Try this on, you crazy owl

Starting with WHAT we do rather than WHO we are puts us at risk of losing the opportunity to connect. When we bring our real selves to our interactions we are poised to co-create powerful connections. Proof positive of this ConnectAnd Improv principle was evident in our last session.

During the workshop, we used an adaptation of the improv exercise "Park Bench of Truth" to allow our "players" to get their first taste of public speaking. The exercise involves two players having a conversation with each other, in front of the audience. In our public speaking class, we use the "Park Bench" to relax participants' fear muscles and ease them into speaking in front of the group.

To get the conversations rolling we provide the players with a prompt, choosing the subjects spontaneously. The participants do not know each other before they volunteer to sit on "the bench" and chat. They're given two minutes and a purposely vague topic, and then they can take the conversation wherever it goes.

On this occasion the prompt was, "There's a car show coming to town. Will you attend?" The two women who were on the "Park Bench" began to talk immediately, delighting the audience (and each other) with their common bond. One woman talked about her passion for antique cars, which she restores with her husband. The other woman talked about how her first husband was a "gear head" who she met when she was 13. She talked about spending a lot of time in junkyards and under car hoods and they started tossing car jargon around like pros.

"you started with what instead of who? oy!"

"you started with what instead of who? oy!"

These two strangers got lost in the conversation and the audience was completely engrossed. They started with WHO and their conversation flowed, with humor occurring naturally. When their time was up the audience erupted in laughter and applause!

Because the players began with WHO and not WHAT they learned about a shared passion. If they had started with WHAT this wouldn't have happened; they're both accomplished executives, one a sales trainer and the other the leader of a statewide business development group. Surely, they would have defaulted to their professional connections and their shared interest in cars wouldn't have entered the conversation.

Start with WHO. Lead with curiosity. Share your passions. You might just make a phenomenal business connection that's deeper than WHAT you do.

The Microwave Challenge

During a recent keynote for the Planned Giving Group of CT we engaged the audience in an exercise called, “The 300 Year Gap*.” This exercise challenges teams of two to create a common understanding about items such as microwave ovens and cell phones with the catch that one team member is from the present and the other is from 300 years ago. The person from 300 years ago has equal intelligence and a frame of reference from that when there was no electricity, modern medicine, or automation. We encourage that partner to question everything that does not make sense and to embody the 300-years-ago character if the spirit moves them.

As the exercise progresses both players get to experience the emotions and challenges of developing a common understanding in the absence of context. The partners quickly realize that the conversation must begin where they have common ground and build from there, with frequent checks to ensure that the both partners are still having the same conversation. If they don’t pursue this path, the results aren’t very fruitful.

stick figure gap.jpg

What emotions come up for us when we don’t understand or can’t make ourselves understood? Frustration, determination, resignation, and amusement were some of the responses we heard from the audience. So then, “How does this relate to working with donors or potential donors, fellow staff, and others in our organizations?” Laughter. Then the participants called out, “We use tons of jargon, talk too fast, and often assume that others understand our processes.” Yes, we do, and once we recognize that each industry has its own language we can begin to adjust our behaviors for better connections!

The antidote to the 300 Year Gap is asking enough open-ended questions to determine the place to start the conversation, noticing our use of jargon, and watching the reactions of the other person (or people) closely to tune in to their level of understanding. We need to develop the ability to notice our own behaviors; how (and to whom) we listen (or don’t), how much we dominate conversations, and how patient we are when there's a gap in understanding. It begins with a look inside and mastery comes with time and practice

In improvisation we learn to co-create a scene with another person or group. The co-creation includes finding common ground, sharing space in the scene, and being willing to transfer control effortlessly from one person to the other – to adjust in the moment to the needs of our scene partners so that the story advances and makes sense.

It turns out that applying these same business improv skills to the worlds of higher education, medicine, and philanthropy causes transformations in communication. The honing of these skills separates the excellent from the average – in leadership and donor development.


How to not get mired in the boggy bog

There we were, hearts pounding back stage in the blackness of the wings, our view of the audience dim in the darkened house lights. We were all wound up, waiting for the big show. The curtain swept back with a soft ruffle, the stage lights came up, we took our places on stage aaaand

Whoosh! We blinked and the show was over!

Sound familiar? Of course! We do this in business all the time, don’t we? We get all excited about a project, idea, or plan, then get pulled into the time-sucking vortex of to-do’s and other involvements, and next thing you know…WHOOSH! You blinked and first quarter is over!

Time flies, take a breath and get some perspective

Time flies, take a breath and get some perspective

The end of a quarter signals that it’s time to take a breath. In improvisation, we call this “resting the game.” In a show, the performers pursue the funny thing that’s happening - they “play the game.” The players will then pause in their pursuit of that funny thing, shifting to explore something else – resting the game. After a bit they then pick up the original funny thing later in the show. If they fail to rest the game, they can get mired in the scene, losing their perspective, and making desperate moves that are decidedly unfunny and lose the audience. The advantage of resting the game is that they develop other parts of the story or characters, then come back to the game with fresh perspective, bringing new, interesting, funny elements to it that pull the scene forward and make the show more powerful and engaging for the audience

The business equivalent of playing the game is pursuing the endless tasks and processes, the short term stuff, that can eat up your time. It’s critical that you rest that game, step back from it, and get some fresh perspective so you bring new elements to the scene you are creating in your business. It's too easy to get mired and lose sight of key elements that support your business growth long term. Important considerations to reflect on include:

  • Where do our interactions with our customers or the public need improvement?
  • How well is my team functioning together? What are the conflicts or communication breakdowns?
  • What is it costing us to not address these challenges?

Give yourself the gift of resting the game and getting some fresh perspective. ConnectAnd's Business Improv programs can help you and your group get and stay focused and fresh on what matters most for your business health. Give us a call today!

How to Speak Up When It Counts

  • The customer has a really bad experience and sends a nasty-gram to you or one of your people.
  • Your group is struggling. Teamwork is on the decline, turnover and resentment are growing.
  • You drop the follow up ball and lose the sale.

Ugh, we’ve all been there, felt that sinking feeling in the gut, and asked ourselves “how did that happen?” We may even be asking “why does this keep happening?

When wrestling with problems like these, one hot spot that will surely surface is communication. There are numerous ways that communication breakdowns lead to trouble, but are we always asking the right questions when we act to resolve and prevent the issues?

Try this one on: Where is someone not speaking up?

When a communication gap leads to a bigger problem, it’s tempting to blame individuals or systems. If we dig deeper, there’s a crucial skill set worth considering: are you and your people truly equipped and willing to speak up?

Human communication can be a mine field, one that the best of us sometimes struggle to walk in. It can be easier to not ask a question, not admit that we don’t know something, feign agreement, or otherwise opt out. We can grand stand, justify, or place blame in order to avoid conversations that challenge us. The next time you recognize that a problem is stemming from a communication challenge, add these questions to your problem solving approach:

  • Where am I speaking up or not in the places where it matters?  What about the folks on my team?
  • What does my team need to help them speak up so we have effective communications that build our business and further our mission?

Improv offers us wisdom here: practice when the stakes are low. When improvisers practice speaking up and stepping out on stage into the unknown, they do so in low stakes environments. Improv performers in a troupe regularly get together and practice skills like speaking up in a place and way that it’s safe to make mistakes and experiment.  Whether you are a team leader or a solo flyer, you can do the same thing. Challenge yourself to practice speaking up in lower stakes situations so that you can be a little braver when the stakes are higher. Adopt an attitude of experimentation and have some fun with it.  Let us know what you discover; we’d love to hear about it!

Business Improv can help you and your people speak from a place that is natural, effective, and relate-able. Join us for Stand Out! It’s our signature workshop for speaking and networking skills, and is a great introduction to Business Improv. Our next Stand Out workshops are March 15 and April 8. Group rates available for 4 or more people. 

How in sync is your team?

The lights come on. You see five performers lined up against the stage wall, their bodies tensed for action, their eyes and ears at full attention, eager to jump out and create a scene. It’s show time, and you’re with your friends in the audience, awaiting the laughs the improvisational players will deliver.

In the hour that follows, the performers create a full mini-play, complete with characters, locations and plot. You walk away; face hurting from laughter, saying “how do they do that? They’re so clever!”

Your team performs every day, too

Your team performs every day, too

What did they do, how did they do it and why should you care?

The what is that without planning or scripting, the performers worked together to create a dynamic show all made up on the spot. They built upon each other’s moves in a way that sustained the creativity and advanced the story, leading to high audience engagement and laughter.

The how is that the players were completely in sync, following one another’s cues, toggling the lead back and forth from scene to scene, ultimately creating a great outcome together. Is this starting to sound familiar?

We need this in business, too.

Improv offers us insight into vital skills that make this kind of performance possible. A high performance business team does much the same as an improv troupe. The players engage in:

  • Listening intensely and in ways that involve all team players
  • Valuing and making use of what others bring to the table
  • Making bold moves that generate innovative results
  • Actively and intentionally supporting fellow players

What would your team be like if they did more of these things? Where is it happening or not in your organization? As we dive further into 2017, consider how your team is performing. Business improv training can turn your team into an in sync, highly engaged group of players who lead, innovate, and create great outcomes together.

Join us February 28 for a sample workshop of business improv. Our signature workshop, Stand Out, will introduce you to using improv skills for business. Group rates available.

Is it real or a shadow?

You’re in the living room in your favorite chair with a book at twilight, the lights low and the house peaceful. You’re very relaxed and your eyes start to close as you slide into the sleepy, surreal space between trying to read and succumbing to the pull of the doze.

Just as you drift off, your eye picks up movement on the wall – a shadow flashed!  You wake up fully - what was that?!  Alarmed, your heart pounding, you get up and start searching the room because you know you saw something but nobody else is home and the dog is asleep but he would have barked if someone was there, right!??! Your mind races, trying to figure out what on earth you just saw and you hope that it was just your imagination. And then it happens.

Two baby spider plants fall off the big spider plant that you haven’t watered in two weeks.  As they fall, their shadow flashes and disappears in the twilight.

Phew! Your breathing returns to normal as your adrenaline drops.  It was nothing more than shadows of little dry plants.

Mister oogey boogey shows up in lots of places, but he's just a shadow

Mister oogey boogey shows up in lots of places, but he's just a shadow

Our minds play lots of tricks on us and our imaginations are powerful. When we’re presenting to an audience or networking in a new place, the shadows on the wall are our assumptions and fears about...

  • What others will think of us
  • How we will sound
  • What we will do and say
  • And lots of other things that might go wrong and probably won’t.

The next time you’re feeling nervous about “putting yourself out there,” remind yourself that your fears are largely your imagination. We humans put excess stock in the shadows created by our own minds. What would it be like to instead experiment with viewing and treating your fears as nothing more than shadows? You just might be able to set them aside more quickly and easily to give your full attention to better things, like being present to others and making meaningful connections that build your personal brand and career. Above all, have fun! Experiment...improvise.

Thank you, professor!

“I learned that years ago.”

“I know that already.”

We hear this kind of comment occasionally in the world of professional and personal development. The challenge is that “I learned that years ago” has a hidden trap in it.

In Improvisation, we talk about accepting offers and building on them to create scenes and stories on stage. When our scene partner blocks or denies our offer, it makes it very difficult to build the scene. For example:

Mary and Jim start a scene, and Jim’s opening offer is:

“I’m so happy we came to the beach.”

If Mary’s responding offer is something like:

“I love the beach too and I can’t believe I forgot my swimsuit,”

then we have a line that acknowledges and accepts the reality that Jim has offered. The scene can commence, possibly with a story about skinny-dipping or Mary stealing someone’s bathing suit for her own. The possible directions are endless.

However, if Mary’s response is something like

“This is a train station, not a beach,”

then the scene grinds to a halt because Mary’s response has denied the most basic element of the scene – the location. Now the performers are in a pickle, needing to figure out why one character thinks they’re at the beach and the other thinks they’re in a train station. It makes the actors’ jobs harder because they can’t give full attention to the things that really draw an audience in, like characters and relationships. The audience is equally challenged and confused because they will struggle to follow a scene that is not grounded in a reality they can relate to in any way.

When we step into a learning environment, it’s normal to consider what we already know.  However, any opportunity to learn requires us to accept the basic reality of the "scene" that we're in: that there's something available to us. The art of being a learner requires us to make an active choice to learn, even if (perhaps especially) we are bumping into familiar information. If we’re doing our jobs as humans living fully and learning from all the encounters of the world, we can hear information or have experiences that we’ve had before and always take something new from away. “I know that already” is blocking the reality that there’s something available to be learned. “I learned that years ago” is a sneaky trap set by our egos. Fortunately, Improvisation also offers a solution by way of dismissing our inner commentary. We can invite learning by noticing that little voice in our heads that says “I know that” and answering it with “thank you professor, I’m busy learning!”

Try it next time you’re in a meeting or a workshop. Betcha you’ll learn something.

Jenny Drescher 

From networking torture to networking joy? Try WHO not WHAT

Has this ever happened to you?

Last night I was at a networking event with about 40 dynamic, interesting women. We were asked to participate in a lightning round of one-minute shares, answering questions about what we do/services we offer, what we need in terms of our businesses, and who we'd like to meet. Standard fare; cue the elevator pitch music. Gag, choke, eyes roll back in head, fall over from boredom, zzzzz…..

Enough with the same old introductions that focus on the WHAT of our business lives!

What distinguishes you in a crowded marketplace is WHO you are far more than WHAT you do.  

Want some proof? Do a quick mental review of the last three people you met with the same title and product/service.
How do you remember them more? By their title and company name or by how they behaved andmade you feel? By their product or by theirpersonality

I love seeing this in action, so what did I do in that lightning round? 
I went off script.
After everyone had shared the required information I asked, "Tell us one thing about you that we couldn't possibly know." This question always elicits what people want to share about themselves, which is so much more effective. 
Wouldn't you remember these interesting things about people?...

One woman was part of a collegiate synchronized swimming team that won a national championship. Another shared that she and her husband agreed to divorce amicably over the weekend. I shared about my recent Master's Rowing Camp adventure. Each of us shared something personal and as we went around the circle we relaxed, connected, and laughed a lot.

Leading with WHO we are can be a challenge in a world full of meaningless card swaps, elevator pitches, and scripted exchanges. It's our willingness to ditch the script, engage our curiosity and share generously that will differentiate our businesses and brands. Next event you're at, go off script and focus on WHO!

-Ellen Ornato

An alternative to the Networking Blame Game

On Wednesday we taught our Engagement Networking workshop to a fun group of professionals who spend a lot of time building relationships to grow business. One of the first things we have participants do is to identify the challenging behaviors they notice in networking environments. They came up with a juicy list, including things like:

  • That person who checks out by looking really busy on their phone
  • That person who won’t stop talking
  • That person who looks all around the room while they’re supposedly in a chat with you

This part of the workshop always includes one key phrase that falls out of everyone’s mouth:

"I hate it when people do that"

Yeah, me too. I also hate it when I do that.

The fact is, we are all sometimes “that person" far more than we think we are. It’s just so much easier to blame other people, isn’t it? The Blame Game is the easy game. It allows us to stay rooted in the safe, comfortable familiarity of our excuses and norms, but it doesn’t yield meaningful results over the long term.
It’s eminently more rewarding to play a different game: That Person.

Want them to listen more? Put on your best ears.
Want them to put their phone away? You’ve got room in your pocket for yours.
Don’t want to feel like a sales target? Leave your own arrows in the car.

That Person is harder to play because it requires us tobe a little bit bigger, a little bit braver, and a lot more present to others.That Person teaches you to model what you want to attract. It gives you better results for your networking time and effort.
-Jenny Drescher

The Truth About Trust

If we ask you “how much do you trust your audience?” what answer is most likely for you:

  • I trust myself just fine, but I don’t trust the audience. People can be awful and scary.

  • I trust the audience, but I never thought about whether I trust myself.

  • I get nervous, does that mean I don’t trust myself?

  • None of the above, but now I’m wondering what this weird question is about.

No matter what your answer is, here’s the truth about getting up in front of people:

 It begins with you trusting yourself.

For years, the accepted rules of speaking have taught people to be rigid and proper, counting “ums” and worrying about gestures. Then there’s the really bad one - "don’t you dare show any actual human emotion, that’s not professional." It’s time to ditch these outdated ideas about speaking!

How’s this for a better strategy?

 Let more of the real you show in front of an audience.

Think about the best meetings you’ve been to and the best speakers you’ve heard...

  • Did the speaker stand there rigid, controlling every physical move or did they act natural, allowing their emotion to inform their gestures?

  • Did they engage you with bold statements and colorful language, expressing their feelings, or did you sit there counting their ums?  

  • Did they worry about trying to please everyone or were they simply themselves, trusting that the message would land with each person as it was meant to?

It’s easy to think that “those really good speakers” can do that because they’re so much more experienced, or polished, or the expert. You know one key thing they had to learn? How to trust themselves.

You can build this skill, too. 

You don’t even need an audience to start. In Improvisation, we practice building trust in ourselves and others by stepping into the unknown every time we start a scene.

How can you do this in everyday life and work? 

When you catch yourself holding back in a situation where you really want to speak or act, try stepping forward instead. Use low stakes moments to experiment and build a little bit of muscle. Next time you notice yourself suppressing a comment, questioning whether you should do or say something, or otherwise questioning yourself, do a check on your self-trust. If you catch yourself saying you don’t trust the other person or the situation, dig a little deeper. It's easy to blame others, like your audience if you're speaking, or your team if you're leading, but blame doesn't yield confidence or improved results. Somewhere in there you probably need to trust the real you a bit more. 

Taking baby steps in building more trust in yourself and others will lead to better results in front of an audience, while networking, and working with your teams and customers.

Learn to trust the real you more.

-Jenny Drescher

Improv works in a clutch. Every time.

I'll begin this post with a disclaimer: I prepare for every facilitation assignment for several hours, time-blocking the session, checking the animation in the slides, and practicing. I'm a firm believer in being prepared so that I can more easily flex the content and timing of the session and its parts to meet the needs of the group. 

Yesterday was an exception and not by design. 

To make a long story short I arrived at the training site at 7:30am to find that the session that was scheduled to start at 8:30am was completely different than the session I prepared for. Nothing looked familiar.

At first I thought the client had made an error, sending along the jump drive for the wrong session. Then I opened the packet with the handouts and exercise sheets and I realized that I was, indeed, in a tough spot with no safety net. It was just me, the PowerPoint (which had few notes to give me any hints about the flow of the day or the timing of each segment), a stack of handouts, and a steady stream of arriving participants!


Holy Amygdala Hijack, Batman! Deep breaths were in order. I made a quick call to the office to verify that I was indeed in the right church, wrong pew. Yup. Gulp. And then I shifted gears and figured it out. 

I am a student of Improv and my ConnectAnd Improv partner and I use these techniques to teach business principles such as being present, trusting your scene partners, and enjoying the ride at all times. Yesterday morning I fully engaged my Improv skills and moved this group of students through unknown territory, getting us to the end of the 8 hour day with all the material (except one strange handout with no instructions) covered and a new appreciation for trusting myself in this facilitation work.

Granted, all of the skills I was teaching were well within my wheelhouse; assertive vs aggressive communication, listening skills, will versus skill challenges with employees, and techniques for changing how to communicate performance issues are all topics I know how to facilitate. We began and ended the day with high energy Improv exercises, laughed a lot, covered the materials and increased knowledge.

The thrill of victory (surviving) yesterday was a true confidence booster. I give all the glory to a lot of experience facilitating these subjects AND especially to Improv. My "Toss me in there, Coach" muscles have grown through play and scene work in Improv, turning a potentially disastrous day turned into a rewarding one.  

I'll see this class again next week for Part II. I have the correct materials for that session to review over the weekend.

-Ellen Feldman Ornato

Addiction, Confession - What is it for you?

I’m an addict.
And it’s your fault.
Driving home from a recent ConnectAnd event, I noticed that a great night’s teaching and learning is really a high. For the teacher and the student, there is a thrill in uncovering and embracing an “a-ha.” Together we feel empowered by the moments when, not only were we fully and extremely present to one another, but we were witnessed and celebrated by those in the room.  The shared experience is one of discovery, and yep, I’m addicted to it.

This addiction is rooted in curiosity, and when we see the pattern, we can leverage it.

Curiosity leads us to acts of discovery, which then yields connection.

That’s why it’s your fault, by the way. If you were bland and boring you would not provoke my nearly constant state of curiosity.  We would not be discovering together. What I want to know from you is:

  • What is your constant state?
  • What does it lead you to do?
  • What results does that yield?
  • What, my friend, is your addiction?

How do we know?

I'm sitting at a cafe in western MA getting nothing done, and this garden cafe is my current view.
You'd be right to say "well, of course not, Jenny! How can you get anything done with a view like that? Flowers, sunshine, beer and trees! It's distractingly lovely!" 

Just now, I wasn't really fully present to the beautiful garden and atmosphere I'm in. I was trying to focus on my tasks, but frankly, wasn't fully present to them, either. I was putting myself in limbo, neither soaking in beauty nor getting anything done. I was just toggling absurdly between the two.

It brought to mind a question: how do we know when we are not being truly present to an "offer?"* While it appears to be a simple question, it's not. If it were, we'd be more present more often. 

What is the big neon warning sign for you that tells you clearly: "you aren't being truly present!"

Is it a feeling, like the toggling experience I just noticed?
Perhaps it's a result, like "oops, I did not hear a thing she just said."
Is it different for one-to-one interactions from when it's with an audience?

It's worth while to figure out your personal warning signs so you can catch yourself and "snap to." It could mean the difference between you missing an offer or making the most of one.

*Everything is an offer

Play more!

I have a few kids that live in me and they argue rather frequently. One is "I want to go play with my friends because I'm really gregarious." Let's call her Petunia Play. Another is "I want to be productive and stay focused on my work." I'll call her Wanda Work.

Sometimes when I'm settling an argument between them, I have to decide who is going to get the "yes, and" from me and be the focus of my time and energy. On Friday, I had a lot of work to do, so Wanda Work was giving me an earful about going out to play for so much of the weekend instead of staying focused on getting things like this email done.

What I remembered, as I gave Petunia Play the yes, was that I was really
"yes-anding" Wanda Work as much as Petunia Play in that moment.

You see, when we adopt a policy of saying yes to more play, we feed our working selves the nourishment that business environments are usually lacking. More play, laughter, and creativity winning out over excessive diligence to the grindstone is supremely healthy, necessary, and actually increases the bottom line. Whether you're an entrepreneur, a foster parent, or another wonderful worker bringing your gifts to a world that needs you, you will get so much more out of your work if you start to YES more PLAY. I guarantee this is true or you have my permission to throw mimed invisible pointy Improv objects at me.                -Jenny 

This week, go fit in a few more minutes of play, okay? Pop us back a love note and tell us how you're going to get your play on this week. We'd love to hear from you. 

Connect more!
Jenny & Ellen