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.
I am a pretty positive guy. But, put me in a room full of legacy (old-time) radio vets and it’s easy to get caught up in a cyclone of negativity when it comes to the future of radio. That’s why it’s so important to look outside yourself, your radio station, your format, and sometimes your industry to find out what CAN be done and how you can make a difference.
Tim Sanders (twitter: @sanderssays) is the former Chief Solutions Officer of Yahoo! and author of “Today We Are Rich.” Last month, he spoke to a group of radio folk at the Talk Media Conference in Dallas.
He was just the shot of ‘get-off-your-butt-and-do-something’ that I needed. I believe most leaders in radio needs to listen to more guys like Sanders who offer inspiration, preach innovation, and provide motivation. In his opening address to leaders of talk radio Tim affirmed what we all know, “the reality is there’s a lot of trouble (in radio).” But, he didn’t wallow in it, like many of us like to do. He pointed to Napoleon who defined a leader as someone who, “defines reality and then gives hope.” Hope is what has been missing from most of the discussions I’ve been privy to in regards to the future of radio. I’m going to try harder to be a provider of it.
Sanders insisted that the time is now for all of us to get busy. (my interpretation; stop talking about how bad things are going to be and how antiquated radio is — and start doing something about it).
Sanders is a real positive force. His advice assembled below for easy consumption is valuable if you’re a programmer, a talent, a producer, an account executive, sales manager, front desk receptionist, engineer or other…
Feed Your Mind With Good Stuff and Get Rid of the Poison in Your Life
1. Understand that “success” is not a destination, it’s a mind-set — an attitude.
2. Feed your mind with success experiences (the great interview you did, the sale you closed, the great story you broke, etc.)
3. Read your fan mail. Save it and pull it out in high-stress moments to remind yourself of your successes and how what you do does make a difference.
4. Move the conversation forward. This is how you change culture. Culture is just a conversation about how things are done. Stop asking people, “how’s it going?” and start asking, “what are you excited about?”
5. Don’t reward fire starters.
6. Be conscious that you have thee invisible things to give — and they grow as you go; knowledge, network, and compassion.
- Share your knowledge; you will not get dumb helping to make people smarter.
- Activate your network; you spent a lot of time meeting people and making an impression — now what are you going to do with it? Are their people in your network that should know each other? Introduce them.
- And be compassionate. Sanders reminds us that feelings are facts to the person who is feeling.
So,…what are you excited about?
Focus. That’s how you get things done — including ratings. In this world of “I want what I want when I want it wherever I am” – it’s important you think about what you do and why you do it.
Do you know what your show is about? Not only specifically today’s show, but the show in general. What’s it about? What’s the listener benefit? How do listener’s use your show? Are you meeting their expectation every time you crack the mic?
Do you know who you are? What’s your personality? Go ahead, describe you in a sentence. Do you want to hang out with you? Are you unique, authentic, original? Do you fill a hole on the station, in the market? What should people expect when they tune into you? Do you fulfill that expectation?
Do you know what you’re talking about? Do you know why you’re talking about it? Do you know why you like this story? What attracted you to it? What are you going to do with it? What’s your point? What’s the payoff? What’s the listener benefit?
It’s not only about who’s talking and what you talk about, but how you talk about it and how it exceeds the listener expectation. Radio is fun, but it’s not only fun – it’s a business. One way to better ratings is to focus your show, focus your topics, and focus your personality.
For the better part of 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with big voice guy Jim Cutler (ESPN Radio Network, E!, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The CW, and gobs of radio and TV stations across the country including 97.3 KIRO FM and 710 ESPN Seattle). Jim and his awesome wife Dawn are on vacation and stopped by the Bonneville Seattle studios yesterday. If Jim wasn’t blessed with a big voice and the talent to use it, he’d likely be a professional photographer. He takes his Nikon everywhere he goes. Last night he brought it to the Mariners v. A’s game and has posted photos on his blog…
Here he is taking some of the pictures…
In a previous blog I interviewed Jim about how what he has learned from photography relates to radio. It’s worth a read if you missed it before…
The other thing that struck me after meeting with Jim and Dawn yesterday is a great reminder that the more often you can work with and talk with people in this industry whose opinions and talents you trust, respect and challenge your own complacency – do it.
I watched a TED Video this week on the origins of pleasure. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that our beliefs about the history of an object changes how we experience it, not simply as an illusion, but as a deep feature of what pleasure (and pain) is. Which explains, in part, why some “heritage” radio stations and hosts across the country continue to get great ratings, despite the poor programming. People love (take great pleasure in) the idea of listening to the station that their Mom or Dad or grandparents listened to. It’s a connection to a simpler time, your childhood, and a shared experience with your parents/grandparents.
It also makes me believe that it’s important that each personality and radio station needs to have a story. Seth Godin coincidentally touched on this same idea this week with his blog post “Just a myth.” Godin concludes his blog by encouraging brands (which could be a personality, a show or a station) to create their own mythology (or story.)
So, if I were trying to invent a mythic brand, I’d want to be sure that there was a story, not just a product or a pile of facts. That story would promise (and deliver) an heroic outcome. And there needs to be growth and mystery as well, so the user can fill in her own blanks. Endorsement by a respected ruler or priest helps as well.
The key word, I think, is spiritual. Mythological brands make a spiritual connection with the user, delivering something that we can’t find on our own… or, at the very least, giving us a slate we can use to write our own spirituality on.
The most successful in broadcasting have these mythologies or stories that help define their brand; Oprah, Rush, and Howard Stern all have overcome great adversity to find success (triumph over tragedy.)
So, it begs the question. What’s your story? Start at the beginning and remember how your personality, show or station went from being a germ of idea to transforming into what it is today. What did you overcome? How are you spiritually serving your fans? If you’re a super hero – what’s are your special powers?
Taking the time to write your story / myth is an investment into being a something people listen to and being something people live for, experience and claim as their own.