John Cooper TEDx speaker | TEDxWarrington


It’s March 2020 and the worst possible thing has improv comedy team can’t do our live show anymore!

So one Sunday we jumped on zoom to see if the show would work online. I didn’t know zoom and well started messing about.

We messed about with virtual backgrounds and the filters that give you bunny ears and the break-out rooms and we thought, “Yeah” this is going to work, Brilliant!

I’m a freelancer, I do a lot of networking. Two weeks later and I’m in a networking meeting that’s also moved onto zoom, and I noticed quite a few people who were used to networking, but they were not having a good time on zoom.

So I jumped in and helped because I knew stuff now from messing about.

I ran the break-out rooms. In fact, I changed the name of one of the breakout rooms to ‘The circus’, So when they were open someone said: “I’ve been invited to join the circus”.

I’m an improviser... I use improv for comedy,...but improv isn’t just comedy.

If you’re a musician improv could be a jam session and actually, if you’ve ever had a conversation, you are improvising. We all do improv, making it up as you go along.

Except, Improv isn’t just “Making it up as you go along”, and I’m going to share 3 fundamentals that you learn when you go and do an improv class.

The first one is the improvisers mantra – Yes And, also known as accept and build.

You might hear in work or life, a quote common word – NO.

We don’t use that in improv because it stops the scene. The conversation can’t go anywhere. “Would you like cake?” “No”.

You might also hear a lot of “Yes, but”.

“Would you like cake?” “Yes, but only if there’s enough for everyone”.

It’s a conditional agreement, it only goes forward on their terms.

We use “Yes and”.

“Would you like cake?” “Yes, and sorry I forgot it was your birthday”.

When we use the Yes And together it lets us not only accept what has been said to us, but also build. We’re adding something new to the conversation that will take us forward to new places and new information.

Two is active listening.

Being present and listening to EVERYTHING the other person is saying.

I think were all guilty of tuning out of a conversation or being distracted halfway through.

“Would you like some cake..and a million pounds”

(distracted on phone) “Yeah I’ll have some cake...what did you say?”

In improv we’re always listening for offers of as much information as we can get.

Three, give yourself permission to fail.

In improv comedy, failure is sometimes where the laughs happen, but lets just go back to that networking meet on zoom.

There were some people on the call saying “I’ve never done this, let's see how it goes”... while there were others trying really hard to be professional in an environment they weren’t familiar with.

They hadn't given themselves permission to fail.

I once had an improv student who said to me “I get it, improv is like a really healthy way of not giving a hoot” – and he didn’t use the word hoot.

My improv group learned how to use zoom by messing about like little kids.

And here’s the thing. When you are a little kid and your brain is developing, it’s firing off neurons all over the place.

“Tractor. Ice cream. Doctor Who. My turn. Let's go to the zoo. I’m not tired. Xbox.”

Then, as we get older your brain tries to help you by becoming more efficient. It only goes to the places it needs to.

Work. mortgage. Food. Relationships. These are the only parts you need.

And these little handrails pop up on your brain to guide you along those paths.

And that's when you need improv.
Improv is like a big elbow that comes along and knocks us off these well-trodden paths and into the long grass of our brain - where our creativity lies.

Your brain is a muscle, and like any muscle, it needs working.

I’m going to share an improv game with you, to get that muscle working.

It’s called first letter – last letter. The next conversation you have with someone else, listen out for the last letter of the last work in their sentence and make that the first letter of the first work in yours. (Recap) That's the last letter of their last word, becomes the first letter of your first word.

“How are you?”. “Understand I’m ok”.

Keep doing it until you fail - and you will. There’ll be a point during the conversation where your brain will go “er” – “oo” – “ah” “got nothing” and you’ll fail and that's fine.

You’ll feel the little cogs in your brain spinning round.

You’ll feel the elbow knocking you off the rail and into the long grass.

And that’s fine,

Because it’s only by failing small and often that we work this muscle and get to that really healthy way of not giving a hoot.

You might have noticed I’m not talking in terms of comedy now.

I’m not even talking about having better conversations.

I’m talking about improv as a way of navigating life.

When I - hit rock bottom I used yes and.

I used the accept and build of improv to get me out of the hole I was in.

A million times a day I’d get negative little ‘what if’s’ dropping into my head saying things like…

“What if – you can’t afford to sustain yourself?”

“What if – you never meet that special someone?”

“What if – you never get on the property ladder?”

I fought back with yes and. (fist punch)

Can I afford to sustain myself? – Yes And actually I’m self-employed so I can see when I’m working hard and when it pays off.

Will I ever meet that special someone? - Yes And I realise I’m s bit of a workaholic and need work more on my social life.

“Will I ever get on the property ladder?” - Yes and it’ll take time and planning, yes and I’ll get there.

The yes and of improv didn’t just get me out of a hole, I think it’s made me a better more well-rounded person. (pause.)

At the same time I met people who used improv in their work.

Not comedians, real people with real jobs - Applied improvisers.

There was a team-building trainer, a software developer and a lady who used improv in CBT. Cognitive behaviour therapy. - counselling.

She used improv to help their clients reflect. To accept and build.

I listen and smiled. Yes and.

So what can improvisation do for you?

Will it make you funnier? More resilient?

Or will you use it to have better conversations?

Because when we have better more positive conversations,

it can have a better, more positive effect on our life.

On the Red spot, about to become a TEDx Speaker.


TEDx Warrington

John Cooper

Comedian, improviser & ideas guy
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