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?