Lessons From Improv: Giving Appreciations at Conferences

We can and should be giving appreciations at meetings.

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_b8564eacfc Appreciations 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

4 thoughts on “Lessons From Improv: Giving Appreciations at Conferences

  1. Of all the maxims, “Wake Up to the Gifts” is my favorite. Learning to see the world from this realistic place, rich in detail, can change everything. Your article applies this to your work beautifully. Thanks again for mentioning the book and for using the ideas to forward your purpose. Keep on doing what needs to be done.

    1. It’s an honor to hear from you Patricia. My experience of formal improv is small, but it was enough for me to become comfortable taking those “in the moment” risks that I would formerly have shunned. My life has become so much richer as a result. Thank you for writing such a gem of a book-you beautifully and convincingly convey how this approach to living can meaningfully and powerfully change ones life.

  2. @adrian

    I love improv and it’s tie-ins to the greater world. Many applicable lessons from the improv world. Thanks for this and the other posts on the topic.

    Another that I’ve always loved is that in improv all we know is where we’ve been and where we are (present moment). To get to the next moment we trust each other and our ability to collaborate having both bought into the belief that whatever we create together will be better and more meaningful than what we could create separately.

    Sounds similar to a CTW!

    1. Kevin, that is a wonderful analogy with what happens at Conferences That Work! When we create a space that is safe and where people trust each other, amazing things can happen. That’s a ground rule of successful improv, and it’s probably the most important outcome of the ground rules we use at the start of every CTW.

      One of the most satisfying things for me when running CTW is to see attendees relaxing into taking risks, asking questions and speaking out in ways they would never do at a traditional event. Just like what happens when folks start to get over their fear in a beginners improv class.

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