Why the "Improvisational" storyteller?

Improvisers make up stuff - scenes, songs, stories, sometime full-length plays. On-the-spot, collaboratively, with virtually no pre-planning, building only with what is happening in the moment. In order to engage in this ridiculous endeavor, we have developed principles, philosophies and techniques that are useful in any situation in which human being collaborate, build relationships, communicate, create or solve problems.

Because we are collaborative storytellers, we have structures and practices that literally address how to tell a good story. (See the Story Spine in the sidebar here.) But there are much more fundamental practices that are useful to people who want to be "good" storytellers.

Much of the storytelling literature, especially that tailored to business professio.nals, focuses on things like "what types of stories should you tell" or "how to script a compelling story." Useful information, of course.

And... we believe that GREAT storytellers are the ones that craft meaning designed explicitly for the immediate audience in the immediate moment. In other words, they LISTEN and receive data of all sorts and then weave meaning out of that data.

To elaborate, improvisers have a word: "offers." In improv, an offer is ANYTHING that exists in the moment - something your partner says or does, the environment, attitudes, past associations. The improviser's job is to get as good as possible at perceiving these offers, and then to build with them. There are all sorts of choices to be made about HOW to accept and build with them, but there is a fundamental obligation to do so somehow.

We have said it before... story IS meaning. A storyteller and a story-listener (an audience) are partners in creating this meaning, just as improvisers are partners in a performed scene. If the teller is not receiving and building with the offers in the moment, then meaning is sacrificed, no matter how well "scripted" the story is.

An example....

I was once hired to do a keynote on teambuilding for the ticket counter office personnel of a major airline. I was scheduled as the lunch speaker for a day-long offsite. For the event, I prepared all sorts of great stories and activities about collaboration and teamwork. GREAT stories. Then I arrived at the venue.

As I walked through the door, the client said, "Hi. We're so looking forward to your talk. Oh, and by the way, we just let everyone know that within the next two years we will be closing all the remote offices and they will all be laid off."

My stories about teamwork and trust suddenly seemed less fabulous. "Oh," I replied.

I stared ahead at the throngs of eating, soon-to-be-unemployed attendees. Above the stage where I would be speaking was a banner that read, "There is no 'I' in team." Ah! An offer. Luckily, I remembered an interview I had heard with Michael Jordan the week before. The biggest star the basketball world had ever seen had been presented with this very phrase. His reply? "Yeah, but there is in 'win'."

So I told that story. A story with exactly the opposite point that I had be hired to relay. Everyone laughed. It was, perhaps, the biggest laugh I've ever gotten. AND... then I was able to talk about teamwork skills: how to apply them to job interviewing; how to create opportunities for each other; how to create a supportive environment, especially in the hard times; how to find strength in solidarity. The participants knew exactly what I was talking about. And the client, by the way, was perfectly, obliviously happy.


When the disconnect between what we have planned or anticipated and the reality of the moment is less stark, it is easier to overlook. But there is a price for missing it. The next time you start to tell as story, ask yourself:

- Why am I telling THIS story to THIS audience at THIS moment? And...

- Where might I want to depart from my script?