Articles we love

Here are some great articles on communication we’ve run across while planning this project.

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Distilling your idea

A giraffe with an antelope standing beneath it.

“I could have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time. -Pascal”

One of the key skills in effectively communicating complex ideas is the ability to distill this idea into its essential nature.  This involves self-awareness, knowing your story, and being agile in the way you express yourself.  These are all skills we try to work on with students at the Center for Student Professional Development .  Whether it be for job interviews, presentations, or general networking, the ability to express yourself succinctly is a huge skill.

This was the focus of your final session with students.  How do we answer the question “What’s your story?” in multiple ways?




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Archetypes for Storytelling

If you were unable to join us for last week’s storytelling session with David Hutchens, here are the archetype cards we used in our workshop.  Students enjoyed using these cards to identify their primary archetype.  We practiced telling stories to one another and noticed how both the telling of and listening to stories was shaped by the archetype we chose.

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Point of Focus #4: Stories add value

In our session two weeks ago, organizational storyteller David Hutchens shared a fascinating example of how stories add literal value.  Several years ago, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn bought assorted random, discarded objects at thrift stores for pennies or a few dollars.  They asked authors to write stories about the objects, and they then auctioned off the items on Ebay.  The value increased by leaps and bounds.  A tiny bottle of mayonnaise with a story attached to it sold for $51.00. A toy yellow bear sold for $51.00. And a fake banana (bought for 25 cents) sold for $76.00.

Stories add value. The ability to tell stories about your experiences makes it easier for you to connect with others.

This week, notice your own tendency to tell stories or to avoid them. Do you find it easy talk about yourself in this way?  Also, notice when others are telling stories.  Do you find yourself listening more closely to them?  Do you connect with them more easily?  Do their stories add value to the conversation?

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Part 2: Moving to Narrative

On Tuesday we welcomed our group back for part 2 of our series on communicating complex ideas.  In this session, we welcomed organizational storyteller David Hutchens to help us move into how we develop our own stories.  David works with organizations around the world to help them understand how telling stories adds value to companies, to products, and to individuals.

David led us in a fascinating exercise using cards he’s developed.  Each card represented a different archetype, or an ideal example of a certain type of personality.  We selected three cards – what we would identify as our primary type, our secondary type, and a type that resonated to us but perhaps not as strongly.

We then practiced telling stories and listening to each other’s stories about Vanderbilt experiences.  It was fascinating how both the telling and the listening were guided by the cards selected. We talked about using the archetypes as frames for active listening and telling.

By next week we will post all of the cards as resources, and will share more ideas of how to use these ideas in practical situations.  Many thanks to the Curb Center at Vanderbilt for sponsoring this event.

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Quote of the week

Bill Murray, interviewed in the New York Times in 2012:

Q. Did you ever think that the lessons you first learned on the stage of an improv comedy theater in Chicago would pay off later in life?

A. It pays off in your life when you’re in an elevator and people are uncomfortable. You can just say, “That’s a beautiful scarf.” It’s just thinking about making someone else feel comfortable. You don’t worry about yourself, because we’re vibrating together. If I can make yours just a little bit groovier, it’ll affect me. It comes back, somehow.


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Point of Focus #3: “Yes, and”

Each week we  highlight a point of focus, in order to extend the work we do together and to give you a practical method to experiment with in your everyday life.


Mick Napier is the founder and Artistic Director of The Annoyance theater in Chicago and is one of the best improv teachers in the country.  His book Improvise:  Scene from the Inside Out is a favorite of many improvisers.

In the clip below, Mick and his crew of actors walk us through the creative process of improvisation, in order to demonstrate the absolute necessity of saying saying “yes” to your partner in a scene:

In our work together last month, we learned the importance of saying “yes, and…” as a principle of communicating with others. Accepting what the other person says and building on the idea together makes true cooperation and communication possible.  Because it focuses on building on ideas rather than tearing ideas down, saying “yes, and…” creates the condition where creativity and collaboration can flourish.

How might this work in practical situations?  This week, notice your own tendency to accept or block other people’s ideas or statements. Do you find yourself saying “no,” blocking, or frequently disagreeing with the statements or ideas of others?  Just notice this tendency in yourself.

If you a person who finds yourself saying “yes” to others and their ideas, try this week to extend that by adding the “and” – build on other peoples’ statements and ideas.

If you are a person who finds yourself saying “no” to others and their ideas, try to subvert this pattern this week by saying “yes” – find something to support with a “yes” in their statements or stories.

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Improv and anxiety

The Second City in Chicago is a great place to learn more about improv!  One of the many workshops and classes they offer uses improv exercises to help people manage anxiety about public speaking, or “stage fright.” Click here to see Second City actors at work in this workshop.

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Point of Focus #2: Mirroring

Each week we  highlight a point of focus, in order to extend the work we do together and to give you a practical method to experiment with in your everyday life.


Mirroring is a classic improv exercise.  Two people face each other.  One person acts as the “mirror,” and closely mirrors or imitates every movement their partner makes.  If the movements are slow and deliberate, it’s not long before observers have trouble telling who is the mirror and who is the leader!

Click the image below to watch a hilarious mirroring exercise from the fun folks at Improv Everywhere.  In this video, fifteen pairs of twins create a human mirror on a subway car in New York City:

How can you use mirroring to improve your communication skills? You can practice mirroring in your interactions with others as a way of paying attention to body language and how people engage with others.

In an interview or a presentation setting, you can choose to mirror the body language or the energy of the people you’re with as a way to connect with them. Of course, some nuance is important; you may not want to mirror their precise movements.  Instead, think of mirroring in practice as noticing and matching.

Notice how they are sitting.  Where are their hands?  Are they leaning in, or sitting back in their chairs?  Are they nodding?  Smiling?  Then, try to match their movements or energy.  If they are leaning in, you try to lean in.  If they are turned to one side, focus on turning to that side as well.  If they are nodding as you answer a question, try to nod when they ask questions of you.  If you had to describe their body language in one word, what would it be?  Try to match your perception of that word in your own body language.

Have fun mirroring this week!


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Point of Focus #1: Eye Contact

Our first session together was an embarrassment of riches, in terms of tips for improving communication styles.  So each week we will highlight a point of focus, in order to extend the work we do together and to give you a practical method to experiment with in your everyday life.


Martin de Maat was a legendary improv teacher at The Second City in Chicago. In a famous exercise with his students, he asked students to walk around the room and make eye contact with one another, noticing their eye contact “threshold” – when did they want to look away because it started to feel uncomfortable?  Everyone has a different threshold, and that’s fine – there’s no right or wrong.  He just asked students to be aware of their own thresholds, and then experiment with holding eye contact just a second longer.

He then asked students to face one another in pairs:

Make eye contact with that person and notice when the intimacy threshold hits and it becomes uncomfortable for you. Then what I want you to do is singularly focus on having your partner have success at holding the eye contact. Not you, your partner. Exist for your partner to have success. You exist for me so that I have success and I exist for you so that you have success.*

This week, when you make eye contact with others focus on making them be successful at holding eye contact with you.  Focus on helping them feel more comfortable, instead of on your own discomfort.

This is a great exercise to use in presentations or in interview settings. Often we are so focused on our own anxiety that it prevents us from connecting with others.  But if we can use eye contact to focus on the other person, it helps us make a connection with them and takes the pressure off of ourselves.

By the way, if you misplaced the handout from the improv session, you can access it here.

*This exercise and lots of other great information can be found in The Second City Almanac of Improvisation.

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