Tag Archives: improvisation

Preparation : The Colour And The Shape

This month has a lot of creativity, art, and culture in it. June kicked off with The Art of Innovation talk at the HR Inner Circle, followed by an Art of Innovation election night special at the offices of BDG. Over the next two weekends I am participating in the inaugural Carshalton Artists Open Studios (CAOS) event (my first exhibition), and sandwiched in between the CAOS, I’m in Berlin artistically interpreting a conference. The output from the Berlin event will take many forms, one of them being a 13 metre wide canvas. Go big, or go home!

Last week I got together with my fellow artists to talk about, and prepare for Berlin. Most of our work is improvisational, and that is something we choose to role model, so our preparation has been deliberately loose. We experimented with materials and a few basic ideas and colours.

The Colour

Here I have taken (an approximation of) the client’s colour palette and abstracted it. We will be using some of these colours in our work, so this piece is a way of playing with different tones, and it may serve as a guide to people in the room who wish to abstract something for themselves during the event. We shall see.

The Shape

As well as playing with colour – we discussed how we want to be together as a group. This has been a really enjoyable process of listening and distilling, and we now have a short statement which describes us at our best. It’s a useful guide for the three of us and for anyone else we interact with before, during and after the event.

When we are at our best, we are taking care of each other, and our guests. The concept of leadership in our group is a fluid, dynamic force, flowing to where and to whom it is best suited at the time. We listen and respond to prompts from the floor, hand written notes, 1:1 conversations, and to things we spot while wandering about. Our intention is to record and illustrate and abstract key points, not every single detail. Over the days, a body of work will emerge, developed improvisationally, and using a variety of mediums. The pace and rhythm of what we do will ebb and flow, and we welcome participation in our work. 

I hope this look at how we are preparing is useful for you. More to follow…

Tales Of The Unexpected : Tension and Release

Have you ever given an Ignite talk? The format can feel quite daunting – telling a story while 20 slides whizz by, each one auto forwarding after just 15 seconds. A rollercoaster ride. They’re not for everyone, and they are good for getting disciplined about pubic speaking. Should you fancy giving an Ignite talk a try, check out this great post by Scott Berkun titled ‘How To Give A Great Ignite Talk‘, it’s full of useful ideas on how to get through one in good shape.

I was part of the Ignite team at the CIPD Learning and Development conference in Olympia last week. The subject I chose was ‘The Art of Better Learning’, how we can use art to make learning more of an unfolding inquiry, less of a search for certainty. I drafted my story, drew some slides to illustrate my thoughts and got on with rehearsing. Normally when I give a talk I leave lots of room for emergent ideas – ebb and flow. The Ignite format doesn’t work like that so it’s important to prepare in order to keep things nice and tight. Cue cards work well for me during the prep stage. Thinking through things then writing it down seems to make subsequent recall a little easier. Once I was happy with my story and the pictures, I packed everything up and sent it over to Giorgia, my contact at the CIPD. She kindly confirmed safe receipt and checked over my slides to make sure they worked. Thank you Giorgia.

The Art of Better Learning.jpg

Tension

The day of the talk arrived, and in the minutes before the session started I asked to see how the slides would appear on screen. I’m used to working on a Mac and the venue had provided a Windows PC for the session, I wanted to see if there were any key differences. It turned out there was an unexpected key difference. Somewhere between the CIPD and the event, my slides had corrupted, and instead of a series of hand drawn slides, I was presented with a blank screen. No problem, a quick hop onto Dropbox will solve this…

Once the tech guy at the venue had confirmed there was no internet access from the presenter’s pc, I went through an emotional tailspin as follows:

Tension: Directed at myself for not bringing a back up on a memory stick.

More tension: All that hard work drawing slides and rehearsing – wasted!

Panic: Panic: Panic:

Defeated: I’ll just drop out of the line up, no one will know…

Recovery: Hang on a minute, I brought the cue cards with me, and a handful of the drawings. I’ve also got a random bunch of art works made by clients at previous workshops. There are twenty minutes until I’m on, surely I can rework the story in that time…

Reworking The Story.jpg

My Improvised Ignite talk props.

…and so I did.

The talk passed in a blur – I tried to make eye contact with as many people as possible. Having no images to play to meant I relied heavily on the cue cards, and while they kept me on track, they were a distraction too. I kept catching smiles from people when I could, and tried to return them too. The encouragement levels were high and I kept on going – keeping the pace up to remain authentic to the format, and to leave no room for nerves!

Release

After I’d finished, people responded warmly and enthusiastically. A few folk approached me and congratulated me on how I’d set the whole thing up, they thought the tech fail was part of the plan! My heart rate for the next hour or so was proof that this was the genuine article, nerves and all. Looking back a few days later, and given the nature of what I wanted to talk about, the way things unravelled and then reassembled could not have been better. Thank you to everyone who supported me at the event, and online. Without People, You’re Nothing.

Afterthoughts

There is much talk of disruption in and around the world of work. People throw the term around with much excitement, it’s seen as cool to disrupt. I disagree. The verb disrupt is defined as: to drastically alter or destroy the structure of. True disruption often comes out of the blue, unseen and unexpected. In a way, I experienced a few minutes of disruption last week. I improvised, and whilst I just about coped, I wouldn’t wish to inflict that level of intensity on any one. The next time you call for disruption, spare a thought for the disrupted.

In case you are interested, Ady Howes filmed me giving this talk. If you want to see what the face of a speaker on a white knuckle ride looks like, Ady’s kindly agreed I can share the recording with you here!

Improvisation – Finding Flow

‘The thing about improvisation is that it’s not about what you say. It’s listening to what other people say. It’s about what you hear.’ Paul Merton

‘If you’re in your head, then you’re not here with me.’ Susan Messing

‘If you stumble, make it part of the dance’ Unknown

I have just spent an engrossing weekend listening, learning, experimenting and playing with The Improvisation Academy at The Poor School near King’s Cross, London. Before I go any further, I want to write a huge thank you to Carole and Keira for so generously giving me the time to fit this experience into the diary.

Most of what we do in life plays out without a script, yet we often believe we should somehow exercise more control over this unscripted life. I was keen to attend this course for many reasons, including to practice being in the moment, and responding more freely to what happens around me. In my work, I prefer to facilitate with as light a structure or agenda as possible – leaving room for things to emerge and grow. On this course, I thought I would experience and learn things that would help me enhance my professional practice, and I was right, but there was much more than that to be experienced.

The two days were packed with activities, reflection and conversation. Time passed a bit like pages in a book being turned – there was a flowing cadence to how we worked and we moved through things without hurrying unduly. Everything was explained clearly as we went along, and as a group we quickly became supportive of one another. A sufficient level of support is essential when uncertainty is close by. I want to respect the confidentiality established in the room over the two days, so I shan’t be going into specific details about the work we did together, and I will share some key points I observed and practiced, and a little of how I felt as the time passed. I will frame these notes with the help of the acrostic we were introduced to as we worked.

LIFEPASS

Let Go – Having, finding and borrowing the confidence to try something new. At all times we had the option to pass on an activity without anyone questioning why. The pass was used only very occasionally over the weekend. I noticed that activities which came back to me very quickly depleted my ability to improvise, which then bunged up my brain and interrupted flow between me and others – so once or twice, I took a pass midway through an activity.

Inhabit the Moment – The idea of being present, of finding flow. Acknowledging this state is important, and moving into it felt essential in order to do our best work. We talked about, and practised being aware of the challenge you face and the support available, and adjusting the dials to try and gain and sustain flow, while you can.

Flow Diagram

Freedom within Structure – There is a sense that improvisation is somehow chaos, and while it might be from time to time, it is not founded on, nor does it rely on chaos to succeed. There are principles and signposts you can choose to help you navigate your way through dialogue. A well known principle is the idea of ‘Yes…and’ where you accept someone’s offer and build on it, rather than reject it and start again.

Embrace Uncertainty – The degree to which the group together, and you individually, can alleviate the pressure caused by the uncertainty which inhabits us all, is really important. Over the weekend, I observed three things in particular that helped me.

  • There is something so powerful about a smile, an exchange of kindness between people which can represent trust. Looking out for each other.
  • The art of listening is crucial. I noticed that when I was listening most carefully, I became more able to engage with the process. The art of listening distracts you from trying to think about what you think you should be saying next. And given that none of us can predict what other people are going to say next, this is a helpful distraction!
  • There is something important when improvising about being able to place yourself in the space that exists between you and others, not inside your head. The action is in the interaction. For me this part of the process is very much a work in progress.

Play to Play – Play at work gets a bad rap, probably because when we think of play in a work context, we think of playing to win, which is often a zero sum game. I win, you lose. People think that work and play are opposites, when according to the play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith, the opposite of play is not work, but depression. If we accept what Sutton-Smith puts forward, then I think we need to have play at work. So how about playing to play, and playing to learn as well as, and at times instead of, playing to win.

Accept and Build – I take something you offer me, and I add to it.

Short Turn Taking – Helps to keep the flow going.

Spot Successes – Call them out, and help others to look good.

This was an intensive, and enjoyable two days, focussing primarily on improv skills for life. I was exhausted when I got home on Saturday evening and went to bed at nine thirty for some well earned rest. The second day was energetic and intensive too and though I was awake and alert, I got stuck a few times; I already mentioned I took a pass on a few occasions. There was a lot more to be learned and practiced than I first imagined and I go back again in April for another full weekend – this time to focus on improv for work. I am really looking forward to extending and practicing what I am learning, and based on my experience, I would encourage others interested in bringing more fluidity, flow and freedom to their work, to take a deeper dive into what improvisation has to offer. Great learning, great fun.