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5 Lessons From Stand-Up & Improv For Excel Trainers - Oz du Soleil

September 2013 I started taking Improv and Stand-Up classes at Second City Training Center where famous alumni include: Joan Rivers, Alan Arkin, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Amy Sedaris, Cecily Strong, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert.

Oz improv

A scene from our Level C Improv performance.

No. This isn’t the start of a new career. It’s oh so very deliberate. Here are my reasons:

  • I love teaching and talking about Excel and data.
  • I’ve discovered that some of the most engaging speakers have done Improv at some point in their development.
  • “Public Speaking” advice seems to spend too much time on counting how many times you said “uhhh” and reminding you to keep your hands out of your pockets.

The experience at Second City has delivered more than expected, it’s helped my teaching, and has been beneficial in co-hosting Excel TV.

Following are lessons that I’ve gotten during my brief time at Second City.

BE FEARLESS & HAVE FUN

COURSE: Improv Level A

All of these folks come into class for their own reasons. Some are experienced actors who need Improv on their resumes. Others are trying to break out of being shy, or they just want a structured activity to get outside of the rut of working a job and watching television.

In Level A we loosened up, told the crudest jokes, created the most bizzaro scenes, and had a lot of fun.

Just jump into a scene and trust that you’ve got all the intellect and imagination that you need. Give yourself permission for whatever.

Oz Improv2

YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE AUDIENCE’S EXPERIENCE

COURSE: Improv Level B

What are we giving the audience to give a damn about? Are we confusing the audience with too many ideas or unresolved questions? Bizzaro scenes aren’t worth an audience making an effort to come see.

Whether we’re comedians, musicians, sculptors, speakers or trainers, we have to do more than show up and dump our stuff out on the stage, then leave the audience to pick through it. A common thing to say is, “I delivered _______, I can’t force an audience to get it.”

Agreed. We can’t force an audience to get it, but many of us can do more to HELP an audience get it.

In Level B we also looked at the role of swear words or “working blue.” Actually, working blue was forbidden because it can be relied on for an easy laugh. After Level B, we have to determine for ourselves if working blue is something that is an effective or appropriate method for satisfying our mission and the audience’s experience.

“JUST BE YOURSELF” IS BALONEY, FIND A CHARACTER

COURSE: Improv Level C

Level C at Second City is character work. We learn to take on and create characters that have their own way of walking and talking, they have a point-of-view, emotions and desires. Once that character is developed, OWN IT! COMMIT TO IT!

Being in front of people in a workshop is indeed a character. You aren’t the “yourself” who’d rather be at home dealing with the break-up of a relationship. You have to be the character who’s responsible for the audience’s experience.

One night I had to go teach after learning of a friend’s grave illness. Finding the “Excel Teacher” character in me helped me go in and “perform” for the students in the Excel workshop.

Many of us already do this. Musicians describe it as having to be “on” no matter how tired or irritated you might be. “Finding a character” has provided a formal mechanism to switch into performance mode.

YOU CAN FIND ENTERTAINMENT IN EVEN THE MOST MUNDANE TOPICS

COURSE: Stand-Up 101

This puts droll trainers on notice, even if you aren’t putting your hands in your pockets. Teaching Excel can indeed be entertaining, funny, dramatic, suspenseful, and amusing. These can help make the material stick with an audience.

One-liners are all about finding entertainment in the mundane. Check out Mitch Hedberg, perhaps the funniest of the one-liner comedians.

“I wear a necklace, because I wanna know when I’m upside down.”

Mitch Hedberg

Let there be no more excuses for dull workshops.

YOU ARE GOING TO BOMB!

COURSE: Stand-up 101

“Comedic preference is even more personal than food.”

Jerry Seinfeld

What a relief to hear an instructor say: “You are going to bomb, and you MUST bomb.”

No more bullshit about “there are no mistakes.” Yes, there are mistakes. Not only are there mistakes but, we all respond differently to different styles. So, that makes it even worse:

  • you can bomb from not being prepared
  • you can bomb from having bad material
  • you can bomb from just not being an audience’s preferred flavor

Stand-up comedy isn’t a world where you get told everything is wonderful and you get credit just for trying. People will boooo your ass off the stage. In the clip below, Talking Funny, the comedians describe stand-up as a job where you’re evaluated every 17 seconds. You’re only as good as your last joke. Lots of opportunity to die in front of a crowd. However,

  • Bombing is feedback. It’s the universe’s opportunity to let you know what’s up with your material, delivery, style, authenticity and connection to the audience. If everything goes great, you don’t know what to work on. Another way of saying that: if you aren’t getting scratched and bruised, you aren’t trying hard enough tricks.
  • Bombing gets you closer to bombing less frequently.

As technical trainers, we don’t rely in jokes, but we rely on the technology working. It’s a serious improv opportunity when you don’t have the right adapter for a venue’s projector, or when you create an example on the spot, and it doesn’t work. Or, how long do you spend trying to figure out, “I’ve written SUMIF statements for the past 15 years, why is it not working now, in front of all these people?”

I added the clip below because I think trainers and teachers can get something from listening to the comedians discuss a profession of being in front of people. Talking Funny was an HBO show where Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Louis CK talked comedy for 49 minutes. Among the topics:

  • The pressure to deliver to an audience that paid money to get something
  • Discovering your own strengths and limitations, and developing a voice
  • The decision to cuss, not cuss, stop cussing or cuss less
  • Helping an audience absorb what you have to say.

All throughout the 49 minutes, they are thinking about the audience, accepting times that they bombed, adjusting, and going back at it again. Great information for anyone who has to stand up in front of other people and deliver something.

BONUS LESSON: STAND-UP MAKES TEACHING SO MUCH EASIER

While preparing for my first Stand-up act, I’d never felt so terrified and thrilled. EVER.

This was in my Stand-up class and we had to prepare a 3-minute bit. That was the only requirement. Other than that, it was my sense of humor, topic, delivery, voice inflection, message, what I decided to wear … it was all me, responsible for the audience’s experience for 3 minutes.

When teaching an Excel class, we know the topic is Excel. The people who are attending are curious about Excel. Those are two major issues that are already taken care of. But, to go in front of people who have no other expectation than to laugh for 3 minutes … up there BY YOURSELF … that’s one helluva feat, especially when you know what it’s like to bomb.

OTHER STUFF TO CHECK OUT

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
Four Public Speaking Lessons From Watching Stand-up