Improv with Mike Gorgone

A transcript of Episode 226 of UX Podcast. James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom talk to Mike Gorgone about improv and discuss how it’s useful to us as designers.

Transcript

James Royal-Lawson
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Computer voice
UX podcast, Episode 226.

[Music]

James Royal-Lawson
I’m James Royal-Lawson.

Per Axbom
And I’m Per Axbom.

James Royal-Lawson
And this is UX podcast, balancing business, technology, and people every Friday from Stockholm, Sweden. We have listeners in 190 countries around the world, from Guadalupe to Sri Lanka.

Per Axbom
Oh, I like the sound of Guadalupe. Mike Gorgone is here to tell us how a group of people can create more amazing and incredible work when collaborating together in a non-judgmental and supportive manner than any of those individuals could have created working alone.

James Royal-Lawson
It sounds obvious, yeah. But how do we get to that level of trust and create a safe place where the collaboration really works? The answer, of course, is improv.

Per Axbom
Okay, and now I’m going to try and explain what improv is. For me, improv is a form of acting, where there’s no script, and all the actors have to work together to create a storyline. And nobody can object to whatever anyone else is doing. You just have to go “yes, and” and accept what everyone else interprets as what you’re doing, or think you’re doing.

James Royal-Lawson
So basically, what we’ve just done now, try to describe improv – was actually improv. Because it wasn’t scripted. (laughter) But anyway, why don’t we let the expert tells a little bit more about it? So here’s Mike, when we caught up with him, after his improv workshop at UXLx, earlier this year.

[Music]

Per Axbom
I actually think that your workshop is one of the workshops where people grow the most. They learn something about themselves that maybe they didn’t expect to learn, or they do something they didn’t expect themselves to be able to do. What do you think about that theory?

Mike Gorgone
I would say that’s probably very accurate. Especially since I had a few people today and yesterday talk about how they were really nervous at the beginning of it, and they don’t normally want to put themselves out there. But they did and they were really happy they did. One of the things that I like about the workshop, it’s sort of a strength in numbers. So everybody’s going to be doing exercises. So in general, nobody is kind of put on the spot to have to get in front of everybody.

Mike Gorgone
And so it’s either working in pairs of, you know, 40 people. So we have 20 pairs of people kind of working around in the space or circles of about six to eight people. And so they know everybody is going to be trying out what they’re doing. So they’re not the only ones. And then I also try to stress the trust and support that improv teaches so that everybody here is here to support everybody and help you in whatever exercise that you’re doing. So I think that goes a long way towards people being more willing to be opening up and taking a risk to try something that maybe they normally wouldn’t.

James Royal-Lawson
That leads into an opening question or opening-ish question. Like, I mean, improv has been around for decades. I mean, I grew up and you grew up as well with a with a kind of heyday of improv on “Whose line is it anyway?”, which was excellent fun. But, how is improv relevant for UX design?

Mike Gorgone
Awesome question. And that goes back to about five years ago, when I started going to UX conferences just as an attendee and a lot of the people that were doing talks were mentioning things like “Well, we were trying to be more empathetic. We want to listen more actively, instead of listening to just respond” or “How do we be more non-judgmental of other people’s ideas? We want to collaborate more, we want to be more creative.” So as I heard them talking about all these things, the light went off in my head that this is all skills that improv teaches.

Mike Gorgone
So another conference later, a couple of people that were doing talks actually mentioned, oh, I took an improv class. And it was really this great experience because they taught us this concept of “Yes, and” where we’re accepting people’s ideas and building on them, and it was just like this amazing thing that I’d never experienced before.

So once I heard that starting to get talked about, I knew I could marry the two together pretty well from that point on, and so I reached out to a friend of mine, Jim. Jim Karwisch was in Atlanta with me and he does corporate training with improv and I called him up and said, “Hey, Jim, we need to get together because I’m seeing a pattern here from the conferences I’m going to where I think UX and improv, really, you know, would meld together really, really well.” So we got together over lunch, I told him what I’ve been hearing. And we listed out the topics that I’m, you know, the skills that they talked about.

Mike Gorgone
And from there, we matched up a whole list of improv exercises that cover those skills. And then we kind of ordered them in a way that we’d start off basic, you know, have some really fun opening exercises to get everybody’s nerves out and get them laughing and get them loosened up. And then start with those improv basics of listening and agreement and “yes, and”-ing and then that building into growing other people’s ideas and building on each other’s ideas, and some exercises to kind of show the people that are at the attendance of the workshop, that you are creative. Because a lot of times most people think of creativity– they think of painting and visual and sculpture, you know, the very artistic type things that you normally think of but I like to show them that, you know, you are creative and we did a really cool exercise today called “Open your hands”.

Mike Gorgone
And so I’ll have everybody walking around the space and just in random fashion, and then I’ll tell them to freeze. And I told them to open your hands and imagine some object falling out of the sky and landing in your hands, whatever it is, could be big, it could be heavy, it could be light, whatever it is, have it land in your hands and then I want you to look at it and really see it. See all the detail about it. You know, is it heavy? Is it light? Is it alive? And really see all the details, and we’ll go through about four rounds of that.

Mike Gorgone
And at the end of it, I have some people volunteer like what dropped into your hands. And one of the people today said that a little tiny man dropped into his hands and this guy, he was speaking in a little high pitched, squeaky voice that he couldn’t understand but he had shorts on and he had a t-shirt on and the t-shirt, you know, it was– I think it was white but it was empty and, you know, his hair was blonde. And so he described all these things. So at the end of exercise, I want to point out like, okay, you guys all may have thought, “Oh, I’m not necessarily so creative”, but look what you guys just created on the spot in the instant, without any prompting out of nothing. So I was like “You are all creative. Remember that.”

James Royal-Lawson
When you starts describing these exercises, I just started playing through my head as well.

Per Axbom
Yeah, exactly.

James Royal-Lawson
So what did you have, what landed into your hands?

Per Axbom
(Laughter) A brick.

James Royal-Lawson
A brick? Okay. What kind of–

Mike Gorgone
What kind of colour was the brick?

Per Axbom
It was orange.

Mike Gorgone
Orange?

Per Axbom
The most boring brick of all. I was wondering, “Why is it so boring?”

Mike Gorgone
Was it heavy? Did it have like the three holes in it?

Per Axbom
Didn’t have any three holes, no.

Mike Gorgone
Was it an old brick? Was it a new brick?

Per Axbom
Old brick.

Mike Gorgone
Was there any of the mortar still around it or anything?

Per Axbom
No. It was clean.

Mike Gorgone
Clean.

Per Axbom
Yeah, a new brick. That’s weird how I could actually see that in front of me. That’s the thing, isn’t it?

James Royal-Lawson
And I– as soon as Mike said about it, I straightaway realised what jumped into my hands was too hot to hold. So it went– I let go of it straight away and it went straight through the floor. And through the next floor because it must have been like a meteorite or something. So I actually don’t know how it looked because it was just woosh-woosh-woosh.

Mike Gorgone
Alien acid.

James Royal-Lawson
Oh, exactly, from Alien.

Per Axbom
And this also means that your workshop, you never know what’s going to happen.

Mike Gorgone
Right, right. And that’s one of the things we try to do. You know, try to stress that if you’re, you know, doing an improv scene or anything and it’s actually on theatre, you’re on the stage, and you walk out with an idea. And you know, they try to teach you, you know, be direct, get out there and get your idea out. Because the other person’s coming out with their own idea at the very start of the scene and you have to be ready for them to actually maybe say their line of dialogue first. And at that point, you have to throw away everything you may have had in your head while you were walking out and support that idea.

Mike Gorgone
Or if you walk out and maybe you start doing what’s called object work, and you look like you’re messing with something and maybe you think you’re at a cappuccino machine, and you’re making a, you know, a drink for yourself and they may think you’re at a video game machine and they come up and it’s like “So what’s– so, oh, you’re almost about to break the high score? That’s great.” Okay, well, how do you deal with that unexpected situation of “it’s been completely changed”. You were, you know, we talked about the visualisation, you’re seeing this espresso machine, you see that silver, you’re hearing the noises in your head and all of a sudden, because maybe you weren’t explicit enough about it, you thought you were maybe showing off what it was, but you never said what it was, this person has changed it and you have to be ready for that you have to, you know, on a dime be able to switch and support that new piece of information.

Mike Gorgone
So that’s a lot of what we do that I try to stress in the workshop as well. So being ready to change, because new information could come out and change something into something new. So, and I tried to connect that to maybe with you’re in a design session or you’re brainstorming and you throw an idea out and that may inspire someone to have another idea about how to solve the problem, and then they throw it out. And you have to be willing to accept that new piece of information and hey, let’s take this where it’s going to go just by listening to each other and we may end up with a very interesting solution if we’re just open to that.

James Royal-Lawson
So a degree of what you’re teaching in the workshop is awareness of how improv relates to the work we do. But I guess one of the main usefulnesses is using this as a workout. It’s a– it’s you’re not creating an artefact itself with the improv, you’re actually some kind of fitness programme.

Mike Gorgone
Yeah, you’re kind of the artefact at the end of it. ‘Cause hopefully, you’ve changed yourself a little bit, or at least been exposed to, you know, the skills through the exercises, you know, they’re not necessarily all of them something you would bring into your office and do, you know, in the boardroom or anything, a few of them, I think, are very helpful.

Mike Gorgone
We did one. And I do this one at every workshop is called “Empty your pockets”, and I have the people pair off and have them pull out something personal to them, and tell the story of why that’s personal to them. And the job of the other person is to listen, and just listen and not interrupt, not ask questions. And also even if they can calm their brain down to keep it from even thinking of questions, or if they mention, you know, “I got this on vacation in, you know, in the south of France” and that makes them think of like, “Oh, I went to the south of France last summer. Wow, that was really great. You know, we had such a good time. Oh, wait, I just missed 10 seconds of what you’re talking about” because your mind tended to wander off, so the point of the exercise is to just listen, absorb and connect to that person’s story. And I’ll flip flop it and have them switch up and do it the other way around. And that’s actually an exercise, I think it would be good for teams if they’re just starting out or even existing teams, because you may find something out about someone that you didn’t know, before that, you know, brings you closer together as teammates.

Per Axbom
It’s also an intense learning experience, teaching people the importance of trust, the importance of actually helping each other out. And there’s so much I can relate to, when it comes to coaching, just that, not asking questions, not thinking about what question next to ask, but actually to just be in the moment and listen. When I started coaching, I was like, do I need to take notes? Because they’re going to be talking for an hour? How do I need to take notes? But actually, if you’re present with that person, you don’t have to take notes because you actually remember everything and just learning to be present with another person, that’s what you’re teaching as well.

Mike Gorgone
Yeah. And just that, you know, that calmness about it and that, like you mentioned, building that trust and support that, you know, this person is listening to me and so I can feel free to be maybe a little more vulnerable about letting some information out. And I know that I don’t have to worry about them just saying “Oh wow, that was a really dumb idea. Why would you even think of that. We have no time for that. That’s not going to ever work.” That whole thing is what we’re trying to get people out of so that we can grow together, collaborate better. And then eventually, obviously, we have to take the time to narrow down what our options are. Because at the end of the day, we are trying to– if we’re trying to build something, there’s a timeline, there’s a budget, there’s all those things. But I think if you are open to that, listening to other people and examining, exploring ideas during that divergent thinking part and when you’re exploring ideas, you can just find more interesting stuff.

Per Axbom
But there has to be that aspect of– because some other workshop hosts I talked to who really are into talking about vulnerable people and are accepting of the fact that some people just don’t want to participate and feeling comfortable doing it. How do you cope with that and the workshop situation?

Mike Gorgone
I think the easiest way to do that is that the fact that I’m doing either one on one, or in the groups of six and some of the exercises are geared towards making them feel supported and safe to share whatever. I mentioned to you the “Musical hotspot” exercise where, you know, you have to jump in the middle and start singing. So that’s a “be willing to take a risk” because I cannot sing to save my life. That exercise always scares me to death. Because I can’t sing and then the trust and support of everybody in the circle, they are going to tap you and knock you off the hotspot, and you should never be out there for more than one second and they did an awesome job today. Oh my god, nobody was on that hotspot for more than one second, I think, so you really only get about two words out so I don’t even know if you can necessarily even call that singing because you’re out there for such a short period of time.

Mike Gorgone
We have another exercise where we did, in a circle, the first person to start off would just turn to the person to their right and make some sort of weird gesture or movement and sound. And then that person looks at, absorbs it, and turns to their right and tries to repeat it as best as they can. And so the whole idea of it is “I’m going to watch your thing and I’m going to try and do it as best I can, so I’m supporting what you’re doing. And I’m going to basically be doing the same thing as it goes around the circle.” And so it’s kind of, like I said, the strength in numbers. Everybody’s doing it. So you’re not out there alone in front of everybody. And usually, like– just like the laughter– You can feel the tension in the room when you first start the workshop ’cause everyone’s like, a lot of times people think, “Oh, I thought we were going to be looking at slides. I didn’t know we were actually going to be doing things.” But those opening warm-up exercises do a lot to get people’s nerves out and you can hear people laughing and you know, giggling and just like you can kind of feel the room sort of like calm down as everybody starts having fun. Because fun kills fear. Once you’re having fun, you kind of forget about a lot of that stuff. And then it’s interesting everybody else jumping in and doing it. It just kind of the momentum pulls you along.

James Royal-Lawson
Yeah, it makes it more an inviting environment.

Mike Gorgone
And it’s safe, it’s a safe place to go do whatever. I was like, “You guys are here for a reason. You want to have fun and learn, learn and get out of your comfort zones, you’re not at home and so why not be a little crazy, be a little goofy.”

Per Axbom
But it’s hard not to feel like you sort of also get competitive. Even with that, just that “What fell out of the sky” and all I could think it was a brick and just the realisation that was so boring. Somebody thought of a small guy falling into his hands, why couldn’t I think of something more– better than the brick? So there’s that aspect of it as well. But you have to realise that there is no failure, there is no competition but everybody accepts it.

Mike Gorgone
Yeah and that comes from the– I try to stress the whole non-judgement aspect of it. It’s not only the worry of other people judging, you know, your idea but really even more so you judging your own idea and keeping yourself from jumping out there because you’re worried of looking, you know, goofy or dumb or, you know, the line you’re worried about giving isn’t going to be funny or creative or interesting. That’s like the biggest hurdle people learning improv have to get over.

James Royal-Lawson
The expectations you put on yourself.

Mike Gorgone
Exactly, exactly. Really worrying about how other people are going to perceive it. Because when they, you know, first start taking classes, when I started taking classes, you know, they’re really like, “We don’t want crazy, wacky characters. We want you to start with grounded real people who exist, you know, in the world, and then we will find interesting little quirks about them.” And then we’ll explore those and they’ll do what’s called heightening and that’s where you try to make more of what’s going on. So if you sense something about, you know, the character, like, you know, they have, you know, they, maybe they erase a lot, you know, they always make a lot of stuff with the pencil and they’re always erasing and trying to make it perfect or something. You can like, you know, do that “What, okay, if this person erases everything they’re writing, what else are they constantly, you know, metaphorically erasing?” You know, there’s other things they could do. You know, if they mow the lawn, they’re also always kind of redoing the lawn because “Ah, this is imperfect. So I got to, you know, go at it and mow it again.” You know, and they’re mowing it 20 times in a row or something. So you can find ways to like heighten and explore those little idiosyncrasies that, you know, the audience will recognise. Like, “Oh yeah, that’s the guy that lives next door to us. He does the same thing all the time.” And those kind of characters and laughs that you get are much more satisfying, at least from the improviser’s side, then just go out and being wacky, crazy character person, because it’s also hard to keep up that character, that high level energy, crazy wacky character, if it’s like a 30 minute show that you just can’t do it. So it’s always better to start with realistic characters, realistic situations, and then just start to explore them. So it’s a little bit of a slow burn to get up to the end of the show. And then at the end of the show, you can go to crazy town.

Per Axbom
So as a designer, wanting to try this out, what do you recommend?

Mike Gorgone
I would say the best thing to do is look in your local city because there’s improv theatres popping up all over the place, especially in the US, they’re like all over. You can’t really, you know, as the saying goes, swing a dead cat without hitting an improv theatre. I mean, Atlanta’s got three now, it’s growing a ton. There’s a lot of people doing improv there. I mean, we were up in Asheville for a little vacation about a month ago for spring break and they’ve got an improv theatre. I know Austin– they’re just everywhere now. A friend of mine was in Copenhagen for six months, and he was helping get their improv theatre started, it’s Improv Comedy Copenhagen, so the ICC theatre, so that’s there.

Mike Gorgone
So I would suggest finding a theatre and a lot of them now have drop-in classes. So you can just go try one or two classes for free. Or maybe it’s like $5, you know, there’s nothing expensive just to kind of, they want to, they want to try and rope you in, you have some fun, and then take the full level. So– and the good thing about that is, you know, it’ll be a continuous repetition of taking classes versus maybe a one day workshop. I’m trying to get them hooked a little bit and intrigued enough that when they go back home, they’ll start to take some classes. So that’s probably the easiest thing you can do is find a theatre near you, and then try and you know, check out if they’ve got any sort of training programme, and then sign up.

James Royal-Lawson
But there aren’t any– I mean, is there something I could do pretty much straight away with my team, though. I mean, is there any kind of, you know, entry level exercises that might be useful and fun for us to do like a quarter of an hour on a Friday.

Mike Gorgone
There is, I think it’s the Improv Resource Centre or the Improv Encyclopaedia, there’s a couple of them out there. And if you know the skills that you want to kind of hit, both of those sites will list their exercises kind of by name, or sort of what the skill they’re looking for – so “listening” or “agreement” – so they’ll usually have what that exercise focuses on. And so you can go there and you could find it. There are also some videos– there’s tons of videos. For some of the games, there’s one called “The ad game”, I found a really good video that explains that whole thing and how it works. And that’s kind of a bit more of an advanced one after you’ve kind of sort of had the basics to– to move on to but yeah, there’s definitely resources out there. So if you know what skill you want to work on, you can you know, look up improv exercises. Probably it’s either in the Improv Encyclopaedia or in the Improv Resource Centre. Both of them may have like a wiki of exercises. And there might actually be an improv wiki I can’t remember exactly…

James Royal-Lawson
(Laughter) Sounds like a thing that definitely would have a wiki.

Mike Gorgone
So if you look up any of those things or just like I said, google “improv exercises”, you should find a few sites that have them. And if they don’t break them down by the skills they teach, within the description it will say what it’s covering. And so if you know what you’re looking for, you should be able to find some, you know, basic introductory exercises that you can run.

James Royal-Lawson
Some more googling to do.

Per Axbom
We’ll put those in the shownotes, obviously. What would an exercise look like if you tried it on us?

Mike Gorgone
Okay. (Everyone laughs)

James Royal-Lawson
Oh dear. (Everyone laughs) It wasn’t enough with your brick.

Mike Gorgone
The brick was not enough. You wan’t something else. Awesome.

Mike Gorgone
So, let’s do the “Last word response” exercise. Okay. And in this exercise, either one of you can start and you’ll just kind of keep going for a little bit, but you’ll just give a regular line of dialogue again, doesn’t have to be funny. Doesn’t have to be crazy. Doesn’t have to be, you know, what you– what you were worried about maybe being super awesome. It could be, “I went downstairs and I got the mail.” And then you would respond with “Mail is what I really dread getting because all it ever is to me is bills and advertising.” And then you would respond with, like, “Advertising is the scourge of man, it makes us crave consumer items that we just don’t really need.” And so the whole object of it is to start your sentence with the last word of the other person’s sentence. So you don’t know what’s coming. You have no idea how he’s going to end his sentence. So you have to be ready to take that word and then absorb it. And then use that as the first word for your sentence. So if you guys want to give that a try.

James Royal-Lawson
Who’s starting?

Mike Gorgone
Either one. Who wants to go first?

James Royal-Lawson
I’ll go first.

Mike Gorgone
Okay. And it can just be a simple straightforward sentence. Go.

James Royal-Lawson
I drew some money out of the cash machine.

Per Axbom
Machine is something I’m scared of because it’s not human.

James Royal-Lawson
Humans are nice and cuddly.

Per Axbom
Cuddly is how I think about my dog.

James Royal-Lawson
Dogs sniff things.

Per Axbom
Things get lost in washing machines.

James Royal-Lawson
Machines are going to take over the world.

Mike Gorgone
See? That’s a really nice way to kind of round the circle. You have worked your way back to machines. (Everyone laughs). That was actually really fun to see, we’ll do some word association.

James Royal-Lawson
But so what was the skill that I was focusing on?

Mike Gorgone
Listening, obviously. Listening and getting his complete statement, and then dealing with an unexpected suggestion.

James Royal-Lawson
Right.

Mike Gorgone
So you don’t know what the last word is going to be. So you can’t really be pre-planning yourself.

James Royal-Lawson
Apart from the first one, of course.

Mike Gorgone
Yeah, apart from the first one, yes. But after that, you are completely dependent on whatever that last word is. And you have to create something based off of that, you can’t be pre-planning your whole sentence and then just kind of pack whatever that word is on in the beginning,

Per Axbom
And you have to be quite fast. I’m assuming that’s sort of the point that you can’t wait and think for–

Mike Gorgone
Yeah, I prefer them not to think. ‘Cause once you start thinking that’s when you get into that zone, of like “Okay, that’s not a good idea.”

James Royal-Lawson
Exactly, yes. That goes for training anything as well. I mean, you– when you practice a few times you’ll start to have a little kind of framework, I guess of how you can build responses quickly.

Mike Gorgone
Yeah. And it’s like– I think like you mentioned earlier, it forces you to be present in the moment between just the two of you, and focusing on each other and you know, everything else kind of melting away. And it’s just the two of you exchanging these lines of dialogue and really focusing in on that last word.

Per Axbom
This is a great game for just going to the pub. (Everyone laughs) I’m doing this tonight.

James Royal-Lawson
And the family when we get home as well.

Per Axbom
Yes, exactly.

Mike Gorgone
After a while, it may end up just being a lot of slurring that’s hard to decipher. (Everyone laughs)

James Royal-Lawson
Or it just kind of spirals down into beer, beer, beer, beer. (Everyone laughs)

Per Axbom
One more, one more, one more.

Mike Gorgone
If you wanna try another exercise, we can do that one as well.

Per Axbom
Okay.

James Royal-Lawson
And this is I think this one is kind of building on the other one of the listening and exchanging lines, and it’s just the standard, you know, improv 101 exercise that they’ll throw at you if you start taking class and it’s called “Yes, and”, and goes towards that concept of “Yes. And…” So– and this one is actually, you know, very literal in that I really want you guys to respond, “yes”, repeat the line of dialogue, “and”, and then you’re adding new information.

Mike Gorgone
So, the example might be if you were to give the opening line and say something along the lines of “The ice cream during the break was really good today.” And you could respond “Yes, the ice cream during the break was really good today. And I think I’m going to invest in buying one of those ice cream carts.” “Yes, you are going to invest in buying one of those ice cream carts. And I expect you to give me free ice cream for life.” And it’s that simple. It’s three lines.

Mike Gorgone
But the focus of the exercise is that again, you’re really listening and you’re proving that you’re listening by saying the “yes”. So there’s that literal saying of “Yes, I’ve heard you. Yes, I’m going to support this line that you’re giving me. Yes, I love it.” And you repeat it back to them. And you can modify the sentence a little bit. In case, you know, it doesn’t sound like– so if I said, you know, “I’m going downtown”, you wouldn’t say “yes, I’m going down”, you’d say “yes, you are going downtown”. So feel free to modify it so it makes sense. And then by doing that, you’re showing, “Oh, he just repeated back to me what he said. So I know he heard me.” And then the “and” part is where you get to add new information to it to help grow whatever the idea is, that those three lines end up being.

Per Axbom
Right.

Mike Gorgone
So, we can go through that one. We can do it twice. So each of you get a chance to give the opening line if you want.

Per Axbom
Okay.

Mike Gorgone
I think since you went first last time, why don’t you go first this time.

Per Axbom
I’m really pleased we printed UX podcast t-shirts for this event.

James Royal-Lawson
Yes, I’m really pleased that you printed UX podcast t-shirts for this event. And I’m really looking forward to producing more of them in different colours next time.

Per Axbom
I’m really looking forward to–

Mike Gorgone
Don’t forget “yes”, yes.

Per Axbom
Oh, I’m completely missing the instructions here. Yes. I’m really looking forward to producing these t-shirts and more colours for the next event and producing other items to go with them.

Per Axbom
Yeah. Yes, and–

Mike Gorgone
No, no, “yes”, repeat–

Mike Gorgone
And there you go, that’s three lines. Perfect.

Per Axbom
Oh, that’s– okay, that was that?

Mike Gorgone
Yeah, it’s just three lines. So you started and then now he gets the chance to start an opening line.

Per Axbom
Oh, wow.

Mike Gorgone
And then you’ll “yes, and that” and then he’ll reply to that.

James Royal-Lawson
Okay. Oh, nice. You see, now I’m just thinking about ice cream. (Everyone laughs) No I’m going to have to– I would have to go with it. So, I’m really looking forward to the pastel da nata tomorrow. (Whispers) The custard tarts. Portuguese custard tarts.

Per Axbom
Yes. I’m really looking forward to the custard tarts tomorrow. And I think I’ll actually eat three of them this year.

James Royal-Lawson
Yes, I’m pretty sure you will eat three of them this year. And I will probably eat more than three. Me and Bruno have our own plates.

Mike Gorgone
Good. Perfect. So you see how it works?

Per Axbom
Yes. (General laughter)

Mike Gorgone
You’re showing that you’re listening by repeating it and then adding new information to it so that, you know, if there was a scene on stage during a show that world is expanding as we’re growing. We’re starting this one little seed and it’s growing and expanding and if it was a, you know, what’s called a long form show, you’re usually performing with a group of six to ten people so the two people are on stage working in the scene. All the people on the side are listening and looking for interesting things.

Mike Gorgone
So you mentioned you know, tomorrow night. Okay, so they may take you to a scene the next night, where you’re actually at the party and these things are coming out, and you said you’re going to get your own plate so the waiter, someone can play a waiter coming out and then just make it like this ginormously huge plate of all these tarts and say “Sir, you want this” – “No this is really far more than I expected.” – “Sir, you said you ordered the large plate. This is the large plate, and you’re not allowed to leave until you eat all of them.” Yeah, so you know, putting that sort of, goofiness on what was initially just kind of a normal, you know, start to to a show.

Per Axbom
And it was really simple like you said three lines, that was actually nothing. So it felt comfortable.

Mike Gorgone
Yeah. It takes the pressure off of, like, we have to do a scene for like two minutes. It’s just three lines and then we move on.

James Royal-Lawson
And I like the fact that there’s a finite, there’s an end to it, a decided end instead of that pressure to keep on going and then not knowing when it’s going to stop.

Mike Gorgone
Right, right. And at the end of the workshop, both days I’ll do, and this is the only pressured– pressure exercise that I have for them. And it’s kind of the culmination of everything that we’ve talked about in the, you know, the three, three and a half, four hours or whatever, I’m putting all the skills to use and it’s called “The documentary” or “The interview”. And two people will sit in chairs and pretend they’re talking to a camera, and they’re being interviewed and they’ll get– so we get a suggestion, you know, from the audience, which is the other workshop people.

Mike Gorgone
So everyone– we get the chairs set up like a little bit of a theatre and we have the two chairs up there. So I absolutely get that that’s probably the most terrifying thing in the entire workshop, and so I ask only for people to volunteer if they would like to try it. And I always go for the first one with somebody. So that way, you know, they feel safe, they know that, you know, I’m going to take care of them and support their ideas. And it went really well. You know, people who jumped up there and did it, we did– they did great. They told some really funny stories and it’s only one minute. So the timer is going and they don’t have to be up there for that long. And you know, everyone who did it when we got done I was like, “So did that feel like a really long time?” And they’re like “No, it went by really quick, actually.” I’m like, “See? When you’re in that present moment, and you’re just exchanging the lines of dialogue, it goes by really fast.” And when improv works, and you’re in it, it almost feels– you almost feel guilty because it’s like, “Wow, this is actually– wait, this is going too easy, this is really well I don’t understand why this is working so well, this should be harder, why isn’t this harder?”

Mike Gorgone
And then of course, when you get in your head, it can go south. (Laughter) But I bet you had that. I’ve had those moments where I’m like, “Wow, this is actually really easy, or, this is like an easy conversation and like, I get what my characteri s thinking, I get what their point of view is, and I’m just filtering everything through that point of view, and this is really a lot of fun, oh my gosh.” And once you kind of have that, you know, that happen, then you’re like, “Oh, I want to do it again. Because that was really cool.”

James Royal-Lawson
I love your enthusiasm for improv and for applying it to our work. Excellent.

Per Axbom
Yeah. Thanks for joining us.

Mike Gorgone
Thanks for having me. It has been fantastic.

James Royal-Lawson
I think I actually had three pastel de nata.

Per Axbom
I think you said you were going to have more than three.

James Royal-Lawson
I know. I improvised. I had three.

Per Axbom
I stopped counting. They’re just too good.

James Royal-Lawson
I’m saying three. We actually did stand there with Mike the day after when the pastel de nata get delivered and they are fantastic. And, and– we blew Mike’s mind a little bit.

Per Axbom
Yeah, he understood what we meant. Yeah.

James Royal-Lawson
Anyway. Improvisation. I mean, just listening back to this. ‘Cause it’s been a few months since we recorded it, and listening back, I couldn’t help but enjoy it again, to feel kind of how much fun it was doing a little bit of improv in an interview.

Per Axbom
This was one of the few times when we listened back to the episode together and we’re sitting here laughing. It was so much fun. And you also hear – you have to sort of listen to Mike – what a fantastic teacher he is. And how he really does make you feel comfortable. That we actually did those improv exercises on the fly. That was fantastic, but he also made us feel really comfortable enough to do it on the fly.

James Royal-Lawson
I mean, we knew he was going to throw at least one improv exercise at us because we talked about it before we started recording.

Per Axbom
He was threatening.

James Royal-Lawson
But we didn’t expect him to do two, and we had no idea which ones he was gonna throw at us. So it was really good, really good fun. And I just love the throwback to childhood I guess that, you know, you used to do a lot freeform creative thinking that you didn’t realise you’re being creative in your play and thinking you were just making stuff up. And the combination and making stuff up, as well as trusting the other person to, you know, carry on to, you know, support you and to play along.

Per Axbom
And yeah, you know, you are with people that you can trust. I think that’s part of it, though, because there’s still that– I still think I really want to do this more often, I wish I would go to a class. But there’s also that part of me that feels sort of wary and afraid, and “Oh, how’s this going to go?” And you have– this was a good reminder, I think I have to listen to the show more often. It’s such a good reminder that the teacher is there to help you and help everyone feel safe. And make sure that everyone else helps you feel safe. So I mean there’s that and all the exercises are designed as well to make you feel comfortable. We commented on that. So you have three sentences, you know it’s going to end, you know it’s not going to go on forever. It’s structured, it’s–

James Royal-Lawson
Reassuring.

Per Axbom
Yes, exactly.

James Royal-Lawson
So the team building aspects of this is fantastic. So I’m thinking you know, when you have a long workshop, a long meeting, why not just throw one of these into the middle?

Per Axbom
Exactly.

James Royal-Lawson
That you know– just before or just after a break or something you can just say “Right. Let’s start off by doing…” well then, like Michael encourages, go to improv 101 or whatever, just google something. Find one thing that you can do just to kind of get stuff rolling, gets it back in again.

Per Axbom
Actually at the dinner the night before he had done one of these exercises at the dinner table. The one “Empty your pockets” and I took off my ring and talked about that a bit. And this also made me think, when he said “So you might learn something about your colleagues that you didn’t know before”, now we’re entering a season where a lot of people are spending time with family that they maybe don’t meet that often. Maybe don’t agree all the time with–

James Royal-Lawson
Or don’t want to talk politics with–

Per Axbom
Exactly. And these exercises, just bringing them out, even at the dinner table. Just fantastic. Something– An opportunity to learn something about people that you think you know everything about.

James Royal-Lawson
A spontaneous conversation you maybe wouldn’t have ever had if you’d just been chatting regularly without the kind of improvisation tools to help you along.

Per Axbom
Right. And now I’m thinking maybe we even should do some improv exercises to start– to warm up before doing our shows.

James Royal-Lawson
God, I thought you were gonna say now.

Per Axbom
No, I’m done with improv today.

Per Axbom
So recommended listening after this is of course our Christmas show a few years ago, Episode 174, the UX podcast panel game, where we improvise.

James Royal-Lawson
Yeah, we had two guests and Jonas Söderström who was our quizmaster/host of the show, and we spent a full episode improvising. That was competitive and great fun.

Per Axbom
It was so much fun.

James Royal-Lawson
Thanks for listening. Always a pleasure. A quick reminder, you can contribute to funding UX podcast by visiting ux.podcast.com/support.

Per Axbom
Remember to keep moving.

James Royal-Lawson
See you on the other side.

[Music]

Per Axbom
Hey James, what does Santa suffer from when he gets stuck in the chimney?

James Royal-Lawson
I don’t know, Per. What does Santa suffer from when he gets stuck in the chimney?

Per Axbom
CLAUS-trophobia.

[Both laugh]


This is a transcript of a conversation between James Royal-Lawson, Per Axbom and Mike Gorgone recorded in May 2019 and published as Episode 226 of UX Podcast.