Work's Not Working... Let's Fix It!

How to Use Humour and Improv to Communicate in a VUCA World: Neil Mullarkey

September 05, 2023 Season 1 Episode 8
Work's Not Working... Let's Fix It!
How to Use Humour and Improv to Communicate in a VUCA World: Neil Mullarkey
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode of Work's Not Working... Let's Fix It, Siân Harrington chats to celebrated comedian and communications expert Neil Mullarkey about the why we need to improve communication in the workplace and the potential of improvisation as a tool for doing so.

Neil recounts his journey from teaming up with Mike Myers in the 1980s and co-founding the Comedy Store Players to exploring how improvisation can enhance workplace collaboration. Delving into the business realm, he emphasizes how crucial 'soft skills' like listening and adaptability have become, especially with research highlighting the lack of communication skills in modern work environments. In fact, poor communication has been estimated to cost businesses dearly in terms of productivity.

Key takeaways:

  • Modern communication platforms (eg emails, WhatsApp, Teams) have increased, leading to confusion and overwhelm
  • Pandemic lockdown revealed an abundance of formal communication but a lack of informal communication, affecting rapport-building
  • The importance of oracy: the ability to express oneself fluently in speech.
  • Key improv skills: the philosophy of 'Yes, and,' where one listens, accepts and then adds to the conversation.
  • From LAGER to LASER: tools to approach improvisation
  • Tips for improving virtual collaboration
  • In a fast-changing world, predictability is a myth; leaders should be prepared for uncertainty
  • How to bridge the gap between structured strategy and spontaneous adaptability 
  • How leaders can develop an 'In the Moment' mindset 
  • Humour's role in work today
  • Siân and Neil do some live improv!

If you want to cultivate environments where effective communication fosters productivity, creativity and confidence  - or you want to build these skills - then this episode is for you.

About Neil Mullarkey

Neil is a communication expert based in London, UK. He has delivered hundreds of keynotes and workshops to various organizations across the world in 25 countries and counting including Microsoft, KPMG, WPP, Saatchi & Saatchi, Vodafone, EY, Google, Deloitte and GSK. He is a guest speaker at London Business School, London Business Forum and Bayes Business School.

He is also a prominent comedian. He performs weekly with the Comedy Store Players, Europe’s top improv troupe which he co-founded in 1985 and often appears on TV and radio shows such as QI and The Pentaverate.  He has also appeared in two Austin Powers movies. He is author of In the Moment: Build your confidence, communication and creativity at work published by Kogan Page.

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Neil Mullarkey [00:00:00]

Neil Mullarkey. It's my real name. People think it's a made-up name because I started out doing alternative comedy in the 80s when people had zany names, but it's my real name. 

I studied at Cambridge. I did economics and social science, and then I was doing a show with the Cambridge Footlights, the review group, at a small theatre in Notting Hill. There was a guy selling tickets for us. He'd heard of Monty Python and the Cambridge Footlights connection, and I chatted to him. It was very funny, and his name's Mike Myers and he'd come from Canada touring, doing improv with Second City Theatre Company. He talked about it. We did a double act. We started the Comedy Store Players. I'm telescoping a lot of facts here, at the improv group, the Comedy Store Players, which still performs on Sundays. 

And then 24 years ago I said, I wonder if those skills of improv theatre, working with people, collaborating creatively in the moment, could be applied to people in real jobs – and it's turned out to be so. People love it and have told me all the applications they have of that type of work that helps them in leadership, creativity, teamwork. 

Siân Harrington

Hey, everyone. Welcome to Work's Not Working, a show about forward-thinking people leaders, innovators, and academics, and how they think we can fix work to make it more meaningful, healthy, inclusive, and sustainable. Brought to you by The People Space

I'm Siân Harrington, and on the show today, Neil Mullarkey on why we need to improve communication at work, and how improvisation is one of the tools we can use. 

So why is communication important? Well, a state of business communication report in 2023 finds 72% of business leaders believe effective communication has increased their team's productivity. 60% agree that effective communication increases employee confidence. Meanwhile, McKinsey Institute says employees who feel included in more detailed workplace communication are almost five times more likely to report increased productivity. So I think we can agree that good communication is a backbone to success in the workplace. 

And yet it seems hardly a week passes when I don't read somewhere that communication skills are lacking in today's workplace. At exactly the time, we appear to be spending more and more of our working week on communication, be it through email, Slack, text, virtual channels, or face-to-face. 

According to a Grammarly-sponsored report in 2022, nearly three in four business leaders say their teams struggle with communicating every day. They estimate that teams lost the equivalent of nearly an entire workday each week due to poor communication issues. With more organisations working in a hybrid or remote way, good communication has never been more important. 

So I'm delighted to be chatting to Neil about this today. Later on, we'll discover why improv is the perfect leadership skill for today's volatile world, and how to develop an in-the-moment mindset. We'll learn why LAGER isn't just a drink, but an acronym for how to approach improvisation, and why it's now been replaced by LASER. And I stupidly agree to do some live improv. Well, it's good to step out of your comfort zone, isn't it? 

But first, let me tell you a bit more about Neil. As we heard at the start of this podcast, he teamed up with actor Mike Myers in the mid-1980s, performing sketches based on their shared love of cartoons, B-movies, and bad TV. They played around the London pub circuit where, at one pub, they often shared the bill with a young Hugh Grant. As they got more popular, Mullarkey and Myers toured the UK, ending in a sold-out session at the Edinburgh Festival. Neil went on to become a favourite on the comedy circuit, co-founding the Comedy Store Players, and appearing on many well-loved radio and TV improv and panel shows. Perhaps most infamously, he teamed up again with Mike Myers for an appearance in the film Austin Powers – International Man of Mystery, where he plays the customs officer who gives Austin danger powers back his personal effects, including what I will only refer to as a Swedish enlarger. If you want to know more, check it out on YouTube. 

Apart from acting, Neil delivers workshops and keynote speeches at business schools, and has worked with corporate clients in 24 countries. In 2023, he released a book, In the Moment – Build Your Confidence, Communication and Creativity at Work, which Mike Myers describes as a creative masterclass for every moment, and which Columbia Business School Faculty Director Steve Martin says is a book that demands to be kept within an arm's reach if you want to have a future in work. So how do you stay in the moment and build your communication skills? And what role does improvisation play? Well, who better to ask then than this master of communication, Neil Mullarkey? 

 Siân Harrington [00:05:18]

So let's just dive right in. Why do you think that communication, and also I'm throwing in the other two Cs, creativity and collaboration, why do you think the need for that is more important than ever? 

Neil Mullarkey [00:05:31]

All the research I've read, there's billions of pounds, dollars wasted every year because of bad communication, which often means not having good meetings, not having well represented thoughts. And so that's why I like that people talk about oracy, because the thing that's holding people back quite often is not being able to speak up in a meeting, not being very good at an interview. Are we giving these young people the confidence to go into the world of work, to knuckle down, get on with the analysed stuff, and then to be able to talk about it? And then to be able to talk about it, because I hear from senior people saying, I want my junior people to talk to me, because they know stuff I don't. I want them to have their out-of-the box ideas. But younger people are saying, well, I know nothing, how can I speak up? Well, actually, you know, quite a lot. 

And I talked to a lawyer the other day, and she said, after 15 years being a lawyer, I've realized now, it's not the quality of the opinion I give, the quality of relationship matters more. Now, you can't teach that, or can you? I believe you might be able to. And that's where improv comes in – the idea of listening, accepting that somebody has a different point of view, or working with what they have said, to move things forward. That seems pretty obvious to me. Most people are possibly doing that already without knowing it's the improv mindset. So definitely, these so called soft skills are not soft at all in terms of hard business outcomes when they go wrong. 

Siân Harrington [00:07:02]

Yeah. So just in case people don't really know what we mean by improv, you've touched upon what it delivers there. But what if you had to just define it very quickly? How would you define improv? 

Neil Mullarkey [00:07:14]

Yes, well, I say improv, some people call it impro. The word improvisation – we all know roughly what that means. But I talk about a specific kind of theatre with its own rules and protocols and history, been around for 100 years actually started with a social worker helping children. And her son said, let's make a form of theatre, where the audience gives suggestions, and then the actors use those suggestions immediately to create theatre. And I'm one of the Comedy Store Players, we do something a bit like Who's Line is it Anyway, all over the world, there are other groups who are doing what's called shorter form little sketches, others be they do a whole show, Jane Austen type thing, a Shakespeare, a criminal courts case, and the audience gives suggestions for, for that story, or for those moments, or for those scenes, those sketches. And it's quite bizarre, if you've never seen improv, how can they do that? I certainly had never seen one before I was in one. And I didn't believe it. The audience gives suggestions. And for two hours, the actors create a theatrical show. How does that work? But I know it works. 

Siân Harrington [00:08:20]

I love improv myself. I think it's brilliant. I loved Who's Line is it Anyway. I don't know how you do it myself. 

Neil Mullarkey [00:08:26]

Well, actually, Siân, I've had podcasts, so say that, and we've done it. All we do, Siân, is listen. And actually, you're listening to me, aren't you? Yeah, you've thought about what you might ask me. But also, there are some things you might follow up and say you're listening. And in fact, I dare say you're listening when not to speak. And you're listening when I've waffled on too much. That's the main skill, you'd be surprised of listening, listening and using what the other person gave you. And I found anyone can do it. 

Siân Harrington [00:08:55]

Yeah, I guess in my job, we do need to listen. So that is something that is core. So is all sounds great. I speak to directors and CEOs often, I can imagine them saying, I like the sound of it. But how does this actually work? What does this mean in reality? How do we do this in our business? Could you give me some practical models or ways that people can take this concept of improv and use it in a business sense? 

Neil Mullarkey [00:09:21]

Yeah, people think it's all about being crazy and funny and not having any plans. It's actually making the most of the conversations you have. The very simple notion, we in improv say what she says, what he gives me, treat it as an offer, a gift. So when I say, good morning, John, how can I use that as an offer? I've said it's a morning, you call me John, whatever. When I say, I'm worried about budgets, you might say, forget that I want to talk about marketing. Okay. And it might be that what you are saying about budgets is you're worried about how it might buy this or has it been allocated wrongly. So I want to listen to what you said. And where very often it's about different teams. So compliance think they might have a different agenda from sales. The legal department and IT and marketing, they probably think they have a different agenda. And ultimately the improv thing says, yes, and. Yes, let me hear what you say, and can I use that in the way I respond? 

Yes, and is our ethos. And that's very, very broadly applicable in every conversation. First, in terms of just having a chat with somebody at the coffee station or networking, just think what she said, let me use that and bounce it back. Rather than think, I've got to say something powerful. I've got to thrust my business card in their face. So there's a conversational thing is treat everything somebody says as a gift, a little gift, and then you throw it back. You riff back with a little bit more added or another question, but using what they gave you. And then in the broader sense, leaders and people have to think about strategy. Are they listening to the customer? What's being said in the market? How are things changing? Customer behaviour, technology, regulation, what are your rivals doing? Trying to eat your lunch. So that broader sense of listening to the external data is really quite helpful to people when I'm talking about the idea of leadership mindset, which is listening broader. So there's the day-to-day conversation, interpersonal, and then there's a sense of what's happening. Let's use that rather than go, oh, I had a plan and things have changed. I'm going to stick to the plan come what may. 

Siân Harrington [00:11:44]

One thing I'm sure you like, and we all like if we go to comedy, is lager. But you've come up with this great different definition of LAGER. And you've got your new book In the Moment, which we'll talk a little bit more about in a minute, but tell me a bit about LAGER and how LAGER becomes LASER. 

Neil Mullarkey [00:12:05]

When I started, I thought I'd better have an acronym or whatever. And so I thought long and hard. Listen, Accept - accept what the other person says. Now you may not agree, but accept that's where they are. Then give an offer based on what they said. Now you might be Giving it, sending it back to where you want. So L-A-G, give an offer based on what you heard. Explore assumptions. Hang on a minute. I was thinking she was saying that. She was thinking I was saying this. Explore assumptions. We all come to any situation with a lot of unconscious assumptions. And then the R to make lager is reincorporate. I used to say recycle, which is what she said a few minutes ago or what he mentioned last year. Can I throw that back in just as a kind of, oh yeah, that's nice. He's remembered that. Oh yeah, that's good. Yeah. That could work as a creative input. Oh, the previous idea or an earlier offer in the meeting or whatever. So that makes LAGER. And then I used to give out a handout. 

Then a man called Steve Chapman, who's done a lot of improv and I met at Ashridge Business School. He said, lager, put it on a beer mat. That's a good idea. But then during lockdown, I didn't have a beer mat. I couldn't give it. So I said, I'll make it LASER. Also, I don't know, actually, not everyone drinks as much as they used to. I don't know if they want LAGER. So I thought LASER. So you Listen, you Accept the other person's offer, then Send back an offer to them, send it back, gift wrap with another idea sort of attached that's building on theirs. And then E for explore. R for recycle something they said earlier. LASER. 

And then, Sian, I went a bit crazy because I studied physics at A level and light can be photons, little particles, and sometimes it can be waves like sound or ripples on a pond. And light, it depends how you look at it, what you decide what it is. And the same with human beings. We can be little particles, individuals, but also we can be waves. We can be a part of a team. And improv to me is the perfect example of being both a team player, but not suppressing your individuality. It's actually a way of bringing out the best of individuals whilst also making them feel part of a team. And I think we all want to be both, don't we? 

Siân Harrington [00:14:30]

Well, I've written about business for over 30 years. And if there's one thing that practically every leader or manager leader has said to me over that time, it is that communication is the number one issue they have, particularly with management. Poor managers are constantly being told they're not communicating well. Do you think we're getting any worse at it? And why? Or do you just think this has always been an issue? 

Neil Mullarkey [00:14:42]

I think it is. First of all, we don't know what communication means. Is it an email that somebody doesn't read? We now have many ways of communicating phones, WhatsApp messages, text, Teams calls, different channels, chat, the chat in the video call. And we don't quite know how to use them. And a lot of people said to me, they're kind of overwhelmed with them all. So use one well, whether it's Yammer or whatever intranet you have. 

And during the lockdown, people said there was lots of formal communication, but not informal. So find out when do we have the chats, and that's communication. The chats, that means we create rapport. But also, again, for my book, I did find that although you might think, oh, no, not another edict. A regular communication, whether it's an email or town hall, does make people feel involved. If it's clear to the point and authentic, it's worth doing. The communication which feels one way isn't always so good. And lengthy emails aren't so good. Disruptive WhatsApps when I'm trying to get on with something, not so good. So think about it. Think what's effective. Ask people what's effective. Find out whether they do want this and when and how. 

Siân Harrington [00:16:03]

Picking up on that online workplace that we've referred to is this idea of serendipity. And there's a definite perspective that if we're not in a room together, we're not as creative. We're not as innovative. We don't get that sort of little spark that just comes from this water cooler. Although I have to confess that I don't think I've ever had a great idea at a water cooler. We just end up gossiping over a water cooler. 

Neil Mullarkey [00:16:32]

It just overflows and goes over my trousers or I can't get the cup out or I get 12 cups out.  

Siân Harrington [00:16:38]

But there's this sort of concept that without the office in a remote or in even in hybrid, when they're not utilizing the office environment for the right reasons, that we're losing this creativity, this innovation. Do you agree with that? Because I think you've touched on this in your book as well. 

Neil Mullarkey [00:16:53]

Well, I say, first of all, spending time saying, oh, if only you could do it face to face, isn't it bad? It's a waste of time. The offer from the world, from the current climate is we're going to be remote two days, one day, five days. So let's use that as an offer. Yes. And yes, we're going to be remote. And how do we make it engaging? OK, so we have shorter meetings. We can have informal moments, start off informally, finish informally. 

I often say to people, I'll be there five minutes early. We'll start at 10 o'clock, but I'll be five to 10. We finish at 11, but I'll be there till 10 past 11 if you want to chat. And so have those forums, because again, the task will be better achieved, research says, if we've had a little bit of social together. But how do you make this medium? And I'm like on Teams and Zoom. How do we make this better? Because actually, I can see your face better than I might round a board table. I can look at your face. You're nodding nicely. I'm trying to look my best. I've done my hair a bit, what's left of it. And so even things like I can bring an object into view, which means, oh, that's interesting. You're already thinking, oh, that's helped me focus my brain differently. 

I can ask for silly things in the chat or sensible things. Or actually, I can ask everyone to make a contribution in chat and we get 10 responses immediately rather than waiting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. So actually, there's a lot of advantages here. But how do we create, I think, the psychological safety, the trust, the looseness, the flexibility? So again, with face-to-face meetings, is it a meeting which is engaging and we're going to have some fun and we'll think laterally? Or is it a meeting where we just need to nail down the ideas? And that needs, again, the prep. This is the nature of the meeting. This is just to update you, then you can go away happy. This is a meeting where we're going to have to wrestle with it. And actually, we may not get the answer in the first meeting. So even things like instead of allotting an hour, allot two half hours or four of 15 minutes over a period of time because we go away, think about it, and have a good idea as we're stroking the cat or running or driving or showering. So there's plenty of ways. 

People have to have the will to say, this is where we are. This ain't going to change. How do we make this more engaging and human? Because we can. It's fun. It's a great mix of radio, telly, something a bit like face-to- face, but you've also got the chat. You can write texts to each other. So think of all that stuff that can be playful, can be creative, can be collaborative. I encourage people to put things in chat and they have their inside conversations. And I'm not a great multitasker. In fact, nobody is. So sometimes I might stop and say, let's pick up what Siân has put in the chat. Let's go with that for a moment. But that needs a little bit of nimbleness and even things like the structure of a meeting should have a facilitator, a producer who's making sure the slides are coming up, everyone's able to get in, and possibly also a note taker who's making notes of actions. And that could be three different people. And not every leader should be the facilitator. Step back, let somebody else run it. They might have a different way of encouraging debate that you don't.  

Siân Harrington [00:20:06]

Yeah. It's about being intentional, isn't it, with this stuff, I think, because it's a bit of a cop-out to just say, you know, all our great ideas in the world have always come from this water cooler. I just don't believe that's the case.  

Neil Mullarkey [00:20:20]

Well, they haven't. They've come from one person going for a walk and reporting back and reporting back to somebody that they trust. On the other hand, it may come from a group meeting. But actually, again, the research on brainstorms says that we tend to have the loudest voice. Nothing gets actually decided on. The quieter person thinks, this isn't for me. But this is where improv comes in, because we say in improv, there's only one story. We're all contributing to the same story. So actually, it's not ‘this idea’, ‘this idea’, ‘that’. 

And Pixar Pictures make those wonderful movies. They call - I call it yes-and. They call it plussing. You can't critique somebody else's idea unless you have a constructive way of moving it forward. So you accept the offer and move it forward. So we've only got one story in the meeting, if you like. It's not somebody saying, I've got a crazy idea. Forget what you said. What about chickens? And they facilitate, you know, thank you, Nigel. That's great. Now, chickens is good. Good. Well done. And somebody's thinking, can we not do chickens? What about the idea that got lost a minute ago? And that's where reincorporation can come back. So it has to be well-facilitated. And again, we're not particularly good at teaching facilitators and leaders to curate that kind of environment where people do feel involved, do feel supported, and the right voices are heard at the right time.

 Siân Harrington [00:21:44]

I like that. I like that plus plussing or, as you say, the yes and, but thinking of it as the plussing is a good way of thinking about it. So talking about In the Moment, so that's your new book and you're arguing within it that the way for us to advance our career, grow our networks is to be in the moment. And you talk a bit about leadership being too important to leave to leaders, which I, I really like. We talk about a leadership mindset a lot, but there's a lot, and you'll know it, a huge amount of leadership theory out there and many, many books on this. And we talk about this leadership mindset and I wondered whether you feel there should be an ‘in the moment’ mindset. So instead of taking it from a lot of this theory – it’s quite difficult when you're put in a position at that moment to recall all that academic theory. So is there such a thing as ‘an in the moment’ mindset? Is that something we should be thinking about? 

Neil Mullarkey [00:22:43]

Yes. Well I do teach on leadership courses. I teach at London business school on their next level leadership and, and internally for organizations. And my question is always so what? What does this mean for me on a Tuesday morning when I've got a grumpy employee, I've got a weird left field sense. And so the improv thing can help listen. What's actually happening? What's really happening? What's really being said? What is the data? Okay. Let's listen to that and listen to it both verbally and non-verbally. And how can I use that to move things forward? So I try and give minimal structure. In fact, that's one, something I borrow from Ashridge Business School, who in one of their leadership models they talk about adaptive leadership, complexity emergence, all that stuff. But basically it's the improv stuff, which is in the moment. What's being said? How can I use that to move things forward? That capital L for listening. 

On the other hand, I acknowledge, because I've worked with leaders as well who say, but I don't want to improvise. I can't say yes to everything. And I'm saying, don't say yes. I agree. Say yes, that's the reality. And there are times when you've got to say, I'm going to go ahead with this idea in the face of different data. 

I once had a long cab journey in Switzerland after a private bank gig with a professor of strategy. And we talked about strategy, you know, strategy stick to your guns or strategy change in the light of altering circumstances. And this is something that recently I talked about in Asia, London Business School who had the sunk cost fallacy which is, I've done so much, I should stick to this. Okay. And then there's a growth mindset. Things have changed. I better learn and challenge and adapt. And those both have evidence. And so I am glad I don't have to be a leader, but what my book is trying to say to leaders, first of all, we can all have a leadership mindset. Secondly, when are the moments, and I use moment rather broadly, I'm a bit cheeky here because a moment can be six months, that moment when you decided that was the right thing for your career, that moment when the market was changing as well as the three second moment in a conversation where an impromptu conversation moment, a remark could actually lead to some real connection. So what are the moments where you need to plan, structure, organize? What are the moments when you need to be open? And we need both. 

The foolish thing is to say that structured moment -  Hey, I'll improvise it. And this drives me mad with leaders and anybody actually who think I'll just improvise my presentation. So it's waffly. It goes on too long. Doesn't make the point. It doesn't engage the audience. No, organize it. That team meeting. Oh, let's just put ‘catch up’ on the wall. We'll all meet for an hour and chat for no good reason. And we'll let him waffle too much. And that person who's really important because she knows stuff. We don't let her speak because we didn't bring her in. 

On the other hand, when it's a coaching moment and negotiation, listening to a client, a supplier, you need to be improving and agile and adaptable. And I don't envy people who have to make this decision almost every day. Well, every moment, every hour, is this a scripty moment? Is this an adaptive moment? And there's some leadership models that say, if you decide to tell everyone the answer because you feel you've got to know the answer, even if you don't know it, that may be choking off creativity. 

And there are moments when the job of the leader sometimes could be here is the answer. I've done it before. It's not new. Do this save us time. Actually, there's a moment when novel situations occur. The improv mindset is definitely going to be completely helpful, which is the leader's job is to curate the question, to ask the questions and to let their team think about, well, where could this lead us? And for some that's a relief. ‘Oh, you mean being leader doesn't mean know the answer all the time?’ But it requires a certain confidence to say, I don't know, what are we going to do about it? And that sense of, well, there's an emerging idea. How do I help that gestate while keeping people afloat who are thinking, well, if they've admitted they don't know the answer, what the heck are we going to do? 

Siân Harrington [00:27:19]

Yeah, you've picked up on quite a few things there. So there's that concept of leader as a coach, really, rather than knowing all the answers. The misnomer that probably a lot of us have, which is that improv is about not planning, when in reality that's not what you're saying at all. And also leadership today, because of this fast speed of change, because of ambiguity, because of the complexity out there, you're absolutely right, you can't have the answer. And it's quite difficult, I think, for leaders to realise that that is their role now. Because that's what we all think = the leader always has the answer. 

Neil Mullarkey [00:27:57]

 Yeah, it is hard. And I love VUCA. The world is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. And every improv scene has all of that. At any moment, you think it's going to go that way, it might go that way. In hindsight, you can think, oh, I can see that. And sometimes we're bold enough, beginning bit doesn't work so well, but something else emerges. And so once people kind of accept that you'd be foolish to imagine the world is predictable, and that there aren't uncertain moments, then you begin to think, alright, so my job is harder and yet simpler, is just to keep people afloat, to keep people within a guide rail, such they may find new things, but also, they kind of know what they got to deliver by Friday. And I think the job of a leader is almost to find out what each individual feels comfortable with. And the servant leader and all that. 

I was at Google the other day, we're talking about this, and this guy said, yeah, actually, there are times when some of my team say to me, just tell us what to do. And I can see that when coaching people with improv, being a parent, just sometimes this is what you got to do. Let's save time. This is the way, do it. Oh, good, fine. And there are times when you got to think about grow models and coach and you set the agenda. And we can co-create something which, which you then run. And that's wonderfully enabling for some and slightly scary for others. 

And so that's why I think what I'm offering, or what improv is offering is not that radical at all. It just makes sense, which is why would you stick to a script when the world is changing? On the other hand, as you've allowed, Siân, is that when people come and see the Comedy Store Players every Sunday, there's plenty that's scripted, structured. Doors open 6.30. We start at 7.30. We finish at 9.30. The interval is about halfway through. We know which games we're going to play. We've organized who, which the six people are. The comedy store, they've organized insurance, drinks, food, tickets, security, etc. There's plenty organized and structured so that then when we ask the audience, we can be truly in the moment when they suggest chicken or spatula or Sherlock Holmes, whatever. And equally, I don't know what my compadre is thinking. She doesn't know what I'm going to say. But we also have the meta structure of we trust one another. And we trust the process. And that's why I think organizations have much to learn from the world of improv. They just have to sort of define which are the organized bits and which are the not. And that changes.

Siân Harrington [00:30:46]

Yeah, trust is such an important word today in business. So we spend millions, if not billions, across the world and in the UK itself on training, the official sort of communication training, creativity, how to be collaborative, all this sort of stuff. Is improv the answer to all of this, or are there some areas that it perhaps isn't quite right for? 

Neil Mullarkey [00:31:11]

Well, I've actually said I think there are some areas it can be helpful, but even collaboration - I looked into that and what I offer, the yes and accept and give sounds very collaborative, but there are some jobs are better done on your own. I want to write a proposal. Don't bother me for an hour or two hours or a day or a week. And I actually found some research. They asked people to do an analytical problem. They had one group doing on their own, one group all the time together and one group doing on their own, coming back, checking in and then going away again. And that to me is pretty good, that middle one. But it depends on the context, on the individual, on the project, on the team, on the moment. 

So I would say improv is not the answer when you need to have a scripted presentation. You need to stick to time, make your point, engage the audience, perhaps do some slides. I think particularly Zoom, Teams, video calls. These meetings need to be more structured than just face to face because we're wasting time otherwise. So have an agenda, work out who's going to say what, when. Make it more engaging by not having the same people talk all the time. Think about little five minute episodes, have pre-meetings. Say to somebody, hey Siân , we're going to talk about this. What might you say? I'm going to talk about that. How would you feel about that? So pre-meetings matter. People are thinking, oh, this is going to take a hell of a long time. But how many meetings have you wasted where you've just gone round in circles? He's saying the same old thing. She's feeling frustrated. You don't know how to do this. 

And one of the things I would say, actually, is we may have training courses for collaboration. Do we have many training courses that teach leaders how to help collaboration, to curate collaboration? And that's not straightforward. You can't say, hey, everyone collaborate. I'll see you next week. It's kind of you need to assign roles or you may need to assign some sort of end goal. And in the army, they talk about mission command, which is they say to the team. Basically, this is what we want and why, but how you do it, go away because you'll be closer to the action. 

And so I applaud that kind of decision making, which allows for nimble, agile thinking when you're close to the data, the action, the enemy, the client, the customer, the technology. But there's a general sense of where you might go. And so I've had my cake and eat it with this book. It's called In The Moment. People think, oh, it's mindfulness. And, you know, it's being the moment, truly Zen, yeah. And I'm saying the moment could be longer. And it's not for the moment. It's not just saying, oh, I don't care. Just be reckless and crazy. Let's just go with this weird idea. Whatever happens. Now, the moment could be longer. And defining the moment, is this a moment where we say no more talking? Go with it. Is this a moment when we open things up, see what happens? And that ain't easy. And you can only know in hindsight whether you've made the right decision. 

Siân Harrington [00:34:12]

We've talked a lot of about comedy with your background as well. Where does humour fit into this? Because humour is such a difficult subject because we all have very different senses of humour. And also in the workplace today, we're very conscious of offending people. But also, you know, I feel maybe it's what happens when you get older. But it feels like work was a bit more fun in the old days. Today, it almost feels like that's gone out of work. So how do we bring humour in in the right way? 

Neil Mullarkey [00:34:47]

Well, that's interesting, because I kind of come full circle on this, because when I started, I don't forget humour. It's not about comedy. It's about being in the moment, about sharing and stuff. And then I'd spend the day with people and frequently the boss. And they say, you know what? We've had such a laugh today. We don't normally laugh together. And I'm thinking, my goodness, whatever I've done, if they just laugh together, they've that's been worth my while and their while. And so I've got a chapter about humour in the book. But I'm very careful to define what humour is. To me, humour is not laughing at somebody, not saying, look at them. They're different from us. Aren't they bad? I like humour that goes, look at me. Aren't I a bit naff? Oops, what a mistake I made. And I think leadership can role model vulnerability in this sense. 

On the other hand, I found this affiliative humour and non-affiliative. Affiliative, it says, hey, things aren't so bad. Hey, look what we've achieved. Gallows humour, looking at things in perspective. That's non-affiliative, which is you're bad. You did badly. And the danger sometimes people say, oh, I'm rubbish, aren't I? Yeah, yeah, I'm an idiot. And that self-destructive humour where you think you're sort of being sort of, you know, self, what's the word? You're being self-destructive, not modest. Anyway, I'm very careful to note that humour is not always associated with laughter. That could be just smiles. That could be just a cute email, a nice PS. 

So there was a book two years ago, Humour Seriously, by two people from Stanford where they have a leadership and humour course, and they say appropriate, make it appropriate. Now, to me, jokes are quite possibly dangerous. Often the punchline could be clever because it switched our cognitive model, but it could be, look, I'm that lot stupid, whatever. And that to me is the danger of jokes. And I implore anybody, don't go away and buy joke books and think I've got to put a joke in, because to me, we talk in improv about gagging. So it's interesting, gags are jokes, but also gag is what you when you don't want somebody to talk. And gagging in improv is when somebody throws in a joke at the expense of the scene. And I say at the expense of the relationship, they want to disrupt the moment with the person by saying, look at the look at me, aren't I a funny audience? Knock, knock. Who's this? Whatever. So humour, I think, is absolutely vital. 

It's interesting, Siân, you say it's a shame we seem to have lost it because I think it's even more relevant in video calls. Let's get some humour going to get the engagement. Now, it doesn't mean dressing up as a chicken or doing karaoke. It could be just simple things like me looking at your background. So where you are today, I can see a nice picture. It doesn't have to be funny, funny. I'm just interested to know, who are you? What's going on there? I might tell you about the Amazon person or there's a pet wandering into shop. And I say in my book, basically, if you're a leader, don't think you've got to go by joke books. You don't have to be the funny one. You can be the laughing one. But where does humour happen? Let's bring that in a bit more, because it's very well documented that if there's a good spirit, you're more creative. The tasks get done better. 

A happy workforce is 12% more productive, according to Warwick University. Happy is often implied with smiles and laughter together. But the laughter of, hey, it's us. We're in a gang. We feel that our responsibility is to one another rather than to us as individuals. And humour is a nice way of expressing that. And also irony. If we're being ironic every now and again, that doesn't have to be nasty. But it also means there's a sense of, oh, you can look at this from more than one point of view. You could look at it that way, literally or laterally. And sometimes lateral thinking really helps us find a creative breakthrough, because otherwise you think I'm looking at this problem endlessly from the same point of view. If I look at it obliquely, something may occur that's more creative. I'm absolutely useless at jokes. And if I ever try and do one in a speech, it's forced. It just doesn't. It's not me. I love a laugh. I'm always laughing. I can only remember filthy ones or very silly ones. So, you know, what's red and sits in the corner? A naughty strawberry. You know, that's more my level, I have to say. Exactly. But not even strawberries can be offended by that. 

But often I've travelled the world. You said earlier senses of humour are different. Yes. Fair enough. So one job is to find out different senses of humour. She likes this. He likes that. Somebody likes well-formed wordplay. Somebody just likes silly. Find out what that is. Work with that. And try not to be your humour is the one that's allowed. But many types of humour. But I've travelled the world. I've been to 25 countries in person and many more virtually. And when you do improv and the art of reincorporate that just or just bringing back a thing, somebody said this before. Bring it back. 

They talked about skiing. Oh, we're talking about compliance. Here we are. We're on the nursery run here or whatever. So you try and use what they gave you. And you won't offend people if you use the material they gave you. And again, it's not before brilliantly formed piece of humour that people stand and applaud you. That's cute. Just a smile is enough. And it shows you've listened. If I'm listening because my antennae as an improviser, I know that there's rich material. 

So the show and all the stuff you told me before we started about where you are, your sister and so forth. Just thinking I can't do that because the listeners don't know. But you and I have something. And those things are meat and drink to me. I'm not thinking, oh, right. Here's somebody. They do sales. I better think of a joke about sales or compliance. Let's think of a compliance joke because I can't remember them. And also, I think a joke is necessarily closed and possibly could offend somebody because it labels them.

Siân Harrington [00:40:59]

Great. I feel like I need to throw a line into you to see what you're going to say. 

Neil Mullarkey [00:41:04]

You've thrown in lots of lines. 

Siân Harrington [00:41:07]

Two HR directors go into a pub. 

Neil Mullarkey [00:41:10]

I'm useless at jokes. And I'm trying to think when I go into a pub and then realize they shouldn't be there. That'll be it. Or they see the CEO, something I don't really I'm not very good at jokes, as you can probably tell. I quite like just teasing myself and others. 

Siân Harrington [00:41:31]

Well, great. Thank you so much. Lots of really good information in there. I really enjoyed the conversation. And I find the idea of improv quite scary, even though it's quite natural for me to be in an interview with somebody or on a panel discussion and then listen and ask questions. So it's strange how I don't have so much of a problem there. But this concept of someone directing you. 

Neil Mullarkey [00:41:55]

You're doing it now. What if we, if you throw your subject be funny, that's awfully difficult. I couldn't do that. Let's have a go at this, OK? We'll do one word at a time. So it could be yesterday I went to the cinema. So we just do one word at a time and you can include this or not. So I'll go. Yesterday…

Siân Harrington [00:42:16]

Neil Mullarkey


Siân Harrington


Neil Mullarkey


Siân Harrington

I have to say 'A'

Neil Mullarkey


Siân Harrington


Neil Mullarkey


Siân Harrington


Neil Mullarkey


Siân Harrington


Neil Mullarkey


Siân Harrington


Neil Mullarkey


Siân Harrington


Neil Mullarkey

His… You want to say something rude, don't you?

Siân Harrington

I want to say trousers

Neil Mullarkey

Yes, I wanted you to say trousers. And you think I can't say trousers. I don't think you can say trousers.

Siân Harrington

Why are you looking underneath trousers? I should have said within or in. 

Neil Mullarkey [00:43:02]

Underneath his trousers, yeah. I'm imagining they're in his trousers going like that. Yeah. And you see, I had no idea. I mean, we said cinema or something and you said appeared in. And I couldn’t think. Basically, you did it. You just did it. But the thing is, what made you pause was it wasn't because you couldn't think of something. Yeah, it's because you think of anything. 

You had about 100 ideas. And my brain is now trained to go forget the other ones. Just say the first thing. Say trousers, say fish, say writhing. And also sometimes writhing in agony. That was an easy flow, wasn't it? You didn't have to think too much about it. So say the first thing. And that is incredibly liberating. 

Basically, Keith Johnston, who was one of the gurus of improv in the UK then went to Canada. He said, as soon as you let go of the fear of being seen as mad, bad or wrong, you can become a good improviser. And actually, you're not seen as any of those. That sense of play that within confines, we can do loads. There's a man riding on a boat because there's a fish in his trousers. It's great. Isn't that fun? 

Siân Harrington [00:44:03]

Yeah, also I was thinking, can I say that? So you've got this inbuilt little bit of logic that then takes over from the moment. 

Neil Mullarkey [00:44:11]

 Absolutely. And the thing is, they did MRI scans of jazz music, improvising jazz musicians, and they looked at their brain and the two parts that shut down were. I care what people think. And I know what I'm going to say. And those are joyful moments. 

And within the psychological safety, I would hope a firm would have is it's OK to say stuff, even if it feels like I shouldn't say it. And actually, I'm just going to say something. I don't know where it's going to lead, but I'm going to say it because it may lead somewhere. Somebody else may plus that to a good place. So you went through seven different mental processes of shall I say that? Yes, I can't. What else can I say? And I was just going trousers because once I'd seen it, I couldn't see anything else. And that's the thing with you. You thought trousers. And it's really hard to unthink trousers. I want to just say it. 

Siân Harrington [00:45:02]

So I want to ask you more of a personal question. You spent your career doing improv and comedy but you also are management consultant, if you want to call yourself that, communications consultant, whatever, Which is more fulfilling? 

Neil Mullarkey [00:45:16]

Well, most of my work now is with businesses and leading courses and workshops and coaching individuals and then keynotes. I love that. I really love it. I also perform with the Comedy Store Players. That's the only showbiz I do. I love that in a different way. If I didn't have that, I think I'd feel sad because I get a chance to be silly and truly a comedian and be part of a gang. 

But I really, really enjoy seeing somebody flower when I've spent time with them as an individual coaching them and they get to be director or partner working with a group of varying personalities and experience. And by the end of the day, I see them flower, too. 

So I'm very old now. I don't want to retire for a while yet because I like it all. I do like it all. I like traveling to see the world and seeing different cultures and essentially seeing we're all the same. We're all a bit scared. We'd all like to communicate. We'd all like to be appreciated who we are. We'd all like to belong. We'd all like to feel we're doing something that has a higher purpose than merely a wage slip. 

Siân Harrington  [00:46:21]

That was Neil Mullarkey on how improv can help us to build better communication in today's VUCA world. I hope you enjoyed the interview and my ham fisted attempt at improvisation. It's not as easy as it looks, but on the back of this interview, I'm taking Neil's advice and I've put myself down for a two day improv workshop gulp. If that's a step too far for you, then why not check out Neil's book In The Moment, or if you're feeling bold, take a lesson from this podcast and say, yes, I'll read the book and attend a class. 

So I hope you enjoyed the show this month. And thank you so much for listening. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Follow me on LinkedIn at Sian Harrington, The People Space. And if you want more insights and resources on the future of work, check out This episode was produced by Nigel Pritchard, and you've been listening to Work's Not Working...Let's Fix It! Goodbye.

Neil Mullarkey's background
Introduction by Siân Harrington
The essential need for communication, creativity, and collaboration in the modern workplace
What is improv?
How improv can be applied to business
Communication in business: is it getting worse?
Debate over whether physical presence boosts creativity and innovation
Developing an 'in the moment' mindset
Role of leaders in a VUCA world
Humour's role in work
Siân and Neil do live improv
What we learn from Jazz
Siân's wrap up