. Now he’s linked the fable, and the themes back to improvisation. Nice incorporation.

The more we give out the more we get back. It’s not about denying fear but facing our fear – improv provides a way to do that. A gift is loving what you do – many people don’t have this. Generally, improvisers love what they do.

In the corporate world – learning and development is mostly about skills and competency, but we know what’s really important is relationships.

Now it’s time for another story. He uses story well to punctuate the presentation and reinforce key messages. And it’s tied back to leadership.

A bit of theory now – and tied back to the story to make it more accessible – Ken Wilbur’s 4 fields of action – professional (It), personal (I), cultural (You + I = We), infrastructure (Its): inner/outer – self/others. Learning a lot about how to structure a keynote presentations by doing this live blogging. Use of metaphor and reincorporation.

Most businesses work in the professional and infrastructure realm because it’s safe and measurable. Improvisation has so much to offer because it brings in the personal and cultural. We have to start with ourselves. So now we’re doing a Bio-poem. Here’s how to do it.

First line: Your name

Second line: 3 adjectives alliterated

Third line: Who has loved…

Fourth line: Who wanted…

Fifth line: Always… (and includes) never…

Your name…

And here’s the thing – the structure gives us, well, structure. At the other end of the spectrum is chaos. There’s a tension between structure and chaos, and the tension is the field of form, action and innovation. Creative artists know this and lean towards the chaos end (too much leads to disintegration). Businesses generally want to hang on to the structure (too much leads to stuckness). Neither is good. We need a dance between structure and chaos. We all operate in the field of uncertainty.

What gives us the confidence to operate this way – how can we connect with our values and be true to ourselves, and show up authentically in the world?

Now he’s exploring Otto Scharmer’s U theory.

1. Intending: What is life calling me to do?

2. Sensing: Observe, observe, observe. Listen, really listen. Take time to notice what I know.

3. Presencing: Connect to source: From a place of deep quiet allow inner knowing to emerge.

4. Executing: Test. Apply new ideas in real contexts and notice effects.

(“Business is the only group I know that don’t know what rehearsal means.”)

5. Evolving: Embody the new in sustainable eco-system.

This is an intuitive model. Business has a huge over-reliance on the rational, says Nick. Business is stuck in rationality.

Scharma also talks about 4 types of listening:

1. Downloading – I alreday know that – closed mind

2. Scientific inquiry – how interesting , let me explore that, open-minded

3. Conversational enquiry – empathy, let me REALLy listen to what you have to say, so as I can listen with an open mind and an open heart

4. Generative – resonating with the whole field around me

Bringing it together now: I like the way Nick weaves story and models.

Now introducing spiral dynamics : 8 codes that drive development.

8. Turquoise: Deep Human Code – an integrated, systemic way

7. Yellow: Complexity Code

6. Green: Inclusion Code: everyone has a place, a contribution – awakening of understanding; paradox is that nothing gets done because we’re too busy listening to everyone, whether they have something to say or not

5. Orange: Achievement Code: Looking at now – technology, material success, but asking what life is all about

4. Blue: Obedience Code: look outside selves to give structure and order and hierarchy eg religion, organisational command and control structure

3. Red: Power Code eg teenagers, how can I get what I need in a scarce world, about me, me, me – blame outside themselves

2. Purple: Tribal code eg fighting, fleeing, fornicating

1. Beige: Survival Code eg post-disaster

We all show up in all these – and the values in each are different. Has caused a bit of frission in the group. Spiral dynamics tends to do that. Often some pushback and a sense of hierarchy. As Chris Corrigan jsut whispered in my ear: “It’s hard to do a quick overview of spiral dynamics!” True.

Now Nick is talking about the application of the model – that is, how hard it is to take people from one level to another, especially if we skip levels. I guess that’s why it’s called ‘spiral dynamics’ – it’s not linear, and it’s dynamic. From my own perspective, I can slip between the codes depending on the circumstances, safety, my mood and of course, my values.

Applying this to AIN, Yael is talking about where we are at as an organisation – the green code, inclusion? Mostly. There’s also a bit of blue and green in there too, I think. Lots of implications.

Now we’re returning to leadership strategies. POA: Politeness, Openness and Accountabily…connect with all levels.

And finishing with an activity. Sharing personal stories – the same story but with different people. My story went deeper and the other person’s response influenced the story. Our lives are so full of so many stories – many that we have lost track of. Our stories are inside of us, when we tell each other’s stories we reconnect with each other.

Telling personal stories reveal our vulnerabilities. When I share my vulnerability with you, and you with me – we open up to possibility.

Nick’s description of mid-life: “When you stop counting the time since you were born, and start wondering how long it will be till you need an exit strategy.”

Courage – to embody and live our values.

Further reading:

Nick Owen, More Magic of Metaphor, Crownhouse, UK, 2004 and The Salmon of Knowledge, Crownhouse, UK 2009.

Chan Kim W, Blue Ocean Strategy, Harvard Business School Press, USA 2005

Jim Collins, Good to Great, London, Random House, 2001

and more at

What’s catching my attention

August 26th, 2009

Performance Reviews

I’d  had a discussion with a friend earlier this week about performance reviews. I haven’t heard many good comments about them. And luckily I don’t have to partake – my performance is reviewed, well, every time I perform! Alex Kjerulf posted this update on Facebook today:

Facebook | Home-2

The link he refers to – why performance reviews are a waste of time –  is well worth a look.

Also from Alex, this Dilbert cartoon

Visual, back-of-the-napkin explanation

Dan Roam, author of Back of the Napkin has created this explanation of the US health care system. As well as being informative, it’s a good example of visual story telling of a complicated issue.

More about the US health care system and town hall meetings

Chris Corrigan writes about what we can learn from disrupted meetings and about ‘chaordic confidence’

Inspiration via Twitter

August 15th, 2009

Some of you will know that I’m quite a fan of Twitter. By following a diverse group of people I’m exposed to ideas, articles, blogs and links that I would probably never find any other way. Here’s the winner of the Ukraine’s Got Talent competition, Kseniya Simonova, doing an extraordinary sand sculpture of the German invasion of the Ukraine during WW2.

Thanks to Neil Gaiman for the heads up (on Twitter) and hat tip to Patti Digh.

Building rapport

August 14th, 2009

iStock_rock crowdI wonder what comes to mind, about facilitation,  when you look at this photo? I’d be interested in your interpretation.

I see rapport building – an essential, but elusive part of facilitating that takes some effort to build and can be lost in a moment. I understand rapport to be developing a human connection with the others. In this concert shot, it’s obvious that the performer can’t build rapport with each and every individual. Yet somehow, the best performers do. Think of a concert you were at where it felt like you were at a private performance although there were hundreds, if not thousands of other people there. That’s rapport.

How do they do it? And what can we, as facilitators, learn about rapport from performers? I think it has something to do with being human and vulnerable, without being cringe-worthy. No-one wants to see someone on the stage – or a facilitator – that is struggling with their own capacity to perform. We want to see others succeed. So it’s that humanness combined with capability and connection that builds rapport. Most often, I’ve seen rapport building by telling personal stories or anecdotes. They don’t have to be elaborate stories – just small stories that give us some insight to the person. Comedians know this approach and is the basis of many of their routines.

Here’s one I sometimes tell: “I grew up at a holiday camp. I was the snotty nosed kid running around amongst the teenagers and adults who were doing important camping business. It was only much later that I realised I was probably learning facilitation, or at least group processes, by osmosis. They used to play games and sports and sit around in groups talking a lot.  And it took me a few diversions before I ended up facilitating – like studying agriculture (where I learnt a lot about human dynamics). Oh, yeah. That had nothing to do with agriculture. It was more about living on campus out in the middle of nowhere with 100 others. But I’m glad I re-discovered facilitating (even though I didn’t know that I’d lost it cos I didn’t actually know that I knew it…) Confused yet? Anyway, I love facilitating.”

Hopefully, participants might be able to relate to something I’ve said. More so than the traditional intro. What about you? How do you build rapport with groups?

Insanely Great Slideshows – the story so far

June 26th, 2009

Since the age of 16 I wanted to be an agricultural journalist.

OK, that was after I decided that the prospect of becoming an astro-photographer was probably unlikely. I can still remember at about the age of oh, maybe 10 or 11, standing in the kitchen with my mum. She had on a green and white apron and there was lots of flour. She was baking. There were some of her friends there. Or maybe only one, I can’t quite remember. What I DO remember was an adult asking me that age-old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up, dear?” When I answered, quite seriously, “I’d really love to be an astro-photographer” there were guffaws of laughter. I couldn’t work out what they were laughing at, and I’m pretty sure my mum was horrified. She’d made it quite clear I could do anything I wanted. I’ve included this picture of the Iris nebula, 1300 light years away in the constellation Cepheus, because my mum’s name was Iris.Iris Nebula

As it turns out, becoming an agricultural journalist was no walk in the park either. I decided to learn agriculture first, then work out how to do the journalism bit. While I was fortunate to have worked out what I wanted to do at an early age, the obstacles seemed endless.

I’m not so good at science subjects. I struggled with chemistry, didn’t much like physics, quite enjoyed maths until I got a teacher who took all the joy out of it. I enjoyed english and geography and social science subjects. These days you can combine them. Then, way back in the dark ages of secondary education, it was maths/science or arts. Either or. Yes, but…

I wrote to every tertiary institute offering agriculture in Australia and New Zealand (this was way before computers and the internet) to find out the entrance requirements. Every single one of them said maths/science. So there was nothing for it, but to select maths/science, wave goodbye (metaphorically) to all my friends, my joy of learning and that wondrous sense of capability, and embrace subjects that I struggled with daily to understand. Of course, I still had english and a marvelous teacher who made everything else worthwhile.

Then there was the little matter of applying for agriculture courses. This was the early 1970s. Young women took up nursing or teaching or business, sometimes. Certainly not agriculture. Finally I found one that was accepting women, it was four hours drive away so it meant living away from home. I was in the first intake of women to be allowed to live on campus. That was after an Act of Parliament had to be changed. Did I mention there were a few obstacles?

Freisan Heifer on Road

So, agriculture finally sorted, I started on the pursuit of journalism. I landed on my feet with a job that provided me with journalism cadetship and working with some of the most talented people on the planet. This is where my love of words was nurtured, and where I discovered much more – typography, design, layout. And remember, I’d wanted to be a photographer once, so I already had a love of visual arts and images.

On to university for a degree in media studies where I discovered a subject called ‘Cinema Studies’. It involved watching movies, every Tuesday afternoon. Classic movies. And talking about them on Wednesday evening. How I loved that subject. I discovered subtext and storytelling and how movies reflect the world, cultures and events.

A few more jobs, branching away from, yet still connected to, my agricultural journalism roots. The ’80s & ’90s provided ample opportunity to be bold and creative, and in the mid 90s I started my own business, and completed a Masters in Agriculture & Rural Development. This was a real turning point. A self-directed adult learning masters with some fantastic professors who provided – and still do – amazing inspiration.

And so we fast forward to the present. I’m now a facilitator and a wannabe screenwriter. Along the way I’ve discovered improvised theatre, blogging and the Web 2.0 world. I’m fortunate to do work with fantastic people, sometimes in amazing places. My work has taken me all over Australia and to 13 other countries. Not a huge number in the grand scheme of things, but an extraordinary number for me who never expected such opportunities would emerge.

This week Geoff Brown and I delivered our Insanely Great Slideshow training. I’m loving this work, for a number of reasons. I get to deliver this with a friend, so much more fun than working alone. I get to indulge my love of typography, design, and photography (pity the love isn’t matched by talent, but it’s never stopped me in the past!) And there’s all the Web 2.0 connections – Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen fame, Nancy Duart of slide:ology fame who inspire; Slideshare to see what’s possible. It’s also about communicating, sharing messages, changing hearts and minds with story and emotion (much better than bullets!) And an opportunity to learn and build my own skills, to maybe inspire others.

And here’s my all-time favourite slideshow, using dynamic type.