Interview with our founder, Max Dickins

“So, I have this concept which I call ‘Listening to Ignite’, which is, you’re listening for things that can really light up the other person. So, it’s about what your curiosity clicks into. And (so) can you ask a question that allows them a launchpad to show the best of their skill, their experience, their expertise, their background? And I think in that occasion, when you’re thinking of those questions, when you’re thinking of something you remember, not being present with that person is almost the more generous act.”

That is Max Dickins, an improv artist who helps leaders and their teams get extraordinary outcomes through the use of improvisation techniques.


Many months back, I had reviewed Max’s superb book, ‘Improvise: Use the Secrets of Improv to achieve Extraordinary Results at Work‘. I was delighted to have him on my podcast.

For the uninitiated, improv, short for ‘Improvisational theatre’ is the art of unscripted theatre. But it goes so much beyond that. It’s a whole different way of thinking. A way of thinking that has applications in almost all aspects of life – whether at work or at home.

In the book, Max shares several lessons from improv that can help you to:

  • Be more creative
  • Listen better
  • Become more mentally agile
  • Improve spontaneity
  • Enhance collaboration
  • Embrace failure and learn from it

We touch upon all of these topics in the conversation. I specifically was curious to know how Improv principles can help us listen and present better at the workplace. Max has some great ideas for us.

As always, I’m sharing some some lightly-edited extracts from the conversation – tagged under ‘the 3Ps’ – the Personal, Philosophical and the Practical (all emphasis mine):

  1. Personal:

I asked Max what is the one book that has had the most influence on him.

Max: “So, I’m going to say ‘Born Standing Up’ by Steve Martin. He’s obviously a stand up from the United States. And the reason is, in a previous life, I was a stand-up comedian in the professional comedy circuit, and I went from being someone who was always very shy in class, I was at the back, I was never at the front, (always) looking at (other) people communicating. Stand-up (comedy) taught me everything I know about writing, about communicating, about being in front of people. And that book is a brilliant memoir about not just who he is, but how he does it, and how he found his voice, and how he communicates difficult ideas. I think if you want to learn one thing to be a brilliant communicator, try and write a few jokes. Learn how to write a joke, because jokes are so precise, concise, and you have to be so clear and cut out all the fat, that it really teaches you so much. And actually, I never would have gotten into writing the books I have written, without stand-up. I would have been too terrified of that because I’m not a “creative guy”. I never would have got in front of audiences or facilitated workshops, because I’m not that sort of person. And that book, for me, is a part of my life where I found those parts of myself.”

  1. The Philosophical:
  2. Listening well– call it out if you feel you or your partner isn’t listening

Listening is 50% of communication, but it is arguably the more difficult half. Our brains think much faster than we speak and we often end up talking past each other. I was mentioning an incident to Max, when a friend and I were talking to each other and neither of us was really listening.

Ravi: “I’m just reminded of a conversation I had with a friend—He was talking about a start-up that he’s just co-founded. While I’m listening to him, my mind is racing: ‘Okay, what do I know (about this topic) that I can tell him?’ So, it’s almost like ‘Yeah, I’ve heard you. But now I want to show off what I know about this topic.’ So without letting him finish I told him about another product that I knew about in the same space. He heard me, and he too ignored what I said. He was like, “Yeah, I know there are a lot of such platforms.” And then he went on with what he had to say. Basically, we were both talking past each other. How do you (listen) in regular conversations?”

Max: “So, we are sometimes going to talk past each other. Because think about all the different things that have to go right. I’ve got to behave in a good way, (with) a good communication style; you’ve got to do the same. We’ve got to be in a context which allows that to happen, where we’ve got time and space, and we’re not interrupted and the tech doesn’t go wrong, there’s no other people in the room, who are changing what’s happening and pushing in another direction. So, communication is really hard. I think, what’s important is to not worry about being perfect and not lose the ambition to improve. But, let’s not beat ourselves up. And that’s why the mindfulness analogy I like, is we don’t always have to get it right, we come back to listening really well, when we get off it. And something else I just wanted to kind of throw in there based on the example you gave, is sometimes, when we’re talking past each other, we don’t call it out. And sometimes, I think what conversations need is for somebody to go, “Hey, I think we’re talking past each other here.” And you don’t have to do in a heavy way, (you could) be like, “I’m not sure I was clear in the point I made.” Or maybe, “I’m not sure you understood what I said,” or going “We’re not connecting here.” And if you do it with a smile, then it’s fine. And you get to reset. Often, when I’ve had terrible conversations it’s because I haven’t called out what’s going on, either with myself—and gone, “I wasn’t listening. Sorry about that.” Or gone, “Oh, sorry, mate! I just think we’re not clear on what we’re both talking about here.” So sometimes labelling it is half the battle as well.

  1. Focusing on the processto battle nerves

Ravi: “There was this famous Seinfeld joke, where he says that ‘According to most studies, the number one fear (that people have) is public speaking; number two is death. So, if you were at a funeral, you might as well be in the casket rather than giving the eulogy!’ So, I guess, a lot of it is down to practice and preparation, but can improv thinking help us to manage that fear?

Max: “So, when people think of improv, they go ‘That’s absolutely terrifying. How do you do that? You must be so nervous!’ And the answer is, well, I’m not, actually. I’m more nervous for a phone call with a client (whom) I’ve not met before, than I am going on stage to improvise a comedy show. There are a few reasons for that. One is, like you said yourself, I’ve practiced. So, there’s no getting away from it. Confidence appears in the rear-view mirror. The more we do something, the more comfortable we are. That’s one part of it. The other part is, I know my partner on stage has my back. Before shows, we literally look each other in the eyes, touch each other on the back and say “I’ve got your back.” So, there’s support there. What else is going on, is that I have a method, and my focus is not on the outcome. It’s on executing the process, it’s on the techniques. And what I’m literally doing (is) I’m not thinking about “Oh, I hope I’m funny. I hope the audience like me.” I’m thinking about “Tonight, I’m going to listen really, really well. Tonight, I’m going to call out anything that’s unclear. Tonight, when I walk on the stage, I’m going to come on with energy.” And this is mapped across to whatever we do in life. (They) talk a lot about it in in cricket, right? I’m a massive cricket fan, we’ve got the Indian test team over here at the moment. And a lot of what they’ll talk about—the coaches—it’s about going, “Don’t think about what’s going to happen if you get a nought; it’s about watching the ball. It’s about executing the skill.” And really, we get nervous about public speaking because we get lost in the outcome. We think about what the audience are thinking, we think about the consequence of this for our career. And we get away from the process. If you focus on the process all the time, it really helps you to control your nerves”

  1. The Practical
  2. Address the anti-storybefore you get to the main story

I asked Max a question about how to address audience questions in the middle of a big presentation that you are giving. Should you take them later or stop your flow and address them then and there?

Max responded that one option is to request them to wait, since the question would be answered later. But, he added another interesting point.

Max: “There is another way around this so that you stop them asking questions in the first place. This is a concept I call an ‘Anti Story’. I’ve borrowed this from some other people in the game. ‘Anti Story’ is very simple: People enter the room with a set of objections in their head, or a set of questions they want answered. And often, until you answer it, or until you address the objection, they can’t listen. They sit there getting very angsty, and going “Oh, I really want to say this.” or, “Oh, I don’t want to listen to this, this is irrelevant.” I often have that when I run improv workshops with corporates. Half the room are going to be up for it, half the room are going to be thinking, “Why on Earth are we wasting time doing this?” And if I don’t address that question in the first minute and a half, they aren’t going to get involved. And I think it’s the same in the presentation”.

  1. Explaining ideas so that even your mom can understand

Max: “So, I often do an exercise, called “jargon-busting”, where I get people to explain to somebody what they do for a living, using as many of these jargon terms from their world as possible. And then I say to them, “Right, get rid of that. I want you to tell them, ‘Now imagine they’re my mum.’ Right? ‘And my mum’s not stupid, but she’s 60. She doesn’t know a lot about tech. Tell my mum what you do.’” And obviously, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, having to explain it to my mum. But what this gets at, is the answer of ‘Why should I care?’ Not just what you literally do, but what outcome and what value do you provide in what you do? But also, it makes it clearer by getting rid of that language.”

And those were some highlights from the conversation with Max Dickins, Improv expert and a very thoughtful storyteller.

Max Dickins is author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work which is out now. He is co-director of improvisation training company Hoopla! Hoopla run improv classesshows and corporate training.


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