The Improv Is No Joke Podcast

Welcome to the Improv Is No Joke podcast hosted by Peter Margaritis, AKA The Accidental Accountant and author of the book 'Improve Is No Joke, Using Improvization to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life'. This podcast series is also available on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

Finding the Story

Have you ever wondered where good storytellers get their stories? I did, and I wanted to learn how to find my own stories worth sharing. Several years ago I was working on my first keynote speech and knew I could use some guidance. I hired Judy Carter, an international motivational speaker, author of Message of You, former stand-up comedian and coach.  When we began what turned out to be an eight month process, she told me “you first need to find the mess before you can create the message.”

One of the exercises in The Message of You was to identify a day that started off bad but ended up better than expected. Your stories don’t have to be large and filled with drama to be effective.  My task was to create a list of “bad day – good day” events, and I was surprised that it turned out to be a rather long list.  It is amazing how many memories come flooding back when doing this exercise. Some memories were huge and dramatic – we all have defining moments we can recall. My big stories include being adopted, going through a divorce and having arterial septal defect surgery. While all were both huge and dramatic, they weren’t the stories I wanted to tell.

What I learned was to look for other incidents that had the potential to be really bad, but ended well. When you identify that bad day moment, work backward to the beginning when everything was just fine.  That is your starting point in finding your story.

Here is an example of one of my messes:

It was January 3, 2014, and my son and I had traveled from Columbus, Ohio to Miami to watch the Orange Bowl. Our Ohio State Buckeyes ended up losing to Clemson but that didn’t upset me. The trip was all about spending time with my son.

After the game we headed back to the rental car and my heart sank when I realized I had left the lights on; the battery was totally dead.  I did begin to panic a bit as we waded through the crowd looking for someone to help us. Then a very nice Clemson fan offered to jump our car.  I tried to pay him, but he said: “pay it forward.” Okay, OSU lost and our car had to be jumped, but not such a bad day, right?

With the car started, we drove away. That’s when I realized that I left my diabetes kit that contained my insulin, meter, and test strips in the stadium. I had no backup supplies. That’s when I really began to panic. I tried to calmly share my diabetes dilemma with my son, but I knew he could see the fear on my face.  He calmly said, “Dad, there has to be a Walgreen’s close by where you could get your insulin and supplies you need.”  

He was right, there was a 24-hour Walgreen’s close to our hotel.  When I told the pharmacist my situation, he said he would try to help me out.  Of course, there were the usual issues with finding the correct prescription and insurance but the pharmacist got me all set up.  Long story short, and several messes later, I walked out with all the supplies I would need to make it back home and $550 lighter in my wallet.  

The first step to defining your story is to find those messes and put them down on paper. If you struggle with this, refer to an earlier blog posting, “The Five Components for a Solid Foundation to a Good Story,” where I discuss that every good story has a hero and a villain. In other words, there is a problem (villain) that needs a solution (hero) to overcome the problem at hand.  I have found when I encourage people to think about their stories in this way, a big light bulb goes on. Every day each of deal with problems, obstacles, issues. Think about that, and a floodgate of ideas will open up.

Take time to create a list of problems that you, the hero, have solved.  You will be astounded at the number of potential stories you have at your fingertips.  My next blog post will focus on techniques to craft your story into something memorable. Remember, small messes can make huge and dramatic stories!

Pete & Mr. IRS Agent: Sketch Comedy Writing

In 2015, I took an online sketch comedy writing course from Second City. I was looking for ways to become a better writer, and I learned a lot from this course. What I learned was developing characters to help build the emotional attachment with the audience. When writing, we need to create the emotional attachment with our reader to they will continue reading. I still have a long way to go, but this course helped me to keep this concept in the forefront of my mind. I hope you enjoy.

Cast

Pete – 40’s.

Mr. IRS Agent – 50’s

(Scene: conference room at CPA firm)

PETE

Welcome Mr. IRS Agent.  It is good to finally meet you after all of these years.

MR. IRS AGENT

Same here and thanks for agreeing to meet at your office.

PETE

Please excuse my attire but it is “let’s dress crazy day” here at our firm.

MR. IRS AGENT

Not one bit!  You might be the only person to pull off wearing an orange sport coat, white dress shirt, purple bow tie, white dress slacks and black Chuck Taylor shoes. Either way, lets get started.

PETE

I will take that as a compliment.  Ready to get down to work Mr. IRS Agent or would you like a tour of our office.

MR. IRS AGENT

Let’s get to work.

PETE

Would you like something to drink?  We have coffee, espresso, or water.

MR. IRS AGENT

A glass of room temperature water would be fine.

PETE

Would you like some ice with your water?

MR. IRS AGENT

No, ice water.

PETE

One glass of ice water coming up.

MR. IRS AGENT

Pete, sorry for the confusion. I would like a glass of room temperature water, not a glass of ice water.

PETE

Oh! Okay, coming right up.

Here you go.

MR. IRS AGENT

Thank you.  Are you ready to start?

 PETE

Yes Mr. IRS Agent! What questions do you want to ask?

MR. IRS AGENT

Your client is claiming $515,732 in airfare expenses for 2013 but in 2012 they claimed only 32,869.  Can you explain this?

PETE

Hey Bill!  How are you today and thanks for dinner last night.  Mr. IRS Agent, have you ever been to Delmonico’s restaurant?  Bill and I went last night for dinner and the steaks were outstanding…

MR. IRS AGENT

No, I am a vegetarian. Let’s get back to my question.

PETE

Before we start back, I have a question for you. Why did you want to come down and meet at our offices?

MR. IRS AGENT

The reason is that I am finding our conference calls have not been productive these last couple of years. And…

PETE

And what?

MR. IRS AGENT

And I am considering leaving the IRS, moving to Los Angeles, chasing my dream of being a stand-up comic and I wanted to meet you face-to-face.

PETE

WHAT?! Mr. IRS Agent wants to be a stand-up comic. Now that is funny!

MR. IRS AGENT

Yea, I know but this has been my dream. I even did some stand-up my freshman and sophomore year in college.

PETE

Excuse me for saying this but you are a stereotypical IRS agent – lack of any humor.

MR. IRS AGENT

Pete, I use to be really funny, outgoing, “fun to hang out with” kind of guy.

PETE

What happened?

MR. IRS AGENT

I changed my major from theater to accounting. At first, I noticed a slight change in my personality. But when I went to work for a Big 4 accounting firm, the “fun Kevin” began to get slowly sucked right out of me.

PETE

Your real name is Kevin?

MR. IRS AGENT

Yes it is!  When I moved to the IRS my fun meter immediately went to zero. So I decided the only way to get through this job was to have people call me Mr. IRS Agent.  But you can call me Kevin.

PETE

Okay, Kevin

MR. IRS AGENT

Did you always wanted to be an accountant?

PETE

Does anyone really WANT to be an accountant? Everyone I know in this profession kind of fell into it.

PETE

Should we get back to work?

MR. IRS AGENT

It can wait. I am going to allow the deduction anyhow! How did you fall into becoming an accountant.  Did you lose a bet?

PETE

HA HA!  That’s funny BUT true.

MR. IRS AGENT

TRUE?

PETE

I was in love and my wife wanted us to move from Ft. Myers, Fl to Cleveland, OH so she could be closer to her parents. So, I told her I would but under one condition. That Case Western Reserve University accepts me into their Master’s of Accountancy Program.

MR. IRS AGENT

And the rest is history!

PETE

I never thought I would get accepted.  I had taken the GMAT but my scores were under acceptance limit of 500.  They were so low that even if the person who transferred my score to an excel spreadsheet had dyslexia, they still would not reach 500.

MR. IRS AGENT

Now that is really funny!  Have you ever done stand-up?

PETE

Actually, I have. Similar to your story.  And yes, most of my funny has been sucked out by this accounting firm that I have been with for 10 years.  It actually cost me my marriage.

MR. IRS AGENT

This is getting really freaky.  I just signed my divorce papers just before I came to your office.  My attorney is on the floor above you.

PETE

Shut the front door. That firm also handled my divorce.  Is your attorney Nouno?

MR. IRS AGENT

OMG with a shocked emoji! Yes he is.

PETE

Who knew after all of these years that we share the love for stand-up comedy.  You know the difference between stand-up comedy and heroine?

MR. IRS AGENT

Of course I do.  You can quit heroine!

PETE

Kevin, I have got a crazy idea.

MR. IRS AGENT

I know what you are thinking.  We both quit our jobs today, move to LA and chase our dreams of being a stand-up comic.

PETE

Kevin, not quite.  My idea was to meet for drinks and dinner tonight and discuss quitting our jobs and becoming stand-up comics.

MR. IRS AGENT

Great idea!  Dinner at Delmonico’s.  I really love their steaks!

(fade out)

Dealing with the Unknowns of Public Speaking

When it comes to public speaking, this is one of greatest fears people can have.  There are a number of reasons fueling this fear, but the unpredictable variables that come from speaking no doubt add to the anxiety.  You probably know what I’m going to suggest in order to combat these fears – that’s right, improvisation.  I’m going to present a few common scenarios that can occur when needing to speak publicly and how improv can help you avoid a panicked meltdown at the podium.

When Heads Start Bobbing

I’ve seen people fall asleep within 15 minutes during an hour-long presentation. If you do enough speaking, you’re going to see heads bobbing, particularly at all-day workshops and seminars. The unfortunate part of that is when people walk out of a presentation like that, about a third of what they heard stays behind them in the room. They don’t retain it. Within two weeks they barely remember anything—not even the name of the speaker.  Think about the investment wasted.

While it’s very much the attendee’s job to be respectful and stay awake – it is just as much your responsibility to engage your audience to make staying awake easier.  You must do this through connecting with them, which isn’t going to happen by rattling off a bunch of bullet points in a monotone voice.  Think of your audience as a one-on-one interaction – try to create a relationship together. You can do this by giving examples to illustrate the material, or introduce exercises that require participation.

Something to keep in mind, you’re not going to connect with everyone.  There will always be someone sitting there that clearly projects, “My boss made me come to this.” You can’t do much about that person. But as for the rest of them, you can focus on making that connection that will

The Show Must Go On

There will be times where what was planned on, simply gets thrown out the window.  Maybe there’s a technical malfunction preventing you from using your computer and slides, or someone cancelled in a line-up of speakers and you need to unexpectedly change when you present.  The unpredictable is quite frankly predictable.  Plan for things to not go as planned – or at least prepare yourself with the ability to be adaptable – yet another important element of improvisation.

I once heard a story about a gentleman who was giving a presentation and fell off the stage. He apparently misjudged a step. He tucked up and rolled, stood up, and continued his talk. He made it look as if he had done the stunt on purpose. Now that’s what I call thorough preparation for any contingency. The lesson there is to take advantage of your forward momentum, whether you are stumbling literally or figuratively. On with the show.

Contact me today for your upcoming keynote – I can show you firsthand how engaging I can really be.  Also, learn more about leveraging improv to improve your career by visiting www.improvisnojoke.com where you can download a free chapter of my book, Improv is No Joke.

Improv + Business = BFFs

Improv+Business+BFFsI’ll be the first one to tell you improv isn’t all about comedy and making people laugh. However, my introduction to improv was a result of finding and using comedy as a coping mechanism to deal with a number of challenges life threw my way.

I’ve never truly fit in. Being adopted, I tended to feel that way. I was a Greek American living in Lexington, Kentucky, in the 1960s and 1970s. We celebrate Easter at a different time than other people each year – that’s kind of hard for a kid to explain to his friends. When I was in a fraternity in college, I told the others that I wouldn’t be moving back into the house the next year because I was going to work on my grades. They told me they would kick me out if I did that, and they did. I was always different.

What I realized though was the power of comedy and laughter. I found I was able to make people laugh, and that brought me great satisfaction. I don’t think this is an uncommon feeling amongst comedians – they somehow feel “different” than everyone else in some way and humor is a good way to bridge the gap. Even though I would become an accountant, I eventually realized that I could perhaps marry the two worlds. As a result, I have shared the power improvisation can have in all aspects of life, including business.

A major lesson that I got from improv is that it’s okay to make mistakes, learn from them, be myself and just keep moving forward. I have written a number of blogs that speak to specific improv techniques, but ultimately integrating improvisation into our lives fosters the following:

  • Communication
  • Awareness
  • Adaptability
  • Calm in Chaos
  • Positive Attitude
  • Humor

How can you go wrong with those attributes? Learn more about how improv principles can improve your career by tuning into my new podcast series Improv is No Joke!, available on iTunes and my website.

Negotiating with Improv

Blog 6Negotiation skills are critical to be successful in life. Whether your negotiating with a toddler, or an important prospect for your firm, knowing how to reach a win-win scenario takes skill. Conducting a successful negotiation requires six major skills—and those skills are really based on the principles of improvisation.

  1. Take your ego off the table.

To succeed in negotiations, we need to take the egos off the table and drop our agendas long enough to truly listen—and with respect for all involved. Don’t come in assuming you have the right answer. Negotiation is an activity between you and another person – not you and yourself.

  1. Respect the other party.

This goes right along with the previous principle of taking your ego off the table. Take the time to learn about who you’re negotiating with. What is important to them? What are they trying to accomplish in negotiating with you? Doing this will help you come to the negotiation prepared to comprise, and feel good about it.

  1. Be in the moment (focus).

As I have stressed in other posts, it is important to be committed to the moment you are in. As an actor, if I’m asked to be a tree – well, I’d better commit to being a pretty great tree. The same goes for your negotiation. Come prepared, come willing to listen to the other party and be prepared for the unexpected. You can only do these things if you are focused and committed to the moment.

  1. Listen to the other party’s needs and wants.

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of listening to understand, not to respond. Of all the situations where that is important – this would be one of them. And remember, this is not just listening with your ears, but with your eyes. Especially important in negotiations is the ability to read emotions and feelings of those involved. Listening, watching, and understanding what the other party needs and wants will help you respond effectively.

  1. Adapt to the situation.

You’ve done your research on all the different possible arguments against your position, you’ve studied out and tried to understand the party you’re negotiating with and you are committed to the moment, you should automatically be a shoe-in to “win” – or get what you want from the negotiation, right? Well, maybe – but you still don’t know what exactly the other party wants, which is why listening is so important so that you can then ADAPT to any unforeseeable changes. It’s just a fact of life, things are unpredictable. So as paradoxical as it sounds, try to prepare yourself for the unexpected – be focused on the moment and go with it as it comes, being confident that you’ve put in the effort to be prepared as much as possible.

  1. Yes, and…

When you do your homework and are able to identify the possible “yes, but…” statements that will most likely be made, you can create strategies to provide “yes, ands…” for each of those concerns. By recognizing a potential objective, you can create a solution that diffuses the issue.

Learn more about how you can leverage improv to improve your career and future negotiations – visit www.improvisnojoke.com today and download a free chapter of my book, Improv is No Joke.