What I learned about facilitating by doing stand-up comedy

                                July 16th, 2018

                                Earlier this year I co-hosted an experimental event called Radical Acts. The premise being that we need to do things differently – maybe not big things, sometimes the smallest of acts can make a huge difference. For many people attending Radical Acts was just that – a radical act of stepping into an experimental event, experiencing applied improvisation, and learning from each other in an unconventional way.

                                Being a host of Radical Acts got me thinking about what would be a radical act for me. And I think it’s an important question for those of us inviting others to step into the unknown, whether that be learning something completely new or putting their faith in us as facilitators. What does that feel like?

                                I’ve known Belina Raffy, the Big Kahuna of Sustainable Stand-Up for many years – we met at applied improvisation conferences and our paths have crossed around sustainability. Belina hosts Sustainable Stand-Up courses around the world – ‘helping important ideas become human, engaging, and deeply funny’. When a Melbourne course came up I thought I’d give it a go. To be honest, the main criteria for me putting my hand up were that the dates worked – I could do the on-line sessions, and I’d be available to travel to Melbourne for the face-to-face training and ultimately, the performance.

                                I’ve not done stand-up before. Like most of the people who sign up for Sustainable Stand-Up, I was a novice. I was surprised that a few people had come back for a second go. That’s promising, I thought – they want to do it again. How hard can it be?

                                I came very close to dropping out. A confluence of last-minute work, end-of-financial year administrivia, and yes, I have to admit, nerves, made me think it would be easier to just give up. What kept me going? Stubbornness (what, moi, stubborn?!) – I’d signed up so I should see it through; curiosity – I was genuinely curious about how I’d perform; and recognising that what I was going through – being a complete beginner at something – was a useful insight for when I’m asking others to step into the unknown and do something that is unfamiliar to them.

                                I struggled to write jokes, I struggled to be funny, I struggled to identify with being a comedian. That last-minute work was a godsend, it reminded me that humour is emergent. I’d spoken with my friend Izzy Gesell – someone who has written books on humour – and his advice was to notice stuff. I could do that, I thought. But I couldn’t find anything funny. I seemed to be looking in the wrong places, until I realised it was right there in front of me: facilitation.

                                Here’s what I learnt about facilitating from doing stand-up about facilitation (how meta is that?):

                                Cut the small stuff

                                Preparing a stand-up set is a lot about what is left out, paring back to the essentials, and then some. Facilitators can become attached to our processes and may be loathe to let go of that great activity, even though it will no longer serve the needs of the group. It’s what we don’t do that can be as important as what we do. That can be tough because clients employ us to do stuff, not to not do stuff. It might be what we don’t do that is the difference between being a good facilitator and a great facilitator.

                                Timing is everything

                                Say something one way and it’s not funny, say it with pauses, and it’s hilarious. It’s not the words, it’s the pauses that matter. As with facilitating, the spaces in between are as important as the content and the activities.

                                Perseverance matters – or does it?

                                How do you know when to call it quits? We humans are prone to the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ believing that we’ve put in so much time, effort or resources that we need to keep going. Knowing when to quit, and knowing when to keep going, is one of those intangible skills that facilitators develop over time.

                                You need to be creating new material all the time

                                By the time we reached the night of our performance all of us in the class had heard each other’s set multiple times – and it was no longer funny. That’s not really true, they were all funny, but not to us so much. Familiarity breeds, not contempt, but, well, familiarity. What we’ve heard and done before sometimes loses its capacity to surprise and delight.

                                Consider your material a playlist

                                Musicians use a playlist to determine the flow of their performance and to remind them of what they could do. Actually, I don’t know if this is true or not, because I’m not a musician, but it sounds good. And it’s what we do with a stand-up set, determine the flow of the piece, and if we leave something out, no-one will know unless we tell them. Did I mention that great line I forgot to say? You don’t have to use everything, do everything – remember cut the small stuff.

                                You can’t rehearse

                                Okay, yes you can rehearse, and you definitely should. It’s not the same as performing though. David Whyte talks about performing ‘half a shade braver’. Standing in front of a paying audience, as a comedian, or as a facilitator, is a performance. And being able to perform under stress is another intangible skill we need as a facilitator. Putting yourself into stressful performance situations aka stand-up helps build the performance muscle.

                                Nerves are a consequence of vulnerability and obligation

                                I can’t remember the last time I was so nervous. I can pinpoint the actual moment the nerves kicked in. It was the night before when I learned that I would be the opening act. From that moment everything started to unravel, and it was definitely too late to pull out. I had to use all of my skills (mostly skills I had learnt from improvisational theatre: commit, put down your clever, let go, and make your partner – the audience – look good) to tame those nerves to a manageable level. Those nerves were the greatest lesson of all about what it means to be a beginner again, to recognise that vulnerability and obligation can be uncomfortable at best, debilitating at worst.

                                Be radical

                                My radical act of performing stand-up was ultimately great fun. It was not without its challenges. Those of us in the class built a camaraderie around our shared experience. We were ably supported by Belina and Tejopala Rawls, local co-leader of the course.

                                Pablo Picasso said it well: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn to do it.”

                                There’s more about Sustainable Stand-Up here and you can watch my set here.

                                Facilitation resources updated

                                November 17th, 2017

                                I’m updating my RESOURCES page. About time too!

                                You can find it just up there, on the menu – between About and Learn. If you click on FACILITATION RESOURCES you will find a long list of processes, games, and activities that I use in my facilitation. The names help me remember them. Sometimes the same activity might be known by multiple names. I’ve also credited the source of the activity, where known. Let me know of any omissions. There’s a little description under each one, and a brand new PDF that describes what to do. Enjoy.

                                Screenwriting and facilitation: it’s all in the cut

                                September 12th, 2017

                                OST pic10“It’s all in the cut.” This is a description of where the magic happens in movies. It starts with a writer, and an idea, a story, and a screenplay. Then the director gets their hands on it, the actors do their stuff, and finally it is cut together into a movie that we will watch – and either love or hate, or be indifferent to.

                                I still hanker for a career as a screenwriter – I know, leaving it a bit late! I’ve signed up for a FutureLearn MOOC (massive open online course) on Screenwriting. It’s only two weeks – something I can manage right now – and a reminder of other more comprehensive screenwriting classes I’ve taken. Screenwriting – and story – ?are recurring themes in my facilitation (my current, and continuing career) so there must be something there that attracts my interest.

                                Watching movies is not the same as reading a novel. Self evident? Maybe. The big difference is in what we know. A novel can take us into the heads of ?characters – we can know what they are thinking. In movies we can only see the consequences of those thought, people’s actions. This is also true when facilitating – we can’t know what any person is thinking, we can only see how they are acting, what they are doing. This leaves us open to mis-interpreting or making assumptions. Hence the question of how to deal with a particular situation or person is always hard for me to answer. It’s hard enough when it happens directly to me, when I’m facilitating. The improv principle of notice more is directly about this. It’s about noticing everything that is going on, including the protagonist’s behaviour. It’s also about noticing ourselves and how we might be contributing to the situation.?notice_front

                                The other big question in facilitating is about planning and knowing what to do. Let me explain why this puzzles me.

                                Last week, I was keen to see the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge. There was a queue. A long one. They only allow 15 visitors at a time. I’m not a fan of queuing but really wanted to see the library so there was no other choice. I was standing behind a young couple – he was from Australia, she was from the US – and they were chatting. After about an hour I realised that they had been chatting constantly. (Yes, still in the queue!) No pauses. No silences. Just one topic after another like a stream of consciousness. I was exhausted just listening to them. As someone who can’t talk like this I was intrigued. “I wonder how they do that?” I thought. To them, it would be a nonsense question. That’s just what they do. I feel the same about designing a workshop – it’s just what I do. That’s not very helpful to someone who wants to know the ‘secret’ though.

                                Here’s what I do know about this process (i.e., what goes on in my head – like in a novel). ?I think about it a lot. I play scenarios in my head – not specific “he said” “she said” situations – more general stuff of seeing people do certain activities. Some I reject immediately – too long, inappropriate, the size of the group won’t work. I write down on mini-stickies each of the activities or things that I might do. I create a plan on a single sheet of paper (or one sheet per day) – times down the side (only key times – start, finish, breaks, lunch). That leaves me with big chunks of empty space to fill. These I fill with the stickies. That’s my plan. It’s enough.

                                It’s enough because I have it to fall back on if I need to. It’s also redundant as soon as I make it – because no matter what I plan, there will be changes. Something will happen in the first session that will suggest what needs to really happen next. ?I’ll learn something about the participants, or their situation, or what they really want to achieve and I’ll find something different that will help them. Or not. Sometimes it goes as I planned. Not often though.

                                So when the University of East Anglian tutors talk about the craft of screenwriting and that movies are all made in the cut, I nod my head.

                                “But I think telling the story in the cut is actually quite a fine art because I think we, when we first write we write these quite lengthy scenes probably which have a lot of stuff going on in them, and we probably know that the dramatic beat happens somewhere in there, and actually if you just honed it down to that and left the audience – if you asked a question and left that answer suspended you’d probably have a much more interesting cinematic experience. That you don’t have to do it all in the scene. You can leave those gaps which make the audience work and that’s a much more exciting way to …”

                                Yes, I think to myself, that’s how we facilitate too. We plan what might happen, and the implementation happens in the room, in what we choose, in the moment, to keep, and what to cut.

                                My advice to facilitators. Do less, not more.

                                There’s training, and then there’s Creative Facilitation training!

                                June 22nd, 2017

                                Mushroom risottoThere’s lots of things I can’t do well – way too many to list here – but I can cook a pretty good risotto and I can host facilitation training that’s memorable. I know this to be true because I love designing and delivering training that rocks. Yes, it’s just as well I’m not offering training in logic, because that logic doesn’t stack up. But I do think it’s half the battle – love what you do, enjoy it – and hopefully others will too.

                                A few weeks ago I sat through some pretty bad training – as a participant. It’s always good to spend some time on the other side. All was not lost though. I learnt a lot about what not to do, and I redesigned a version of Creative Facilitation training specifically for people who have to deliver a lot of content. It’s a challenge to deliver content and keep people interested and engaged.

                                If you’re interested in discovering lots of ideas about bringing training to life then there’s a two-day workshop in Melbourne on September 20 and 21.

                                On October 25 and 26 Lee Ryan and I are hosting our popular masterclass on designing for aliveness. We use what game designers know about designing board games that rock to apply to designing group activities, especially for difficult or complex topics.

                                Book either or both before the end of the financial year and you can have another 10% off the early bird price – just for reading this far! Use the promo code EOFYCF10

                                Games connect

                                April 28th, 2017

                                Ghost-MongoliaOn our recent trip to Mongolia, in winter, I knew we’d be spending a lot of time indoors, with host families and with each other. It seemed like a good idea to take some table-top games to play. I chose games that did not require any understanding of English: Ghost Blitz and Skip-Bo

                                Both games were a great hit. It seems easy to forget the power of games to connect.

                                We learnt games from our Mongolian hosts too – mainly games using sheep or goat knucklebones, those things we used to call ‘jacks’. DSC01340 (1)A game of pure luck soon became boring; another game combining luck and skill was a lot more engaging, if often frustrating. A third game – Shagai, also known as knuckle-bone shooting – was surprisingly fun to watch. Teams of six to eight flick a token along smooth wooden tool towards the shagai bones, about 10 metres away, while singing traditional melodies and songs.


                                More recently my friend Lee arrived with the game Pandemic. Pandemic is unusual in the board game genre in that it is a cooperative strategy game.?Four of us (including a real live immunologist) played it multiple times. It’s engaging, and addictive – and hard to beat the diseases, but importantly, not impossible.

                                Fast forward to the last couple of days where we have hosted our Creative Facilitation Master Class on Designing for Aliveness. There’s a lot of games in this workshop – games we play to understand the different mechanics of games and the effect of simple tweaks on the player/participant experience – and games we designed.

                                Some people tell us that they hate games. They say they don’t play them, and don’t want to play them. That’s a pity, because there’s much to learn from playing games, and from playing with others. Some of the newer games, like Pandemic, can be a revelation. People enjoy them, and learn something.

                                The Surf Coast Shire’s Fire Game is another example. It’s a game about a very serious topic – being prepared for bushfire risk.?IMG_1881

                                There’s a very popular board game that’s been around since the 1950s called Risk. It’s a strategy game of diplomacy, conflict and conquest. It has simple rules but complex interactions.

                                That pretty much describes what it’s like for me as a facilitator to play games in workshops. It’s not so much the game of Risk – more the risk of games. One that I’m willing to take.


                                And that’s a wrap!

                                December 23rd, 2016

                                Johnnie and Viv in Cambridge

                                We wish you a fabulous?festive season, and a happy healthy, and above all, playful ?2017.


                                Imagine if you were the type of leader YOU would want to follow

                                December 15th, 2016

                                Fancy three days of fun, engaging learning on a theme of leading creative teams?

                                Johnnie and I are bringing our Creative Leadership workshop to Melbourne, February 7th to 9th.

                                Here’s some reflections from those?who came to this workshop in Cambridge earlier this year.

                                Lots more info and bookings here

                                ‘Easy and safe’ is over-rated

                                October 26th, 2016

                                Working with groups generates lots of dynamics. I want to focus on the dynamic between the facilitator and the group. There’s a long held position about facilitation that the facilitator needs to make the task easy for the group, and to create a safe space. I disagree.

                                When I’m tired, feeling a bit vulnerable, and wanting to be cared for I relish the easy choice in a restaurant of the chef ‘just bringing food’. I don’t want to make choices, or decisions. I want to be (not literally) spoon fed. It’s easy to sit back and let someone else do the work.

                                People coming to workshops and meetings are often tired too, maybe a bit resentful that their work time has been disrupted, some may be excited, others apathetic – there is no doubt there will be a whole range of emotions in the room. They want to feel that their time has been used wisely.

                                If it is too easy they will disengage. There are many demands on people’s attention and an email or Facebook post is just a click away. We don’t have the luxury of patiently explaining what will happen (describing the menu/agenda/process) and easing people into the main game. We will have lost them before we even get there. We need to jump straight in, even if it is uncomfortable or confusing. They will work it out.

                                Most of us do jump in – begin before we are ready. We start playing a computer game, or try out new software, or start making a recipe before we read the instructions. We go back to the instructions when our experience and knowledge are exhausted and we need more information. We are wired for acting, not thinking about acting.

                                Facilitators need to challenge, to create some uncertainty, to let go of the need to control what people are doing, and to allow for discovery. This can be messy. It can be scary. It can be challenging.

                                It’s the practice of easy and safe that has led to one of the biggest criticisms of facilitated workshop, expressed in one way or another as ‘but nothing changes when we go back to work’. Some resort to what Johnnie Moore calls ‘commitment ceremonies’ – rituals that pretend to bind people to a new way of acting, when in reality it’s simply a hollow promise where no-one is accountable.

                                Facilitators can be a greater service to groups by challenging them and dropping the facade of?‘easy and safe’.

                                An article in The Conversation by Jarod Horvath and Jason Lodge on ‘What causes mind blanks during exams?’ is helpful in explaining why ‘safe’ is not always best. They describe the difference between cold cognition – logical and rational thinking processes – and hot cognition – non-logical and emotionally driven thinking processes. “Hot cognition is typically triggered in response to a clear threat or otherwise highly stressful situation”. Exams can be perceived as a high stakes, threat. So too, might a facilitated workshop. The boss and all my colleagues are present, I will be expected to contribute, I have a lot of other things on my mind, I’ve never met this facilitator before, there’s no agenda, and where are the damn tables?

                                The easy and safe approach would demand that?facilitators reduce this response, and stress around workshops, by providing, in advance, all the information participants need, to make the space ‘safe’ by making sure it is comfortable and familiar, thus reducing the risk of mind blanking, or hot cognition. Then when participants get back to the real world of work, with all the uncertainty, demands, unrealistic expectations, challenges and too-much-to-do-too-little-time, they will be equipped with new knowledge and skills to help them. As I said earlier, I disagree with this approach.

                                Hot cognition – mind blanking – can kick in at any time. And there are a couple of things to do to according to Horvath and Lodge. One is to de-stress a perceived threatening situation. Facilitators can help this by avoiding overloading people’s pre-frontal cortex with information and as soon as possible, get them up and moving about the space, talking with each other – providing just enough structure to get them going. Familiarity calms the brain and leaves people open for whatever else is coming.

                                The other concerns preparation. Some of my friends who work in humanitarian organisations return from training experiences with stories of extreme stress and sometimes fear. They have been to HEAT – Hostile Environment Awareness Training – which replicates what might happen in a kidnapping or other life-threatening situations. The trainers rightly know that information is not enough for being prepared – actual experiences, simulated nonetheless, but real enough – help people prepare for the unimaginable. “The reason the armed forces train new recruits in stressful situations that simulate active combat scenarios is to ensure cold cognition during future engagements. The more a person experiences a particular situation, the less likely he or she is to perceive such a situation as threatening.” say Horvath and Lodge.

                                Their final piece of advice for students preparing for exams, and wanting to avoid mind blanks, is relevant for facilitators wanting to make sure workshops are worthwhile.

                                “So when preparing for an exam, try not to do so in a highly relaxed soothing environment – rather, try to push yourself in ways that will mimic the final testing scenario you are preparing for.”

                                My approach, when facilitating, is to avoid the gut-wrenching, bowel-tightening scenarios for sure, but provide enough uncertainty and confusion to replicate what it’s like out there in the real world, to hopefully, keep people engaged during the workshop, and prepared for whatever happens, afterwards. How do I do that? With applied improvisation, of course!

                                The two not-so-secret secrets about Creative Facilitation

                                October 24th, 2016

                                bringingThere’s no big secret to Creative Facilitation, it comes down to two things: using creative processes that allow people to really participate, and showing up as a facilitator that people feel able to trust.

                                The hard part is letting go of all those practices that squeeze the life out of meetings.?We are social creatures, fundamentally wired for socialising, playing and creating together. ?To release energy into our meetings, we need to disrupt some conventions.

                                We need to have fewer presentations and more conversations.

                                We need to free people to move around, rather than remaining pinned to their chairs.

                                We need to give participants autonomy: instead of telling them what to do, we create choices for them about how to participate and collaborate.

                                We need to create a more level playing field in meetings, a space in which everyone feels able to contribute, so we don’t just get stuck listening to the usual suspects.

                                We don’t believe in facilitation-as-usual and therefore don’t do?training-as-usual.?There will be movement, surprise, emotion, engagement and fun. We learn our most powerful lessons from experience, not from lectures. The greatest value in workshops comes from sharing experiences, rather than taking notes from the “sage on the stage”.

                                If you’d like to learn more, I have a one-day introductory Creative Facilitation?workshop in Melbourne on November 18th.

                                And Johnnie Moore has a two-day workshop in Cambridge – that also covers how to perform as a facilitator – on January 9 and 10.

                                Third best job in the world

                                October 13th, 2016

                                ImproventionMy job – working with groups, helping them come alive, unearth their creativity and make discoveries – is the third best job in the world. Sometimes I’m called a facilitator, but facilitation is only part of what I do – it’s a skill that helps me be useful to all those groups I work with.

                                What’s that? You’re curious about #1 and #2.

                                The second best job in the world goes to – drum roll please – Alan Alda. Yes, he of MASH fame. Alan works with scientists (and I have a particular soft spot for scientists) to help them tell the story of their scientific research. What makes this the second best job in the world is that he uses improvisation to train scientists. Yep, pretty damn good.

                                And the best job in the world? That goes to Richard Fidler who hosts Conversations on ABC Radio. Honestly, who wouldn’t want a job where you can do long-form interviews with interesting people, asking well-researched questions, as well as responding to the surprising things that people say? Yep, best job in the world.

                                I could write ad nauseam on what’s common to these three great jobs, but I think I’ll leave that up to you. ?You’ll figure it out! I’m happy with my third-best job in the world, unless someone wants to offer me a go at Alan or Richard’s job.