6 lessons journalists can learn from improv

Cecilia Wörthmüller, Michael Grant, Lisa Rossi, Janna Bubley and Jessica Chow at an improv workshop Feb. 25 at the Un-Scripted Theater Company in San Francisco. Photo by André Natta.

My dream is to be the type of newsroom leader who inspires people to be energized in the face of change.

I want to inspire teams to see the process of innovation as a chance to be creative, influence the future, and connect with colleagues in new ways.

Part of the reason I came to Stanford as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow was in search of answers for how to best do that.

I was surprised to find plenty of inspiration within improv theater, the practice of creating unscripted stories on stage. I spent the weekend with other students, fellows and researchers from Stanford, learning improv techniques from three founding partners from Collective Capital, a San Francisco-based design research and consulting agency. The class was held through Stanford’s d.school, the Hasso Plattner Institue of Design.

Here are a few takeaways that apply to newsrooms.

  1. The audience is rooting for you. In improv, it’s a tradition to ask audience members for suggestions as inspiration to start a story that actors craft on stage. For example, during our performance, an actor said, “Name a situation,” and my 7-year-old son, sitting in the audience, saucily yelled “Death!” (Oh, my.) The actors proceeded to act out a story about a grandmother on her deathbed. I thought about some of the cutting-edge methods underway to enlist news readers in crafting stories, particularly the work being done by Hearken. Improv provided me with more inspiration on how to connect with readers, beyond asking for story ideas, which can sound rather artificial. I imagined a community event where journalists ask for readers to submit key words for crafting story ideas, with an eye towards creative or new ways to tell a story. How about: “Justice.” Or: “Unexpected beginnings.” Or: “Yellow.” And then participants could brainstorm some story ideas based on a keyword. What about telling the backstories of all the yellow buildings in a community? And I like to think that those audience members who submitted keywords would now root for a story to succeed since they had a hand in inspiring the topic.
  2. Use a story spine. As journalists, we talk a lot about talent, and those who have an instinct for what makes a really great story. Instinct matters, but I was struck while learning improv how important it is to relearn the basics. Our instructors asked us to tell stories using a story spine, which requires the teller to use these prompts, (which you can also find in the improv encyclopedia):

“Once upon a time …

Every day …

But, one day …

Because of that …

Because of that …

Because of that …

Until finally …

And ever since then.”

And our instructors also asked us to say, “And the moral of the story is…” Of course, we don’t have to be so wooden in our storytelling, but the spine can provide some discipline when selecting what stories about our communities are worth telling. Do they have a strong character? A beginning? A turning point? A deeper meaning?

3. The word “no” ruins a scene. I watched one scene during our performance where some people in an Uber initially refused to let a new passenger in. That tripped people up. Well, what does the guy do now that he can’t come in and everyone in the scene is in the car? Where does he go? What does he say? (They eventually let him in, realizing their mistake.) All of this made me think of all the times I’ve heard “no” in a newsroom, including the times I’ve said it myself. It occurred to me that while we’re trying out new concepts, a “yes” approach can unlock creative solutions. Imagine if a reporter wants to cover an obscure planning and zoning meeting but is having trouble articulating why it’s important. I’d like to see editors reframe their conversations with reporters. Let’s change it from, “No, too boring,” to, “yes, and how can we make this story come alive for our readers? Sometimes, a reporter may not have a good answer to these questions, but issuing the challenge around the word “yes” may be enough to get some of that magic sauce that transforms a bureaucratic story into one with deep relevancy. At the same time, a “yes” approach empowers creative thinkers, who sometimes have a tender heart, to keep pitching.

4. Build off the person who started the scene. Lots of times, newsrooms are full of experts — reporters and editors who have volumes of knowledge on a topic. These people are rightly valued members of a team. They are often the ones who advise newbie reporters on how a story should be told. They tell a reporter who to call, what to read, and where to go to get the story done. I’ve always thought this process could be improved, but I could never articulate why. Improv gave me some of the answers. In improv, you are asked to build a scene with other people. Status means nothing in these situations. I built scenes with Stanford undergrads, lawyers, doctoral candidates and researchers. We all fancied ourselves to be smart and accomplished. But the person who set the agenda was the person who started the scene, NOT the smartest or most accomplished person in the room. I noticed I was more successful when I listened closely to my partner starting the scene, and responded to his character and purpose, instead of hijacking it. For a fresh approach to story brainstorming in the newsroom, let the person on the ground, the reporter, start with her idea and purpose. As the editor, try building on her idea, as opposed to simply issuing instructions. When this happens, each person gets equal time talking. The idea grows richer and informed by more perspectives this way.

5. Teams can build surprisingly logical and creative stories. We played a game called “String of Pearls,” where one person would stand on the far right of the stage and state the beginning of a story. It went something like this: “Once upon a time, there was a little boy who wanted nothing more than to eat lots of oranges.” And then another person would go to the far left of the stage and say something unrelated as the end of the story. “And that’s why you should never anger the tooth fairy.” And then one by one, other team members would step forward and fill in the spaces in the middle with all the adventures of this orange-loving little boy who got in trouble with the tooth fairy. I had lots of doubts when I first played this game that it would work, but it did! Humans are natural narrators and I saw in improv that a collective brain is more creative (and logical) than I thought possible. I think about how we could bring this to the newsroom. What if we sought to tell a story about someone’s life and a team of journalists each took a different section — the beginning, the middle, the end, the plot twist, and the moral of the story. And then we challenged ourselves to knit it together into something coherent. I bet we’d be surprised to see the creative energy in a type of piece like this, as opposed to one told by one person alone.

6. It’s really fun to build something from nothing. This was my favorite part of improv. I didn’t prepare. I just showed up and made something creative with other creative people. Some of this made me think about how newsroom innovation is often such a struggle. We are battling what is already there in our quest to build something new. What would it look like if we just had all the parts, like a pile of unbuilt Legos, right in front of us. That feels better than what is often the case now: a giant, unwieldy structure we have to destroy and reinvent, while the experts of that product watch in dismay. I think often about what my JSK teammate André Natta says about his vision of the future of journalism: “Blow the whole thing up.” I now understand what he means. In our newsroom creative exercises, let’s imagine new realities built completely from scratch.

Other stuff…..

What I’m reading now

The Attention Merchants,” by Tim Wu

The Undoing Project,” by Michael Lewis

Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement,” report by Elizabeth Hansen and Emily Goliogoski

What I’m thinking about

- The unique issues facing engaged citizens in news deserts.

-How a customer service mentality can inform and inspire newsroom strategies to build engaged communities of readers.

-The best ways to build communities that care to read and share fact-based journalism

Contact me at lrossi18@stanford.edu if you want to talk more.

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