Lessons From Improv: Seeing the Gifts in People and Events

Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.

Ooh, this is a hard one for me, but it’s so important for anyone working in the meeting profession.

“I can look at a person or event from three vantage points.

  1. To see what’s wrong with it (the critical method commonly used in higher education). Using this lens the self looms large.
  2. To see it objectively (the scientific method). Using this lens both the self as well as others are meant to disappear.
  3. To see the gift in it (the improviser’s method). With this lens others loom large.”

Patricia Ryan Madson, “wake up to the gifts” improv wisdom

Trained to be an academic for the first twenty-five years of my life, I default to Patricia’s first vantage point, the critical method, what’s wrong with it? (I’m consoled slightly by Patricia’s observation that this is her default vantage point too.)

It’s tricky to move to the second “scientific” vantage point, where “both the self as well as others are meant to disappear.” We are trained to do this when working with others, to replace our ego viewpoint with the perspective of a team or a common goal. From this vantage point, our focus is usually a specific outcome or the process needed to obtain it. As Patricia says, the people involved are “meant to disappear”. That’s great for making dispassionate decisions — but my soul is missing.

Finally, the third vantage point, the one that is difficult for me to maintain. When we live from an awareness of the gifts in our lives we become open to others and possibilities in ways that would never otherwise occur. Patricia describes a week in Japan immersed in an intensive process called Naikan, a form of gratitude meditation on one’s debt to the world. In Naikan you focus through a structured process on the answers to three questions: What have I received from (person x)? What have I given to (person x)? and What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?

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Why requiring learning objectives for great conference presentations sucks

Photo by Flickr user orange_squash_123
Photo by Flickr user orange_squash_123

I have been filling out quite a few conference presentation proposals recently, and began to notice a pattern in my behavior. My mood changed when I had to fill out the session’s learning objectives (which are statements of what attendees will be able to do by the end of the session.)

Specifically, every time I had to fill out the learning objectives for a proposal I got really, really annoyed.

Over the years I’ve found that paying attention to patterns like this is nearly always a learning experience for me. And I had just watched Chris Flink‘s TEDx talk on the gift of suckiness, where he makes a great case for exploring things that suck for you…

…so I reluctantly delved into why I started to feel mad when required to write things like “attendees will be able to list five barriers to implementing participant-driven events“.

At first I wondered whether my annoyance at having to come up with learning objectives (with active verbs, please, like these…)

Learning objectives action words
From http://apha.confex.com/apha/learningobjectives.htm

was because I was a sloppy presenter who hadn’t really thought about what my attendees wanted or needed to learn. I imagined the conference program committee wagging their finger at me (or sighing because they’d seen this so many times before). Listing learning objectives was forcing me to face what I should have thought about before I even suggested the session, and I didn’t like being confronted with my lack of planning.

And then I thought, NO. I DO have goals for my sessions. But they’re much more ambitious goals than having participants being able to regurgitate lists, define terms, explain concepts, or discuss issues.

I want to blow attendees’ minds. And I want to change their lives.

OK, I admit that would be the supreme goal, one that I’m unlikely to achieve most of the time. But it’s a worthy goal. If I can make some attendees see or understand something important in a way that they’ve never seen or understood before, so that they will never see or understand it in the same way again—now that’s worth striving for.

Here’s an imaginary example (not taken from my fields of expertise). Suppose you are evaluating two proposed sessions on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace. The first includes learning objectives like “define and understand the term sexual harassment”, “identify types of sexual harassment”, and “learn techniques to better deal with sexual harassment”. The second simply says, “People who actively participate in this session are very unlikely to sexually harass others or put up with sexual harassment ever again.”

Assuming the second presenter is credible, which proposal would you choose?

Learning objectives restrict outcomes to safe, measured changes to knowledge or competencies. They leave no place for passion, for changing worldviews, or for evoking action.

That’s why requiring learning objectives for great conference presentations sucks.

What’s your perspective on learning objectives?

Lessons From Improv: Giving Appreciations at Conferences

Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.

“…once we become aware of the level of support involved to sustain our lives we quickly realize how our debt grows daily in spite of our efforts to repay it.”
—Greg Krech, Director of the ToDo Institute

Patricia Madson’s ninth maxim is “Wake Up to the Gifts.” Gifts? What gifts? Well, although this post is about giving appreciations at conferences, first we need a little context.

The Japanese practice of Naikan, an art of self-reflection, uses three questions to examine our relationships with others:

  • What have I received from (person x)?
  • What have I given to (person x)?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?

When I meditate on the answers to these questions for a significant person in my life, I usually quickly discover that my list of what I have received is far longer than what I have given. When you extend these questions to the things that surround and support us in our daily lives this imbalance immediately becomes apparent. I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude to the countless people who grew and prepared the food I eat, who designed, manufactured, and delivered the computer I’m writing this on, who made it possible for me to live in and enjoy this world in so many ways.

It’s hopeless for us to be able to “pay off” these debts. But one thing we can do is to acknowledge them. And that’s why I include time for appreciations at every conference.

Japan present 4169964011_b8564eacfcAppreciations are more than thanks. Imagine that Susan is standing before the gathered attendees, publicly thanking people, including you, Bob, for your work organizing a conference. Here are some examples of what she might say. After you read each one, take a moment to notice how you feel.

[Susan faces audience]
“The organizers contributed a lot of hard work putting on this conference.”

[Susan faces audience]
“Bob worked hard to get out the face book.”

[Susan faces audience]
“Thank you, Bob, you worked hard to get out the face book.”

[Susan points to you and then faces the audience]
“I appreciate Bob, who worked hard to get out the face book.”

[Susan asks you to come out from the audience, faces you, makes eye contact, and speaks directly to you]
“Bob, I appreciate you for working hard to create the draft face book in time for our conference roundtable, and for rapidly producing an accurate and attractive final version. This helped all of us get to know each other quickly, and gave us a valuable reference for keeping in touch after the conference ends.”

Did you find that you felt appreciated more by each successive version, and that the final version had much more power than the others? If so, you’re not alone. In the final version, Susan:

  • Invited Bob out in front of the room;
  • Spoke to Bob directly, making eye contact;
  • Used an “I” message—“Bob, I appreciate you…”; and
  • Described specifically to Bob what she appreciated and why.

Each of these four actions strengthened the power of Susan’s message.

There’s more about giving appreciations in my book. They offer a simple, effective, and powerful way to significantly increase bonding and connection in your conference community. And, regrettably, good appreciations are so rare in our everyday life that, when people receive one, they are likely to remember it for a long time.

So, wake up to the many gifts you are receiving every day! And actively, openly, appreciate the givers when you can. You will be giving a great gift yourself when you do.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/min_photos/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0