‘Improv is always, “Let’s just start something now. We don’t know where it’s going to go, but we’ll start now. Whatever tools, whatever cast we have.” That’s what writing should be as well.’
Neil Mullarkey, founder of the Comedy Store Players and long-time sketch buddy of Mike Myers, is on a mission to bring the joy, playfulness and co-creativity of improv into organisations around the world.
We talk about his astonishing career, the power of improv in a VUCA world, and how the principles that allow improv performers to create something from nothing apply to facing down the blank page.
Quite simply, this is top-quality listening.
Neil’s site: http://www.neilmullarkey.com/
The Comedy Store Players: https://www.comedystoreplayers.com/
Neil on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NeilMullarkey
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. It’s a real delight to be here today with Neil Mullarkey, who co-founded London’s Comedy Store Players, which is Europe’s top improvisation ensemble in case you didn’t know, in 1985, and he still performs with them. And he’s acted on TV, radio, in two Austin Powers films – my kids are so impressed with this – with his former comedy partner Mike Myers. And nowadays, his communication and creative expertise is in demand across the world. He’s worked in 24 countries (I should tell you, I actually had 23, and as we were talking before the show Neil said, “It’s actually 24 now,” so by the time this goes out, who knows what number it will be) 24 countries with clients including Google, Microsoft, Saatchi & Saatchi, Vodafone, EY, Deloitte, Unilever, it goes on and on. He’s a regular speaker at the London Business Forum and a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School, City University, and the author of Seven Steps to Improve Your People Skills. Welcome Neil.
Neil Mullarkey: Hello. Thank you for having me Alison.
Alison Jones: I do want to talk about your career actually because I think it’s fascinating, that segue that you’ve made. And here you are… I do advise you to go and look at the website. I’ll put the link up on the show notes. But it’s like you’re a man of two halves, and there’s the comedy half and the business half, but it’s all you. Just tell us how that all happened.
Neil Mullarkey: It’s all me. Well, I had a career in comedy, and still do perform with the Comedy Store Players every Wednesday and Sunday. We do improv, improvised comedy. The audience shouts suggestions and we create scenes there and then. If anyone’s ever seen Whose Line is it Anyway? they’ll understand what the sort of thing is that we do. But I’d recommend you to go to see it at the Comedy Store or somewhere locally to you, a theatre, just to see the joy of this form of theatre which is spontaneous, vulnerable, celebrating all that is good about humanity, which is we can be creative, we can be collaborative. Sometimes we can make terrible errors, but we make it together. That’s what I did and still do for the comedy improv.
For many years, I was also a comedy writer, actor, performer. I was in sketch shows in the theatre, I was in sketch shows on the TV. I did some acting. I’ve got a very small part in Spice World The Movie…
Alison Jones: I missed that.
Neil Mullarkey: Well, yeah, you probably would’ve done. One of the writers rang me the night before and said, “We need somebody to be a bit objectionable at a party.”
Alison Jones: “…And I thought of you….”
Neil Mullarkey: “…Bring your own suit,” and I did. And acted in plays. I’ve done Charlie’s Aunt and The Importance of Being Earnest. Then I got to a point where I thought, “I’m not really looking forward to doing this for the next 20 years, just this.” My degree is economics and social science, and I’d always been interested in people, how we react, how we interact, societies. I heard that people were using arts theatre specifically in management training. I entered this murky world and discovered there’s an enormous appetite for something that I offer. Improv is entertaining, but it also makes us think about how we listen to one another or don’t, how we can have better conversations, how on a higher level we can deal with uncertainty when the world is changing, being disrupted.
Alison, have you heard about VUCA?
Alison Jones: Oh yes, volatile, uncertain, whatever the other two are.
Neil Mullarkey: Complex and-
Alison Jones: Complex and ambiguous.
Neil Mullarkey: If you ever see an improv show, it’s all of those things.
Alison Jones: It’s VUCA all the way, isn’t it?
Neil Mullarkey: But we still manage to navigate somehow to the end of the story, to the end of the sketch, delighting our customers, our audience, and enjoying the trip along the way. Improv was welcomed by practitioners in organisation development and academics and talent leaders around the world saying, “Here’s a way that we can give some practical advice on how to interact, how to listen better, how to have better conversations, how leaders can accept the fact that they can’t tell everyone what to do, and if they try, they wouldn’t necessarily do as they’re told. But how can we embrace the idea that we can have structure but you can also have spontaneity?”
And improv allows for that. Improv, and I use that as my shorthand because it is about a form of theatre that started in the 1920s with a social worker, Viola Spolin, and it was her son who saw her doing these exercises, which were for children, non-native speakers or deprived children in central Chicago in the 1920s. These were to help them become more confident in class, to speak up, and it was her son who said, “Wow, they could work on the stage.” So by 1959, he had created what became known as Second City Theatre Company. I’d heard of Second City, because I loved the Blues Brothers and I’d heard of Saturday Night Live, and then people would’ve heard of other people from The Office and Tina Fey and Ghostbusters. Many actors, writers, performers, even the former chief executive of Twitter, had come through the ranks of Second City.
Alison Jones: It’s their Footlights.
Neil Mullarkey: Say it again?
Alison Jones: It’s sort of their Footlights, except more fun.
Neil Mullarkey: Possibly. I was about to say that I was the president of the Cambridge Footlights when I wanted to go to Cambridge for that. I didn’t tell my parents that it was comedy that was drawing me there. But Mike Myers had just arrived in London, didn’t know anybody, so he was walking past a theatre. It said, “Hey, Cambridge Footlights.” So he said, “Oh…” He knew of Monty Python so he went along and said, “Can I help?” And they said, “Oh, you can paint the set and sell tickets.” He and I got talking, and he was a really funny man. I said, “Where have you come from?” “Second City.” “Oh, right.” I knew they did sketches, but I didn’t know that they did improv. He said, “There’s this whole ethos. It’s based around listening, working with your colleague.”
Cambridge Footlights is based in one university, but Second City is all across the United States and Canada. Mike had been in the touring company in Canada, and in fact one day he’d been offered both to be the youngest male ever to join Second City and a place to study film at university in Toronto, and he had to make a choice. He chose Second City in the end, but you can see when you discuss with him films what a cineast he is, what an intriguing cultured fellow he is, much as he also loves a silly gag as we all do.
He and I started doing a double act, and the Comedy Store in those days was only open Fridays and Saturdays, only doing standup, which is one person, possibly a double act, doing material they’ve done before, and they do it night after night in different places. Improv is a group creating scenes and stories based on audience suggestions. We were given the opportunity to start the Comedy Store Players on Sundays, and nobody had ever heard of improv. “Why would you go and see a show when they don’t have a script?” We had to hide behind… The first half was some stand-ups doing their thing and we did the second half. But eventually we did the whole thing, and it was called Comedy To Go, i.e. takeaway comedy, not beautifully cooked but just easy and readily available.
And that’s been going now for 33 and a half years. And I got to the point where I wasn’t enjoying particularly just being a comedian. I wasn’t very good at panel shows, and those are where many comedians find their feet and certainly get well-known and then they can do wonderful tours and perhaps other things. I wasn’t very good at those things, and I felt also I was getting to the point where my chums were becoming established in their careers, whether it was law or commerce or retail or whatever, and they were being recognised as experts in their field, and I was just getting older in a world which was embracing young people, much as it should.
I was also thinking that I really would like to try something where I introduce people to the idea of improv. So I contacted one or two people who’d perhaps mentioned something on the radio or in a newspaper, how they were using new ways of looking at leadership development. And I gradually got more and more clients. Saatchi & Saatchi approached me for some reason. They’d seen me doing improv, and said, “Oh, can you come and help us be more creative?” Okay. A management consultancy. My wife was sitting next door to somebody who was in communication there, and they said, “Yeah, we need to teach people improv rather than just how to be a Shakespearian performer where you don’t have a heckling crowd. We need to be able to have somebody to teach them how to think on their feet and not lose their status. Not to be rude, but to feel confident they could still reply when a client gives them a tricky proposition.”
I gradually started doing days here, half-days there. And now, 20 years later, it’s what I do. The only showbiz I do is the Comedy Store Players, because I love it. I love being with those people. I love the moments we share with 400 people, some of whom have shouted out a suggestion, and we create theatre for them instantaneously.
Alison Jones: That’s wonderful.
Neil Mullarkey: That’s a very long answer for your first question. Have we got any time left at all now?
Alison Jones: Yeah, I think we’ve got about two minutes. We’re good, and it’s fine. I love that improv started in that way as well. I love that it actually has almost come full circle in that by helping people communicate better, be more vulnerable, be more collaborative, that’s kind of where it all started. I never knew about Second City. That’s absolutely fascinating.
Neil Mullarkey: It’s fascinating. Many of us are doing this. There’s an applied improv network, which is getting… There’s-
Alison Jones: Applied improv, that’s excellent.
Neil Mullarkey: … thousands of people that are doing it around the world. Applied improv. And there many ways you can do it. There’s a very good book called Applied Improvisation, where people tell stories about their case studies. They’ve worked in universities, they’ve worked in the mental health sector, they’ve worked with different organisations, commercial, public, using improv for a day or a year to help people actually work better with another, with their clients, their patients, their colleagues.
It’s really profound, and people, once they get the idea that improv isn’t, “Hey, stand up and make jokes,” we can really get a lot done. That’s what I do these days. This week, I was working with a software firm for a day, and next week I’ll be working with a management consultancy. Then I’m working with the National Trust next month. I’m going to a business school to work with a global food company next month as well. It’s taken me to some wonderful places, and people don’t always quite know what they want. They think, “Oh, a bit of creativity. We want a keynote speaker,” or, “We want this person to be coached because she’s not always or he’s not always as flexible as maybe… And we don’t think they just want presentation coaching,” which is what I do as well sometimes. “Let’s get this speech sorted.”
It’s something else about personal impact or how do they role with difficult situations, or how can they be seen as just a bit more human. At a lot of organisations, you rise to the top by being smart, clever, straight lines, and then suddenly get into a senior position, where you’ve got to deal with sensibilities. You’ve got to be thinking, “Right. What I know now has got to be changed. I’ve almost got to forget what I know, because these Gen Zs, these Millennials, have got ideas that are going to be helpful, relevant and in fact, essential to us to grow and to be more creative and to understand who we’re going to become the next 50 years.”
Alison Jones: I did an improv class a few… It’s an odd route that brought me here to talk to you today because I was chatting to Brendan Barnes at Graham Alcott’s book launch, and he recommended you and he sent me this book, and I actually read your book en route to a comedy improvisation workshop in London, which I was absolutely terrified about but also very excited about because I’d heard so much about it. I’m not an authority here at all, but I can speak with the authority of somebody who hadn’t got a clue about it, and then discovered a bit about it.
All the things that are in vogue in management, in leadership literature – vulnerability, trust, collaboration, co-creation, uncertainty – all those things are absolutely the foundation of improv, so I’m not at all surprised that his has become something that’s really important for organisations, because there’s nothing more vulnerable than standing on stage without a script.
Neil Mullarkey: Yes, and mindfulness, being in the moment, being present, these are all things that a lot of people out there in podcast land will say, “Yeah, that’s great,” or others are saying, “Oh blimey, I keep being told I should be more vulnerable, more present, and I don’t know what it means. It feels too tricky, too-“
Alison Jones: That feels hard.
Neil Mullarkey: The joy of improv is it makes it fun. It makes it real, it makes it authentic. The wonderful thing, and I’m glad to hear you found an improv class, and I’m going to ask you in a moment, you said you arrived terrified, how did you come out the other end? But Keith Johnson is one of the gurus on this side of Atlantic, although he’s now in Canada, of improv, and he said, “You become a good improviser when you let go of the fear of being seen as mad, bad or wrong.” I think those are very interesting things because many wonderful innovations have come through people saying, “This is a bit mad, it feels a bit wrong,” or, “I don’t know if it’s a bit… Is it right? I don’t know.” And somehow a new idea, a new paradigm is emerged from that.
But the joy of improv, perhaps you found Alison, is when I’m on stage with that person, and somehow we go together on a flight of fancy. We create a story, and neither of us knew quite where it came from, but we know we’re going together, wherever we end up.
Alison Jones: That’s what really surprised me about it. And the gift that I wasn’t expecting was the energy and the playfulness and the joyfulness and the creativity that came out of the collaboration, the spark in between you, because it’s not mine, and so the weight of responsibility… I don’t have to tell this story. I’m just chucking something back at someone. And that feels light and therefore it goes further, and that’s really interesting. I was kind of shocked actually by just how creative and funny it was.
I think that’s a really important point about… I think one of the pressures going into it was that fear of I have to be funny, how on earth am I going to be funny, and you start to try to think about jokes, things you can say that are funny, and it doesn’t work like that. It’s got to be in the moment. And you can’t prepare something funny. It’s got to come out of what’s there. And that sounds like I’m putting more pressure on people, but it’s not, because it just happens and it’s not your responsibility. It’s a co-created thing.
Neil Mullarkey: Beautifully said, and also, if you try and insert jokes, you lose the moment, and our advice to people is, “Don’t be creative, don’t be funny, and you’ll be a great improviser.”
Alison Jones: It sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? This is comedy, for goodness sake.
Neil Mullarkey: Creative and funny come out, because all you do is listen to your partner and the process will guide you. As Mike Myers used to say, “Why have the gods of improv chosen this scene for us now today?” Somehow the process itself gives you that, and that’s why, I suppose, I was so excited to bring it to the real world as it were. Not just to those who want to be improv performers or strange people like you who have got a proper existence and suddenly dabble with this crazy world of improv, but everyone should feel that.
I’ve written down what you said, the playfulness, the energy, and the almost opposite of what we expect, because people say, “What happens when you can’t think of anything to say?” And you say, “That’s when you know things could happen.” And going to the audience, “Err, I don’t know,” the audience likes that, and that’s counterintuitive to our western discourse, which is, “I must always know the answer. I must never be wrong. I must never show weakness.”
Alison Jones: I’m nodding furiously. That was one of the most valuable lessons for me, is it just-
Neil Mullarkey: Brené Brown talks about vulnerability. I wonder, how long was your course, Alison?
Alison Jones: It was just a day, a day workshop. I need to do some more. I loved it so much.
Neil Mullarkey: Well it is fiendishly addictive.
Alison Jones: Yeah, I realise that.
Neil Mullarkey: Here I am 33 years later. There’s something just wonderful. People often say, “Do you ever think you’re not funny and arrive a bit downcast?” And I think, “Well, it’s been a long day, I’m a bit tired, I had to do this, that,” but I get there and then the audience gives us the energy, and that endless, almost infinite possibility that every improv night, every improv sketch can lead you somewhere you didn’t expect. Of course we know, if you’re experienced, you know the story works better if the princess and the prince get together but have some obstacles along the way. You know you want to get the treasure but don’t it too easily.
In terms of story, there’s some things there, but just that joy sometimes of, “I don’t know where this is going to go, and I can’t help but think I’m… Well it could go there.” And then something the other person or the ensemble or the audience gives you a whole energy and takes it there. Quite often as well, a mistake somebody made. Last night, for example, we were on stage and Josie Lawrence had a gun, and she said, “I’m going to shoot at you. Inside this gun there’s a button.” You could see she just couldn’t think of the word bullet. And the joy of it was that then the button gun became a whole thing. There were whole bits where somebody… “I’ve got a zip dagger.” The button gun was a thing. “Careful, that gun’s got buttons in it.” And the mistake became a central tenet of the ensuing story.
Alison Jones: And of course what you’re doing there is creating a community around it, because we’re all in on this joke?
Neil Mullarkey: People see it from the wrong point of view, which is, “What if you can’t think of something to say? What if you make a mistake?” No, don’t think of it like that. You’re saying something which you know the process and your team will make right. I don’t know if your improv teachers shared these ethos with you, which is my job is to make my partner look good. Whatever she says, I’m going to help her enjoy the scene, and I’m not going to say, “Oh, that’s not a very good Scottish accent. What do you mean button gun? That’s wrong. You’re bad.” We all said, “Of course, the button gun. The one thing baddies fear is a button.” I’m laughing now, but there’s that joy.
Now if you wrote that down and recreated it, it might not work. It sounds a bit too zany. But it’s that instant moment, and the audience is complicit in it. Arthur Smith, the wonderful stand-up and writer and compère, said that when you enter the room, maybe you come in a bit late to an improv show at the Comedy Store Players versus the Comedy Store when it’s a stand-up night, there’s a different feeling. The whole audience is with us. They’re on the edge of their seat, whereas stand-up, it’s kind of, “Well I know she’s done this before. I know that guy. He’ll do the same stuff tomorrow night. Maybe I don’t like him. This one’s not for me, but there’ll be another one in a minute,” and you sit back slightly, because you know it is mostly scripted.
But with improv, the audience is thinking, “Are they going to be all right? What would I say? I’m mentally filling in blanks myself.” Or, “Where could it go? Oh, that bit wasn’t so good.” But you almost acknowledge the bits that weren’t so good because you know there’s another great bit coming in a minute. It’s a different energy. The audience is much more invested because they know this show is different, this show is unique.
I’ve been on a journey myself to say, “How do we bring that joy, that playfulness, that vulnerability, that flat hierarchy, that co-creativity, to organisations? Public, private, large, small?” It’s my deep belief, and I’ve been taught this by people who attend my sessions, there are more and more applications of improv than I would have imagined when I started this 20 years ago.
Alison Jones: You can just imagine if you could unleash that kind of goodwill, for want of a better word, that unconditional support that improv is just founded on, and that energy and vulnerability and trust… If you could unleash that in an organisation, in a team, the creativity that you would release would be incredible.
Neil Mullarkey: Well, of course, there are lots of teams like that. They just don’t call it improv. They call it working together. They call it looking out for the other person. They call it sharing jobs. They call it working together. They wouldn’t necessarily use the jargon that I use, but people are doing it, and people know when they’ve been through it and they know when they’re in a situation which lacks that feeling.
Alison Jones: Actually, of course, the fun and the energy, in a sense those are the hallmarks, aren’t they? If that’s happening then it’s working.
Neil Mullarkey: Yeah, exactly. In my book, which you pretend you’ve read, but I-
Alison Jones: I have read it. It’s nice and short. I love that about a book.
Neil Mullarkey: Short, and you can put it into your pocket or whatever, your handbag.
Alison Jones: And it’s got a lot of dance steps in it, which I liked as well.
Neil Mullarkey: Yes, good. Try and reproduce them on the front cover. I think you’ll find that, as people have pointed out, there are five steps there, so people might fall over if they try and follow them.
Alison Jones: This is so sad. I was looking at number four and I was like, “I don’t think that works,” and I did try it out, and I fell over. Not so good.
Neil Mullarkey: The graphic designer sent this to me, and I thought, “Oh, that’s good,” then we thought, “Oh, it’s not quite how people move,” but it still looks good.
Alison Jones: It looks great.
Neil Mullarkey: The point I was going to make before I got sidetracked was that I think a lot of organisations are now looking at, are you eating your fruit and veg? Nutrition, wellbeing, mindfulness. Are you sleeping enough? Are you doing your 10,000 steps? But has anyone actually done an audit of humour? Are we laughing enough? Because we all know that laughter is a by-product of creativity, of collaboration. Laughter is a great way to reduce the pressure. If a leader tells a story about he or she failing dismally or not getting something wrong, saying it with a sense of humour, which is, “I came through that failure. I learnt something from it, or at least I survived it.” That sends a message out much more powerfully than mission statements that talk about, “We encourage risk,” and stuff.
If it’s authentic and it’s that shared humanity, then humour is obviously a great part of that, then it’s going to be much more productive. I don’t think humour should be disaffiliative, and this is part of the book that was cut out because it was too introspective, but there are different kinds of humour. There’s a humour where I laugh at that lot or that lot laughs at the outsider. That to me isn’t humour, that’s bullying. What I call affiliative humour where I can laugh at myself, we can laugh at ourselves, and we can laugh at this seemingly intractable problem, we can laugh in hindsight about some of our mistakes, then I think that humour is uniting. Not jokes at somebody else’s expense.
And that’s where improv, to tie in with what you said earlier… If you’re looking for jokes which are one-liners, you’re not really in the moment. Every now and again a great bon mot or something will emerge, but it’s not necessarily in the run of improv. Often it’s about character-based, situation-based, and just the fun of, “Well I didn’t know what you were going to say. Okay, great. All right. You’ve made me the world champion boxer. Okay, I’ll be the world champion boxer,” and you take on board whatever the other person’s given you, and the humour ensues naturally.
Alison Jones: Absolutely. I think for me that was probably the biggest lesson, the biggest revelation, was that you think when you go into these situations, you almost have to strap everything on and go in fully armed and prepared and ready to wow, and you just have to let all that go. But the wonderful thing about that is you realise just how resourceful you are, and often people don’t realise that and they don’t trust that, and it forces you to. I think everybody there was surprised that in the moment they had something. I mean it might not have been the best thing, but it didn’t matter. It carried on. It was a real lesson in resilience, resourcefulness and not having to feel that you’ve come in with everything you’re going to need, but actually it’s all inside you.
Neil Mullarkey: Yes, yes.
Alison Jones: Writing is kind of the polar opposite of improv in lots of ways. It’s written, not spoken. You do it on your own. And you don’t get to be in the moment with the person that you’re writing to. It’s so different. How does that feel for you?
Neil Mullarkey: Well, it’s hard work, isn’t it?
Alison Jones: Oh yes.
Neil Mullarkey: Sitting down and writing it, as you say…
Alison Jones: Everybody’s listening is going, “Yeah, it’s really hard.”
Neil Mullarkey: It’s really hard, and one of your questions you might ask later is what’s your advice? My advice is do not write a book. It’s such hard work. Try and find reasons why you shouldn’t.
Alison Jones: That’s your top tip, is it?
Neil Mullarkey: My top tip is don’t write a book, but if you have to, then realise that you’ve set yourself a tough task, and it’s almost like you should ask yourself, “Do I really need to do this?” This is what I say to anybody that wants to be an actor, performer, is just look at all the other things you could be doing, and if you’ve said no to everything else then maybe you should be an actor. It’s just hard work, writing.
Alison Jones: Did you get to this revelation towards the end of the book and thought, “Well, I might as well publish it now?” Was there a reason why you really did feel…
Neil Mullarkey: No. The book Seven Steps To Improve Your People Skills is the third book I’ve written. The first book was a novelization of a film that I acted in called Solitaire For Two. So my friend Gary Sinyor, who also made a film called Leon The Pig Farmer and many since, said, “Can you write the novelization?” I thought, “Well, that’s all right.” And of course, you realise the screenplay is only going to provide you about a third of a book, so you have to make up quite a lot in between, and so there are days you thought, “I’ve got to do my 1000 words,” or whatever, or weeks when you thought, “I haven’t done my 5000 words or whatever,” and it’s really painful. Then there are other times when it flows. You’ve always got to get yourself in the zone. You’ve got to recognise that the first 15, 30 minutes might be wasted, but get something down.
There’s a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron which helps us with so-called writer’s block and everything. She talks about morning pages. Just write anything, just how your day was yesterday, what you fancy doing today, what you’re having for lunch. And of course you do that and you realise, “Yeah, there’s plenty of stuff I can say.” Writing is solitary. It’s great to have an editor who’s on the same wavelength as you, and I’ve had that on all three occasions I’ve written books. Nevertheless, it’s very, very… It’s a great sense of achievement when you’ve actually done it. There’s something great about editing. It’s really nice to have written lots and get rid of the stuff that isn’t very good. The first process of writing lots of stuff is hard. The editing, the rejigging, the restructuring, the rephrasing is more pleasant, I think, more pleasurable.
Nevertheless, the improv mindset, which is, “Here’s an offer, let’s build on that. I don’t know where it’s going, but let’s start somewhere,” does help you with writing. So start somewhere, whether it’s, “I don’t know what this is going to be about, but I’ll think of the chapter title. Oh, somebody said something the other day that sparks off an idea. What was I doing today?” You allow the improv to guide you in a way. I’m sure many writers would say this. We don’t always know what we’re going to write until we start writing, and there are two voices, probably more than two, but there’s one saying, “How about this?” The other’s saying, “Well no, that’s terrible.” And you say, “Well let’s just have a go, and maybe the terrible opinion was right. Yeah, but it wasn’t good. But you know what? There’s a germ or something there.”
So there’s much in common with improv, which is trusting the process. Get something down on paper. Improv is always, “Let’s just start something now. We don’t know where it’s going to go, but we’ll start now. Whatever tools, whatever cast we have.” That’s what writing should be as well. I think Picasso said, “The paper defends its whiteness,” so just get something down, just a squiggle, just a word, just a sentence, just somebody’s name that made you think the other day and get that to be the opening offer, if you like. In improv we always talk about the idea of an offer. “Can we ‘Yes, And…’ that? Okay.” Then you realise that it wasn’t quite what you thought you were going to write, but there may be something that’s emerging that’s helpful.
Writing isn’t at all linear. Good days, bad days, good moments, bad moments. What you thought was going to be great isn’t so great. It’s just the loneliness of it and the sense of I’ve got to write quite a lot more now. A business book has to be nonfiction if you like, so you can’t suddenly pretend stuff, although I’m sure there are many business book writers who make up research and numbers and stats to back up their point. I went through arduous process of checking anything I said, and I did email a few people who had used some stats, and I said, “Do you mind if I could just… Tell me where you got that from, just so I’m getting it right?” Not everyone replied. Interesting to know that.
But the process of writing is enormously difficult. Don’t do it unless you really can’t think of anything else to do. Only do it if you really have to.
Alison Jones: I love that.
Neil Mullarkey: Don’t think it’s an easy way out. Don’t think of it as, “Oh, if I write this book it’ll lead to something else.” No. Just think of it… “Do I really want to get this out of my system, and actually dare I ask other people to look at this?” You may find yourself thinking, “Actually no, it’s just hard work.” Friends of mine who are great speakers, by the way, might’ve said, “I should write a book, because that’s what we do,” and then, “No, I don’t think it is my thing,” because being a great speaker isn’t the same as being a great writer, much as they often go hand in hand.
Alison Jones: Different skillsets. But I love the way you bring improv skills into it. And the point about free writing, the Julia Cameron morning pages bit, I use free writing a lot with the people that I work with. It’s an amazing problem solving creativity tool, and just gets you writing, as you say. You have to have that first offer before you can go on. I had never thought of it in improv terms, but that’s really interesting. It’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re just starting with a possibility and seeing where it takes you.
Neil Mullarkey: Yeah, exactly. And I’m sure any writer will say they do that, they improvise a bit, which is a part of you saying X, the other says Y, the other says, “I don’t know where we’re going with this, but let’s get it down.” And Roald Dahl as well famously had a notebook, and he might not use that idea til five years later, but he’s got lots of notes. Everything you hear about creativity is have a notebook by the bed, have a notebook around you, because an idea comes to you when you least expect it. Sitting down to write is great obviously because then you force yourself to get stuff down, but it’s much easier if you can look through some notes you’ve had and use those at least to be a springboard, the opening offer to start the scenario. You won’t always use them in the same order or in the way you might’ve expected.
But certainly the improv technique has much in common with writing. There are improv courses for writers, and writers would find it helpful, because you don’t have to have a fully formed idea. Get something down, look at it later and sort of see yourself almost as two people. One is the writer, one is the editor.
Alison Jones: Yes, and you’re co-creating together.
Neil Mullarkey: Yeah, and the harsh editor can have a go later.
Alison Jones: Sit them out of the creation bit. That’s so interesting. Really fascinating. We’ve got your top tip, don’t do it.
Neil Mullarkey: Don’t do it-
Alison Jones: Thank you for that.
Neil Mullarkey: … unless you really have to. And secondly, if you have to, it’s because you’ve got something to say specifically. There are many great business books. There are far too many actually, so start thinking: what is it that makes it different? I think bring something of yourself to it, bring stories of yourself, bring your foibles, your vulnerability to it, so that you actually… When you’ve finished you say, “Nobody else could’ve written that. Yes, I’m making some particular points that others have made in similar ways, but only I could’ve gathered this particular story together. It’s unique to me.”
Alison Jones: That’s a wonderful piece of advice, and people do get frightened by that. “Oh, there’s so many books on this,” and it shrivels your confidence. “What have I got to say?” But actually nobody’s said it in your way.
Neil Mullarkey: Exactly.
Alison Jones: I love that.
Of those many, many business books out there, and man, you are not kidding, there are a lot, is there one that you would show to us as being a particularly good example of something that has really impacted on you, that you’d recommend?
Neil Mullarkey: There are many. I’m going to choose one by Herminia Ibarra. Herminia Ibarra. I can send you the spelling of that, but-
Alison Jones: No, I know it. I know it. Go on.
Neil Mullarkey: You know it. Well, she’s written several, but the one I’m going to talk about is called Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader.
Alison Jones: That’s the one I know. I didn’t know she’d done others actually.
Neil Mullarkey: She’s others about working identify. Not dissimilar in terms of: who you are you? When I’m 20 you’re different from when I’m 40. You evolve. You begin to think well, what is it that I’m good at and actually what could I be good at? Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, when I say to people that, just listen to that order, act first, then think next. It doesn’t quite fit with our western philosophy about thinking a lot before making a decision or doing something. But what I like about it, she talks about using the idea of play, trying to find the role. What are you as a leader? You’re not set in stone. And authenticity is talked about a lot, but she’s saying, “Be authentic to your future self,” i.e. when you become a leader, you might have to be slightly different from how you were before.
One example she gives, of somebody saying, “I’m the leader now, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. Oh well,” and in that case, for the people she was serving, her team, she needed to slightly step into shoes that says, “Well I’m the leader now. Yeah, okay, I’ll hold you in comfort,” even though backstage she might be thinking, “I’m not quite sure what to do.” So she says play with your role, borrow from people, nick ideas, try things out, before you become who you are next, rather than saying, “Well I’m the same person I was 15 years ago and I must be that.”
What I like about it is that Myers-Briggs says, “I’m an ENTJ or whatever, and I’ll always be that.” She’s saying, “Play with it.” Try and find new ways of being. Step into that new role. Find extra parts of yourself. It doesn’t mean you suddenly become evil or bad. You’re authentic to your values, but you may have to step into a different pair of shoes. She talks a lot about your network and your density of your network. She says, “If you’re only talking to the people on your team, you’re missing out. If you’re not talking to the people on your team, you’re missing out.” So look at who you’re talking to. People in your organisation, up to the side? Are you talking to people in the same industry? Are you talking to people in separate industries? You need to spread it around.
Sometimes the leader’s role is not to be talking to their team but to be an advocate for her team at the board table. Sometimes you’ve got to be down and dirty with them, right, visible. Sometimes your job is to be out there listening to the market. She talks about network density, because we have a tendency, she says, to be lazy and narcissistic, i.e. the people I listen to are the ones nearby physically. Narcissistic is I tend to listen to people who are like me. Lots of research about recruitment and things shows that we tend to recruit our own image. She’s saying, “Get out there, talk to people who aren’t like you.”
She’s got a great example of where she started as a lecturer and was quite nervous, wasn’t sure what to do, and then somebody else, another lecturer at Harvard just sat in on one of the lectures and said, “Just wander round a bit. Go to the back.” She said it just gave her confidence. She could [inaudible 00:37:45] somebody really taking notes or looking at a magazine? Physically moving around gave her confidence. And again that’s the thing with improv, we don’t forget the body. We look at how we portray emotional status.
But a lot of what she was saying, and she’s a very accomplished professor now at London Business School… She was at INSEAD and she had been at Harvard, so she’s done lots of research. She’s got real data here. Globally recognised academic saying things that intuitively I feel, “Yeah, okay. You’ve got to be a leader, you play a bit of a role.” Sometimes you can find things out by doing stuff, and there’s echoes of a thing called positive deviance. Have you heard of that?
Alison Jones: No.
Neil Mullarkey: Well, I’ll say no more, other than their catchphrase is you can act your way into a new way of thinking. Isn’t that good? You can act your way into a new way of thinking, because we in the theatre, we know that we can spend a day, a week or whatever discussing the play, but we’ll only get to grips with it if we stand up, put it on its feet, try the lines out, see what happens. If you stand over there, if I look at you, but I don’t look at you for that bit. If I say it loud, if I say it quiet. We can intellectualise it, but actually, we’d only know if we put it on its feet, we have a go.
Much as we think we’re all sophisticated, cerebral, rational creatures, much of what we think and feel is in our bodies and we don’t always know why we make decisions. Trying it out, acting it, and then people say fake it til you make it, but sometimes people will say that they just tried a different way of being, moving, going through a different area of the office, bumping into different people, those kind of things where there’s some sort of physical thing, trying out a different thing, and it may or may not work, gives you greater insight. You can read lots of business books, but the best ones make you notice or remind you of things that have worked for others or for yourself.
Alison Jones: That’s fascinating.
Neil Mullarkey: Isn’t it?
Alison Jones: Yeah, so fascinating, and brings in so much of what we’ve been talking about as well, about that playfulness and that ability to suspend judgement and take on different roles and the resourcefulness. Absolutely brilliant. Thank you for a great recommendation.
Neil, if people want to find out more about you, more about Seven Steps, where should they go?
Neil Mullarkey: Neilmullarkey.com.
Alison Jones: Where you can see that wonderful split face, which is great.
Neil Mullarkey: Yes. Well I’ll tell you the story. I asked various people, “I need to change my website,” and somebody came to me and said, “Well you know that character that Jack Nicholson plays in Batman, Two Face? We could do that. The two aspects of you.” I really like it because actually, all of the learning environments where I teach, I bring laughter. You learn more by laughing, and of course improv always has laughter with it. But much truth can be conveyed through humour, and when people are enjoying a workshop, they’re learning. If they’re being entertained, they’re going to pay more attention.
I do do keynotes with a PowerPoint, but even now I do a bit where the audience has to talk to each other, try stuff out. I tease myself, I tease the conventions. That Two Face thing… And people who know me said, “Yeah, it is you,” because I’m quite serious, but I’m a comedian, and I wouldn’t want to be one or the other. I like to be both. One of the joys of life for me in physics was discovering that electrons are paired, discovering in philosophy yin and yang, the uncertainty principle. You can only know this if you forget that sort of thing. And there’s so much where two sides bring together the truth. An inherent contradiction between two things is the only way of describing the reality….
Alison Jones: Let it never be said that we don’t get into the hard questions on this podcast.
Neil Mullarkey: But paradox, my favourite thing. If you’re too sure of something, you might lose sight of that other thing.
Alison Jones: And bringing the tone right down as well, I thought that the eyebrow on the comedy side was just so eloquent. I loved it.
Neil Mullarkey: Well it’s my thing. When I was little, my now dearly departed father used to point at me with one raised eyebrow, and like any child I was thinking, “I’ve got to steal that,” so I practised in the mirror raising both eyebrows. I’ve only met about half a dozen people in the world over my 93 years on this earth who can raise both. Some people can raise neither. But I love raising that eyebrow. It’s such a-
Alison Jones: Do you know what? I’m that person. My husband can quirk an eyebrow brilliantly. It’s the main reason I married him, really. But I just can’t do it. It drives me bonkers. That’s what I’m going to do now, I’m going to go and practise my eyebrow.
Neil Mullarkey: Well you may not be able to. But can you do that thing with your lip where you curl it over?
Alison Jones: This is great radio, isn’t it?
Neil Mullarkey: Can you wiggle your ear?
Alison Jones: No. I can roll my tongue, that’s all I can do.
Neil Mullarkey: Well okay, roll your tongue. That’s it. Roll your tongue. That’s …
Alison Jones: I’m doing it. Right, we need to stop.
Neil Mullarkey: Also, Alison, this’ll be another thing, is if anybody thinks I’m just talking nonsense, which I am clearly, please come and see the Comedy Store Players, every Wednesday, every Sunday, comedystoreplayers.com, and you’ll see what I’ve been talking about, and the simple joy. You have to be over 18, but we have people all ages, shapes, sizes. All over the world, people come and they love it, because we’re sharing something human, something fallible, and the basic thing of, “We can laugh at life.”
Alison Jones: And I will put that link up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com as well. Neil, it’s been an absolute joy talking to you. Thank you so much.
Neil Mullarkey: Thank you.