The Story Rules Podcast E10: Max Dickins – Improv Principles for better outcomes at work (Transcript)

Max Dickins
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E10: Max Dickins – Improv Principles for better outcomes at work (Transcript)

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Intro hook:

“So, I have this concept, which wasn’t in the book and this is bonus, which I call ‘Listening to Ignite’, which is, you’re listening for things that can really light up the other person. So, it’s about what your curiosity clicks into. And can you ask a question that allows them a launchpad to show the best of their skill, their experience, their expertise, their background? And I think in that occasion, when you’re thinking of those questions, when you’re thinking of something you remember, not being present with that person is almost the more generous act.”

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak with Max Dickins, an improv artist who helps leaders and their teams get extraordinary outcomes through the use of improvisation techniques. 

My first tryst with Improv was not a very impressive one.

​Several years back, I was attending an improv workshop at the quaint and idyllic ‘Pagdandi Bookstore Cafe’ in Pune. The instructor – a 25-something guy – was taking a bunch of folks, mainly youngsters, through the basics of improv. I must have been the oldest guy in the group.

​Perhaps the coach was inexperienced, or maybe the audience was a tad too rowdy – I just found the experience very underwhelming.

​If this is improv, count me out, I thought.

​That impression was smashed (and how) by ‘Improvise’ – Max’s fabulous book on this fascinating art.

​Improv, short for ‘Improvisational theatre’ is the art of unscripted theatre. But it goes so much beyond that. It’s a whole different way of thinking. A way of thinking that has applications in almost all aspects of life – whether at work or at home.

​In the book, Max shares several lessons from improv that can help you to:

  • Be more creative
  • Listen better
  • Become more mentally agile
  • Improve spontaneity
  • Enhance collaboration
  • Embrace failure and learn from it

We touch upon all of these topics in the conversation. I specifically was curious to know how Improv principles can help us listen and present better at the workplace. Max has some great ideas for us.

Let’s dive in.

Welcome, Max, to the Story Rules podcast.

Max (0:13)

Thank you very much for having me! (I’m) looking forward to it.

Ravi (0:15)

Wonderful. Max, I had a problem when I was, you know, preparing for this. So, normally, in my interviews, I like to go fairly prepared. I like to have a clear list of questions. I know, “Okay, this is what I’ll start with, then I’ll go here, go here.” Here, I’m thinking, “How much preparation should I do? And how much should I leave to the spontaneity of the moment?” So, you had me in a bit of a bind here.

Max (0:40)

Yeah, hopefully, you’re not too anxious about this. So, maybe we could kick off with this. I’m obviously a guy who talks a lot about improv. And it’s been a lot of my life, improvisation. And a lot of people have this idea that improvisation is the opposite of planning, or the opposite of preparation. And actually, I don’t think that’s a good way of thinking about it. I think we improvise in moments where scripts, and plans, and preparation become less relevant. And, my perspective on a lot of communication, especially at work, is there’s quite a lot of those situations. So, we’re not always just with a deck, delivering a message. Often, we’re trying to land our points in a room with a human being, and we don’t know what they’re like till we get in. We don’t know how they’re going to respond, what’s going to happen in that dynamic. And so, that’s where improv is really relevant. Does that mean you shouldn’t prepare? Absolutely not, you should prepare. I’m big on preparation. But, the reality of the moment should always trump that preparation. So, I’m honoured that you’ve thought of preparing for this interview. But also, I’m honoured that you’re thinking of surrendering that to address what’s actually going to be in front of us.

Ravi (1:56)

I love that paradox, Max. Actually, it was a notion that I had, that improv means being in the moment and not really going (in) with too much preparation. And when I read your book, (although) it’s been many months now, but it’s still really changed a lot of the ways that I think about communication— (the ways that) I think about life, actually, not just communication. And this was amazing for me that, yes, you need to prepare. And one explanation that I really liked in your book was about the different types of problems that we deal with in life and in work, and the difference between simple, complicated, and complex problems, and why we need improv for certain types of problems. Can you talk about those three types of problems?

Max (2:41)

Yeah, absolutely! So, this is a concept borrowed from the world of agility. And so, a lot of people who work in the military talk about this stuff. But, it’s actually much simpler than it sounds. So, three sorts of problems: (first), you’ve got a simple problem. So, a simple problem is one that has an easy fix that we already know. So, for example…I think the example I give in the book is frying an egg; we know how to fry an egg. You shouldn’t improvise frying an egg, just do the best thing you can, that’s worked before. And then, the next sort of problem is a complicated problem, which is similar in that we’ve solved it before, but it probably takes an expert to do that. So, if I’ve got a problem with my car, I’ll go to a mechanic who will fix it. He’ll be able to solve that complicated problem. But a complex problem is different from both of these, in that we don’t even know what the boundaries of that problem are until we get into it. So, an expert is of limited value in and of itself, because what’s worked before might not work again, and exactly what’s going on will only become apparent as we move through solving that problem. So, an example of this is maybe…Well, it’s an improv scene, to start with. So, in an improv scene, we don’t know what it’s going to be about; we don’t know the nature of that problem until it begins. And then after a while, we go ‘okay, we’re in a hospital. Right, I’m a doctor and you’re a patient. Right, you’re giving birth.’ And I know what I’m trying to do now. But I found it step by step, the boundaries of that problem. And then in the world of business, an example would be coming out with a new product for a customer. It’s a new product in a new category—especially tech are problems like this, right? You don’t know what people are going to want. And so, you can only solve that problem by moving step by step and getting feedback. And that’s how we learn what the problem is, on the one hand; on the second hand, it’s how we learn how to solve that problem.

Ravi (4:50)

And, I think, what’s also giving rise to a higher set of complex problems, or a higher share of complex problems in our world now, is maybe the pace of technology change, or how people’s expectations are changing. And the way that even 10-15 years ago, we all had simpler jobs. I would say I was doing consulting, it was complicated, but it was predictable. Now, every day, almost every month, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, what am I going to do in the next quarter?’ And there’s such a wide variety of possibilities in front of me that I might have something on paper as a plan, but I have to be alive in the moment.

Max (5:32)

Absolutely. And I think an example of that in action, is (that) a lot of our jobs now are very much to do with collaborating with other people. But working with customers, co-creating with customers, and relationship building is probably the ultimate complex problem, right? People are similar, but they’re also massively different. And finding that connection, building that relationship, is something we can fall back on, some best practice. But really, we have to be responsive to that person, and our jobs are more than ever defined by those relationships. So, I completely agree with you that this is much more central to the world of work than it’s ever been before.

Ravi (6:13)

And now, since we’re talking about being responsive to the other person, I’d like to do a little bit of a deep dive into the whole skill of listening. I got a lot of very interesting ideas from your book. I’m actually asking this as a selfish question, because when I do these podcast interviews, I face a bit of an attention challenge, right? So ideally, my attention should be completely focused on what you’re saying. But, a small part of my brain is also thinking that “Okay, Max is saying ‘X, Y, Z,’ and given this, what would my audience want to know more (about)? So, what should I be asking next?”, and one small part of my brain is thinking, “Okay, he’s talking about ‘X’, but you have ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ coming up next. What will go well with this? Oh, by the way, the clock is ticking and you need to…” and this happens in multiple conversations where you have asked a question, and you’re listening to the response, but your mind is also thinking about possible responses, etc. So, is there a smart way of managing these competing areas of attention and being as fully present as possible while listening?

Max (7:30)

Yeah, I mean, that’s really well put, and actually, the situation you described there is also what happens in an improv scene. So, I’m listening to my partner trying to make up the scene as we go along, trying to be entirely present. But I’m also thinking, “Hang on, what did we say three lines ago? Where’s this going? What might the joke in six lines’ time be? Where does the story need to move?” And it’s same as an interview, because you’re going “okay, I need to put this on; my next question is this…” as you put it yourself.

So, a few things here: the first thing is, what I found, when you really focus on listening well, that part of your brain expands and it becomes easy to do both things at once. So that’s the good news. And, I would say that really listening…I liken it a little bit to mindfulness, in that if you’ve ever done a mindfulness practice in the Headspace app, or there’s some people (who) like meditation, they always say (in) meditation, your mind is inevitably going to drift off to other things. But the focus should always be about coming back to the breath when it goes. So, it’s about the awareness of going, “Oh, I’ve gotten lost in my head”, and coming back to the person. So rather than having just a strategy that allows you to do both at once, for me, it’s a question of, firstly, are you mindful that you’ve drifted off to bring it back to the person? And secondly, what’s your motivation for not being present? Your situation that you described there about interviewing me or interviewing your guests, is quite a unique one. But we often will have the feeling in a conversation or a meeting, that we’re drifting off into our own head thinking about what we’re going to say next, or thinking about what’s in our notes. But are we getting lost because we’re worrying about what we look like? Or are we getting lost, which I think you’re doing, which is always trying to make me look good in going ‘How do I make the most of this interviewee, make them feel like they’re being listened to and expand on what’s interesting to them?’ Your motivation is different there. So, I have this concept, which wasn’t in the books and this is bonus, which I call ‘Listening to Ignite’, which is, you’re listening for things that can really light up the other person. So, it’s about what your curiosity clicks into. And can you ask a question that allows them a launchpad to show the best of their skill, their experience, their expertise, their background? And I think in that occasion, when you’re thinking of those questions, when you’re thinking of something you remember, not being present with that person is almost the more generous act.

Ravi (10:10)

I love that concept, Max! Listening to ignite. I mean, everyone has that dry powder in them, somewhere. And if you light that spark at the right point or the right place, then you’ll have a brilliant explosion of thoughts and ideas and (I had) never thought of it that way. Although, now that you mention it, it is something that, I think, is every interviewer’s dream, right? To spark that, and then that person really goes deeper than just giving regular, basic answers.

Max (10:52)

Absolutely. I mean, we’re talking about listening. So, this is going to sound like another paradox. But listening is not just about listening. Because you could listen to everything I say through this conversation, and I might leave thinking that it wasn’t a great conversation, because the goal is not just to listen to me, the goal is to make me feel something. It’s to feel a sense of intimacy with you, and a sense that you have seen me. And that isn’t only about listening to my words, it’s about helping me find that stuff that I’m proud of, or that I want to talk about. Now, I had this in a…I’m writing another book at the moment, and I have to interview people for that. A lot of it’s about intimacy, and I was talking to this person, and she was saying that…for example, she had a conversation with someone, and she was talking about something and they said, “Oh, that reminds me of something you said to me three years earlier.” And she said, “Oh, my God! that made me feel brilliant, because you’ve remembered that about me.” And another example she gave was when I asked her a question, and she was like, “Oh, do you know what? No one’s asked me that question before!” or “You could tell I was enthusiastic about that, and you’ve really dug your fork into that and you wanted me to say more.” And that made our conversation great. So, listening is (something that) I think we need to get away from it. (To get away from) thinking we’re just executing a skill and just not speaking; listening is more active than that. Listening is in the preparation, weirdly, to an extent. And it’s also in making sure that you’re asking questions that sets the other person up to tell you stuff that they really want to share.

Ravi (12:35)

I love that. You also mentioned that this kind of a situation, where one person is interviewing, is a bit of a rare situation. But in typical, regular conversation—and I’m just reminded of a conversation I had a couple of hours ago, with a friend—He was talking about a start-up that he’s just founded with another guy. And they’re working on creating a platform for social enterprises to be able to push their content on various platforms, like TikTok and Twitter, etc. While I’m listening to this, my mind—and here, I’m not interviewing him, it’s a regular conversation. So, here’s what happens in my mind, or in most people’s minds: “Okay, what do I know (about this topic) that I can tell him? That, ‘Hey, I know somebody else who was doing this.” So, it’s almost that “Yeah, I’ve heard you. But now I want to show off what I know about this topic.” It comes so naturally, that I told him that and then I don’t think I let him finish (talking about) his topic. He heard me, and we were both playing the same ping-pong. He ignored what I said. He’s like, “Ha-ha! Yeah, I know there are a lot of such platforms.” And then he went on with what he had to say. Basically, we were talking past each other. How do you (listen) in regular conversations? Listening is hard, Max. It takes a lot of effort to do this mindfully. Is it just, as you’re saying, a matter of practice? You do it again and again, and the listening muscles in your brain become better?

Max (14:16)

I think there’s some truth in that, definitely. I’d also say that we want to be better at listening, but communication is an absolute mess. It’s a miracle that we have good conversations when we have them. So, we are sometimes going to talk past each other. Because think about all the different things that have to go right. I’ve got to behave in a good way, (with) a good communication style; you’ve got to do the same. We’ve got to be in a context which allows that to happen, where we’ve got time and space, and we’re not interrupted and the tech doesn’t go wrong, there’s no other people in the room, who are changing what’s happening and pushing in another direction. So, communication is really hard. I think, what’s important is to not worry about being perfect and not lose the ambition to improve. But, let’s not beat ourselves up. And that’s why the mindfulness analogy I like, is we don’t always have to get it right, we come back to listening really well, when we get off it. And something else I just wanted to kind of throw in there based on the example you gave, is sometimes, when we’re talking past each other, we don’t call it out. And sometimes, I think what conversations need is for somebody to go, “Hey, I think we’re talking past each other here.” And you don’t have to do in a heavy way, (you could) be like, “I’m not sure I was clear in the point I made.” Or maybe, “I’m not sure you understood what I said,” or going “We’re not connecting here.” And if you do it with a smile, then it’s fine. And you get to reset. Often, when I’ve had terrible conversations it’s because I haven’t called out what’s going on, either with myself—and gone, “I wasn’t listening. Sorry about that.” Or gone, “Oh, sorry, mate! I just think we’re not clear on what we’re both talking about here.” So sometimes labelling it is half the battle as well.

Ravi (16:14)

That’s a great idea! One concept that I really liked in the book, which explained to me why listening is tough, was the Speech-Thought differential. And it’s a concept that when you read it, (you think) -, “Oh, of course! That makes sense.” But I think that was the first time I actually read it as cold, hard numbers. So maybe you can talk a little bit about that.

Max (16:38)

Yes, so the Speech-Thought differential, again, is in a sense, quite a depressing concept. So, in a nutshell, we can speak at a certain number of words per minute, on average, which is about 300-ish; we can listen at about 800, 900 words per minute-ish. So, there’s a big gap between how much we can take in, and what the other person can say. So, our brains get bored and busy, and get on with other stuff. Because our brains can form thoughts at 1,500 words per minute. So, in a sense, it’s inevitable that we’re not going to be able to focus all the time on what the other person says, especially as some people talk really slowly, and are really boring! They are, sometimes! That’s true. But what I quite like about it, is that it kind of gives us a ‘get-out-of-jail card’, in that we can go “Right, this is difficult. I’m never going to be perfect, but I can try and improve my success and come back to a good practice whenever I drift away from it.”

Ravi (17:55)

Some specific situations that I wanted to talk about (relate to how) listening and responding can be tough. So, let’s say this is a corporate presentation. And somebody who is junior to mid-level (manager) is presenting to a bunch of folks who are a little senior (to them). And a typical problem that people always face is: let’s say they have prepared for a 30-minute presentation with 15 minutes of Q&A. Often, in minute five, when they are on slide two or three, there’ll come a bunch of questions which will derail their flow, or will interrupt them. And then people struggle with these questions. “So, should I take these questions now? Should I listen to them and respond to them right now? Or should I tell them clearly ‘No, hang on guys, we’re going to be covering it later.’ Or, ‘Can you hold up questions for later?’” That’s from the presenter’s point of view. And from the reviewers’ point of view, maybe that person’s thinking “Hey, if I have a question, I should ask it because I’ll forget it.”, right? So, what are your thoughts on that?

Max (19:05)

Yeah, that’s a really good question, and an interesting scenario. And there probably isn’t always a perfect solution here. I, personally, would not take questions during the flow. Because the people who aren’t interested in the question, they are now waiting. You’re kind of answering one person’s question, but in that sense, it’s a bit selfish because other people just have to wait. Also, you may be addressing this information later on. And that part of the presentation now becomes boring or null and void because you’ve got it out of the way, and as you know, because you are a narrative guy, you’re a story guy, we structure information in a certain way to have the most impact and to make it as clear as it can be. And this may potentially ruin that. So, I wouldn’t take the question. Now, there are some caveats here: in that, if we’re talking to really senior people, and they really push us, and they’re not going to take no for an answer, if they don’t accept “I’m going to get to that a bit later on. It’s a great question, I promise I’m going to cover that later on. And if I don’t, I’m very happy to answer any follow up questions.” If they don’t accept that as an answer, then I suppose you’re going to have to take the question. But there is another way around this so that you stop them asking questions in the first place. This is a concept I call an ‘Anti Story’. I’ve borrowed this from some other people in the game. ‘Anti Story’ is very simple: People enter the room with a set of objections in their head, or a set of questions they want answered. And often, until you answer it, or until you address the objection, they can’t listen. They sit there getting very angsty, and going “Oh, I really want to say this.” or, “Oh, I don’t want to listen to this, this is irrelevant.” I often have that when I run improv workshops with corporates. Half the room are going to be up for it, half the room are going to be thinking, “Why on Earth are we wasting time doing this?” And if I don’t address that question in the first minute and a half, they aren’t going to get involved. And I think it’s the same in the presentation. So, if you can cover this stuff off…I’m trying to think of that guy, Christopher Voss, the FBI guy. He’s got some great, really interesting work around negotiation. He calls it, you’ve got to ‘audit the objections’, and if you get them out of the way, then people are ready to connect, ready to listen, and then you can potentially do that near the top of what you’re saying. Then people aren’t going to interrupt with a question, because they know you’re aware of the question.

Ravi (22:14)

I love that. I think, even in Shawn Callahan’s (book), they talk about the ‘Anti Story’. I think that (it involves) at least telling those questioners that “Hey, I know that you have this other question, and don’t worry, we will be addressing it. So, hang on, and let me get on with the story.”

(In) communication overall, I (think that there are) lots of ideas that we can borrow from improv. And one surprising idea that came up in the book was the concept of clarity, that when you’re on the stage, don’t assume that your partner is going to read your mind. There’s a similar thing in the workplace; there’s this concept in communication known as the ‘curse of knowledge’, where we don’t know what it is not to know something, sometimes, when we know something. And then we talk to other people assuming that they know it (too). And I liked some of the ideas that you’d given in the book. Maybe you can elaborate on those. One was this “jargon-busting” where you said, ‘Explain it to my mom, and she has to get it.’ and the other where you talked about “Half Life”. And so maybe you can talk about those, and maybe a few more on clarity in communication.

Max (22:36)

Yeah. In improvisation, if you can imagine a scene on stage, there’s an awful lot of stuff we don’t know, as performers, between us. And so, the more we can take away that uncertainty, the easier it is. And, I think, this is a really good analogy to communications (and) conversations in life. So, I think there are cultural differences here. But generally, we don’t say what we think and we feel; we slightly dress it up. We may be trying to be polite, or we’re trying to make ourselves sound smart, or we want to avoid conflict. So, we’re not clear—in improv we use the word ‘offers’—So, I’m giving and receiving offers all the time. And I want my offers to be clear, both my verbal offer and my non-verbal offer. And so, this can often manifest in different ways. One way it classically manifests is (by) using phrases and words that are from your part of business or knowledge, that your audience just doesn’t understand. And they might not tell you they don’t understand them, or they might have a different definition. And so, we want to avoid using jargon words. So, I often do an exercise, and it’s in the book, called “jargon-busting”, as you said, where I get people to explain to somebody what they do for a living, using as many of these jargon terms from their world as possible. And then I say to them, “Right, get rid of that. I want you to tell them, ‘Now imagine they’re my mum.’ Right? ‘And my mum’s not stupid, but she’s 60. She doesn’t know a lot about tech. Tell my mum what you do.’” And obviously, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, having to explain it to my mum. But what this gets at, is the answer of ‘Why should I care?’ Not just what you literally do, but what outcome and what value do you provide in what you do? But also, it makes it clearer by getting rid of that language.

Another thing we do that makes our communication less clear, is we talk using far too many words. And we do it because we’re either in a rush, oddly. So, we’re not clear, we don’t put the mental effort in. Or, we want to show off a bit. Or we’re, again, talking to an audience, which we think will just read in between the lines. So ‘Half Life’ is imagining, can you say this message in 20 to 30 seconds? And what can you get rid of and still maintain the heart of this message? Now, I’m thinking about this stuff a lot at the moment because I’m writing a book, I know we’re talking about oral communication here, but I’m writing another book, and I can promise you, the editor from the publisher, all the notes I get are around this stuff. Even now—I talk about this stuff for a living—Even now, I’m told “You can cut 40% out of this easily”, “What does this word mean? No one talks like that!” Editors are great because they’re like, “No one talks like that. What does that mean? That kind of jargon word, you sound so tedious! No one talks like that.”

So that’s information. And often though, the problem is in emotion. And we hate saying what we feel, because it feels confrontational. I think this is a major thing in building relationships, but also in negotiations often, (a major thing) is making your feelings clear. And therapists—This is again, not in the book, (so it’s) bonus content! This is something that I’ve learned in the last year or so, and it’s been ran in therapy for ages. It’s a really good trick. They call it “I” statements. We actually use this on stage, I use this all the time on stage, and “I” statements is just to use the phrase “I feel __” and fill in the gap. So, it might be, “I feel confused now”, or “I feel a little bit upset here” or, “I feel a bit patronized.” Now, what that does is, it gets us on the same page immediately in terms of the emotional content. So, when you mentioned the curse of knowledge, that’s so much about the language we use and the metaphors…but I think the feelings aspect is so important, because the emotion is about 80% of communication, often.

Ravi (28:23)

So true, Max! And when I was taking notes from what you had written about clarity and communication, the two groups that I had made was, one category of communication is when you’re not really necessarily talking about stuff that is emotionally resonant. So, it might be just you giving data or numbers or talking about some regular business work, where it’s more important to just be clear, and that’s where, I think, simpler words and lesser words, all of that helps. But as you say, a lot of communication is emotionally resonant, and emotions are always there under the surface, and I, personally, completely struggle with it. I’m far more comfortable trying to convert the unclear to the clear, or the verbose to the concise; but if in a conversation, somebody says or does something that takes off my emotions, it just hijacks—the amygdala hijack, as people talk about – (it kicks in). And, I just loved that idea where you say that (one should) just observe and share your feelings. Easier said than done, but it is great. Have you also been…do you find yourself, sometimes, when you’re in that heat of the moment, so to speak, (that you) actually struggle to actually follow this?

Max (29:49)

Yeah, absolutely. And we’re social animals, right? So, we want to be part of the pack, part of the tribe; we don’t want to be thrown out. So, this stuff is hard because I don’t want to upset people. I also don’t want to make myself seem unprofessional by just being emotional all the time. It’s not suitable all the time. But I feel often, as I’ve gone through my career, I’ve gotten better at this. When I feel a relationship with a client is going a bit off, I then have to be more direct and more honest with my feelings about something. Because then, in the long run, they’re like, “Oh, thank you, we can fix this now.” Whereas before, I’d get more and more irritated to the point where I didn’t want to work with them anymore. So, it’s something that’s come with experience and, I think, with age, being prepared to be more direct with the communication; and so, directness is also the “I” statement of how you feel. But also, directness, I think of it in terms of questions. Which is, again, slightly more indirect, and therefore, less confrontational. (One way) is to ask the direct question and call out what’s going on. So it might be, “How do you think this is going?” Or “How do you feel at the moment?” I mean, there’s again, something in the book that we use a lot on stage. It’s called ‘labelling’. “You seem upset”, or “It feels like I’ve not been clear here”, or “It sounds like you’re a bit frustrated with the process.” And then they can go either yes or no, so, we’re clear on what’s going on. And, if the answer is ‘yes’, we go “Can you tell me more?” and then we get rid of all this nonsense of us missing each other, because we’re trying to be polite and trying to beat around the bush. So, directness is not just about your feelings, it’s about how you explore their feelings with labels and questions.

Ravi (31:48)

Yeah! So, labelling, that’s a great process there. Helping them label their feelings and labelling our own feelings, is a great way to get it out, instead of letting it simmer. I’ve gone through this in so many situations, whether it’s clients at work, or at home also, where something is bubbling under the surface and I let it bubble, (then another) little bubble. And then finally, there’ll be an explosion, when the lava comes out, which is terrible.

Max (32:15)

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, culturally, there’s a lot of differences between different places. So, I don’t want to make assumptions. But, in the U.K., in the U.S., in the west, there’s a lot of chatter around masculinity, and so-called toxic masculinity. And a lot of this is about men not really being able to articulate their feelings and repressing them, pushing them down. And I went to a men’s group the other night, and the facilitator there, he said something great like, “We’ll go around the circle, say your name, where you’re from,” he said, “How are you feeling? If you feel anything, just name it.” And I think, ‘so weird!’ And I thought about it for a second, I thought, “Oh, how do I feel?” rather than just going ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ I went, “I feel a bit overwhelmed at the moment in my professional life, I feel I’ve got a challenge, which is steep, and I’m trying to learn on the job.” And by naming it, I got clarity myself, but also suddenly opened up the conversation because people could connect to that, because it was solid, and real, and tangible, rather than kind of vague.

Ravi (33:25)

So powerful. Talking about speaking in front of other people, there is this…we also talked about where we are social animals, and we fear what others would think of us, and that leads us to this fear of especially speaking in front of others. There was this famous Seinfeld joke, where he says that according to most studies, the number one fear (that people have) is public speaking; number two is death. So, if you were at a funeral, you might as well be in the casket rather than giving the eulogy. Yeah, I guess, a lot of it is down to practice and preparation, but can improv thinking or improv skills help us to manage that fear?

Max (34:12)

Yeah, I think so. Absolutely. So, there’s a few things here. So, when people think of improv, they go ‘That’s absolutely terrifying. How do you do that? You must be so nervous!’ And the answer is, well, I’m not, actually. I’m more nervous for a phone call with a client (whom) I’ve not met before, than I am going on stage to improvise a comedy show. There are a few reasons for that. One is, like you said yourself, I’ve practiced. So, there’s no getting away from it. Confidence appears in the rear-view mirror. The more we do something, the more comfortable we are. That’s one part of it. The other part is, I know my partner on stage has my back. Before shows, we literally look each other in the eyes, touch each other on the back and say “I’ve got your back.” So, there’s support there. What else is going on, is that I have a method, and my focus is not on the outcome. It’s on executing the process, it’s on the techniques. And what I’m literally doing (is) I’m not thinking about “Oh, I hope I’m funny. I hope the audience like me.” I’m thinking about “Tonight, I’m going to listen really, really well. Tonight, I’m going to call out anything that’s unclear. Tonight, when I walk on the stage, I’m going to come on with energy.” And this is mapped across to whatever we do in life. (They) talk a lot about it in in cricket, right? I’m a massive cricket fan, we’ve got the Indian test team over here at the moment. And a lot of what they’ll talk about—the coaches—it’s about going, “Don’t think about what’s going to happen if you get a nought; it’s about watching the ball. It’s about executing the skill.” And really, we get nervous about public speaking because we get lost in the outcome. We think about what the audience are thinking, we think about the consequence of this for our career. And we get away from the process. If you focus on the process all the time, it really helps you to control your nerves. And that for me, is the biggest thing. Are you clear about what you are going to do in terms of process when you speak?

Ravi (36:24)

But you know, I’ve tried this…sorry, this is really, really useful.  But I have tried improv, (it was a) very minor, small session. My biggest fear, then, was ‘What if I’m saying something mundane?’ because that’s what comes to my mind. We both are exchanging a bunch of very normal, mundane, boring stuff, so then why would the audience listen to us? So how do you do manage that fear?

Max (36:57)

So, I would ask, is that story, that you’re saying is boring, is that true in reality? Or is that constructed in your head, and isn’t true, right? So, would an audience listen to us if we’re being really boring? No, and they shouldn’t do that, they’re busy. This is when it comes down to, again, if you’re going to do a speech, prepare for the speech, prepare your content, right? Of course, they don’t owe you attention. But what people have when they speak is, in the moment, having done the work and they’re presenting it, in the moment, they look at people’s faces and then their stories start getting into their head. “Oh, that guy there looks really bored. I must be boring.” “Over there, I think she’s looking at her phone. God, I have such a flat voice! God, I hate my voice. I’ve always hated my voice. Oh, that person over there looks a bit worried. Maybe I got that stat wrong. Oh my god.”

It’s all in your head, it’s all complete rubbish! Probably, this guy here who looks bored, maybe it’s just what he looks like when he’s thinking. The woman over there, maybe her kid is at school and has had an emergency, right? This person over there, maybe they’re not thinking about that stat that’s wrong. Well, maybe they’re thinking, “Oh, I never thought of it like that before!” That’s probably what’s going on. But we, in our head, we’re creating this narrative around it. And also, I would say, and this is a big thing — It’s a slightly separate point, but I think connected—The big thing about improv is it teaches you that our goal is to communicate. Right? It’s not to be perfect. We get rid of the idea of perfect, we don’t need to be perfect. The goal is to communicate, it really frees you up. This is a good example here. We’re having a chat, I’ll try and answer your question as well as I can; when I get it wrong, I’ll just have another go, or you’ll go, “I don’t really get that” or “Can I have another example?” That’s fine, the pressure’s off. And when you realize you don’t have to be perfect, that really does free you up. And I think (with) improv, the biggest thing I’ve gotten from the public speaking point of view, the biggest thing I’ve gotten out of it, I should say, is that mistakes, when we own them and we kind of stick our chest out, with a glint in our eye a bit of a smile…When we make mistakes, it really creates a connection to the audience. Now you don’t want to make tons because otherwise it’s incompetence – slightly different, that. But there’s nothing more charismatic than someone who can own their errors on stage, or isn’t that worried about perfection.

Ravi (39:30)

One line that I really liked in the book, which resonated with me on mistakes is the one, I forget the (person’s) name but it’s a jazz musician. He says that it’s not the wrong note that that’s the mistake, but it’s the note (that’s played) after it which makes it a mistake. It’s fascinating that even if somebody says something or does something wrong, what do you do with that (is what matters).

Max (39:58)

Yeah, that’s a Miles Davis quote; and yes, the note you play afterwards (is the one) that makes that note right or wrong, he says. And for me, that, as a quote, is really useful if you think about business conversations. Because sometimes you have a chat, and you hit a bit of a bump in the road, something a bit difficult happens, maybe there’s an objection, or there’s a bit of conflict. I think, before I did improv, I would have gone “Oh my god, this is a real problem.” Now, I can go “Well, actually, how can I reframe this as something useful?” This conflict is actually giving me information about this person, that’s going to allow me to connect to them, and allow our relationship to be better in the long run. Like in a sales process where you’re pitching, and somebody goes, “That’s too expensive.” On the one hand it’s like, “Oh, no! I’m trying to sell this, (but this) guy hates this. It’s too expensive,” but on the other hand, you can use that frame as something to actually position your value. So, you might say, “Yeah, that is a bit expensive. You’re right. I can give you the name of a rival who’ll do it cheaper than that. But I tell you, what they can’t do, is they can’t make this service as bespoken as personal. That’s why it’s more expensive, so you really see the value and how personal it is” so that the note, the response makes the problem originally suddenly meaningful and positive.

Ravi (41:28)

Let me share an example that got triggered when we were talking about mistakes, I’d love to know your opinion on how could I have played it (out) better. So, this was a training session that I was conducting for a bunch of senior guys and (they had a) technology background. What happened was, I had a set of modules in mind, broadly around data storytelling. And so, on day one—and it was a two-day session, face to face—Day one went really well; you could get that sense from them that they were really enjoying this, they were finding it useful. And on day two, I had a bunch of modules in mind and it started off with, let’s say, module ‘A’. And one of the folks that was maybe, slightly more senior than the others, during one of the small breaks he came up and then told me, “Hey, Ravi, I don’t find this useful, this is not relevant.” Now, that was his offer to me. My response, for whatever reason was…(now) by that time, I had looked at some of the other folks’ actual work and my assessment was that, “No, you guys need it.” And maybe it was more that “Okay, you may be personally thinking it’s not relevant, but I think that for the rest of them, it is relevant.” So, I kind of continued doing it. And now, that person went and spoke to the HR folks. And finally, one of them (who was) kind of a senior person from the HR team came to say, “Ravi, I think we should stop this now, and move on to something else.” That’s when I had to do it, and it didn’t look great, and I was maybe a little rattled too, that this has not happened before. And by the end of it, it was all fine, but I’m just curious to know what I could have done better, if a situation like that comes again.

Max (43:22)

Well, my heart goes out to you because, you know, I do a lot of training myself, and that is a really hard situation. What could you have done differently? I’m not sure you could’ve done too much differently, there. I think you handled it really well, you said, “Look, I’ve had a look at the stuff and this is not only for you, it’s for everyone, and having seen their work, I think actually this is going to be really valuable for them.” And this guy, because he’s more senior, has sort of puffed his chest out and gone straight to the HR and got what he wanted. I mean, not very good behaviour, to be honest, from him. You can’t control their behaviour, you can only control their response; you can’t control how people communicate, you can only control how you respond to that. Another way of putting that same idea. I think you did the right thing. This is what I mean about communication not being perfect, and sometimes there are no right answers. I mean, you have to keep the client happy, right? (You) couldn’t have done anything differently. The only thing you could have maybe done differently, is made the case better to that individual and said to them, “Look, let me show you what I mean. Here is the work I’m seeing, and this is where it’s not being done right, and this is why I’m going to push on with this” Because what went wrong is the guy didn’t believe you, when you made the case, he was like, “I don’t buy it.” But then I would also say, that potentially, Ravi, this guy never was going to buy it anyway.

Ravi (44:47)

You’re right. I think, I made that assessment in my mind, but I did not communicate it. Oh, by the way, this is, I think, a great time to talk about the ‘NLDC framework’ which I loved. I didn’t know it at that time. In my mind, it all happened too fast and when you’re running a session for 20, 25 people, it’s kind of difficult to stop and then have a one-on-one conversation with one guy to try and convince him. But yeah, at some level, I should have tried to do that. So, in my mind I think I noticed something, I did not let go, I decided something and I did not communicate; so, yeah, it was not done very well, maybe. But, yeah, you could talk about the NLDC framework. I really found that very cool.

Max (45:30)

Yeah, so, I always found with business books, they fill it full of acronyms that make you roll your eyes and go “Oh good, another acronym! That’s we needed. There aren’t enough acronyms in the business world.” But I thought, ‘I’m doing a book, I’ve got to come up with an acronym!’ Here’s the motivation, though: I was trying to sum up, very simply, what’s going on when an improviser is improvising a scene. And I realized, it’s also what happens when we respond to any change in the world, or any situation where we have to be responsive, think on our feet, be agile. And we circle through this loop that I call ‘NLDC’. I’m going to say what those words are. Really, the words are slightly less important than the actual concept. So, the first thing we do when something happens—bang! We’ve got to notice it. Now that sounds really obvious, but of course you’re going to notice it, it’s right in front of your eyes. But how often in life are we blind to change? Because either we’re lost in habits, either we’re terrified of what might be there, or we’re so absorbed in what we’re doing, that we just don’t quite have time to really check in with the feedbacks. We’ve got to observe, we’ve got to notice. And so, that’s the first thing, (it) is being really aware, and that’s about what we’re doing with our eyes, our ears, and in a broader perspective, are we plugged into what’s happening in the world?

Ravi (46:59)

Just to add onto that…Sometimes, I think, in my case, there’s a bit of denial. That ‘No, that’s not happening. I don’t think this guy is unhappy with me. I think it’s just a mild thing.’ I think that just acknowledging that, “yeah, sorry this has happened,” (will help). So, notice it and, yeah, sorry.

Max (47:16)

Absolutely. So, the denial thing, so I’m going to come to that (in a bit). That’s a really important word, I’m actually going to come to that now with an example, in a second.

So, we’re noticing, we’re observing, we’re aware of the change. Now, what do we do? Well, the ‘L’ in NLDC is ‘Let go’. And this is, actually I think, the hardest part of it. So, we’ve got to let go of our plan to address what’s actually happening. If we keep on doing the same thing, we’re not going to get what we want, the change is going to kill us, or we’re going to miss the opportunity and change. So ‘Let go’ is about being calm, I’m not going to panic, I’m going to stay calm and I’m going to take some breaths, and I’m going to respond, in a way that improvisers say, is ‘at the height of our intelligence’, at our best and not at our panicked worst, right? We want to reframe it as well, and go, “What’s the offer here? What can I use? What’s useful? What resources have I got?” So that we now can approach this new situation with positivity. Denial is often a big thing we have to overcome here, like you said. Because we have a lot of sunk costs here, often. So, it’s emotional investment; it’s time, its money, it’s pride. People have seen us do this thing, where you’re working in a business, right? What do you do? It’s also identity. This is me; this project is me! So, we’re going to let go of that. A good example of this is what happened when COVID happened: so, in the U.K., I’m a Director at an improvisation theatre training company, we do a lot of corporate work, applying improv in the workplace. COVID happens, and we’re a business entirely based on face-to-face workshops, and live shows. You could not have designed a worse disease! And for ages, I saw it coming, but no one else in the business was noticing it. I saw it coming in January, February, and I thought “if this is as bad as I think it’s going to be, we are done, we’re finished, but people are ignoring it.” But then, it took us a while to pivot or do anything about it because we wouldn’t let go of all our assumptions about what our business was, our identity. We’re performers! We do workshops face to face! We couldn’t let go. And so COVID just knocked us out for about six weeks, two months, and it was a pretty dark time.

And then eventually, we got onto the third part of the NLDC loop, which is ‘Decide’. So, you want to make a decision as quickly as possible when dealing with change, and keep making choices, keep making decisions, because it’s this that gets us feedback and allows us to learn about the problem and to get quicker towards a solution. We don’t have to know the whole plan. We don’t need to see the whole staircase to take the first step, and ‘learn by doing’, (it’s) that kind of idea. There’s a concept in improv called “negotiation”, which is kind of relevant here, germane here. So, you see a couple of improvisers in a workshop, they’re learning how to do this stuff, and they’re doing a scene and you say to them, “You guys are doing a scene, you’re in a rowing boat, you’re rowing towards a desert island, anything can happen. Go for it.” They improvise this scene, and they’ll spend all the time going, “Oh, what are we going to do at the island? I wonder what it’s going to be like there.” “Oh, I can’t wait to get to the island, I’m so tired from rowing.” and you go, “Just get to the island!” Then they go, “Oh we’re at the island. Let’s build a fire.” Great! Something’s happening, now we’re off. But we don’t want to make that decision because we don’t want to narrow our choices down, because it feels safer, even though we’re not moving forward. So, you’ve got to make decisions. Making decisions under conditions of stress and uncertainty is quite hard, but it’s the secret of moving through change.

And the final part of this is the ‘C’, which is ‘Communicate’, because often we’re dealing with change with other people and we’ve got to get people on board, with our clarity about the situation and also to get them emotionally engaged in executing the new plan. But because it’s a loop, we’re going through it all the time, so as soon as we do something, we’re back to noticing, we’re back to being really open to the feedback.

Ravi (51:21)

Yeah, I just loved that. I’ve actually used that even in home situations. With my kids, we have a plan to do something and then either my son or my daughter does something else, or says something else, and then that plan has to be jettisoned. And my wife is far more agile, in her mind, to be able to do this, and I’m a more routine and structure (kind of person), (so I think), “No, wait. Do we have to let go of this idea?” So, I think that helped me. That was useful.

Let’s talk about creativity. In the book, some of the ideas that I really liked were…you mentioned about how Pixar—which is probably, arguably one of the best, most creative studios on the planet—rejects nine out of 10 drawings for some of the work that they do, which means that they’re just churning them out, just (focusing on) quantity. And then, in that quantity there is quality. Unfortunately, most of us have this very strong inner critic who keeps shutting out work that we don’t think is good enough, and therefore we don’t let those 10 come out. So, we are waiting for that perfect one, which will not be perfect in any situation. And so, what’s this deep-seated insecurity that we have that stops us from just putting work out?

Max (52:56)

Yeah, sure. There’s a lot here, and probably, creativity is what I like talking about the most. So, when people come to our improv workshops, they’re often terrified and can think of nothing to say in scenes because they’re disconnected from their imagination. I used the word ‘disconnected’ there, because they still have an imagination, there’s just a gap between it and their expression of it. Everyone has an imagination; not everyone is spontaneous, not everyone is creative. So, what we try and do is reconnect people to their imagination. And there’s things that stop that connection between your imagination and your expression of that. The biggest thing, is how you judge your imagination when it puts forward something onto the canvas of your mind. And the reason we have this inner critic is—again, we’re going back to the side of us being social animals—is we don’t want to say stuff that’s going to get us thrown out of the tribe and get us judged. So, we judge ourselves first. The trouble is that it means we can’t be creative at all. So, let me now connect to your point, your question, I should say, about Pixar – they reject nine out of ten of their ideas, their drawings. Well, what’s important about this, the real important nuance about that, is when they reject them. They don’t reject them as they come up, they don’t do a drawing then go “good” or “bad”, tick a box, (if it’s) good, move on to next bit; (if it’s) bad, do another drawing. They go “Right, let’s come up with loads of drawings now, and then, we’re going to select the best one. And from that best one, we’re going to iterate it, and improve it.” Now, what that allows you to do, is have a much more open mode in that creative part of the process. I’m going to generate lots of options, and then I’m going to come in and pick the best one. So, this is not about how editing goes, where we’re all like “Let’s put our hats on and be creative, someone pass me the cannabis.” I don’t want to do that. It’s about the two modes. So, I’m writing, again, I keep saying I’m writing another book; my whole life is this, it’s an oscillation between the open mode which is, “First draft, I really want to express my ideas, and a lot of this won’t end up in it, but I want to get it out there and be creative, associative, (and have) one idea leading to the next”, and then coming back in with it and going “I’m getting tons of feedback. I’m being super critical, I’m going to delete an awful lot of this stuff, and polish it up.” Those two modes, going in between those two and having both in your skill set is what’s important. So, there’s two things: letting yourself fail, so you can be creative and come up with options, and then having absurdly high standards. I’m all for high standards. I’m all for them. And the most creative people have the highest standards. Pixar doesn’t let rubbish through the net, but they know the importance of the other half of that as well. And again, we’ve talked a lot about paradoxes today. This is another one, it’s almost like a contradiction. Be super open, super keen on coming out with ideas and failing and producing a lot of rubbish. But hey, we’re not going to let any rubbish out the door at the end of the day. So, those two things, that paradox, is the secret.

Ravi (56:18)

And I like that simple hack that you gave, that if you’re doing this with a group, and you’re doing brainstorming, just labelling the stages gives permission for people to be open, and to probably hold back their inner and external critic, because when others tell ideas, maybe the critic is even more robust. So, to hold that back and then just, again, we come back to the theme of labelling… I think (it) is a very cool one. Because, a lot of these things are happening inside, but just expressing it (on the) outside gives it structure. Right, so the last dichotomy or paradox that I wanted to talk about was, how on the one hand, when we are sharing ideas and we are talking, we want to say the first thing that strikes you, or the most obvious thing. You know, dare to be obvious. On the other hand, all of us have biases and stereotypes and other inappropriate stuff. So, do you sometimes worry that the first thing that you might think of or say, might not be appropriate, or might offend someone? How do you manage that balance?

Max (57:45)

So, what you’ve touched on there, is the biggest controversy in improv at that moment. So, improv in the U.S. and the U.K. is a thriving scene, and we talk a lot about spontaneity, not blocking yourself and saying whatever comes to you. And, you’re right. In a world of Black Lives Matter, and (needing to be) much more acutely aware of issues around racism, homophobia, women’s rights and stereotypes we have about everyone. That needs attention, and it’s something we are worrying about a lot. In our workshops, we say to people, “Hey, we don’t want you to block yourself,” and someone says something, and you’re like, “Oh, that is really offensive!” What do you say? They’re going to go “Well, you told me to say whatever came into my head.” It’s difficult. I would say, that it depends on the context. And it depends on the audience. So, the risk factor varies based on the context and on the subject. If you are in a meeting about gender relations internally in the business, you probably don’t want to be shooting from the hip, just in case. But if you’re in a meeting where you’re ideating around a marketing campaign, and you want to come up with ideas, you’re probably going to be all right. And in a sense, and I don’t know if this is a cop out or not, but in a sense, by revealing our biases, by being obvious and saying what we think, it’s a way of us getting self- awareness about the biases we have. If we don’t talk, we don’t become aware of them. And, I’m writing a book at the moment about men and the male social world, basically. And I realized in the rewrite process, that my idea of what a man is, is white, about 33, lives in London, and is middle class. I’ve left out so much. People in India would read it and go, “Guys aren’t like this in India”, which is true. So, I’m now aware of my perception on that whole thing, but I had to say it at first to have it reflected back to me to go, “Aha! those are my biases in that area.”

Ravi (1:00:20)

That’s a great point. (What is) the number one book that has had the most influence or impact on you, and maybe the number one person whose work or ideas have influenced you the most?

Max (1:00:37)

Yeah, wow, that’s a really good question. I was just looking up at my list up there. The book…the person who’s had the most influence on me is probably Max Dickins. Improviser. No, don’t worry, I’m not schizophrenic or something. I’m going to give you one that, maybe, you don’t get very often. So, I’m going to say ‘Born Standing Up’ by Steve Martin. He’s obviously a stand up from the United States. And the reason is, in a previous life, I was a stand-up comedian in the professional comedy circuit, and I went from being someone who was always very shy in class, I was at the back, I was never at the front, (always) looking at (other) people communicating. Stand-up (comedy) taught me everything I know about writing, about communicating, about being in front of people. And that book is a brilliant memoir about not just who he is, but how he does it, and how he found his voice, and how he communicates difficult ideas. I think if you want to learn one thing to be a brilliant communicator, try and write a few jokes. Learn how to write a joke, because jokes are so precise, concise, and you have to be so clear and cut out all the fat, that it really teaches you so much. And actually, I never would have gotten into writing the books I have written, without stand-up. I would have been too terrified of that because I’m not a “creative guy”. I never would have got in front of audiences or facilitated workshops, because I’m not that sort of person. And that book, for me, is a part of my life where I found those parts of myself. So, I think business books and personal development books are broader than just the actual genre of business or professional self-development. I’m trying to think of one person that’s had the biggest effect on me, and I’m ging to, again, say someone that you might not expect. And it’s a lecturer, from university. So, I did a Philosophy and Politics degree at Leeds Uni, in the U.K., and it was all about moral philosophy, which is quite boring. If you’re not careful, right, it’s quite stodgy. And she got four of us to stand up in the lecture, you can imagine (there’s) about 100 of us in the lecture room, and (she goes) “Right, stand up.”, so everyone’s putting down their phones going ‘I’ve got to concentrate now.’

She points at me, “You. Why do you deserve to be here?”

“I’ve got the grades in the exams.”

“But, why did you deserve to get the grades?”

“Oh, because, well, I did the work and I went to a really good school.”

“Why did you deserve to go to a good school?”

“Well, I don’t know. I suppose, I’m smart.”

“Is it a private school?”


“So, it was paid for by your parents, presumably.”


“So, why do you deserve parents who could afford to send you to a private school?”

“I don’t know.”

It was about, this lecture, it was about John Rawls. And he’s most famous for the idea of ‘The Original Position’; which is, if you don’t know where you’re going to end up in the world, how would you design the world? Which is a really good way to think about very simple questions of moral and political ethics. And that has stuck with me forever. And it’s an example of how when we teach or communicate, you can do something that in a sense, is simple, but in a sense, says everything. And my aim, I think, is kind of that when I do any sort of creative work or any sort of facilitation, is to try and find a moment, or to try and design an experience or tell a story, which can do a similar job. And I’m not sure (if) I’ve come close yet, but it would be that person.

Ravi (1:04:39)

On that fascinating note, Max. This has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much, I think I was worried, you’re right, I was a little anxious about managing my list of questions and being present, but I think, just taking your energy (in) and your ideas has been great fun for me. Thank you so much for coming to this podcast.

Max (1:04:59)

It’s been great to chat with you! I love talking about this stuff and your questions were really great. So, thank you.

And that was Max Dickins, Improv expert and a very thoughtful storyteller.

A few things which stayed with me:

  1. Listen to ignite – find out what will spark the passion in your speaker
  2. Label stuff. If you find yourself not listening, label it. If you are feeling strong emotions, label it. During a creative brainstorming session, label the stages. Awareness is half the battle won.
  3. The NLDC framework. Notice, Let go (yes, really, let it go!), Decide and Communicate.

If you find this content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them. It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan. Transcript editing by Amisha Jha and all-round support by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

Until next time, may the force of good stories be with you

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