Improvisationally Speaking the Podcast Episode 1 with guest Chris Schembra – TRANSCRIPTIONJulian Shrenzel: From the Improv-Alive studio in Seattle, you’re listening to Improvisationally Speaking: The Podcast.
Welcome. This is Episode 1, and I want to give some back story as a beginning. My name is Julian Shrenzel. I started a company called Improv-Alive, and I did so based on a question. The question is what would happen if someone brought the tools and principles of theatrical improvisation into the world of business in a way that non-artsy-type people, ordinary people, could rediscover their ability to communicate, and to make decisions, and to lead.
Improv-Alive essentially is dedicated to helping teams reach their goals. I lead workshops, friendly but challenging business improvisation workshops, where team members engage with each other in a new and different set of tools, tools that will help them increase their creative, their collaborative abilities. I lead workshops on team building, leadership, service, support, change management, public speaking, presentation, and a lot more.
This podcast is called Improvisationally Speaking, and it seeks out and highlights the stories of real-life business improvisers: people who are doing unusual or extraordinary work that is affecting the life of people. When I say business improvisers, what I mean are people who are choosing to do the risky thing, or the irrational thing, or to pursue their life’s work instead of taking that proven path to success. In the unusual or extraordinary portion is work that is helping others in a new, interesting way, or work that is brand new, that is invented, careers that are invented and have not been done in the past, or people who are working and in their work are using improvisation to a fantastic degree within their work.
Without further ado, I want to introduce my first guest of this entire podcast series. My guest is Chris Schembra. Let me read you Chris’s bio. Chris is a leading expert on empathy and the art of human connection. He is the founder and chief question-asker of the 747 Club, a marketing, consulting, and advisory company which awakens empathy within people in an organization. Since its inception, the 747 Club has awakened over 2,000 leaders, sparking over 60,000 relationships.
Aside from 747 Club, Chris is a partner at OHenry Productions, which invests in and produces commercial theater. The projects he has been associated with have been awarded 10 Tony Awards, 7 Emmys, and a Grammy.
As a marketer, he’s led campaigns with over 900,000 participants, and the programs, through his family’s Hilton Head Island Performance Group, have trained and empowered close to one million executives, sales people, athletes, and students on how to achieve excellence and gain the competitive edge. He mentors startups at Techstars, serves as a social influencer for Dell and American Express, and is a contributing writer to Arianna Huffington’s new corporate and consumer wellness platform, Thrive Global.
As a philanthropist, he holds appointment on the board of trustees of the Easter Seals Foundation. Easter Seals is a nonprofit providing disability services to close to 2 million people annually.
Now, I first heard of or read of Chris on the American Express OPEN Forum, which is a forum dedicated to entrepreneurs and helping them to grow their businesses. Chris had a very interesting article on his organization called the 747 Club. Rather than tell you about it, let me let Chris tell you himself.
Chris Schembra, thank you for coming to Improvisationally Speaking, and welcome to the podcast.
Chris Schembra: Thanks for having me.
Julian Shrenzel: Absolutely.
Chris Schembra: I’m happy to be here.
Julian Shrenzel: Good. I’m really excited about this episode and talking with you. I’ve done a lot of research, and I was really inspired by your story in OPEN Forum. Really, I’ve been inspired by your life’s work and where it’s taking you. I want to dive right in.
As you know for this podcast, Improvisationally Speaking, the focus of this podcast is about looking at ordinary people doing extraordinary things and how improv plays into that, how improvisational thinking, improvisational acting, how that idea of improv plays into what you’ve done and how it’s made – if it has assisted in making you who you are and what you do, what that role is.
Chris Schembra: I think it plays one heck of a good role. I’m glad you’re giving voice to this topic. I’ll start with a quick story just for flavor on what you just said.
This story starts July of 2015. I’d just come back from Italy producing a Broadway play. I found myself lonely, disconnected, fiddling with food in my kitchen, and I accidently invented a pasta sauce recipe. I figured I should probably feed it to people to see if it’s even good or not. On July 15, 2015, I invited 15 of my friends over for dinner and fed them my sauce: 6:30 p.m. cocktails began, 8 p.m. dinner is served. At 7:47 p.m., we delegated 11 specific tasks, empowering the attendees to be part of the set up process. A few people cried. They like my sauce, so I did my dinner the next week and haven’t stopped since.
I’ve since gone on to serve over 2,000 people. The tipping point for me was at 2 a.m. on a Monday this past March when I woke up in my bed balling my eyes out, realizing for the first time in my life I’d found complete joy and rid myself of insecurity. My greatest insecurity is I know so many diverse groups of people, I’m always the last one called to the party. When I realized that I didn’t have to worry about that any longer, I could stay in one place and focus on creating the safe spaces for people to gather, then I realized I had found myself. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it’s human connection.
Julian Shrenzel: That’s something you said. I saw that somewhere. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it’s human connection. Can you give me a little bit more on what that means to you?
Chris Schembra: I have a history of suicide, jail, depression, and rehab. I analyzed that I went down those paths because I wasn’t comfortable with myself. I wasn’t comfortable with myself because I was disconnected from the group of people around me. I wasn’t in a leadership position. I was an afterthought. Not talking negatively about all my friends, but everybody used to forget about me. They still do to this day forget about me just because they assume I’m being taken care of by some other group. They just assume I’m doing something else. I’m never the first one thought of for anything.
Once I learned how to take that energy and compartmentalize it, turn it around, and use it as fuel, I finally realized that I’m okay with being that kind of guy. I’m cool.
Julian Shrenzel: That actually answers one of my questions that I had, which was when did you realize that your highest life missions would be your life work. To me, that’s what it feels like. I think it sounds like that idle 2 o’clock in the morning when you came to realize that there was a need that you had deep inside that was satisfied by this kind of work.
Chris Schembra: It was my need, and then I realized that that work satisfied others’ needs. I sat at the same seat at the same dinner table listening to pain points of 2,000 people. What I realized was what this world was missing most was maternal energy and empathy.
A friend of mine came into my office one day and said, “Chris, if your 747 Club was a gender, what would it be?” I said, “It would be a woman.” He said, “If that woman walked through that door right there, how would we feel?” I said, “We’d be overcome and consumed by the greatest maternal energy and empathy the world has ever seen.” That’s what we created.
In our 16-person dinner model, we leave room for communal discussion of a particular topic. One of my favorite topics to talk about is to have my attendees give voice to a relationship they’ve never given or that they don’t give voice to enough. The majority of people talk about their mothers, an overwhelming majority. There’s something about the room that awakens that appreciation for them and has them give voice to it.
Julian Shrenzel: How do you handle a situation where – it would be inevitable. It almost seems like a therapy in way. I know you’re not espousing that you’re a therapist, but you create a situation in which anything – there can be explosive phenomenon. You’re tapping into people’s deeper sides. I’m wondering how do you deal with that when that can get out of your control? In other words, how do you function in an environment that you may not have all that control over?
Chris Schembra: I don’t put myself in those situations. I only involve myself in situations where I have complete control. We do that by – the statistic is if less than three people cry at my dinner table, I consider it a failed night. That’s just data. About 1% of my attendees go and quit their jobs after attending a dinner party. Two thousand people [00:11:15] quitters. I love them, although I’m not advocating necessarily for that to happen. I’d rather people find their passion and bring it into their job.
To answer your question about that safe space, that’s everything to me. In the shape-shifting and a-la-carte-menu world that we live in, what people crave most is system and structure. We’ve kept the dinner the same on week 80 as we did on week 1: same food, same delegated tasks, same joke, same everything. The invite says, “6:30 p.m.,” and then all caps lock, “sharp,” and bold. If you’re late, you owe me. That’s it. There’s two ways of walking, and it’s a line from one of my plays. Don’t worry about people knowing you; make yourself worth knowing.
You could see my body when I did that. That’s my life now. I dictate what’s going on. I create the systems and structure, and then we empower them to create the content. None of my dinners are – there’s nothing accidental. Everything’s the exact same week to week. When you take the thinking out of it, you get to lead with the heart.
Julian Shrenzel: Have you ever been a performer yourself? I know you produce. You’re around theater a lot. Have you been a performer?
Chris Schembra: They gave me a TV show on Bravo, but that wasn’t acting. That was reality. I did some acting in my high school days. I guess I won best actor in the state of South Carolina one year, but well, yes. My dinners are the confluence of a couple different touch points in my life. It’s a history of theater. It’s a history of my southern hospitality, Italian roots, the this, the this, and the this. Yeah, there is that element.
Julian Shrenzel: I wanted to ask, your title of chief question-asker – I was wondering what is so important about the question?
Chris Schembra: You read it in the American Express article. I think the bolded quote in the article was, “At my dinner parties, I hardly say anything. I’m there to listen.” We like feeding people who have something to say. We like giving voice to the voiceless, people who aren’t empowered in their daily lives, to share what they truly want to share whether it’s with a spouse, business associate, themselves, whatever. By me asking the question, I get to create the safe space for them to provide the answer.
Julian Shrenzel: Interesting. The aspect of improvisation as it fits into your work is really – you’re aiming for the experience, the power of improvisation to be experienced by the people that you’re serving, whereas you have a very rigid, almost a system, like Ford’s assembly line, way of approaching your work. You’re creating this profound, and unusual, and new experience for the people that you’re serving.
Chris Schembra: Every experience is different because it’s on them, not me. I’m the one constant.
Julian Shrenzel: Have you had an experience like the people that you’re serving?
Chris Schembra: That’s what I crave most in the world. I get a bunch of Reiki teachers’ email in all the time saying I see how much you give. I’d like to give you energy. That’s it. That’s it.
Julian Shrenzel: Do you accept that?
Chris Schembra: Oh yeah, I accept it like water. I’m addicted to it because I need it. I need it.
Julian Shrenzel: Chris, this is great. I really appreciate this. For anybody who would be interested in learning more about you and about your organization, I’m wondering if you might just put out the most pertinent information that someone might be able to come back to your stuff.
Chris Schembra: I’d say go sign up at 747Club.org. If I can help you get more joy in your life, or feel less anxiety, or teach you how to be the leader of your own community, that’s what I’m here for. I’m not building a community. I’m here to serve other people’s communities with the systems and models that we’ve built.
Julian Shrenzel: That wraps up Episode 1 of the maiden voyage of Improvisationally Speaking: The Podcast. What if you had a lucrative career as a marketing manager, and you decided one day you would give it all up to travel the world and blog about it. Low and behold, you found that you can make plenty of money doing it. Next week, I’m going to be interviewing Nicoletta Crisponi, Italian blogger, unconventional marketing specialist, currently traveling through Nepal. I promise it’s going to be a great episode. See you next week.
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