Tag Archives: learning

5 Ways Improv Tools can pump up your meeting or event

The Engaging Event Series, #6

Much as we might like to control our day-to-day existence, the fact is that we live in an unscripted world, where we are constantly called upon to think on our feet–in other words, to improvise.  Most of us usually associate “improv” with comedy and theater.  Some have described it as “organized chaos” (not that different than life in general, when you think about it).  But it turns out that Basic Improv Techniques can provide us with opportunities to encourage bonding, collaboration, brainstorming and creative problem-solving–pretty common objectives whenever you get a group of people together.

This time around, I’m featuring a Guest Post by Jenise Fryatt, who’s one of my favorite bloggers about new ideas in event experience design. Among other things, Jenise creates content at Engage365 , Sound & Sight and EventProv.com.  In this post, Jenise shares a few things she learned about using improv while attending the 2011 Applied Improvisation Network Conference  in Baltimore last June.  In Jenise’s own words:

Here are 5 things I learned about how improv skills, games and concepts can enhance and even transform events and meetings.

1 – Help people connect and have fun
Be it a small group session or a large general session with hundreds of people, there are improv-inspired games that can get people smiling, connecting, bonding and having fun. Sometimes they were as simple as a game called Back to Back that helps people get to know each other in a fun, musical chairs way, or the Diamond Dance, in which participants stand up next to their (theater style) seats and mimic the dancing of the person in front of them.

2 – Teach communication skills for better learning, networking
Improvisors are EXPERT communicators who are trained to use much more than words in connecting with others. They learn these skills through games like Zip,Zap,Zop; Red Ball, One Word Story and much more. Nearly every game that improvisors use is an exercise in effective communication. Practicing such games at a conference is a fun way to teach skills that will not only help attendees get more out of your event, but will help them in the situations they return to at home.

3 – Create your presentation with your attendees
What if you became comfortable with taking your presentation in a different direction than you had planned. What if you actually co-created it with your attendees?

Time after time sessions at the AIN conference followed this non-structure. It wasn’t about the presenter imparting knowledge alone. The attendees played a great role in what direction it took. In fact, I often got the feeling that the presenter learned as much from the attendees as the attendees learned from the presenter.

Improvisors learn to be very PRESENT oriented and because of this, they are much more aware of learning opportunities and are quick to seize the moment. So what if the original plan gets dumped? As long as attendees are finding more value, it’s worth it.

4 – Work together to solve a problem
Crowd-sourcing is a great way to get information and it’s used widely on the internet through surveys and polls. But an event where you have them all in one room presents an opportunity for doing this that won’t take days or weeks. You can do a lot in under a 1/2 hour.

The AIN conference organizers wanted to use the group to help create better branding. During a session of nearly 30 people, they had individuals take turns sharing one word he or she felt defined AIN. The words were written on flip charts.

After each person had shared two words, the group was divided into smaller groups of 4 people each. Each smaller group choose 6 of the previously chosen words. Each group reported what their words were and a dot was placed by each word. Then the words with the most dots were chosen to be used in crafting a branding statement about AIN.

I was impressed by how well this quick process got to the heart of who the AIN attendees are and what they care about.

5 – Practice dealing with difficult situations
One of the general sessions employed a game (invented at the conference) for applied improvisors to address obstacles they face in selling their services. All 100 participants chose stations labeled either AIN or the name of one of our ideal clients, i.e. event planner, business schools, etc.

Each client group invented a persona and identified some of the obstacles they face. Then each person in a client group (of about 3 or 4) took turns facing off with an AIN member who was selling applied improvisation services.

It was very illuminating. Some of the insights gained included; how important it is to understand and use the terminology of potential clients; establishing a relaxed, friendly rapport is extremely helpful and practicing such conversations can really help to address issues ahead of time. The whole exercise took less than 1/2 hour.

Being around people who have in common a love of  “making stuff up”  was energizing and inspiring beyond words.  I hope to give you more of a feel of it in future posts.  But something that I think all of us AIN conference attendees also share, is the conviction that improv isn’t magic.  The tools that make us highly creative are tools that can be used successfully by anyone. AIN is an organization dedicated to spreading the word and I’m very proud to be associated with it.

(To view this post in its native habitat, follow this link to Eventprov.
Thanks, Jenise!

How have you used or seen improv techniques applied to your own event experiences?


For 10,000 Bonus Points:

  • For improv ideas, check out this laundry list of Improv Games (oddly enough, some of them double as drinking games…)
  • You might also be interested in this TED Talk by Stuart Brown, exploring the serious subject of Play:

Setting the stage for change: Getting your audience into creative learning mode

— The Engaging Event Series, #5 —

Today I feel like telling you about some overlapping ideas I’ve stumbled across from three very different people, who all happen to be brilliant, creative thinkers.  Each of these ideas has something to do with the challenge of helping people get into a mental and emotional space where they can most effectively absorb new information, brainstorm ideas, solve problems and develop creative solutions.  In other words, think differently.

Up first: Jeff Lieberman, host of the awesome Time Warp program on the Discovery Channel. Jeff says that creativity does not involve thinking; it involves attention–being in the moment. As he puts it, “Creativity comes from the moments we stop thinking.”  Here’s what Jeff has to say about the popularity of his TV show:

“The pieces that I developed in the arts and on the TV show created this feedback cycle where I noticed more and more that what I was working on was primarily engaging because of this initial sense of wonder it created. No matter what infor­mation you want to get across, this initial emotional reaction is necessary.” Simply put, this is what we mean by “getting their attention”.

Jeff says he noticed that people are only watching his show because in the first few seconds of each program, they see something that is totally foreign to them, and that opens them up. “When you’re in that receptive state, everything is different. When you’re in a state where you know that the things you are observing are outside of your realm of experience, you open yourself up to treat­ing things in new ways. It’s always about that initial three seconds, when you first engage this animal impulse of wonder and your audience is left speechless.” This is the true opposite of boredom—where we begin to “tune out” and, eventually, change the channel.  That’s the natural enemy of engagement and change.

I heard a similar message in a conversation I had recently with Russ Bennett, a designer, builder, sculptor, musician and social activist who lives just over the mountain from me in Waitsfield, Vermont.  Russ has done visual design and site layout work for most of Phish’s large extravaganzas as well as the incredibly successful Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee (a worthy focus for a future blog post on the power of events—stay tuned). Russ believes that when you create an experience with music or theater, your audience comes to you with an open mind—and if you associate an agenda, learning objective or cause with the experience, you can truly move people to change the way they think and ultimately the way they behave. In the case of a festival like Bonnaroo, the context of camping out with 80,000 strangers and sharing a vibrant, multi-sensory cultural experience takes people out of their normal day-to-day operating mode and opens them up to new experiences, as well as new ways of thinking about things. And evolving our thinking is the first step in improving our actions and results.  

Why is this so? I got some insight into this from a webinar I attended last month led by Andrea Sullivan, who runs a company called BrainStrength.  Andrea explained that “states of mind” are the emotional, cognitive and physical condition from which people are operating at any given moment. (In the events business, we might also think about states as “experiences”.)  The more of the brain that is activated by the immediate experience, the more your audience will become engaged.  Activating not only the mind, but also the body and multiple senses, will increase the impact.  Whenever your body is engaged, your brain is engaged and focused on that very moment, as opposed to thinking something that happened this morning or that needs to happen by tomorrow.   Again, as Jeff Lieberman says, creativity comes from the moments we stop thinking. 

The brain also responds powerfully to emotion.  So creating personal meaning for people—establishing relevance to their lives and the things that are important to them—can build an emotional connection that will support a change in thinking. Tapping people’s emotions helps them learn, by opening them up.  If you can create a context and activities that put people in such a state and then attach good feelings to it, you will be well on your way to getting your attendees into creative learning mode.

Of course, you don’t have to blow up a banana or build a campground for 80,000 people to accomplish this (although it certainly might help). These principles can work in any situation, with any size group–even with an audience of one.  But when you’re designing this initial experience, it’s generally not a bad idea to have fun and include some simple physical activity.  And if you can start out by creating that little sense of wonder–that intriguing idea, image or experience that falls outside of our normal experience–that will set the stage for receptivity and creative thinking. 

What are some innovative ways you have seen or done this yourself?  Feel free to add a comment below…

Meeting Design: It’s all about the experience, not the info.

“If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind,
give it some more thought.”      – Dennis Roch

Lately I’ve been writing about something I call Events 2.0, which is a nod to the term Web 2.0.  By that I mean events that go beyond just a passive TV-style experience and build in not only audience participation, but also make it possible for every participant to contribute to the experience and, ultimately, the value everyone takes with them when they leave.  That can take a lot of forms, depending on the type of event.  But if we’re talking about meetings or conferences, here are two fundamental principles for improving the impact of any meeting: 

1)  Minimize The Presentation Time. Get on, get to the point, and get off!
2)  Ramp Up The Interactive Time.  Spend at least half of the time facilitating interaction among participants, rather than just telling them stuff.

If a one-way information dump is needed, that can be accomplished a lot more efficiently through other means besides meetings.  Send out an e-newsletter.  Record a YouTube video. Distribute an old-fashioned memo.  Include background info in the event program.  Get yourself a bullhorn.  Those are all effective and reliable ways to distribute information to lots of people.

The whole point of bringing people together is to give them the opportunity to experience something that wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t shared with others, in the physical (or online) environment you’ve created for them.  And ideally, that will include interactions between the participants, whether it’s just swapping ideas, collaborating on a project or sharing a group physical activity–or even better, all three.  It doesn’t matter what scale of meeting we’re talking about: 6 people around a boardroom table or 3,000 people in a general session at the convention center. Same rules apply.

I get some pushback on this when I’m in a position to determine how much time a presenter will be given to show their stuff.  It might be a professional who is used to doing 45-minute stand-ups and I’m asking them to limit their presentation to 10 minutes.  Their first reaction is that they couldn’t possibly cover their topic with any depth; they would only be able to give it “lip service”.  (I’ve learned that lip service, if done well, can actually be pretty powerful.)   I see the same thing with groups of my students preparing presentations of their semester projects and, when I tell the four of them that they will have 12 minutes to present, they sometimes protest with, “We can’t possibly present our whole project in that much time!”   And you know what?  They’re right.  But there’s always enough time to present what’s most important.

The hard part?  Figuring out what the most important points are and finding a way to get them across in a compelling manner.  You might only be able to impress 1 or 2 or maybe 3 significant takeaways on your audience.  But that’s okay…as long as those few lessons will be lasting and useful.  If they only remember, accomplish, or learn how to do one thing when your time together is over, what do you want it to be?  If you’re not clear on that, you’re probably not designing the experience for maximum impact and ROI, or Return On Involvement

Of course, there are a lot of people working or experimenting with creative approaches to these challenges, and some of them have actually been doing it for a long time.  Next time out, I’ll give you a great list of examples of event techniques that are getting better and better at this.  In the meantime, make sure you’re getting right  to the point!  Your attendees—or better yet, “participants”—will thank you for it.  (And they’ll also get a lot more out of it.)

Brain Rules: “Chunking” Your Event Into Small Bites – Engaging Event Series #3

Too much information, too little time.

You know it—this is certainly one of the biggest challenges for us as we navigate life in the early 21st century.  We have access to (and are bombarded with) a virtually endless stream of info, but with hopelessly limited time to sort through it, process it, reflect upon it and apply it to our own lives.  God knows we’ve been trying, though.  Some years back, USAToday reformatted newspapers (remember those?) so that you could quickly scan dozens of newsbriefs right from the front page—a model  that is imbedded into just about every Internet homepage today.  We shifted from spending much of our days on the phone to scanning our email, then to text messaging, and now lots of us are making do with exchanging ideas in 140 characters or less on Twitter. For bloggers, a rule of thumb suggested by some experts is to keep your posts to three paragraphs or so, to ensure that your readers won’t bail out at the sight of a lengthy article (apparently I’m taking a bit of a chance here!).  TED talks have driven speakers to condense their 1-hour presentations down to 18 minutes.  

This is not really a new concept, however.  It’s basically just another way of delivering more “bang for the buck”, only now it’s being applied to your investment of time and mental capacity.  And we’re gobbling it up, despite the fact that it can be stress-inducing.  Most likely it’s going to get worse; Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently said “Today, more content is created in 48 hours than from the beginning of time until 2003.”  But if just reading this gets your heart beating a little faster, you should know that there is a silver lining in here: if managed properly, this need to limit the size of our information bursts may actually be better for our brains.

A few years ago I heard a Dartmouth professor named Chris Jernstedt speak about his research into how our brains work and learn.  It turns out that our natural attention span is shorter than you might think: the brain has a hard time processing more than 15 minutes of content at one stretch.  He introduced the concept of “chunking”, which refers to the fact that we process and remember information better when we group it into manageable units or chunks.  We have a finite capacity of short-term memory that can hold information in an active, readily available state, but when that memory bank is full, it starts pushing the oldest deposits out in order to make room for new information coming in. The only way we can keep from “losing” a lot of that information is if we use it right away—that’s what transfers the information into our long-term memory so we can go get it later.  We are much better at retaining new ideas and skills if given the chance to consider and try them out before our brain moves on to the next thing.

(fast forward to slide 17 to skip to the main ideas)

Problem is, a lot of the time this doesn’t happen.  And it’s one reason why we tend to tune out long, boring presentations that seem to go on and on, even if they are accompanied by zippy PowerPoint slides.  Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t explore a subject in depth; it just means that it will be more effective if we design an experience where the subject matter is broken up into bite-sized pieces that our brains can finish chewing on before we try to cram in another big fork-full of information.  It’s fine to schedule a 1-hour presentation or breakout session, as long as you “chunk” the material into several coherent segments and periodically give participants the opportunity for personal reflection and—ideally–interaction with others.

Here’s a quick summary of strategies for helping to make sure your program “sticks” with the participants:

  • Identify the most important information, concepts or skills to be delivered.  Leave out the fluff—you don’t need it. 
  • Break the program down into a series of manageable chunks.  Design 10- to 20-minute segments where you will introduce new information and then ask participants to use and apply it in some way.  
  • Build in time for participants to think about how they might relate the information that’s just been presented to their own business or personal lives.  Relevance is what makes it stick.
  • If you can swing it, conclude with an opportunity to reinforce key takeaways.  Refer back to your original goals for the session and, ideally give audience members the opportunity to share their own conclusions with others.

As a bonus, most people will experience this kind of program as being more engaging, more energizing and ultimately, more valuable.  So like Mom used to say, finish chewing your food before taking another bite.  That’s the best way to enjoy a big meal and, apparently, consuming information works pretty much the same way.


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