Merlin Works June Newsletter: Improv Like A Robot

Improv Like a Robot

by Shana Merlin

“Turn right on Mohle Drive.”iPhone GPSI don’t believe you, I’m thinking. It doesn’t feel right. I skip the turn. She’s quiet for a minute.

“Turn right on to Westover Road.”

I don’t know, you seem pretty sure about this. I’ll go along with you this time. I turn.

“Turn right on Oakmont Boulevard. The destination is in 500 feet on your left”

Okay, you were right again, GPS. I won’t doubt you again, old friend.

I’ve been thinking lately about how a good improviser is like a good GPS:

  • They meet you where you are. They aren’t focused on where they think you should be or where you were or where you are going. They begin by figuring out where you are and joining you there. A GPS doesn’t say, “I’m at your destination, come over here.” It says, “I’m with you, lets go together.” They orient the map to your point of view and guide you from there.  What we can learn: When we are trying to persuade someone, we are often focused on ourselves, our own ideas and reasons. Instead, we want to start with alignment. First we should learn about our partner and get on the same page with them before trying to guide them to our conclusion.
  • They are clear and specific. They are concise. They give you a heads up in advance and then repeat themselves. They are silent when nothing needs to be added. They turn down the music and try to get our attention when it’s their turn to talk. If you type in a vague offer like “1500 Toomey”, they might ask, “Do you mean 1500 Toomey Rd Austin, TX 78704?” What we can learn: Give the gift of clarity. Use less words with more meaning. Timing is important. Give people information in the time and manner they can receive it best and act upon it. And repeat it so they know what’s important.
  • They have an idea of where they are going.They have a sense of direction and movement. They aren’t afraid to go forward and get there, by the most efficient way possible. They don’t get sidetracked from their original idea. What we can learn: Improvising is all about moving forward bravely into the unknown. Novice improvisers have a tendency to find a thousand subtle ways to prevent anything from happening. Advanced improvisers enjoy allowing things to happen. They move, they are changed, they go forward.
  • They are unattached to plans. They know how to get there, but will give up their idea the instant you express another preference. The old GPS systems used to say, “recalculating” but some savvy designer realized even that statement was too judgmental.  The current GPS just silently abandons their established route and creates a new path based on your choices. If they forced you to go back and get on the original route they designed, it would be longer, inefficient, and frustrating.  They know there are many ways to get you where you want to go. They accept your choices and add on to them with connected ideas: the classic Yes And. What we can learn: Hold tightly and let go lightly. Be willing to abandon ideas the instant they become irrelevant, which leaves you open to finding new ideas that are now most useful. Short Circuit
  • They want to make you look good. They don’t blame. They don’t say I told you so. They don’t say you are wrong. They don’t correct you. (Okay when they insist on you making a U turn over and over, you can’t help but think you’ve done something wrong.) The designers knew that any technology that made the user feel dumb would be dropped quickly. So they had to find a way to get people on the right track without feeling chided. It’s a powerful technique. What we can learn: Choose your battles. There’s often no need to fight over the past and who was right or wrong. Better to focus on the future. What is the next action we can take to get things on the right track?
  • They gain your trust. After building a successful track record, coming through on simple routes, tricky turns, and some moments of downright confusion, they become a trusted ally. Eventually you will go along with them, even when you are feeling unsure or afraid. Eventually you are ready for them to guide you in a totally foreign city or state. When a GPS leads you to the wrong destination more than once, the relationship is over. Their consistency is crucial.What we can learn: Building trust during small risks can lead to bigger and bigger leaps together in the future.

There are some ways, however, that a GPS fails at improv:

  • They are terrible at initiating. They don’t just pick where to go and send you there for once. It’s always on you to come up with the ideas.
  • They can’t admit when they are wrong. Every once in a while they just insist on you driving into that body of water.
  • They take themselves very seriously. I personally like to add to this effect by selecting a British voice when possible.
  • They are very rule based. It’s hard to get them to abandon their machine logic and go off road, as it were.

I think it’s valuable to look at how a tool that essentially bosses people around has been designed to be such a trusted assistant instead. They still communicate what they need to and get the outcome they want, without contradicting or humiliating their partner. What else can we learn from the humble GPS?

Shana Merlin
Founder, Merlin Works

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.

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