300px-Good_Evening_Dudley_Moore_Peter_Cook_1975How to stop co-presenting disasters – the one thing you need to know from improv comedy

If you’re presenting or training with someone else, there’s one thing that both you and your co-trainer need to know to stop your training session or presentation ending in failure.

I’ve been a co-trainer with a number of different people over the years, and it’s safe to say that some of those times have gone better than others. I’ve been talked over so the learners didn’t get any information, contradicted so that the learners didn’t know what to believe and came away with nothing, and had sessions hijacked in a different direction than I wanted them to go so that learners were in danger of missing essential learning points. And, in my early years as a trainer I may have been guilty of all of these ‘sins’ occasionally myself.

What was the crucial difference that made these co-training sessions work or not? (It was also the difference that make me able to rescue the sessions from being complete disasters.) It wasn’t to do with the intelligence, the competence, or even the intentions of my co-trainers; rather, it has to do with whether or not they were aware of the basic principle of improvised comedy known as “Yes, and…”

There are varying lists of improv comedy principles out there (just Google the term and you’ll see that there are five, seven or even ten of them) but the one that always comes out on top is “Yes, and…” It’s crucial to how a team of improv performers can make up a sketch that works on the spot, from suggestions given by the audience, with no rehearsal, no forethought, and no telepathy between the performers.

In a nutshell, “Yes, and…” means accepting whatever happens as a gift, and using it as a platform to build on or take things in a different direction (if you’re a hypnotherapist, you will recognise this as akin to the principle of ‘utilisation’). You agree with what your co-trainer says and then offer additional information.

How does this work in practice when co-training? Let’s say your co-trainer says something you disagree with – something you ‘know’ to be wrong. It might be that they trot out that old misreading of Albert Mehrabian’s work that still crops up in ‘soft skills’ training: “Only 7% of the information in your message is verbal, 38% is voice tone and 55% is body language”.

Now, because you care about giving correct information to your students, you might be tempted to say “No, actually that statistic comes from Mehrabian’s work being applied out of context” and explain why. The best outcome you can hope for from this is that you’ve set up two competing internal representations in your learner’s minds – yours and your co-trainers. Most likely, the two internal representations will have a fight and ‘blow each other out’ so that your students come away not remembering your version or your co-trainer’s version, and have learned nothing.

Also, you’ve undermined the credibility of your co-presenter and devalued everything else they have said or will say. Possibly, if they are more articulate than you and have a better rapport with the audience, it will be your credibility that’s undermined. The most likely outcome is that you both lose some authority in the audience’s eyes, plus whoever feels they have ‘lost’ will now harbour resentment to their co-trainer, making future disagreements more likely and probably leading to more disruptive questions from the audience as they pick up on the discord.

Note that saying “Yes, but…” is essentially the same as saying “No”, since the ‘but’ has the effect of denying the part of the statement that came before it. The same applies to other words like “although” and “however”.

Also, don’t question your co-trainer about their statement. Asking questions of your co-trainer is making them do all the work and can be seen as another form of disagreement – particularly if that is how your question was actually intended.

How things go better with “Yes, and…”

Let’s see how things go instead if you adopt a “Yes, and…” attitude. First, you won’t contradict your co-trainer’s statement – not even with a meaningful look or raised eyebrows, because learners do of course pick up on facial expressions and take them as information.

You can choose to leave the erroneous statement and move straight on to another learning point. This won’t be optimal, though, if your co-trainer was clearly expecting you to comment on their point or build on it.

In which case, you can find something that you can build on. You could look for the intention behind the erroneous statement – the larger truth that it was intended to point towards.

In this case, the statement was probably intended to remind learners to pay attention to the importance of non-verbal messages as a context for how your verbal message is understood. So if it was me in that situation, I would probably say something about Gregory Bateson’s insight that body language, voice tone and facial expressions convey information about the speaker’s view of their relationship with the listener, so they give the listener some idea about whether the speaker means what they are saying, whether they are joking, whether they are being sarcastic, and so on.

What’s the result? The real learning point your co-trainer wanted to make is clarified, the learners have an enriched internal representation, nobody’s ego is bruised, and in the audience’s eyes you and your co-trainer are still on the same page, and ready to move smoothly on to the next learning point. At this point I should give my friend Resli Costabell a hat-tip for reminding me of another, closely related improv principle: “Focus on making the other performers look great, and you’ll all look great.”

Of course, what you choose to say to build on your co-trainer’s statement will vary depending on what you think is the intention behind your co-trainer’s statement, and what you have to say that will build on it.

What if your co-trainer doesn’t know about “Yes, and…”?

Knowing about “Yes, and…” still helps if your co-trainer is the one who disagrees with something that you have said, and chooses to contradict or ‘correct’ it in front of your audience? In this case, you remember your prime responsibility is to the learners, and (ideally) build on the ‘correction’ by finding something that reconciles the two opposing statements, probably by focusing on the intention common to both. Or at the very least, leave it and move on.

So what about your hurt feelings from being ‘put down’ in front of the audience, or your outrage at being contradicted? Suck it up and move on – if you don’t show any signs of emotional distress, the audience won’t attach any importance to the fleeting disagreement. If your co-trainer repeatedly crashes what you are saying, it will reflect more on them than on you in the eyes of the audience.

Note: I’m in no way setting myself up as an improv comedy expert. I had a bit of training from Paul Z Jackson on a course, and I have been known to make my audiences laugh (nearly always intentionally), but that’s as far as my comedy credentials go.

Practical implications

  • If you’re auditioning a co-trainer, make sure they know about the “Yes, and…” principle and maybe build it into your working agreement.
  • If you are already co-training with someone and they clearly aren’t aware of “Yes, and…”, tell them about it. If they still don’t get it, you may find this article on how to give feedback in an emotionally intelligent way useful.

Image by David Powers from Wikimedia – public domain

The one thing you need to know from improv comedy to make co-presenting work

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