Tales From TEDx: Show Don’t Tell

We have a fairly common expression at Second City, “Yeah, we’re like Doctors who smoke.” This is the statement that comes after one of us has categorically said “No” to something – which is in strict violation of our “Yes, And” philosophy; or when we find ourselves failing to listen, collaborate or empathize at the moment it’s most needed.

So much of our work lives are consumed by creating and delivering messages – it’s astounding how many of us fall back into another losing proposition: telling when we should be showing.

Show don’t tell is a vital part of effective storytelling and presenting and it was recently driven home for me when I was preparing to deliver a TEDx Talk in Rochester, Minnesota.

My talk was predicated on the transformative power of improvisation and my first mistake was thinking that the title of my talk required a significant deconstruction of improv principles connected to some life shattering breakthrough. Talk about losing propositions. Every time I sat down to write that speech, a lethal mixture of complexity and boredom set in.

But I knew the message I wanted to convey: that I had seen first hand how improvisational practice had transformed individuals, teams and businesses; how this work is an actual blueprint for unlocking the creative power in people; and how improvisation can be a catalyst for the kind of change most of us really want to believe in.

We teach that improvisation requires that one use failures. With only a week to go before I had to deliver a speech that I had not written – my use of failure was in full force.

For sure, I was procrastinating. But this wasn’t wasteful procrastination. Adam Grant’s latest book, “Originals,” talks about procrastination being “a virtue for creativity.” And that’s what I was doing. Allowing the theories to fill my mind and to remember the stories over time that could combine to make for an effective talk.

Ultimately, my kid’s came to the rescue. I remembered a story from a decade ago when my oldest child, Nick, had just started to take improvisational classes at The Second City Training Center. Nick had been a chubby kid who had weird theatre parents – so he was a bit of an oddball – and it wasn’t unusual for him to get bullied at school. But during his week of improv classes, there was only joy in his demeanor. When we were leaving his last class, he said to me in the car, “Dad, do you know why I love improv class? Because, in improv, if you’re nice and funny – you’re popular.”

That was it. If I was going to effectively communicate the transformative power of improvisation – I needed to tell a story that affected me personally first. Once that connection was made, I could open up to other stories.

Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, said that a TED talk is “about being personal and vulnerable.” He also noted that “we want the substance of your idea, delivered in a way that’s true to you.”

Indeed, what both TED and Second City traffic in is making ideas stick. We do this through understanding and using our own unique point of view; by bringing ideas to life through stories that connect to something true and real and authentic to all the members of our audience; and – given the format of TED and a Second City show – remembering what Shakespeare taught us: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

That last part is for the guy at TEDx who said I didn’t talk long enough.


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