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Being an Amazing Facilitator is Like Being a Successful Stand-Up Comic

by Nelson Soken, Ph.D

Facilitation is like stand up comedy.

On a plane ride from Seattle returning from vacation, I saw a recently released movie entitled Dying Laughing where stand-up comics share insights into their lives. A description of the movie is: “The craft, creative process, and complicated lives of stand-up comedians.”

What struck me as I watched were the similarities between good facilitation and stand-up comedy; although being a comedian is significantly more difficult and painful from what I saw described in the movie. Here are some lessons I learned of which I plan to be mindful and to apply as I continue to grow as a facilitator:

  • Embrace fear: Comedians talk about the fear they experience prior to getting on stage. Facilitators often experience similar feelings prior to every “performance” where they feel nervous, anxious, and maybe even physically ill. Our anxieties may be used as a reminder to always prepare and above all else, anticipate the “rush” of jumping onto a new and unpredictable stage. If that thrill no longer exists, perhaps one should do some soul-searching as to whether their passion for the “game” has been lost.
  • Lean into failure: Comedians share their most epic failures and how it has shaped their comedy act. Failure can be an amazing learning tool and keeps things fresh. It reminds all of us not to be complacent and to always be on our toes by prepping for all situations. Continually taking risks and trying out new material and techniques also keeps us fresh and allows us to up our “game”. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
  • Get command of the room quickly: Comedians discuss the importance of capturing the audience right away and taking control of the room by asking questions and creating the sense that each audience member is special. Facilitators can apply these same tools/techniques by individually greeting each participant before the workshop, introducing yourself and your experiences on the topic, finding out something about each participant, using music and pictures prior to the workshop to set the tone, and using multimedia and ice breaker activities to establish the right atmosphere and establish rapport and credibility as a facilitator.
  • Mastering your craft takes perseverance: Comedians mention working on jokes or their acts for years, trying and failing with a variety of audiences, and finally perfecting them. Facilitators can learn a valuable lesson in continuing to evolve and change over time and taking the attitude that the journey is never over and that it is possible to get better at their craft.
  • Find your voice, rhythm, and flow: Comedians emphasize the experience of finding their voice and a rhythm that resonates with their audience. It’s like being a conductor of an orchestra. Similarly, facilitators should continually work at finding their specific voice by taking standard content and transforming it into something unique to them. Like comedians, they need to understand deeply the rhythm and flow of the program as well as how that rhythm and flow needs to be customized for the specific audience to maximize learning and outcomes.
  • Authenticity and genuineness are key: Comedians highlight the fact that polished delivery can only take you so far. Success comes when the comedian strikes a chord with the audience and at that point, the stories come alive for them. It’s the authenticity, genuine humanness and emotional resonance that lead to the biggest laughs. In the same vein, a facilitator is successful when their stories connect with the participants in an authentic and genuine way. Participants will remember the lessons that they connect with and can apply right away in the real world far better than they recall sterile academic theory and abstractions.
  • Be ready to go off script and follow the flow of the room: Comedians describe how every performance and audience response is different. They have to be adaptive and responsive to what clicks for the audience and to go off script when the time is right. Similarly, facilitators need to follow a general guide for learning purposes but be open, flexible, and attuned to the right time to go “off script” to meet participant needs and help them develop deeper insights. Often, the best learning opportunities arise in real time and good facilitators seize these opportunities without sacrificing, but rather maximizing the overall learning objectives.

I highly recommend viewing the movie with an eye toward identifying how the stand-up comedian role resonates with your experience as a facilitator. Once you do that, I believe you will find a striking degree of familiarity.

Let’s keep the conversation going…please share with me your impressions of Dying Laughing and what lessons you can apply to your own work as a professional and amazing facilitator. (nsoken at barnesconti dot com)

Nelson Soken, Ph.D, is CEO of N.H. Soken Consulting and Chief Innovation Strategist at Barnes & Conti

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