Here is what I learned from sharing the stage with Robin Williams.
In honor of Robin Williams’ birthday yesterday I am proudly sharing a part of a chapter on collaboration from our book AMAZE & DELIGHT (written by me and David Martinez and edited by Jesse Fernandez) that was inspired by the time I shared the stage with him. The book will be released soon!!!
Back in 2013, Robert experienced a career highlight: He got to share the stage with the legendary Robin Williams in an improvisational comedy show. Robert was the youngest in the group and the newest to improv, so he was bouncing like Flubber made of pure adrenaline.
In the green room before the show, Robert asked if anyone would like to warm up with an improv game. Five super-experienced actors laughed and said they were pros and didn’t need it. That made Robert feel like he was in way over his head. But without missing a beat, the Genie from Aladdin said that he would love to do it and wanted Robert to lead the exercise. Suddenly, as if Robert had wished it on a magic lamp, the other improv veterans magically changed their minds and decided they wanted to participate too. Robert had everyone list what was in the zeitgeist that week, including news headlines, TV commercials, Hollywood gossip, and local happenings. The game’s purpose was to warm up the performers’ brains and fill their heads with references that the audience would recognize and appreciate. The group played along, and before long, Robert felt less like a newbie outsider and more like a genuine part of the group.
The show started, and it was surreal sharing the stage with the guy who was trapped in Jumanji for 26 years. Each improviser worked together as part of a team, and it felt great. The group was heating up and connecting the action on stage with things going on in the world, California, that little town north of SF, and in that very room.
After 90 minutes of group improv, Patch Adams took over the stage for some solo time, and he exploded into a rapid-fire recap of the entire evening. He powered up like Popeye after three cans of spinach. He played all the characters from the show and hit all the zeitgeist references. The crowd leaped to their feet and went crazy! It was astonishing. And as he granted the audience’s entertainment wish, the Genie also managed to make his fellow improvisers look great by replaying all of their best characters and recapping their best punchlines. Mrs. Doubtfire even smiled and gave Robert a thumbs up from the stage.
𝐀𝐟𝐭𝐞𝐫 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐡𝐨𝐰
It wasn’t until Robert was driving home that he understood that, for the good of the show, Peter Pan had hidden his ability to fly. Garp was so much more talented than the rest of the group. Had he worked at the top of his ability from the beginning, he would have left his fellow improvisers in his dust. But had he never reached his peak, the audience would have been disappointed. So he took care of the other performers by improvising at their level for the first hour and a half, and then he flipped a switch and gave the audience the show of their lives for the last 10 minutes.
Here are the principles Mork applied to make that improv event spectacular:
• He was present and in the moment the entire show.
• He actively listened to the other actors and the crowd.
• He made meaningful connections while being humble, earnest, and considerate.
• He played, used his imagination, and had fun.
• He made his fellow team look good (especially Robert before the show started).
• He did not judge others or himself.
• It was clear he wanted to be there.
• He took risks and was quick to laugh at himself when he failed.
• He was flexible and adaptable.
• He had a lifetime of honing and trusting his intuition.
• He was confident while being very likable.
That night was not just a career highlight but also a life highlight for Robert.
Why is that story in this book? Simple: Because Robert loves bragging about the time he performed on stage with Robin Williams. #sorrynotsorry
OK, it’s not just that. The Robin Williams story is here because it’s a perfect illustration of the lessons of improv. Teams are happiest when they communicate well with each other and make each other look and feel good. Improv can teach you how to do that — and have fun while you’re at it. Later in this chapter, you will learn some fun improv games to bring your team together. But first…
𝐎𝐡 𝐧𝐨, 𝐧𝐨𝐭 𝐢𝐦𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐯! 𝐘𝐞𝐬, 𝐢𝐦𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐯!
Yes, we know what you’re thinking (we are mind-readers, after all): You once had a well-meaning manager who hired a team-building instructor to lead an improv workshop, and it wasn’t fun or helpful; it was actually awkward and stressful. There may have even been a “trust fall” exercise. The goal may have been to “lift” morale, but the reality was that the team dropped Mario. Fortunately, Hypothetical-Mario had a full recovery and has forgiven everyone (at least in this multiverse).
That’s what can happen when an improv workshop goes bad. Having your team practice improv one time and then complaining that it didn’t make them a cohesive unit is like chiseling marble for an hour and then complaining that the statue is more of a Dave than a David.
A better scenario is when team leaders implement improv training regularly, not just as a one-off. These leaders believe in the benefits of improv and how it can help create a happy, confident team that looks forward to spending time together and learning new ways to communicate. They know that, for people who’ve practiced improvising together, collaboration isn’t about just being in the same room together: It’s a skillful team activity, like an epic synchronized swimming routine that is twice as impressive if you know what’s going on under the surface.
And there is a tremendous amount of data to support the benefits of improv. A Journal of Marketing Education study observed more sales among marketing students whose marketing education included improv training. The Journal of Mental Health published a study that found participants who did improv as part of therapy demonstrated reduced anxiety and depression, and improved self-esteem. An experiment in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity found that improvisational theater training can also increase uncertainty tolerance. A controlled trial, published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, found that participants who underwent a six-week improv course experienced significantly improved creativity. Do we need to keep citing studies to convince you?
When we lead our workshop, “Communicating Success,” we use techniques from improv theater to help teams be more effective communicators. We’ve found that teams are healthier and happier when they communicate with efficiency, kindness, honesty, authenticity, and trust — all traits that are improved by improv.
𝐌𝐲𝐭𝐡𝐬 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐦𝐢𝐬𝐜𝐨𝐧𝐜𝐞𝐩𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐢𝐦𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐯
A big misconception about improv is that you have to be brilliant, speedy, and clever. Because of that misunderstanding, most people are terrified to tackle it. They’re afraid they’ll misunderstand the rules, be wrong, or make a mistake. They’d rather give a belly rub to an apex predator than take an improv workshop.
Basically, people think they’ll look dumb. But nothing could be further from the truth! When improvising, there are no rules, you can’t be wrong, and mistakes are gifts. And remember: You have already had lots of practice. If you have ever had an unscripted conversation with someone and you felt a great rapport, you have improvised successfully!
In fact, there are so many misconceptions about improv that it’s best if you forget everything you know about it. In reality, improv is about:
• Being present and in the moment
• Actively listening
• Making meaningful connections
• Remembering how to play, imagine, and have fun again, like when you were a kid
• Making your partners look and feel good
• Not judging others or yourself
• Taking risks and failing good-naturedly
• Being flexible and adaptable
• Honing and trusting your intuition
• Building confidence
• Owning the space even during interruptions
• And much more
Does that list look familiar? It’s everything Robin Williams demonstrated when he shared the stage with Robert.
The book will be released soon!!!