“It’s not thinking on your feet, it’s listening on your feet. Yes and, what are you saying? How can I build on that? How can I move in the direction that we are going to go together?”
If the thought of trying to be funny at work brings you out in a rash, don’t panic: I have it on good authority from Neil Mullarkey that there’s no need to dress up as a chicken or do karaoke. And he should know. Co-founder of Europe’s top improv troupe, the Comedy Store Players, Neil has spent many years sharing the principles of improv with business leaders to improve their confidence, communication, and creativity.
Neil’s new book In the Moment is a call to embrace the importance of listening and co-creating in the moment, a key principle of improv. It’s not about being funny per se, but rather about fostering collaboration, navigating ambiguity, and embracing vulnerability. In this context, humour enhances human connections, builds rapport, and fosters creativity – the elements, in fact, that we need most in our workplaces today.
Neil’s website: https://neilmullarkey.com/
Neil on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NeilMullarkey
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/
‘Kickstart Your Writing’ Workshop January 2024: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/666359076937
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: I am here today with Neil Mullarkey, who’s a unique communication expert. You might recognize him, especially if you’re watching on video, from his performances in Whose Line Is It Anyway? and two Austin Powers movies and he still performs most Sundays with the Comedy Store Players, Europe’s top improv troop, which he co-founded with Mike Myers.
But now he travels the world bringing the skills of theatre, and especially improv, to clients including Ernst and Young, Deloitte, Vodafone, Accenture, Unilever. He’s the author of several books, and his latest, which we’re going to be focusing on today, is called In the Moment: Build your confidence, communication, and creativity at work.
If you’re watching on video, you just saw it. Smart, isn’t it?
Welcome, Neil. Good to have you back in fact.
Neil Mullarkey: Thank you very much for having me, and it’s been how many months?
Alison Jones: Oh, I lose count. I don’t know, but you’re a serial guest and that’s wonderful.
Neil Mullarkey: On the other side of the book, that’s the good thing. Anybody out there who’s ever written a book, even thought of one, you know, it’s hard work, so it’s so nice to say it’s gone, to send your manuscript and then, oh, can you do some typos? Yes, okay.
Then you get the real thing and you could just sit back and smoke whatever, and drink brandy.
Alison Jones: Until they say, oh, we’ve got the marketing schedule for you.
Neil Mullarkey: Well, actually I like that because that means talking to a person and saying whatever you feel like and having a conversation rather than just trying to get words down on paper or digital versions thereof.
Alison Jones: It is funny. I think this is one of the big differences between people who are writing business books and people who are writing, say, literary fiction, is that the professional writers tend to prefer the writing and detest the whole talking to people bit, whereas people like you and I can’t wait to have a conversation with somebody about the book.
It’s the writing that’s the pain.
Neil Mullarkey: Well, basically I’ve just written down what people have said to me, what I’ve thought, how I can apply what I do, but really I don’t want to be just a piece of paper in your life. I want to be talking to you, but I can’t talk to millions. And so I’m hoping that the book, it is actually quite a good thing for me to have done because it made me write down stuff I think every now and again and think, oh, I should write that down.
Here it is. It’s all together. Somebody else has had a look at it, made sure the punctuation’s okay. And basically arranged it into a thing that somebody else might feel they can digest.
Alison Jones: That uniquely portable magic, Neil Gaiman calls them. That’s a book for you.
Neil Mullarkey: Oh, that’s nice.
Alison Jones: It’s lovely, isn’t it? Neil Gaiman has a way with words.
I want to talk to you about improv because if anybody is a regular listener to the show, they will have probably listened to you. But they will also listen to me saying, oh my goodness, isn’t improv amazing. It’s completely changed my outlook.
I used to have a script and set of questions, and now I just sort of rock up and talk to people and listen and co-create in the moment and all that kind of really, really good stuff. But for somebody who’s new to the show and hasn’t heard this, give them your 30 second pitch on why improv is a good thing.
Neil Mullarkey: Improv is not standup comedy. Standup comedy is one person. Improv is an ensemble, two people or more in the moment, working with, on the stage, audience suggestions and creating theatre. But for me, the main thing is, and Alison just used the word, they’re listening. It’s not thinking on your feet, it’s listening on your feet. Yes and, what are you saying? How can I build on that? How can I move in the direction that we are going to go together?
Alison Jones: That ‘yes and’ which is one of those foundational principles of improv and of life, I think: just tell us a little bit more about that because it’s just beautiful.
Neil Mullarkey: It is. Some people get the wrong end of the stick, they think you’ve got to say the words ‘yes and’ all the time, say yes to whatever. And actually I go the ‘yes’ is accept what’s going on. First of all, listen to what’s going on. Yes, and then how can we use that to move forward? So improvisers, those people who do Whose Line Is It Anyway, Second City, there are many people across the world who do improv, and we are, ‘Yes-anders’, it’s one word. I’m ‘Yes-anding’ you. The very act of listening means I then build on what you say. Now that doesn’t mean I agree with you. That doesn’t mean I say what you expected, but it shows, I’m trying to work with what you gave me.
So we never say ‘yes and’ on stage, much less would you say it in real life. It is warmup game though. We play ‘yes and’ to get us in the zone of yes, what she said, what’s being given, what’s the offer here. That’s the improv word and how can I move that forward? So whatever you said, I might even say ‘no but’, that’s still a ‘yes and’, no, but how about this? It’s accepting your offer. So it’s more complicated than saying yes and never say but, which is too easy and quite annoying I think for some people…
Alison Jones: Yes.
Neil Mullarkey: …who think, well, you can’t just say yes to everything. In fact, one person, and I mention them in the book, they work for a global energy firm and they said, the problem is our team just says ‘yes and’ all the time to anything and nothing gets done.
So if you say ‘yes and’ to lots of stuff, you are actually saying ‘yes but’ to what you should be doing if you like. So we talk about the idea of offer and block. Accept the offer and block. And then I even say, well, a block is when somebody doesn’t ‘yes and’ you, but actually they don’t think they’re blocking, they’re just going with their ‘yes and’, how can we get into their mindset?
So one of the chapters is about, actually I think it was my editor’s favorite, because counterintuitively most of my work is teaching people not how to be funny but it’s a wonderful byproduct. And so I wrote an essay about this in one of the chapters, where I realized that at the end of a day of teaching people improv skills, which are about co-creating, collaborating, navigating uncertainty and ambiguity, the boss says, we had a good laugh and we don’t do that in real life. And I’m thinking, what a shame. You’re thinking about your five a day. You’re thinking about going for a run and exercising, 10,000 steps, but have you ever done a laughter audit? Laughter and humour are so good for the psychological, physical, mental health of people and of teams.
So anyway, basically that’s what I’ve come around to thinking, well actually, if I’ve done nothing more than to help people laugh, then I’ve done a pretty good job and ‘yes and’ helps you get there. Yes, I accept the offer and I don’t know where it’s going. We’re going to go there together. Now that’s a bit scary because I also, I’ve had my cake and eat it here, Alison, because in the book I talk about, when don’t you need improv? When do you need to plan?
So you have planned, actually haven’t you? You’ve got somebody to press a button somewhere to make sure we’re here at the same time, you’ve got a few questions. You had my opening, my bio, and then somebody will organize this later when it goes out. So there’s enough structure such that you and I can have a wonderful open-ended conversation.
Alison Jones: And that was one of the things I most enjoyed about the book is that pragmatic balancing. And you’re not saying, actually this is an excuse to be flaky. Which I always think of as agile. It’s agile, we just, you know, it’s emergent. No, there are things that really need preparation and there is a space in there for in the moment, which of course is what you’re talking about.
The point about humour. I just want to touch on for a second, then I’ll kind of come back to uncertainty. But the thing about humour I thought was fascinating as well because you make the point, and again, like so much, it’s so blindingly obvious when you read it, but it hadn’t, I hadn’t quite seen it like that before.
You talk about the way that humour enhances human connection and how vital that is at work and how vital it was, particularly during the pandemic and now in a more virtual working environment, we have lots of people working remotely. The ability, it’s part of rapport building and trust and all the really, really good stuff that that enables us to actually get anything done. Humour really accelerates all of that, doesn’t it?
Neil Mullarkey: It does. There may be somebody listening, thinking, I don’t want to dress up as a chicken. Oh no, do I have to do karaoke? And I’m saying, no, it doesn’t have to be big performance comedy. Most people can’t be standup comedians. The worst thing to have in your team is a bad standup comedian trying to do jokes. Jokes are closed and individualistic and they might be mocking, yes, exactly. It might be mocking somebody.
For me, it’s in-the-moment humour. That’s why improv is exactly the thing here. They don’t have to be big funny stuff. It can just be noticing what’s in your background. Excited to hear your news and 10 minutes later, you having said you like cheese. I’ll say, well ‘tread ‘Caerphilly” here. That kind of thing. So, do you know what I mean? It doesn’t have to be a joke joke, even though I just did a terrible pun. It’s often just a simple thing of something you said earlier.
Alison Jones: I’ve just got the ‘Caerphilly’ joke.
Neil Mullarkey: I know, know. I’m sorry. It’s funny because I did actually put, because somebody’s talking about presentation and I said, yes, you should plan. If it’s a presentation, make sure you rehearse it. So it’s going to be nine and a half minutes for your 10 minute slot, so you’re not flustered. What’s coming next, I can’t remember. So that’s what you need to be prepared. And then somebody says, how do I make my speech funny? I said, for goodness sake, please don’t do jokes. Don’t try and do jokes. Did you hear the one about… tell stories that are funny and not even big funny, just a smile. And if in doubt, just mention cheese.
And, one of my friends called Simon Lancaster, Bespoke Speeches, who’s written lots of books about his work and communication, and he said, actually, ironically, he had written a speech recently for a CEO that was a bit heavy, so he thought I’ll throw in a reference to cheese. So that was the thing that kind of exemplifies every now and again, you need a bit of incongruity and stuff, but for heaven’s sake, please don’t try and plan big heavy, because I found a lovely study the other day, which is trying being funny and failing is worse than even trying.
Alison Jones: Oh yes and we’ve watched that so many times on stages.
Neil Mullarkey: And my favorite story is somebody said their Chief Executive came on to the sounds of Rocky, dun, dun dun. And then they were in boxing gloves and the robe and everything. Boom, boom, boom. And then they walked over to the lectern and started just another speech. Just, you know, boring CEO speech.
What the hell was that about? Find what makes you laugh. And find what makes your team laugh. It doesn’t have to be big funny, it can be just smiles. There’s a book called Humour Seriously written by a Stanford Professor, and her colleague is an improviser, and they said, it doesn’t have to be that funny. It can be a smile. It has to be appropriate. Just a funny sign off on an email, funny PS, bringing an object into the team’s call or something, doesn’t have to be that funny, funny, funny. And that’s what, it’s funny because when I teach people improv, some people say, well, you better choose her or him because they’re show offs.
And I’m thinking, no, don’t tell me who to choose. Because sometimes the showoff isn’t funny. Sometimes the whole ethos of improv is to listen and actually being funny is counter to that because you are being funny at the expense of the story or the expense of the other person, perhaps. And my favorite thing is the quieter person who just plays the drill, the game we play ‘yes and’. And they turn out to be amusing because all they’ve done is played with me and we’ve battered the ball back and forth. We’re riffing. So it’s kind of that riffing, impromptu moment of humour, smile, it’s not going to be a guffaw, it might be, but it doesn’t actually depend on somebody being humiliated.
Alison Jones: That’s so key, isn’t it?
Neil Mullarkey: To me, it’s about sharing our vulnerability. And I talk about two types of humour. There’s affiliative humour, which is, let’s share our fallibility, let’s look at the darkness in the moment. Oh, let’s have a smile together. Let us remember that time things were tough, we came through it, you know. Comedy is tragedy plus time. That’s affiliative humour. We’re in it together. We’re all fallible.
Then there’s dis-affiliative humour, which is, oh, look at them, aren’t they funny? Oh, we’re not in the gang with them. Let’s laugh. That’s bullying to me. And another one, which people might not be aware of, but I think it’s important is people are sometimes too ready to go too far with, oh, I’m just, aren’t I rubbish? Oh dear. Look at us. We are rubbish, aren’t we?
And that kind of thing of overly self-deprecating, so-called humour, actually disguises something which is separating us from ourselves. And that’s why I say to leaders, tell stories about how you failed, about how it didn’t go right. And then the upside is actually, I learned from that. I came through that. I got through. Isn’t it disastrous? I love stories.
The other day I was working with a TV production company. And somebody volunteered the fact they were supposed to be putting together a DVD of a golf tournament, and by mistake, they wiped 500 hours from the hard drive of that golf tournament, and it was kind of, did you ever work again? Yes. Well then you must be pretty good. But it’s that, when you hear that story, you think, oh, well I’ve not quite done that. You know, I said somebody’s name wrong, or something like that. So just that humour of connection, that was what you used the word human connection and not the kind of, I’ve got to be funny. Oh no, but they’re being funny at me. I feel bad.
Well, if somebody’s being horrid to you, everyone else thinks they’re horrid as well. So let’s try and avoid the mocking. Even ourselves, overly mocking ourselves, I think creates a barrier within our own minds and with other people of, oh, right, I didn’t think it was that bad actually.
Alison Jones: I don’t think it’s just about the comedy either, improv, and this is a completely raw observation as somebody who, you know, has done very little of it, but I think beginner’s mind is sometimes quite helpful. And what surprised me about it was the depth and warmth of the relationship with the person with whom I was improvising.
And there was something really extraordinary about creating something that hadn’t been there before. And it wasn’t either of you that had done it, it was the combination of you and there’s a real creative energy and enjoyment and pleasure in that, which I don’t think is comedy exactly, but it’s so much fun.
Neil Mullarkey: Well, I’d say laughter and fun are part and parcel of we are together in this and you are right in a way, if you’re going for funny, funny. You miss that relational moment. And of course it is. This sounds highfalutin, doesn’t it? And often people say to me, I couldn’t do improv. And I say, well, you do it all day, don’t you? You talk to people. You listen to people, and you’re absolutely right. And it’s kind of addictive. That’s why I’ve been doing it now for nearly 38 years, performing improv. It’s such an energy giver, when I’m playing with her, when she’s listening to me and we’re doing something together in front of an audience and somehow we happen upon some joy.
And often the funniest thing can be the mistake. I misheard you. I meant to say cheese, and I said please, or whatever. And again, that psychological safety is not what people think is comedy. It’s about being clever and saying jokes, which has its place, and that’s standup comedy or scripted comedy. Ours is a different beast in a way.
And actually, just to go back, and people may not know this, this improv thing, and I say the word improv because it’s a form, it’s a protocol that has rules and understandings and practices. So improvisation is the broader term, but improv is this thing, which is we do together often ensemble and we co-create from spontaneous suggestions. Started with a social worker in the 1920s, Viola Spolin helping children, deprived children, feel confident, and your face saying the confidence you had with that person when you did an improv thing is what she was trying to create in those children, some of whom were not native speakers, and it was her son who said, all these games work, let’s try it as a form of theater.
So by 1959, Second City had emerged, but all the period up to that was another group The St. Louis Players, The Compass Players, The Committee, they found that ‘yes and’ created better drama than ‘yes but’, and you might think drama equals conflict, but the thing is, if I say to you, ‘good morning’, and you say ‘it’s not the morning’. No, that’s a shame.
If I say to you, ‘good morning’, you say ‘it’s a terrible morning’. That’s ‘yes and’ so, this actually started outside the theater and those of us who are in the applied improv network are taking it back into everyday life. And that thing you just discussed, and I’d love everybody listening and watching this to go and do an improv class, it’s addictive.
Not a single person that I’ve met who’s done a class comes away thinking it wasn’t life changing. Certainly a positive in their life. I can do this. Not that I’m going to be a performer, but I can bring that sense of listening to my real life. And of course I meet loads of people who’ve never heard of Whose Line Is It Anyway, The Comedy Store Players, Improv with a capital I, but they do it.
They’re just good listeners and there are so many philosophical and spiritual approaches to life that say, listen, stop, be. And that’s actually often what you got to tell newbie improvisers who are trying to write the whole sketch themselves.
Alison Jones: Too far ahead.
Neil Mullarkey: Too far ahead.
And Del Close, one of the gurus said, don’t try and write the whole scene on your own. Bring a brick. Bring a brick, and together we’ll build a cathedral. And that to me is the relational thing you just mentioned really, which is, I don’t know where we’re going, but I know we’re going to go there together.
Alison Jones: And what you just said there, I can do it. I think that’s another really important principle, isn’t it? Because you feel resourceful and knowing that you can conjure a cathedral out of a brick is an extraordinarily empowering thing that you take with you into the next conversation, the next difficult situation.
Neil Mullarkey: Absolutely, and you should feel, never feel lacking confidence again, if you’re just, ‘yes and’ whatever she said, whatever he’s just done, treat it as an offer. And then use something they said to build the next step. That’s what it is. It’s short turn taking. It’s treating what they say as an offer, sending one back, not they expected, or maybe they expected exactly what you were going to say, but that idea of we’re in that moment together.
And that sounds a bit heavy in mindfulness and stuff, and somebody the other day said, I don’t believe in mindfulness. I believe in mindlessness. Which is kind of empty your brain of stuff. And I don’t know if you found that Alison, is that’s the moment when you become a good improviser. When you empty your mind of stuff, you are totally there focused on what your colleague has said.
And that’s quite difficult actually. It’s the opposite of what our school teaches. And of course I’m saying to people, don’t forget preparation, don’t forget structure. Be aware of all the organizational stuff that if it weren’t looked after, you’d be very frustrated. And then there are moments of, oh, am I really listening to what’s being said here?
And that’s an interpersonal thing, but in the broader sense of, in my market, what’s happening? What are the consumers doing? What’s really happening? Can I, ‘yes and’ consumer behavior? Can I ‘yes and’ the changes in technology? Can I ‘yes and’ the regulatory environment, rather than saying, I wish this thing hadn’t happened, you go, yes, it has, and I can do something to move things forward.
Alison Jones: Which when you are facing uncertainty at the scale that we are these days, is an extraordinarily empowering thing.
I really want to talk about writing as well, Neil, because I could so happily talk to you about Improv all day and I find it fascinating that somebody who is so in love with the energy, with the collaborative essence of improv, can translate that into frankly sitting on their own in a room…
Neil Mullarkey: …yes…
Alison Jones: …and writing a book. It’s such a different kind of energy and discipline. And how was it?
Neil Mullarkey: It is different. I had a couple of advantages. One quite technical, one broader. One was I had a deadline, get it done. And from somebody at Kogan Page, who was a fan of the Comedy Store Players and said, I see you do improv on stage, but I notice you do it five days a week, teaching it in business. How about a book? Here’s a proposal. Okay, let’s rewrite the proposal. Okay? Right, we’re ready to go. And, I also had many of the conversations in my head that I’ve had over the last 25 years. I remembered particular individuals, particular moments. Though the book is full of stories where I’m saying, don’t just listen to me, listen to this team, listen to that Chief Executive. And so that helped to bring in some stories.
I also cheated. I’d read a lot of blogs and Twitter and LinkedIn, and I’d kind of read the article and think, oh, right, that sort of fits what I’ve noticed. Hmm. That’s good. I’ll reference that. So my book is full of references of proper, scientific piece of research that says how people act as individuals or as groups.
So I always had something in my mind to ‘yes and’, and that would be my advice to a writer is ‘yes and’ your intuitive self. ‘ Yes and’ whoever’s around. So get a first draft to somebody. Check in, even your chapter titles. Do they seem to work? Go for a walk. Try and find as much stimulus as you can.
Now, people who are writing fiction. I know that after a while they say, my characters start to tell me what they’re going to do, and that’s fantastic. A writer called Roy Apps, A P P S like Applications on your computer, Roy Apps. I saw him speak once. He said, people think that writers make it up and imagine, which is really hard work.
He said, basically, we borrow from our own life or from somebody else’s life. Then we remember our own life, and then we do make it up at the end. So there’s kind of nicking other people’s stories, remembering our own stories, and then actually making some of it up.
So that’s kind of how I tend to go, which is, oh, there’s a good blog. What does that spark off in me? Ah, yes, I do believe humour is good. Wow, it turns out there’s all sorts of physical health benefits of laughter. Ooh, there’s another one saying there are all sorts of mental benefits of laughter and humour. Resilience is a thing that matters nowadays, and humour is one of the pillars of that. Can we laugh at ourselves? Can we laugh with each other?
So not having to spend too long on it. Well, I mean, I had to write over six months, but basically somebody said, how long did it take you to write? And I said, 25 years, six months to get it on paper, really. But another piece of advice which you may be asking me later, get your chapter titles…
Alison Jones: Hang on. Let me ask you the question. Hey, Neil, what’s your best advice for a new writer?
Neil Mullarkey: Read other books. Actually read blogs, read articles, read Twitter, read LinkedIn. People put lots of lovely stuff there. Ignore, no, not ignore, I was going to say, take with a pinch of salt some of the stuff where you think they’re just sort of talking fluff here, you know.
You must motivate yourself, inspire others. You can be all you can be, sort of, yes. What does that mean though? What does that mean on a Tuesday morning? What does that mean on a Teams call when I’m feeling a bit fidgety? So I tried to put in some toolboxes every chapter. Here’s a basic thing. So chapter titles are helpful. Try and do as much work upfront as you can.
So that when you actually do, you think, oh, I’ve kind of tacked it out here. I know roughly what I’ll say here, so it doesn’t feel like so much work. So you are chunking it. Here’s a block, really hard work, chapter titles. Okay, now I need to go away. I’ve got lots on that bit, but not on that bit. I used to send myself emails when I found an article and I’d know the chapter title and send it to myself. So here’s one about human connection. Here’s one about creativity. Here’s one about collaboration. Of course, some of the best articles cover all of the above, one’s about leadership and so forth.
So make it small bits rather than, I’ve got to write 50,000 words in six months. No, I’ve got to write a few thousand words every three days or something like that. Whatever it may be. So chunk it. Give yourself a holiday. Give yourself weekends off or define when you are good at writing and do it then. But just keep a constant flow of got to keep going and don’t worry about any rewrites. I sent my chapters to my editor as soon as they were done really, just so that he could come back and say, no, yes, no. Which helps me then with the subsequent chapters,
Alison Jones: Yes, interesting.
And I like that dance between consuming content and curating it and creating it and that sort of iterative loop of the stuff, because you can feel it’s all got to come from your tortured soul. And of course, actually, it’s probably much better if you’re building on what’s there already and adding your piece.
Like just like you were doing improv. Yes, love that.
Neil Mullarkey: Yes, a bit of that. Yes, and found this article, but also I’m a bit of a scientist, so a lot of, I did maths, physics, chemistry A levels, and then economics and social science for my degree. And there was always, what’s the source? You know what’s the data here? And, I know I believe this stuff, and of course I’m looking for research that backs up my point of view. But there’s a lot actually.
There’s actual studies of how people are, neuroscience, et cetera. And also, I’m happy to admit, somebody told me something, where they said, isn’t it great our team’s had a laugh together? And some of this has been anonymized, you know, here we are and it’s another reorganization. What does it mean? Some leaders are doing this stuff without even thinking already. Even the kind of nitty gritty of presentation. Somebody once said to me, I just speak quickly so I can get off as soon as possible. And I said, that makes it look like you don’t want to be there, and the audience don’t want you to be there if you don’t want to be there. So just things like that I didn’t realize stuff people feel and notice. So I’ve used them as my ‘yes anders’, individuals and teams where they felt happy or unhappy about something. Oh, okay, that’s good, my ‘yes and’ thing has worked there. I have my thing called LASER which is my five letter acronym. People saying, oh, the E of LASER which is Explore assumptions. Oh gosh, I didn’t realize I was a prisoner of my own point of view, which was just based on something from years ago. The one where, you know, people I can’t present, I hate presenting. Why do you think that? Oh, because Mr. Watkins told me when I was 11 that I was bad at reading out my essay.
Really? Well forget Mr. Watkins, because you’ve just been brilliant in front of me. When you were talking about something you cared about, that was the difference.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s amazing how we carry those old scripts around in our head, isn’t it?
Neil Mullarkey: Yes. In fact, you talk about scripts, one of the things that kind of has hit me is when I talk about what I do, improv, and I’m sure there are people thinking, I don’t want to improv, I want to be organized and structured. And I’m saying, good, good for you. The worst thing you can do is enter what should be a scripted moment without a script, and maybe equally bad is go with a script to something that should be open-ended.
And the example I give, which I think is fascinating to people who might not know, we talk about winging it, winging it.
Alison Jones: Yes. I hadn’t known this. This is fascinating.
Neil Mullarkey: The thing is, it sounds like I’m flying, I’m winging it and I’m on a bird on high, just floating on the air in the currents. It’s actually the opposite of where it certainly came from, which is in the wings, you are in a state of panic. You’re trying to learn your lines or you go on stage and you can’t, so you run back, the stage manager in the wings, the side of the stage. What’s the line? What’s the line? So in that position, you should have learned your lines. There’s only one version of the truth. You should have learned your script.
You actually can’t think of anything to say, you’re just dry. You should have learned your lines. That’s what everyone else has done. You are in a state of complete resourcelessness.
On the other hand, when we get on stage doing improv, we say to the audience, we have no script. We will co-create with you the audience something in the moment.
So that dichotomy is wonderful to me, is the difference between when should you be scripted? You should be scripted with a presentation. You probably should roughly know how a Teams meeting is going to go, a pitch shall we say, have an agenda? Who’s going to speak, for how long? Don’t overrun, don’t waffle. Send some slides before, maybe have a slide or two in the meeting or not, or send some later. That’s organized stuff. And maybe you need budgets, maybe you need strategy. But strategy, the simpler, the better.
And then there are moments when you’ve got to talk to a client or you’re a leader talking to one of your team. You don’t want to go in with a script. You want to have a few ideas, but suddenly the client says something completely different. And if you don’t listen to what they’ve said, you’ll miss the possibility. If the person to whom you are listening just wants to talk. You need to listen.
And so to use the ‘yes and’ you’re doing a bit more ‘yes’ than the ‘and’ if you like. ‘Yes’ tell me more. You’re not trying to guide. There are times when you need to be more ‘yes’. Sorry, more ‘and’ I should say, ‘yes and’ let me tell you about our new products. So you are ‘anding’ the conversation more. So there’s kind of nuances of ‘yes and’, when you’re coaching, it’s kind of yes, nod, aha. Tell me more. There may be, and I noticed you said something different last week sort of thing.
So that’s the dichotomy I’m trying to get people to grapple with. If you could be good at the improv listening and the prepared, structured, that’s dynamite. And I know people who are and have learned one or the other, and that’s been very much to their advantage.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s a really powerful mix and as you say, it’s, you call it dichotomy, it’s they blend. They have to blend together, don’t they? And that’s, yes, really, really fascinating.
I’m conscious of time, Neil, and I want to get your book recommendation as well, because I’m sure it’s going to be really, really good.
So, what book would you, you’re not allowed to recommend In the Moment, what do you think everybody listening should read?
Neil Mullarkey: In the Moment available on Amazon.
Alison Jones: I’ll do that.
Neil Mullarkey: This is by Adam Kingl, he actually interviewed me during lockdown, you know, when there was a period during lockdown, what the hell’s going on? I don’t know anybody. I can’t get out of the house. And somebody said, can I talk to you for a bit? Oh, fair enough. And this guy called Adam Kingl, like king, but with an L, it’s called Sparking Success.
He spoke to me for about an hour and a half. And then two years later, he sent me the transcript of the conversation. He’d obviously tidied it up. I thought I sound quite good in that, but it’s called Sparking Success: Why every leader needs to develop a creative mindset.
And creativity is the thing people talk about a lot. We don’t really know what it means, but he’s borrowed a lot from the arts and beyond. To say creativity, which to me is the thing that separates us from robots, at the moment ChatGPT, as far as I can tell, they kind of collate whatever is on the web. They can do it in no time. They’re not as yet great at rapport. So creativity and human connection, rapport, is thus far what gives us the advantage.
But it’s, Adam has done lots of work with UCL Management School, London Business School and beyond. A lovely fellow who I discovered he’s got multiple, you know, degrees and stuff. He was doing improv in Los Angeles with The Groundlings, with whom I’ve guested in the past.
So he knows my stuff and he once said to me, you are bringing a technology. And I thought, well, yes, improv is a technology. There’s a format there. That’s why I say improv as opposed to improvisation. And also he signed me the book and he said, again, I came up without knowing. He said in our chat, you said, we’re spontaneously seeking structure.
Alison Jones: That’s a nice way of putting it.
Neil Mullarkey: Isn’t that great? And there’s lots of leadership theories about you know, emergence complexity. And to me that’s quite powerful. I’m glad he remembered it, I’d forgotten it, which is kind of, let’s not impose structure, but also let’s be looking for structure, but seeing what emerges from our team or from our conversations or from our client.
And that’s the kind of thing. Anyway, it’s…
Alison Jones: It’s a lovely demonstration of the fact that actually sometimes our best stuff emerges in those conversations. I mean, you’d never come up with that on your own. Right?
Neil Mullarkey: No, I forgot it. Luckily he’d written it down, so it was a kind of, when I read what he had said, I said, well, that’s quite good.
Alison Jones: Oh, he said this. This is super smart.
Neil Mullarkey: Well, he sorted it out. He kind of tidied up really. And because he had an overarching sort of sense of what do business people need to learn from those in the arts.
And that is powerful because we know that the arts is creative. But we have budgets. Did you know that, we have budgets and deadlines? You can’t, first night, sorry, everyone, we’re not quite ready. No. And that’s scripted theatre, I’m talking about. But we have to turn up on time, curtain up, Comedy Store, we start at 7.30, we finish at 9.30. We know who’s on, The Comedy Store’s done the insurance and security and drinks, and there’s plenty of structure there. So that we may be fully spontaneous. And that’s that as you say, not dichotomy, but that interesting blend, which actually the whole of life is.
Alison Jones: Yes, I remember Bryony Thomas said ‘systems set you free, man’. Which I thought was great, that’s my mantra now. Brilliant.
Neil Mullarkey: Systems set you free, man, that’s great because I don’t want to have to think every day about where my clothes are.
Alison Jones: Right.
Neil Mullarkey: Most of us, if we go to work every day, we’ll go to the same place on the platform. We’ll drive the same way. We want to create structure so that we can then be free to think about what matters.
Alison Jones: Exactly. Brilliant. Thank you so much, Neil. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed that…
Neil Mullarkey: is that it?
Alison Jones: …as always.
That’s it. Yes. Sorry, we are way over time. It’s all good.
Tell me, well, tell the people who are listening and watching, if they want to find out more about you or about Comedy Store Players, more about your books, where should they go?
Neil Mullarkey: Go to neilmullarkey.com. Can you spell that? Neil Mullarkey. Hopefully it’ll be in something. But Mullarkey is my real, it’s my real name. Mullarkey, people think it’s a comedian’s name, but my brother’s an accountant, my other brother’s a chemical engineer.
So it’s called In the Moment: Build your confidence, communication, and creativity at work.
So you can find it on Amazon, of course, but if you go to my website, you’ll find there’s a lovely little discount button and you can get it direct from the publisher. Mike Myers has called it ‘a creative masterclass for every moment’. I’ve got all sorts of people from different walks of life to read it and say, what do you think?
And it’s been quite gratifying because I thought I’ve put my heart and soul into this, I really have, what I’ve done for the last 25 years, what I’ve learned from people, what I’ve felt, what I gingerly thought might be relevant, has actually been profoundly relevant. So the book’s there. So I hope you like it.
As I said, I’ve had my cake and eat it, In the Moment, it’s not for the moment i.e. reckless, In the moment there are beautiful moments of impromptu co-creation, human connection, but also a moment could be six months where you think, actually I’ve got this book to write, or am I thinking is this the right job for me?
So there we go. That was a short, well, a very long answer to a short question, In the Moment, neilmullarkey.com. I’m on Twitter, Neil Mullarkey, I’m on LinkedIn. There are some other Neil Mullarkeys but forget them. Instagram @NeilMullarkey. Why not? Why wouldn’t I use my own name?
Alison Jones: Are you TikToking yet?
Neil Mullarkey: The Comedy Store Players are so, Comedy Store Improv.
A bit scared of it. I don’t know. You know, if I have it on my phone, will people eat my cheese? I don’t know, steal my fridge. What’s going on?
Alison Jones: Thank you so much for your time, Neil. Absolute joy to talk to you.
Neil Mullarkey: Thank you.