So if we see our mistakes as gifts, sort of serendipitous presents that we get to open and embrace, we are much more likely to be open and creative, but also to be sane.
In this 3rd article in the EDUCHAOS series, Marie Jasinski interviews Kat Koppett a trainer and consultant on the edge! Kat who is based in San Francisco specialises in using improv and storytelling in business environments. Marie attended Kat’s session at the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Conference in Florida in April and later interviewed Kat to find out how on-the-edge strategies like improv and storytelling are helping the business world work more effectively in fast changing business environments.
Marie: I’m talking to Kat Koppett, a trainer and consultant who uses improvisation and storytelling in business. Welcome Kat!
Kat: Thank you!
Marie: A lot of people have heard about improv and of course storytelling, but are not quite sure what it’s all about, so can you just let us know what improv is?
Kat: Sure. Most basically, improve just means we’re making it up without a script, it’s unrehearsed. Improv Theatre is a situation in which groups of people get together and make up scenes or stories or songs and sometimes full length plays collaboratively in the moment, often based on audience suggestion.
Marie: So how are you using that in a business environment?
Kat: Well the improvisers as a group have come up with principles and activities to enhance all of their skills in order to do this crazy frightening thing – creating on-the-spot without any pre-planning. Those skills are applicable in any situation where groups of people have to create on-the-spot. And there are lots of them these days in business. So sometimes it’s as simple as team building, sometimes it’s around strategic planning, sometimes it’s presentation skills because of course you are performance art. And most interesting to me personally are the interpersonal communication skills and dynamics around the workplace as well as on stage.
Marie: So you are really helping people to build skills in thinking on-the-spot, in communicating with teams they haven’t met before in rapidly changing contexts?
Kat: Yes. The fact that the world of business has become more and more chaotic, faster and faster paced, more and more shuffling of teams, that there is more and more pressure. All of those things make it more and more like the life of an improviser and means that people need all those principles and skills more.
Marie: The word “improv” – some people are excited by it and some people feel a bit in trepidation of it! But I noticed when I came to your workshop, that you didn’t put us on-the-spot and it wasn’t really as confronting as I thought it would be. In fact, it was a very gentle approach and you led us in and built our confidence. Is that the way the process works?
Kat: Yes. I think that is the most surprising thing about improv to people, which is that you look underneath what is happening , it’s actually the opposite of what most people think is happening. For example, you talked about feeling safe. That’s the fundamental need of an improviser – the fundamental principle is make your partner look good, accept their ideas and build on them. Say yes to them. Create a place where it is alright to make mistakes, because if it is not OK to fail, we’re never going to do it. We can’t make it perfect because we are not rehearsing it and so that ability to look at failure as the step towards success and sometimes just as exciting and as inspiring as what we thought was the right answer, is really the core of what an improv community practices. If you can translate that into other settings, where people feel supported, they feel like their partners are looking out for them and they feel like failure isn’t failure in some fundamental way, that’s where you get people who feel comfortable sharing ideas and being innovative and taking risks, and connecting with their partners.
Marie: Can you give a practical example of two of how you have actually used it in different business contexts?
Kat: Sure. My favourite was some work we did with physicians in physician-patient communication. So we met with the doctors – and these were actually peer coaches, so they were going to be coaching doctors around patient- doctor communication. We met with them and we did some work on getting them ready for their performance when they go in to meet with another doctor or with a patient. How did they present themselves?
We did some work around creating the story for the patient so they understood their issue and the diagnosis and how the doctor came to it and they understood what the treatment would be and what the results they could expect were. We talked about status relationship dynamics and how to make the patient feel comfortable and not beaten up or intimidated by the doctor and really make them be improv partners the way improvisers are. So that was one of my favourites.
We also work with facilitators and trainers a lot in how to design really any content and use improv activities to help the participants retain the knowledge and to also work on some content around conflict resolution that sort of thing.
Marie: So in the whole context of facilitating improv, what sort of skills does a good improviser need?
Kat: There are a few basic principles that I think we’ve talked about a little bit. The most famous one is saying “YES AND” which means you say “YES” to what your partner gives you “AND” you build on it. A bit like stacking blocks instead of haphazardly throwing them around the room.
As a Facilitator running a workshop, if I can “YES AND” the participants, I am much more likely to target their specific needs and for them to be motivated to learn, than if I just went with my own script. What that means is if I offer and idea and someone asks a question or raises and objection or wants to share an experience, rather than saying “No, No, that’s not on my agenda” or “ You’re wrong” or “Here’s how I’m smarter than you”, if I can take what they are bringing and build on that, that’s going to make me much more successful.
Another principle is being willing to fail – celebrating failure. And I think that again, we don’t live in a world where we can control things. So if we look at mistakes as gifts, sort or serendipitous presents that we get to open and embrace, we are much more likely to be open and creative but also to be sane. So that willingness to be spontaneous is useful I think as a Facilitator.
Marie: In the workshop I participated in with you, you used improv, but you used storytelling as well. And you used a structure that you called a “Story Spine”. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Kat: Sure. It was created by a guy named Ken Adams who was an improviser with Theatre Sports in New York and a Playwright. And he was looking for a way to distill the structure of a well-made story, both so that people could understand it and also so that we could tell it collaboratively.
The Story Spine is simply a set of sentence fragments, like this:
Once upon a time…
But one day…
Because of that…
Because of that…
Because of that…
And ever since then…
And what it does, is walk you through the structure of a story where you have a platform, a catalyst (which is why is it different, why are we telling the story here), the consequences of that, (raising the stakes, what happens next, what happens next), the climax of the story and finally the resolution.
Marie: I was around the ISPI book store and I noticed your book was one of the hot sellers and when I asked a few people why they were buying your book, (Training to Imagine) [http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1579220339/104-1602077-6154367?v=glance&vi=customer-reviews] they said “Because there are so many practical things in there and good grounding theories, that I can take these ideas and use them tomorrow”. Is that the idea that you had?
Kat: That’s great that people are saying that! That’s terrific! Yes. The book is set up in two sections. The first section takes five or six principles from improv and explores them and applies them in business settings. If you are a manager, here are some ways to use it. If you are a trainer or a facilitator, here are ways to apply this principle.
The second half of the book are 50 or so activities from improv that you can use as the same you way you would you a Stairmaster, as exercise to strengthen those improv muscles and to support those principles. And those are written out for Facilitators. So they’ve got the overview and what materials you need and the flow of the activity, debrief questions, variations…
Marie: So very practical ‘how to’ approaches?
Kat: Yes. My hope is that someone who is not familiar with improv, but who is looking for some kind of interactive strategy, can open the book and understand the activity and the vehicle to facilitate it on their own.
Marie: Where do you think improv is heading as a strategy for business?
Kat: I think that all of a sudden, people are starting to recognise it as a place to go. There is an improv in business conference that is now three years old. This year it is going to be in San Francisco in October and there are folks from all around the world who have been making these connections between …. “Oh! We improvise our lives and we improvise as teams in business all the time. Why don’t we go to these folks who have been thinking about how to make that work?”
So I just see it being embraced more and more as the workplace gets faster.
The other part of that is the storytelling aspect, and storytelling is also a hot new tool in business which is ironic because of course it is the oldest of communication tools. And really what we are doing is going back to our roots and saying “Wow! How did we fundamentally as human beings connect with each other?” Science and the scientific method and data and charts are all well and good, but how do we really connect in a way that makes us remember and learn and internalise experience? And that’s storytelling.
Marie: We’ve got quite a good growing creative storytelling community building rapidly in Australia, and I know a lot of them use your StoryNet. Can you tell us a bit more about StoryNet?
Kat: Sure. StoryNet is my personal company and also created to be an online resource as well as a consulting and training business around the use of story in business. And we see story as really the fundamental building block of communication, that any learning is taking bits of data and connecting them and that’s the story. So StoryNet has some articles on the use of story for learning, it’s got periodic newsletter that offers folks a story around some learning point and often an activity as well. And some links to other resources around story and theatre and business and then some lists of our authorings and things.
Marie: I know there are many practitioners in our Flexible Learning Community who are avid storytellers and I’m sure they would love to get together with you and share some of their stories and to connect with you in a storytelling environment. So I hope you’ll come to our Community and run some Chat sessions or some threaded discussions to tap into your expertise about the whole area of improv and storytelling.
Kat: I would love that as I know there’s lots out there for me to learn as well.
Marie: So we’re looking forward to that and I’m sure that everyone will be looking forward to interacting with you. So thanks for sharing your insights and experience with us today Kat. It’s been much appreciated.
Kat: Thank you Marie.
Listen to the interview with Kat Koppett
(This is a large 11.5mb, mp3 file and depending on your connection speed may take a while to download)
Articles in the EDUCHAOS series
EDUCHAOS: out of control and thriving!
EDUCHAOS- Disruptive Technologies
EDUCHAOS: Using improv and storytelling in business
EDUCHAOS: Job Sculpting - in tune with making work WORK!
EDUCHAOS: Patchworking – showing off your assets
EDUCHAOS: Go Conative - where there’s will, you’re away!
EDUCHAOS: Tuning in to your own voice!
EDUCHAOS: Loose change – a new currency