I’m Pretty Excited About the Year I’ve Had
And I got a new talk format out of it!
I’m writing in the middle of the night from my hotel room in Johannesburg. I have jetlag. But I don’t mind because it’s given me some time to think about the funny way things came together this year.
I have an insatiable appetite for any media that talks about the creative process. My favorite documentaries follow musicians or comedians while they put their material together. My favorite books are biographies that give you a peek into how highly creative people work.
Yet for some reason, I’ve barely ever seen stand-up comedy in person. Until this year. I went a handful of times, I recorded the audio, and I wrote some some Design Explosions-esque critiques of the sets. It was a lot of fun.
Whether straight-ahead rock and roll, noodling improv sets from jam bands, or my all-time favorite artist DJ Shadow, I love analyzing sets. I love bands that take risks and attempt to play a different show every night. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with seeing a highly scripted show — my boy and I saw Taylor Swift and it was amazing — but I have soft spot for high risk/high reward performance.
And not just as someone sitting in the crowd. I listen and re-listen to live performances to do spreadsheet-based data analysis to find the science behind the serendipity of improv work. What songs get paired most often? What’s the rarest set opener? Did it work?
I’m not a giant theatre or improv nerd. I’ve gone to some improv shows, but it’s not something I do often. But this year I discovered Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind in Chicago. In 60 minutes, the group tries to do 30 plays. The funny stuff is really funny. The poignant stuff is really poignant. The current events stuff feels incredibly vital and important.
I left the show completely transformed. I wanted to write an email to every cast member thanking them. I wanted to collaborate with them on an art project. I wanted to know them in real life. I wanted to find a way to make an audience feel the way they made me feel.
Why I Am Writing from Johannesburg
I was asked to give a talk at Pixel Up! a new UX conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. And I wondered if maybe I could do a new kind of talk. Instead of a standard lecture format around 30 minutes, I wondered if I could do 10 talks at 3 minutes each. It would make each story a self contained thing. Like a song. Or a joke.
So I wrote up a “set list” where I compiled stories that seemed to be crowd favorites. I’ve talked about each of these in the past, whether written in an essay or performed as part of a larger talk. But I had never let each story stand on its own before. So I spent some time restructuring them each to have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Then I thought it might be cool to have some audience participation, like Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind in Chicago. So each time I finished a section, I planned on asking the audience to shout out the next request, leading to a totally random setlist.
This meant I needed to design the setlist as a webpages so I could click on each talk as each request came in. I went with a strikethrough like this, which helped me to not lose my place even as the talk went non-linear:
And then I had a silly idea: maybe I could have an encore. And here’s a question: if you had an encore to design, what would your style be? Crowd favorites? Rarities? New stuff? Here’s what I ended up with after working through it a few days:
For people who have read my work, this is a dream encore because it’s my most popular stuff (with a newer one thrown in). But it wasn’t just for fans. This is my best material, so I was hoping it would work either way. I spent a lot of time practicing the encore because I’d hate to have a good show followed by a blah encore.
So the big day came and I got to have a lot of fun with the new format. It helped that the audience was engaged, which always makes this sort of thing work better.
As I wound down my talk, looking at the smiling audience, I was filled with gratitude for the creative community and the power of inspiration. The talk format I had just performed was new to me, but it was deeply familiar. I was just doing my best to be as good as my heroes.
I wanted it to feel like Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind meets You Enjoy Myself meets Midnight in a Perfect World. I wanted the intensity of Kathleen Hanna, the courage of Richard Pryor, and the kindness of William van Hecke.
And this is how inspiration works, both in the creative community and outside of it. Each time you do a good job, someone is watching. Someone is thinking “hey maybe I can do that too.” This is how we make ourselves better, each of us as individuals and in larger communities.
I had a great year because the world is full of great people.
We’re using the new app Talkshow to document what’s happening at the conference. Feel free to follow along!