Isn’t it funny how people come into one’s life and stay? I met Bob Korin when we both were much younger and lived in our first apartments in the same building in D.C. Because he was in hotel sales and I in meeting planning, we connected.

We became friends and spent lots of time together, especially one memorable Christmas when his girlfriend [who became his wife] and the person I was dating [who did not become my husband but is still a good friend!] were out of town. There was a meal in a dive and a bug. That’s the best I can tell you!

We’ve remained friends all these years and though we’ve never negotiated a contract together, I think it would be pure pleasure.

Izzy Gesell and I met when I took his improv class at an International Association of Facilitators conference many years ago. His style, his way of bringing people together, his warmth and his inclusion of all people, plus his remarkable teaching skills, helped me overcome the initial discomfort with improvisation as a business tool.

[You’ve experienced the “3 things in common, 1 uniqueness” icebreaker, no doubt, if you’ve been a session I’ve facilitated—and I can thank Izzy!].

To Bob and Izzy, I am grateful for years of friendship and learning and for you both agreeing to be interviewed for this December 2017 Friday With Joan Q&A. Their responses are theirs alone and may or may not reflect the views of Meetings Today or its owner and publisher (Stamats Meetings Media).

Q1. Who are Izzy Gesell and Bob Korin and what do they know about improvisation and negotiations?

Izzy Gesell, MS. Ed- Special Education, and a CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) from the National Speakers Association (NSA), studied comedy and comedy writing at The New School in New York City (NYC) before he began pursuing standup comedy in the early ’80s. From 1976 through 1981, Izzy taught special education during the day at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, where he was a special education teacher (In our interview, I learned that every NYC hospital has an NYC Board of Education school as part of the hospital).

He then was an adjunct professor at Hunter College in the Graduate School of Education and at night would go to open mics and other places to perform. Izzy left special education teaching in the mid-’80s and moved to Northampton, Mass., to pursue comedy as well as other pursuits to make money.

There he owned a restaurant, sold greeting cards and booked a comedy club.

In the early ’90s, Izzy taught comedy writing and performing at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he met business people who didn’t want to be comedians but did want to learn about humor [author’s emphasis]. Izzy’s teaching focus went from “how do I create humor and send it out to an audience?” to “how do I attract humor to myself and improve the quality of my life?” [Author's emphasis].

Izzy began this new and continued direction when asked by his business students to speak at sales meetings, retreats, conferences, etc., and he was thus introduced to professional speaking and became a motivational humorist, which became his focus because it combines the two things he really enjoys: teaching and performing. “I began my professional career as a special ed teacher in NYC and always felt a drive to find my 'creative outlet,'" Izzy told me during our interview session for the December Friday With Joan newsletter.

The best way to reach Izzy is through his website or LinkedIn page.

Bob Korin, who has a BS in Communications and Business, was and is in hotel sales. Prior to his current position as director of sales Northeast with Teneo Hospitality, he represented Hiltons of Hawaii, where he twice proudly earned the company’s elite sales performance Circle of Excellence Award. For more than 20 years before that, Bob was in national sales and global account management positions with Marriott.

As a career sales professional one thing he learned early on was to take the time to listen and understand what is most important to your customers, be responsive, deliver on your promises and provide solutions or alternative recommendations to meet or exceed the needs of each client [author’s emphasis]. “If you don’t have a solution that makes sense then say so and try to find other options, including competitors.”

[Or, says your author, as we approach the Christmas movie season with thoughts of Miracle on 34th Street on some minds, the idea of sending someone to another company may be the answer if you can’t produce what is needed. I wonder if Bob, though younger than your interviewer, was influenced!]

Bob’s been recognized by customers, colleagues and managers over many years as a trusted customer relationship builder with a level-headed, diplomatic, low-key style and a very dry sense of humor [that has a seven-second delay, he says]. Most customers say Bob doesn’t fit the classic aggressive salesperson definition. His hallmark is being patient and persistent to earn the business over the long term, much preferring to be a creative problem-solver and anticipator of needs rather than a text book “go-getter.”

Bob says, “I am and always have been passionate about education and training. To ensure our industry does better education, I sit on the Board for the SITE NE chapter as VP of Education.” With Marriott, Bob was part of the Sales School faculty, teaching Value Engagement and other sales skill programs.

Throughout his career he was told [author: and I strongly concur!] that he was funny and was often asked to emcee meetings and to help create entertaining ways to engage audiences.

“I loved making people laugh and was always comfortable on stage. Even though every one of those business psych profiles like Myers Briggs or Emergenetics would suggest I am an introvert, I consider myself an extroverted introvert. It was a suggestion and gift from my younger sister to take a standup comedy class in NY. For my first mid-life crisis at age 50 I did just that, which then got me started doing regular gigs, open mics and any stage time I could get at the Broadway Comedy Club in New York.”

The best way to reach Bob is via his email or LinkedIn page.

Bob and Izzy met when Bob attended one of Izzy’s workshops at PCMA on “improv as a leadership, communication and teaming skill enhancer.” They talked after the session, during which Bob indicated an interest in learning more about improv for associations and corporations, wanting to expand his improv theater training into his professional life. Izzy wanted to learn more about how to position improv as a tool for sales and other hospitality units. Together, they decided to design a program and now offer it to hospitality sales and marketing groups as well as to association and corporate planners and others who want to improve their communications and negotiation skills—all through the power of improv.

Q2. What first drew you to improvisation and why?

Izzy: I became aware of improv when I was in New York studying comedy, though I did not take classes there. In Massachusetts, I knew that improv was something I needed/wanted if I was going to expand my comedy/humor skill set. Comedians need to think on their feet, engage an audience “off-script” and take measured risks. Once I took improv classes and joined a group, I saw how useful it was for everyone.

Bob: It was several years later that my friend Joan [this Joan!] connected me with Izzy Gesell doing his improv workshop for PCMA at the Annual Meeting in Dallas. I was immediately taken in by the “Improv bug” and for my second midlife crisis [see Bob’s introduction for his first midlife crisis!] started taking classes to learn the craft.

As a result of that encounter with Izzy, we quickly recognized there was a direct correlation of applying improv techniques to sales and negotiating skills, and so our collaboration was born. We did a pilot with all of the sales and meeting planner friends I could convince to come and play improv games with us and turned that into our Improv Work Shop for Meeting Professionals. We quickly realized that the skills of improvisers are transferable to any profession [author’s emphasis], which led to delivering variations of this program to many industry groups, including PCMA, SITE, MPI chapter events, corporate and association groups like GE and IEEE, and Hilton.

I take advantage of every opportunity to participate in this unscripted, spontaneously co-created and often hysterically funny art form. I have taken many workshops with master teachers and one day hope to form my own local improv troupe here in Connecticut. The skills and techniques used in this craft are incredibly effective in business and improving your ability to think on your feet.

Q3. Bob: You’ve been on the sales side of hospitality for a long time and probably negotiated thousands of contracts. In what ways did how you work change as you learned more about improv and its applications?

Bob: Improv is really about listening. [In improv exercises,] Listening to your scene partner and building on what they are saying, being present and accepting their reality in an authentic, natural way is exactly what a very good salesperson does or should do. Improv helped me enhance the skills I knew intuitively and elevated the communication to a level that went from very good to exceptional.

As an example, one of the key tenets of improv is the concept of Yes, And. Consider a conversation where you respond with “Yes, And” vs “Yes, But”; the latter completely invalidates what was said. Thinking “Yes, And” allows you to build and heighten the conversation and continue in a more positive direction.

Case in point: I use this often in negotiations where the contract terms, concessions, etc., may be considered by the hotel to be, let’s say, unbalanced. By using a “Yes, And” approach you accept the information, where as a ’Yes But’ response is basically saying “you're nuts for asking for that, I am right and you’re not.”

Using “Yes, And” builds trust and the relationship grows.

Here's how to develop the skill:

Step 1: Notice how often "Yes, But" is used in conversations with others.

Step 2: Notice your gut reaction when "Yes, But" is used by others in a conversation that is emotionally charged for you or one in which you have a great stake, such as in a negotiation.

Step 3: Practice making "Yes, And" your default conversation response mode. Here's how: "Yes,” (paraphrase what the other person says), "And" (add your reply).

Step 4: Experience what one workshop participant described after attending an "applied improv" session. “When you're meeting things habitually with 'yes, and' ...you transform the way people perceive you..."

Q4. Izzy, your work with so many kinds of groups, including with those in the hospitality industry, has no doubt given you insights into what we do and how we do it. What sorts of groups have you worked with?

Izzy: The kind of groups with whom I’ve worked include:

  1. Hospitality/meetings: Hilton, MPI, PCMA.
  2. Associations: Project Management Professional Association; Association of Legal Administrators; Precision Machined Products Association; American Cancer Society; ASAE; Emergency Nurses Association; The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM).
  3. Government: NASA, FDIC, IRS, Food Marketing Institute.
  4. Human services, healthcare and education groups.
  5. Corporate: Hilton, Pepsi, Merck.

Joan: What changes have you seen in the following areas and ways in which improvisation is used? [Editor's Note: Joan's questions are listed in bold followed by Izzy's responses as bullet point items].

How does improvisation improve daily interactions?

  • Keeps you focused on the present moment, allowing you to act on what you can control and let go of what you cannot control.
  • Able to accept others’ point of view without seeing it as contentious or threatening.
  • Able to pivot after unexpected outcomes or events.

How can improv benefit staff meetings?

  • Start meetings with a game or activity that has been done before as a way of “grounding” everyone, helping all to be present and starting with camaraderie and fun.

[Note from Joan: Refer to the November Friday With Joan newsletter for more on two activities—“three things in common” that I learned from Izzy; and the activity Dr. Vivek Murthy lead with his government staff].

  • Issues that come up in meetings—talking over each other, distractibility, judgment (as in “Yes, but…”), not everyone participating—can be discussed during improv activities as a way of addressing real issues in a safer environment.

More from Izzy: The games have no real world consequences yet the behavior is real world. I believe the way people play is the way they are in real-world situations that have similar emotional content. [Author’s emphasis.] If you are competitive in daily life you will be competitive during the improv games … even when it serves no purpose. Becoming aware of that in the game is less threatening—and more discuss-able—than in a meeting.

How can improv be used in negotiations for raises? Negotiations for meetings?

  • All negotiation has at its roots in a “Yes, And” philosophy. It’s not your outcome nor my outcome. Rather, the parties desire an outcome that we co-created.
  • When using the improv meme of “make your partner look good,” negotiation energy is tilted toward a win-win negotiation.

How does improv help with personal interactions?

  • Disagree without becoming disagreeable through “Yes, And."
  • Develop a curiosity about intention as opposed to an assumption.
  • Gain respect for the process of interaction instead of a focus on the outcome.

Q5: What’s the best advice you can give to readers who a.) still believe improvisation is only for comedy, and b.) are terrified of getting up in front of groups or even nervous about one-on-one interactions?

Izzy: The premise of studying improv for non-theatrical reasons is that the skills that make improvisers successful are translatable skills to the world we live in: thinking on your feet, solving problems, being able to pivot, co-creation of solution. Comedy/humor/laughter is a RESULT of the process, not the GOAL. The humor comes from the unexpected, surprise elements of the situation. It also comes from being able to see multiple points of view on a topic, which is a result of improv practice (the ability to see multiple points of view).

The things we are afraid of generally do not happen.

Fear of public speaking is generally rooted in a desire to be perfect or to be rated highly by everyone, or as a “imposter” feeling. The reality is that people don’t expect you be perfect and that the speaker is usually admired because so many in the audience relate to being afraid to be up there. That empathy allows for human error. Improv builds self-confidence [as you grow] comfortable in the process and knowledge of the goal but without the need to have everything go perfectly. Expecting the unexpected is a key result of improv training.

Improv also highlights the difference between “safety zone“ and “comfort zone,” which may folks conflate. People don’t want to get up in front because they are “uncomfortable” yet they describe it as being “unsafe.” The two concepts are different, as folks who like roller coasters or scary movies can attest. They go on roller coasters or to scary movies precisely to FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE yet they are SAFE ENOUGH to put them on that edge. Improv training allows for discomfort within a feeling of safety from self, teammates or facilitator.

Bob: Improv is a performance art where everything is made up right then and there, unscripted, unrehearsed. The actors on Whose Line is it Anyway? make it look so easy, and for them it is because they have years of perfecting their craft, but behind it they are using the same basic techniques that can be learned by anyone willing to have some fun and just be willing to be themselves in a new and very satisfying way [author’s emphasis.]

I have taken improv classes with all kinds of people (older folks, teens, actors, accountants, funny people, people who think they are funny, super shy people and every personality imaginable). The universal truth is that improv builds confidence [author’s emphasis], allows you to step out of your comfort zone and establish a new, out of the box thinking process that makes you feel, well, happy.

Q6. I’ve written in Friday With Joan about inclusiveness, especially for people with disabilities (PWDs)... Tell me how you each or both of you work with groups and participants who have mobility or hearing or sight or speaking or comprehension needs when you are doing improv training, OR how you WOULD include them.

Izzy: In pre-work, there is discovery of any issues that need to be addressed. Improv is very flexible in that (just about) any rule can be adapted. When possible, communicate with those who need adaptation beforehand and plan together what games would work.

For comprehension, I’ve used translators who interpret what I say to the audience of non-English speakers, and whisperers (who tell me what the audience is saying). This was necessary in China, as was changing the game “1 Word at a Time” to “1 Paragraph at a Time” to fit cultural communications.

Also, using gibberish is useful when there are many levels of comprehension. Gibberish [a great improv exercise] is great for giving folks the experience of what it’s like to be on “the outside” and “what it’s like to be the dominant force yet unable to make yourself understood.”

For participants who are deaf or hard of hearing, I might develop usual games with new instructions, such as “no words allowed” or “we will communicate without sound.” Of course just as we’d use translators for other languages, we would use interpreters for groups in which there are people who are deaf or hard of hearing [The Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf is an excellent resource for finding interpreters].

As much as possible, incorporate the need into the offer. If there were a blind person in the session, make a game where whoever plays has to be sightless, even if it’s one of the sighted players. Because improv is all about a restriction of some kind—it’s very useful like that … putting oneself in another’s place.

Bob: Interesting question, indeed. I haven’t yet had direct experience with this. I believe the games and exercises used in improv can absolutely be adapted to any person with hearing, sight or speaking disabilities. I can think of one game called “The Bat” where the house lights are turned off until the room is dark. [The author reminds everyone that “exit” signs should still be visible for safety.] The scene is created completely based on words, sounds and verbal exchanges without the benefit of visual and non-verbal questions and gestures.

The result heightens your ability to listen and respond and it can be incredibly funny, too. another technique is the use of space work, kind of like charades, where non-verbal communication is the key to establishing what the person is doing and where they are. I have performed in a class environment with a high school student who had Asperger’s syndrome, and while he expressed some things in his own unique way, he was quite capable of understanding the concepts and delivered many great scenes with us.

Q7. If I’ve not asked something that you think is critical to this conversation, please add.

Izzy: Improv is a goal-directed, mission-driven team process where each participant is, at various times, both leader and follower.

For reference, and to use as tools to help your company or organization get on board with improvisation, Izzy offered the following articles:

3 Ways Improv Can Improve Your Career, from Fast Company

What Improv Can Teach Your Team About Creativity and Collaboration, from Fast Company

Alan Alda Makes the Case That Improv and Empathy Can Help Us Hear Each Other, Journal Sentinel

[Click here to view additional content in the 12.01.17 Friday With Joan newsletter].​