Going beyond “Hello”: Dan Klein at TEDxStanford (Full Transcript)

You are all improvisors but none of you woke up this morning and found someone sitting there waiting to hand you your script for the day; you’re making it up as you go. But if you’re like everyone else, you probably take great pains to make sure that nobody can tell you’re making it up. You plan ahead, you rehearse, you worry about the future, you dwell on the past. You shoot down people’s new ideas. You even censor your own ideas, sometimes before you even realize they’re there.

So in the next five minutes, I’m going to give you a crash course in how to recover, how to reclaim that improviser spirit, that best part of yourself, where you can be creative, where you are exposed and open to good fortune and where you tap into that raw, animal magnetism that comes from being alive and in the moment. Now for those of you here in the audience, we’re going to do a couple of exercises sitting right in your chairs, no pressure. You won’t have to get up and perform. For those of you who are watching on the live webcast, you’re probably my parents in Santa Barbara. Hi guys! And for those of you who are watching my hologram at Coachella 2099… Check this out — Laser fingers. So… That is going-to-will-have been awesome.

All right. There’s one central, core tenet of the improvisational mindset and that is: Accept all offers. Keith Johnstone is the author who wrote –and I’m paraphrasing him– “People who accept offers are rewarded by the adventures they go on. And people who reject or block offers are rewarded by the safety they attain.” I’m going to give you three ways that you can accept offers and go on some adventures.

The first one, it’s the easiest to start with; it’s what we always start with in the classroom or on stage when we practice, and that is, accepting your partner’s offers. So, here’s the idea: Whatever your partner says or does, you say ‘Yes,’ and you add to it. Now, you’re going to need a partner. Right now, find the person next to you and I want you to lean in to them conspiratorially. If you have a partner and it looks like there’s someone right near you who doesn’t have a partner, invite them to join your pair so you’re either in a pair or in a triad. Everyone has a partner.

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What you are going to do right now is, as a team, you are going to create the world’s worst run-on sentence. But you are going to do it one word at a time, back and forth. One of you is going to say the first word, and it can be anything; it can be ‘the,’ it can be ‘if,’ it can be ‘yesterday,’ whatever the word is, and the other person will simply say the next word.

Now here’s the improv mindset: you personally, your skill at this game is average. You’re fine. You’re nothing special, but you’re fine. But your partner is a word-at-a-time genius. Assume that every word they say is the perfect set-up and all you have to do is follow along. You have 20 seconds to create this sentence and at the end of 20 seconds I will raise my hand and when you see me raise my hand, stop talking and raise your hand and when you see other people raising their hand, go ahead and stop talking and raise your hand. Twenty seconds starts…now! (Talking) All right, good. Stop right there. Excellent! I was worried this would happen. Raise your hand and close your mouth. Thank you.

So, now you are all experts at accepting other people’s offers. Time to do some of the advanced work. The next layer of this is learning how to accept your own offers. Now, it’s the same idea. It takes the same level of generosity and openness. Imagine that you have a box sitting on your lap. Look down and see what that box looks like. Whatever your brain gave you, accept it. Take your hands and feel the sides of the box. It may be small, it may be large but it is specific. Notice it and respect it, don’t change it. Notice what your box is made out of. What color is it? Is it wrapped? Does it have a lid? Now, here’s the amazing thing: There’s something in your box. There’s something in every box, so look inside and see what your brain gives you. Accept whatever offer that is. If you look in and you don’t see something, that’s OK. You might not be very visual right now. Reach your hand in and feel it. Pull it out. Pull something out. Accept whatever it is that your brain gives you.

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The creative act is really bizarre. Be obvious. Truly inspired artists are just being obvious, and then noticing and describing what they find. So that’s what you have.

Now, the third thing, the third level of accepting offers is pretty profound. Here’s the idea: You have to accept the offers that the world gives you. Everything is an offer. It’s not just what your partner says, although that’s a great place to start. And it’s not just what your own mind gives you, although we need that as well, to be spontaneous and alive. But the world is giving you offers at all times. Everything is an offer, even and especially the mistakes.

When we make mistakes we have a natural reaction, which is to wince and close off and hide and escape or defend or correct or blame, or in some way, change the mistake. If we’re really evolved, maybe we ask the question: “What can we learn from this mistake?” Improvisors have a very different approach: When we find a mistake, we realize that’s an offer from the world and we accept it. We say: “Yes, and…” and see where it takes us. I’m going to give you an assignment during lunch.

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