October 05, 2023

Author of “Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up”

Dana Bernardino

Patricia Ryan Madson
1Huddle Podcast Episode #109

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, engages in a conversation with Patricia Ryan Madson, author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.

Patricia is retired from a nearly 30-year career in university teaching at Stanford. Patricia’s insights from Improv Wisdom offer a unique perspective applicable to everyone. Patricia introduces the concept of her book, a set of ideas and maxims rooted in the world of improvisation. She shares her journey of fostering a culture of improvisation by founding the Stanford Improvisers group in 1991. The group continues to thrive even after 32 years, engaging in performances, teaching, and other enriching activities.

Her book goes beyond the world of improvisation, providing principles that resonate with individuals from all walks of life. Patricia highlights the significance of embracing a culture of improvisation, offering an alternative approach to interacting, and what it means for our future of work.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Patricia Ryan Madson shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “The thing we can do ourselves as leaders is to value others and to go that extra step.”
  • “The preparation is key… prepare a lot.”
  • “My deep hope for the future of work would be that we can all… appreciate what we have.”

Sam Caucci: Patricia, I am excited to talk. I came prepared and for those that can’t, obviously, I’m holding Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. I was lucky enough to pick this book up a bunch of months ago. Trying to get better at presenting and being a professional and being a communicator.

And I picked up the book and it’s all marked up. So someone came by my desk the other day and tried to pick it up and I said, “Nope, I’ll buy it. But you, you can’t take that copy”. So I’m excited to talk to you today. Maybe I’ll hand it over to you to give a quick background on yourself for those who are meeting you for the first time.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Sure. Happy too. I’m Patricia Ryan Madson. I’m now sitting in California, South of San Francisco, and I’m retired from a career in university teaching. I was at Stanford for almost 30 years. What brings me here, I think is a little book that Sam was holding up Improv Wisdom, and in a way while this show is maybe targeted for business and leadership. The thing about this little book, and I like to think of it as a little book in these days of many big books, that it’s really a book for everybody because it’s about using, using a paradigm, using a set of ideas and maxims, if you will, ways of being together that come out of the world of improvisation.

But might just be useful for us everyday humans. I think there are a lot of strategies for how to do something well, and this program invites amazing people who talk about those strategies. What I wanna share today about the improv wisdom idea is that there’s a culture of improvisation.

That’s a real healthy thing. Lemme, me start with the word improvisation, is often a game-stopper for a lot of people because oh yeah, improv, that’s that standup comedy stuff. Who lines it anyway? And you know, I’m not really that funny. I can be funny, but I’m not really, I don’t like having to do something without preparing.

That idea that improv equals standup comedy is a mistaken notion. One, it does, improvisation can very well lead to standup comedy and to sketch comedy and to all kinds of delightful things. What I’ve spent my life doing is looking at what makes, how can people get in a room together that don’t know each other personally and haven’t worked together, but managed to say, stand up on stage and create a story in real time without any particular background.

And what we discover, is that’s possible, when they’re using a group of, I would call them cultural maxims because I’ve discovered recently that improv is a culture. I just had a reunion. I founded a group at Stanford in 1991 called the Stanford Improvisers. I never had any idea that 32 years later, that group would still be going strong, would still be performing, doing all kinds of interesting and entertaining things, teaching.

And when we got together, there were a hundred of these people from the last 32 years that showed up and we don’t know each other. There were folks that were 40 years old and folks that were 18, who were freshmen at Stanford, and we were able to play together the whole weekend. Telling stories, making things up as if we had known each other all our lives and were best friends.

And I thought, what is it that allows us to do that? There’s something about these principles, the maxims of improv that allow strangers to have an incredible experience together. And it starts with, you’ve probably heard that the primary rule of improv is to say yes. Yes. And that sounds kind of, well, so what’s, the big deal?

I think when you. When you enter a culture of yes when you become part of that, you’re there with the predisposition to be open and agreeable to whatever’s going on. And your job after accepting whatever it is to build on it and make it into something better. If that’s the fundamental prototype that you’re working with, it’s a really powerful way of being, a mindset, if you will, that can be used everywhere. Improv has become a kind of trendy thing these days in training business leaders, executives, nurses, doctors, people who have to communicate. I think that it’s really common to be afraid of having to speak in public or do anything without a plan. Without a script. I think most interviews, for example, everyone wants to prepare what they’re gonna say, figure out what the questions will be and, and look, look clean and smart and intelligent. 

When one of my former students is now an executive coach. Coaching people for interviews, and he says the thing interviewers most hate is the sound of the prepared response. And I think that, we know that too. We know when a politician is giving his spiel, it sounds different than normal human conversation. Right now I don’t have any of this planned.

I kind of, I guess I know what I know. My life becomes the script out of which I’m picking things and trying to talk to you makes sense out of these time together. Somehow the study of improvs learning to start with a predisposition to say yes and open to what’s going on and to accept it and then appreciate whatever it is, and then do something with it.

Sounds kinda simple. Most of us, I think, come at life with the kind of amygdala that’s looking for. Okay, what do I have to protect myself against here? What’s wrong with what’s going on now?  Suppose you entered each day with what’s right about today. How can I appreciate whatever’s going on.

Oh, oh, the coffee spilled. Well, aren’t I lucky to have coffee? So, the study of improvisation can be used across everything. And in fact, you don’t even have to take a class, pick up the book and look at some of the ideas. I’m wondering what was it Sam, that attracted you? Can you think of one of these things you’ve underlined you wanted to parse with me?

Sam: Yeah. I think the one I’ve always valued improv and I valued the notion that being able to be in a zone where you can say what you wanna say in the right moment is very powerful, versus having to prepare and feel scripted, like you mentioned. And as I read the book, one of the things I started to keep coming back to is this reality.

I was tying it to our workforce today. I mean, the majority of workers who are frontline, who are maybe performing low-wage service sector roles without access to education, coaching, training, development, are improving all day long in many ways now. And it made me think about how to instill the principles of improv into their leadership.

In order to cultivate an environment where that’s a strength and not something that sometimes improv can be looked at as a bad word. Like it’s bad to just improvise, you’re supposed to follow the process, right? You know, it’s your work, Patricia. These are the steps of the service. You’re supposed to go question 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. So that’s what my wheels were spinning around. And I think there was a quote in the book where the quote says something to the effect of “the power we have when we just let the balls drop”, and that really stuck with me.

Patricia: Well, if there is relief in discovering that it’s really okay to be yourself and to respond with your natural sense of what needs to be done.

You’re right about all these workers who are improvising all the time. One of the ways that leaders can foster this mindset, I think, is by appreciating in great detail what they notice these people doing. Often, these jobs are thankless jobs. I was recently at the airport, and we were taking a shuttle from where we dropped the car to the airport. So they have one of these shuttles where every hundred feet or so, the driver stops the vehicle, gets out, runs around, opens the doors, lets people out, takes their luggage, puts it in the back, closes the back, makes sure everybody’s safe, gets back on the driver’s side, and then goes a hundred feet or two hundred feet and does it again.

And he’s doing that all day. I was watching him, and when it came our turn, we got out and went around the back to pick up the luggage and give him a tip. I said, “Do you know? You are doing an excellent job. What you are doing is complicated and difficult, and I really appreciate that.”

And he stopped and looked at me, and I thought he might cry. There was some way in which perhaps no one had ever stopped to say, “You’re doing a great job, you know that.” And we all need that, more than money, objects, or even status. We need to feel that we’re valuable, and that’s what we want everybody to value us.

Now, the thing we can do ourselves as leaders or as waiters is to value others and to go that extra step. Not just say, “Thank you. Thanks for all you do,” but what was it that they did? Notice it. I noticed that you did this good work. If I could, you know, leave one thought from improvisation, it’s valuing, noticing, and appreciating in detail what other people are doing.

It’s how we take care of each other, because we all need, desperately, it’s not just approval but acknowledgment. Whether it’s a big job or a little job, I bet the leaders you want to work for are those who might stop by your desk and say, “Wow, you’ve been at this all day. Good work.” You know, it takes a lot of time to get those reports in.

Thanks a lot. Wouldn’t you love that?

Sam: Yes, I would. It feels more human to operate from a place of improv. 

Patricia: That’s exactly my message. There’s a kind of humanity we all have. Maybe we’re afraid of using it because we might, I don’t know, look silly or not be following the plan.

Try it. I say, try to see improv as something that, if you trust yourself, you can have that “yes” mindset going. See what happens when you appreciate others and then enjoy the ride.

Sam: Yeah, I mean, that’s powerful stuff. Over the years, I’m sure you’ve had to coach and teach other coaches, teachers, instructors, and leaders who have had to turn around and deliver education, classes, improv.

I’m interested in how you coach the coaches to create the right environment for improv to thrive. Recognizing what you said earlier, which is, it’s a little scary. I mean, I’ve said it to my team in the past, “We’re gonna do an improv class,” and you know, there are two or three who are very excited, and then there are two or three who ask, “What date is that, so I can be out of the office?”

So I’m interested to hear, for folks that are listening, who may be managers and leaders, who are going to pick up the book or think about how to start instilling some practices, what do you say to them as coaches in order to be effective and make this work for us, making it something that’s scary?

Patricia: That’s a wonderful question because I think one thing you have to do is be improvising yourself, in the sense that you have to be open to what’s going on or not going on. And in fact, often when I approach a group of high-level coaches, I say, “The important thing you need to know is I’m a little scared to death to do this class with you.”

As soon as I say that, and it’s true, I always worry. I was worrying about this interview all last night and all morning. “Oh, I’ve gotta talk to Sam on that important podcast. What. Oh, maybe I’ll screw up and they’ll just, okay.” We all, I think, have a certain amount of fear about anything like that.

So I start by lowering my status by telling a truth, and somehow there’s a little relaxation around the fact, “Oh, okay. She’s not gonna stand up and make a joke that I have to follow or something. Hmm. All right.”

And the other maxim that is really important in training trainers is the invitation to them to be average. Really. My Stanford students, you know, spend their whole lives excelling, do the best. One of your podcasts. That wonderful coach who ranks everybody from one to 15 every day. I thought, “Oh my God”, that’s a strategy, and it’ll get a certain kind of result. In my class, everybody would get a number one because there are no wrong answers in improv.

So the invitation is to be in a room where you can’t make a mistake, or if you make a mistake, we’ll all celebrate it. There’s a game that we play – if we sort of screw up some rule or something, we say, “Ah, oh, oh, I screwed that up.” And then you raise your arms in the air and say, “Ta-da!” and look around.

The idea is like a circus performer who dropped the balls. “I’m just human too.” We love to be in a room with humans, and trainers who are themselves human, that can allow us to see their warts and all, I think are the very best ones, in my opinion. There’s an effectiveness that comes from that.

Maybe it doesn’t always work. I think there are probably some very high-status groups that are really not interested in hearing this kind of human talk, human speak. I think trainers in whatever they’re doing need to walk their own talk. I think that’s a part of it. They’re making mistakes.

Being average allows you to use your normal humanity. I think when we’re trying our best is when we’re more likely to actually screw up. There’s a lot of evidence that, that extra effort to really say, “I’m going to make this the best X” can backfire. When we’re just using our natural ability to think, speak, and make sense out of things, we’re more powerful and effective.

Sam: I’d imagine that you’ve, over the years like you just alluded to, had a lot of executives, maybe other professors and faculty and colleagues at Stanford. for example, you know, look for scientific evidence and data and research that supports this improv thing,? Is there a data study or is there a better way to respond to that question? 

I’d imagine that over the years, as you just alluded to, you’ve had a lot of executives, professors, faculty, and colleagues at Stanford, for example, looking for scientific evidence, data, and research that supports this improv thing. Is there a data study or a better way to respond to that question?

Patricia: There is quite a number of academic studies that have measured effectiveness around certain kinds of measures before and after improv training. I could point you to some of that.

I’ve never gotten particularly interested in the hard research, but there is hard research because some people just need that. I think a lot of the findings come from qualitative testimonials. I took this improv class and I realized I didn’t have to do yada yada. Instead, I could really listen better because the key to saying yes is you have to know what you’re saying yes to, which means you have to become a superhero as a listener. And that’s the fundamental skill that leads to improvising and kinda letting go of your ideas. This is also counter to a lot of business work where you’re trying to come up with the ideas. So in brainstorming, for example, it’s who can have the best, funniest idea or the most innovative one.

And everybody’s in competition, and you’ll certainly get some results that way. In that kind of brainstorming, in improv brainstorming, whatever idea is thrown out, everybody has to make that one work. So it’s a different mindset of, “Let’s take what we’ve got, use what is right in front of us.”

There’s an improv saying: “You already have what you need.” So it’s not about getting more of anything. It’s about taking what’s right in front of you and using it artfully. Use it innovatively. Make a story out of whatever shows up in your palm. It’s really quite simple, but you’re right that there’s resistance to the notion because we don’t want to look stupid.

That’s the great fear and we have to turn off the button that says, “Uh, be clever. Relax. You’re clever.”

Sam:  I like that. 

Patricia: Useful maxim.

Sam: I like that. So I had to ask this one. In a few weeks, at my company, we’ve been lucky enough to be recognized at a big event for some social impact work we’ve done. It’s a program called the Covenant House, and they help create, provide shelter, support services, education, and training for young men and women who might be homeless. They’re recognizing our organization for doing a lot of work in the community supporting the program. They told me the other day, “Sam, you’re gonna have to stand up, and we’re gonna give you two minutes on stage.” So my question is, I want a little free coaching. Do I prepare for the two minutes? Because part of me wants to let it fly a little bit in the moment.

How would you coach me in this situation leading up to the event?

Patricia: It’s a terrific question because it comes up all the time. I would say prepare like crazy, you know? And then when you get there, set it aside, be in the venue, look around, notice what’s really going on, and then say what seems from the stuff you’ve prepared or what’s in the moment. Be really there.

So I think the preparation—you probably have some ideas of thanking people for sure. You might want to find an interesting way to do that, some detail or somebody lowly down in the organization rather than just the higher-ups. Or tell a story. So I would say, go ahead, prepare like crazy. But don’t take your notes on stage. Trust yourself that the wonderful thing you get to do, which is receive an honor, a real honor because of the important work they’re doing, will be almost a no-brainer when you’re there, really looking at the faces of the people. Something might happen just before you come on stage that you can reference.

That’s this. Really being where you are, which is what, I said to somebody, I really lied when I say don’t prepare, just show up. What I would really wanna tell everybody is prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare a lot, say it over a thousand times, or say it different ways and then show up. Be yourself. Use your own words. Don’t worry about reciting any of the prepared speech. Trust that your human presence there, doing what is your purpose, which is to thank them and honor that organization, will be crystal clear if you just show up and have fun

Sam: That’s great. Thank you. I’m gonna do that Patricia.

Patricia: Oh, great. Let me know how it goes. Please send me an email about how it goes!

Sam:  I will totally do it. I’ll record it. We’ll get some extra coaching in. Last question for you, Patricia. A lot of what you’re talking about, I kind of saw the connection to think about the effect that improv has on work on workers. We’re talking a lot about the future of work. What’s your hope for the future of work? 

Patricia: My deep hope for the future of work would be that we can all, everybody, learn to relax more, slow down, and not always be striving for more, more, more. I would love the word “enough” to come into the workplace and to appreciate what we have. There’s something about this constant need to make more, do more, be more productive, et cetera. I think if leaders as well as workers had more space to do whatever they’re doing and more appreciation, all of the world of work would be better. I would love that.

Sam: Patricia, thanks for taking time.

Patricia: My pleasure. Great.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Culture, Work, Coaches, Leadership, Improv, Mindset

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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