Everyone: Hi Larry!
I am a recovering high school drama geek. I was in the plays and musicals, auditioned for and was accepted into a collegiate theater program, I wore a dance belt and tights (a few times), I took piano lessons, learned how to breath “properly,” explored the history of theater and more. (Lucky for me, the radio station was housed in the basement of the theater – thus, avoiding a career as a New York City waiter.) Of all my theater experiences, the one that comes in handy in every job I have is improv.
On the air or off – improv skills have served me well. Let me just say upfront, if you are a producer, a host, an anchor, a reporter, or a programmer – invest in some improv classes for yourself – it will make you better at your job. It teaches you how to be in present in the moment and hones your ability to listen, react, adapt, create, innovate, play, contribute, and actively engage with the people you work with. Who doesn’t want that?
I was reminded of this while watching Tina Fey discuss the rules of improv while on Inside The Actors Studio this week. (A show that I unabashedly enjoy and one that I’ve paid homage to in my Inside The Bonneville Studios interviews – here with Luke Burbank, Linda Thomas, Brock & Salk and Dori Monson). Tina Fey honed her skills at Second City in Chicago before going to Saturday Night Live. In her book, “Bossypants,” she wrote down the rules of improv that she’s adapted as a world view and she claims they’ve changed her life.
“The Rules of Improvisation that will change your life and Reduce Belly Fat” (p84-85)
- AGREE – always agree & SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun” and you say, “That’s not a gun, it’s your finger” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if you instead say “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is a Christmas gun. In real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. but the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open minded place. Start with YES and see where that takes you.
- Not only say yes, but say YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here” and you say “Yeah…” we are at a stand-still, but if you say “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures” now we’re getting somewhere. YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.
- MAKE STATEMENTS – Don’t ask questions all the time. If I ask continuous questions I am putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers. Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. Make statements with your actions and your voice. For instance, instead of saying “Where are we?”, make a statement like “Here we are in Spain”.
- THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bike, but you think I’m a hamster in a wheel, then now I’m a hamster in a wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discovered have been by accident. For instance, Reese’s PB Cup & Botox.
So, how many times do you or your on-air partners disagree with, disregard or discredit something the other said so you can one-up them, make a better point, or deliver a pithier punch line? Or you’re not sure what to say about a topic or how to move it forward, so you continually just ask questions of your co-host or the audience? Or a sound-byte doesn’t fire and you feel a need to explain to listeners it was supposed to be there – maybe even through your board op or producer under the bus – when in reality the audience had no clue it was coming? All of these are violations of improv.
Other improvisionalists have other rules. For instance, at TEDxVictoria, David Morris offered seven rules. (10 minute Ted Talk here)
- Play. The idea of engaging in something just because you like it.
- Let Yourself Fail. LET is the key. Failing is easy. The hard part is being okay with it. As soon as you start fearing failure you get trapped in your head. Failing does not make you a failure. Just fail, improvise and start again.
- Listen. Listen with all your being. Most people listen just enough to be able to respond. True listening is the willingness to change. If you are not willing to change based on what someone is saying, you are not listening. You are just letting them talk, before you respond.
- Say YES. A series of YES’s will take us somewhere. A single NO shuts down the entire journey.
- Say AND. YES-men are great. AND-men are people we want to work with. They say, “Yes, I like your idea!” AND they add to the creation.
- Play the Game. Anything that has rules is a game whether that’s playing Monopoly or filling out a job application. Rules free us up to improvise. Restrictions funnel our creative process to a create a product.
- Relax and have fun. It will lead to a more enjoyable life.
Improv isn’t about comedy. As David Morris’ pointed out in his Ted talk, MacGyver is one of the great improvisers of our time and he dealt in explosives. Whether you’re trying to save the World, save your ratings or save a segment; learn to improvise.
Talk show hosts, news anchors, editors, producers, production staff, and programmers need to always know and remember who is consuming the content they are creating. What is your target demo? What news, events, and entertainment were influential and formative in their lives?
If you focus your programming towards a 40-year-old woman or man remember that they were 18 in 1989. That was the same year George Bush Sr. became President, Ted Bundy was executed in Florida, and the Exxon-Valdez spilled 240,000 barrels of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. That was the year Microsoft released its first version of “Office” and Fox debuted a little cartoon show called “The Simpsons.” At the movies, When Harry Met Sally was released along with Back to the Future II, Driving Miss Daisy, Parenthood, and The Little Mermaid. On the radio, these high school seniors were listening to Bobby Brown‘s “My Prerogative,” Paul Abdul’s “Straight Up,” Mike and the Mechanics “The Living Years,” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”
Yet, listen to some news-talk and music radio stations trying to cater to these listeners and the references are still off. I still hear mentions of the Mary Tyler Moore, The Odd Couple and Abbott & Costello. Mary Tyler Moore’s Show was off the air in 1977. It was formative for women who are now in their late 50′s and early 60′s. The Odd Couple came out in 1968. Which means you’re targeting a 61-year-old. Bud Abbott was born in 1897. 114 years ago. Hello radio, it’s time for everyone to update our reference points.
Try this exercise. Let me know how it goes.
Sometimes you have to ask for what you want.
Sometimes you have to ask what your employees CAN do.
Sometimes you have to ask what your boss expects from you.
Sometimes you have to ask how to be better.
Sometimes you have to ask permission.
Sometimes you have to ask for forgiveness.
Sometimes you have to ask how you can improve.
Sometimes you have to ask how to do it differently.
Sometimes you have to ask for help.
Sometimes you have to ask, “How can I help?”
Sometimes you have to ask, “What’s missing?”
Sometimes you have to ask a stranger for a favor.
Sometimes you have to ask someone their name.
Sometimes you have to ask, “What do you do?”
Sometimes you have to ask for feedback.
Sometimes you have to ask, “What’s next?”
Sometimes you have to ask, “Is this the best way?”
Sometimes you have to ask for someone’s attention.
Sometimes you have to ask, “What if…”
Sometimes you to ask. And that’s okay.
I’m an unabashed fan of Seth Godin’s books. Some have been very formative in how I go about my life and business and some just made me tilt my head a little as the light flickered on in my head with a new awareness and understanding. His latest book, “Poke the Box,” is an example of how great things come in small packages. It’s a quick read with no chapters per se, just example after example of why you should stop making excuses, whining, contemplating failure and just start doing. He makes a strong case that businesses should have a person dedicated to “starting things” and reward those who fail. The theory is if you’re failing, you’re doing something.
In one example, Godin points at Starbucks. It started at Pike’s Place Market in Seattle as a coffee bean and tea leaf shop. You couldn’t buy a cup of coffee. That wasn’t in the business plan. When Howard Schultz took a trip to Italy and watched the barista make his espresso like an artist on a stage, he knew he was on to something. He brought the idea of baristas and cappuccino to Starbuck’s and they weren’t interested. Schultz’ idea ultimately prevailed, but without starting something and “failing” (selling beans and leafs), Starbucks may have never had happened.
Fail. The more you fail the closer you are to succeeding. Try something. Ship it to market. Get feedback. Tweak it or trash it, make something new and ship again. Repeat. And this is even more important for companies and individuals who have already found some success.
Poke the box. See what works. Be an instigator. Be unconventional. Challenge the status quo. Stir the pot. Stop collecting good ideas and start implementing them.
By now you’ve seen the coverage of Charlie Sheen on the Dan Patrick Show. It was on CNN, Fox News, Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Tonight, USA Today, New York Post, LA Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Times of India to name a few. Not bad exposure for The Dan Patrick Show on one guest.
So how’d they book him? They asked.
My sources say the Danettes had Charlie’s number from a previous appearance, gave him a ring, and asked if he’d come on the show. He said yes.
So what are the lessons to be learned from Charlie Sheen?
- Ask for what you want. Sometimes the biggest obstacle in front of your success is just asking for what you want; asking a guest to be on your show, asking your boss for a promotion, asking anyone for help of some kind, etc. In this case, asking Charlie Sheen to join the DP Show for a few minutes. Just make the call, ask the question – the worst thing that can happen is that you’re told “No.”
- Keep records. Hosts and producers need to keep every number of every guest, regardless of how important you deem them in the moment. You never know when you may need it again.
- Spread the word. When a guest makes news on your show, in this case Charlie Sheen saying he’s ready to go back to work, tell everyone about it. Don’t assume everyone who cares about it heard it on your show. Immediately, the audio and a news story about the interview appeared on www.danpatrick.com, the producers were twittering about the interview, and undoubtedly a press release was quickly written and released. This is cheapest, most impactful promotion you may ever have for your show.
So you may ask how this guest was appropriate for the Dan Patrick show. Charlie is a big sports fan, resonates with the core demo with his movie and TV roles, and recently talked with the UCLA baseball team (a.k.a. the timely hook.)
“A diamond is a chunk of coal
that made good under pressure.”
Every day whether you are a producer, a talent, a board op, recording a podcast, or editing audio – ask yourself these important questions…
1. Is this the best we’ve got?
2. Would I listen to this?
3. Is this relevant?
4. Are we playing the hits?
5. Is there a better, different, more impactful way to do this?
6. Does this live up to the Mission and Brand of my company?
If the answer is, “no” – what are you doing to change it, make it better, evolve it, and own it?
“It’s the little details that are vital.
Little things make big things happen.”
When I come across smart, successful people have can contribute to our conversation, I enjoy passing along their thoughts. Radio consultant Valerie Geller wrote the book “Principles of Creating Powerful Radio.” Her principles are worth reviewing…
· Tell the truth.
· Make it matter.
· Never be boring.
· Speak visually, in terms listeners can picture.
· Start with your best material.
· Story tell powerfully.
· Listen to your station but also check out other media – know what’s out there and what the audience is listening to and how they get their information and entertainment!
· Ask: Why would someone want to listen to this?
· Talk to the individual. Use “You.”
· Do engaging transitions & handoffs.
· Promote, brag about your stuff (and other people’s stuff!)
· Stay curious, relax, and allow the humor to happen.
· Be who you are on the radio.
· Take risks, dare to be great.
I love those principles. Use these as a guideline as you go about your daily tasks. Every day, whether it’s the NFL Playoffs or the dog days of summer, make certain you are passionate, relevant, interesting, engaging, curious, entertaining, informative, impactful, telling stories, teasing, taking risks, being creative, driving for results, doing everything it takes to make remarkable radio, acting with urgency, thinking differently and having fun. These are the things that separate good from great.