SIMAGES 2016.2 – Whether or Not to Wing It

Whether or Not to Wing It

By Brian Remer


Whatever preferences people have about the current race for President in the US, most everyone would agree that the styles of the two major party candidates are completely different.  Hillary Clinton is a detail person accused of delivering a wonkish, scripted message.  Donald Trump shares his broad-brush ideas spontaneously but is accused of being disrespectful.

Which candidate the public prefers will be decided at the election.  But the two politicians raise a question relevant for leaders, learners, trainers, and game designers:  Is it better to stay on message or to improvise?

Clinton and Trump demonstrate the horns of this dilemma:  Stick to the script to share the facts and you might look like a robot; Say whatever pops into your head and be yourself but risk appearing uninformed.

Trainers and game designers also straddle these horns:  Stick to a lecture with slides and you might miss opportunities for discovery and surprise; Wing it and enjoy the spontaneous learning but risk delivering an unfocused message.

Surprisingly, improvisational theater offers strategies to bridge these extremes.  Though you might think improv would be all about being spontaneous, actors practice specific techniques to insure they can collaborate on stage.

In her book, Training to Imagine, Kat Koppett describes the philosophy that drives improv.  These concepts are further detailed through a series of games and activities designed to help people strengthen their skills of improvisation.

Koppett focuses on several key concepts central to successful improvisation.

  • Trust
  • Spontaneity
  • Accepting offers
  • Listening and awareness
  • Storytelling
  • Non-verbal communication

Koppet’s activity descriptions make it clear that these concepts set a boundary, a safe zone, to contain the players and their actions.  There is a script but it is more like a code of behavior or a social contract that all the actors agree to follow.  Within that safety zone individual actors have freedom to inject new ideas, to be a follower, to add to what others do, and make their personal contribution.

Applying improv concepts to the training environment can be liberating for both facilitators and learners.  Trainers and game designers can listen to participants, accept their offers to share in the learning, and build upon spontaneous insights.  Learners then experience the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of taking ownership of their education.

In another book, Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson points out that too much planning prevents one from paying attention to what’s happening right here, right now.  Ignoring the present means missing opportunities for a surprising turn; a new direction that may be just the solution for the present.

But both Madson and Koppett agree that it’s not enough to be only spontaneous.  You’ve got to embrace all the concepts of improve to play safely within the boundary.  Choosing just one element of improv and ignoring the rest is the quickest way to go “off script.”

Whether or not one should wing it is still a tough question.  To improve your comfort level with this dilemma, plan to attend NASAGA’s conference this year in Bloomington, Indiana.  There you can meet Kat Koppett who will give you a chance to exercise your improv muscles during her keynote presentation.


For more information and to prepare for the NASAGA conference, check out the following resources:

Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin and Sue Walden, Working with Groups to Enhance Relationships, Whole Person Associates, Duluth, MN, © 1998, ISBN 1-57025-169-X

Denning, Stephen, The Secret Language of Leadership, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco © 2007, ISBN 978-0-7879-8789-3

The Headlands Press, Inc., The New Games Book, San Francisco, © 1974, ISBN 0-385-12516-X

Koppett, Kat, Training to Imagine, Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA, © 2001, ISBN 1-57922-033-9

Madson, Patricia, Improv Wisdom, Random House, New York, © 2005, ISBN 1-4000-8188-2

Parkin, Margaret, Tales for Trainers, Kogan Page Ltd., London, © 1998, ISBN 0 7494 2510 5

Spolin, Viola, Theater Games for the Classroom, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, © 1986, ISBN 0-8101-4004-7

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