The Three Improv Concepts that will Transform Your Company Culture and Save You Money
I recently came across a shocking statistic in an article written by Niall McCarthy, Data Journalist for Forbes Magazine. The city of Seattle is ranked the tenth city in the entire nation for most hours per week worked by the average employee. According to Naill’s research, the average worker puts 47.23 hours per week in at the office/workplace. On top of that, according to Rachel Dicker in an article in the USNews, Seattle is ranked number 6 in the nation for most traffic congested cities in the nation.. and I’m thinking to myself, “that’s a lot of time spent going to, at, and coming home from the office!” Knowing what commute gridlock does to my sense of peace, (and I work from home), I had to wonder what mental state those people who commute to an office and back home every day are bringing to their teams at work, and their families at home. And what if their workplace is one of chaos, negativity or conflict? Well, that brings things to a whole new level altogether!
Since I am in the business of helping business reap the financial, morale and social benefits of employing an engaged, fulfilled and communicating workforce, I had to wonder: what is the effect of the crazy number of hours we’re putting in, and the stress that is commonly associated with being a part of a workforce? The complete answer to this question is three things: 1. Complex, 2. Unhelpful and 3. A very substantial financial loss to organizations from a lack of employee morale and productivity.
Maybe we can’t wave the magic wand and magically fix our traffic problems or disappear 5-10 hours off of our average workweek, but there are steps that companies and their employees can take to move the needle in a positive direction, towards creating your engaged, fulfilled and communicating workforce. Here are three of them, and they come from the world of theater Improvisation (Yes, Improv!)
Redefine FAILURE: Business Leaders, how do your managers who report to you, and the individual contributors who report to them react to their own personal failures and the failures of those who report to them? What is your relationship to failure? Human beings (being what they are) tend to close off, go internal, try to hide failures, labeling them ‘negative’ instead of opening up, becoming vulnerable, sharing the failure. You business leaders are smart so rather than telling you the rest, let me ask you; what’s the result of your, and your managers, default reaction to failure? If everybody’s reaction was one of opening up, becoming vulnerable and transparent for all to see and learn, what difference would that make?
Approach Your Interactions with Others with a ‘YES AND’ Mindset: ‘Yes And’ is about acceptance and addition. Consider for your next team meeting, devoting the entire meeting to employing a ‘Yes And’ mindset with everybody in that meeting, for the duration of that meeting. This is not to say be a “Yes person”, going along with every suggestion that everybody says. A ‘Yes And’ mindset is ACCEPTANCE = Regardless of if you subscribe to or agree with what’s being said, find a way to respond in any way other than one that is a shut-down of the other person. For example, you may know that adding an additional wing to the office is simply not possible in the 2018 budget, but rather than saying “That is not possible. We don’t have the budget for it.”, consider expressing agreement that things are cramped here in the office, AND offer your sincere desire (and perhaps a timeline) to work closely with them to come up with some good short-term solutions that will address and remedy this very valid problem. This is the ‘Yes And’ mindset, and it works because it shows the person your interacting with that you are actually listening to them, and that you honor them as evidenced by the fact that you see their concern as valid and you’re willing to take action on it, or even just continue the conversation on it.
Make the Other Person Look Good: Do you know why great stage improvisers seem so witty, brilliant, quick and entertaining? Here’s a clue: It’s not because they are particularly witty, brilliant, quick or funny as individuals. It’s because they are those adjectives as a TEAM. How are they that way as a team? They are that way because each and every individual on that improv team is doing everything for the others on their team. The individuals in a great improv troupe don’t seek the limelight, they don’t try to deliver the perfect one-liner, they only devote their full attention, their expression, their talent to one thing, making the other person look good. That’s the beginning and the end of it. Try this on for yourself for one day. I challenge you to devote one full day, from the buzz of the alarm clock to the clicking off of your bedside lamp, to making someone else look good, be the success, get the credit. Try it and write me and let me know what happened. I DARE YOU! 🙂
Of course, another amazing way to move the needle for your organization is to consider a conflict management workshop or workshop series with Improv Alive! We blend conceptual and experiential learning and deliver a powerful, immersive experience that gives your employees the tools they need to deal with difficult personalities and hard conversations in an effective and empowering way with tangible and measurable results in employee satisfaction and workforce productivity. Check out our cool video on Conflict Management.
Travis Thomas, creator of ‘Live Yes And’ on Improvisationally Speaking
In episode 8 of Improvisationally Speaking, we speak with Travis Thomas, the creator of the company “Live Yes AND”. The “Live Yes AND” mindset is a powerful improv method Travis uses in his work in business team building, management leadership training and fostering creativity and innovation. In addition to his work with non-profits and Fortune 500 companies, Travis is a nationally performing improv-comedian.
Listen to Travis sharing his life story and the power of Improvisationally thinking in life and business here.
Mark Chenovick, the man who saved the SecondStory Reperatory Theater, on Improvisationally Speaking
Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 7 with special guest Mark Chenovick, Executive Director of the SecondStory Repertory Theater in Redmond, WA.
In this episode, Mark Chenovick opens up about the rewards of a positive, passionate (and improvisational) approach to leading the SecondStory Rep Theater from the doorstep of bankruptcy to an artistic renaissance.
Listen to Mark’s story of how improvisational thinking helped him turn it around here.
Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 6 with special guest Co-founder of BillFixers LLC, Ben Kurland
In this episode, Ben Kurland, co-founder of BillFixers LLC, shares his experience in building his business from an idea, and utilizing improvisational skills to solve problems. His unique company negotiates on behalf of consumers to lower their bills without all the hassle of fighting large companies.
Founder of Roses In Concrete, Jeff Duncan-Andrade shares his work with Improvisationally Speaking
Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 5 with special guest Roses In Concrete founder, Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, founder of Roses In Concrete, a community school that serves black and Hispanic, inner-city youth in Oakland CA, giving them an educational opportunity that rivals it’s wealthy suburban private school counterparts. With classes in dance, music performance and arrangement, and athletics, in addition to the core curriculum. Jeff is a national keynote speaker and his council is requested by education departments across the country who are trying to build a more just, equitable education system for all.
Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien on Improvisationally Speaking
Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 4 with special guest, Seattle City Councilmember, Mike O’Brien
Seattle City Councilmember, Mike O’Brien has a tough but rewarding job. As a council member, it is his job to serve his constituency and to do what he knows in right. But sometimes doing both of these at the same time is impossible. How does he communicate effectively and effect the kind of change he is charged to bring to the city of Seattle while being under the microscope of the public eye? This discussion reveals some of Mike O’Brien’s methods, and they are surprisingly based on the principles of improvisation.
Have you ever fantasized about quitting the career you know—leaving the security and the comfort of a predictable life that you may lead and following your bliss…doing what you’re passionate about, knowing that your basic needs like food and shelter and clothing will be met…somehow?
Well, on today’s episode of Improvisationally Speaking podcast, we meet Nicoletta Crisponi, a woman with more careers than most of us have light switches in our houses. She’s a guerilla marketer, waitress, brand manager, au paire, translator, bartender, reality tv actor, entrepreneur, travel blogger and occasional babysitter. She’s made a career out of her life…and a life out of her career. She’s currently on a one-year trip around the world, relying on the kindness of her connections through social media out to four degrees which is her friends all the way through her friends of her friends of her friends of her friends for places to stay and local guidance through dozens of countries, eventually linking herself all the way around the entire world—from Milan, Italy to Milan, Italy.
From Improv Alive Studios in Seattle, I’m Julian Schrenzel, and this is Improvisationally Speaking the Podcast.
Julian: Nicky, first and foremost, you are on a one-year adventure around the world and I wanted to know: where are you currently? And where are you in your overall adventure?
Nicky: Currently I’m in Nepal. I just started two months ago, so I’m really at the beginning and ten more months to go to get to the end of my world tour.
Julian: Wow, so you’ve been on the road for two months and you have ten months to go.
Nicky: Yeah, exactly. Still a while. If I think about these two months, it looks like six months because in two months, I changed four countries and every two days, I change places, I change people and it’s just keep on going, keep on going.
Julian: Do you get tired?
Nicky: I am. A lot. Yes, because when you have to organize the logistics, get in touch with people and then organize, so it’s about taking picture, editing the picture, writing the blog, making the social media—it’s a lot of work. So of course I’m tired but I’m so happy that it doesn’t matter, you know?
Julian: Yes, I totally understand. This is a really interesting, um, I would not dare ask you what you do for your work or your living because I know you don’t like that, and I don’t blame you. You’ve done so many things, it’s dizzying how many things you’ve done from being a bartender to being a marketing specialist to being a business development manager to doing guerilla marketing to being a waitress and a translator and a babysitter…so I know that for you, it’s not like you have a career that defines who you are, it’s more like who you are defines…it’s the other way around, in my opinion of this. And I wanted to ask you something: I’ve done some research, I’ve kind of traced what you’ve been doing and what you’re passionate about, what’s your—how you build your life—and I wanted to know: everything that you do seems to have a structure of a campaign, and not surprisingly, that’s kind of what you studied and what you do. You have a real talent for developing a campaign around things and building that. And I wanted to know from you—everything that you’re doing being kind of around a campaign—it’s all about, the centerpiece seems to be about communication and it always seems to be about opening up your personal life to the public. And I’m wondering how do you decide what you’re going to do next?
Nicky: When people say, “I don’t want to be on Facebook because then everybody knows about my private life,” this is not true. People know what you want them to know. So I just put online what I think might be interesting and what is not so personal to touch my really personal life, so it’s half and half. And it’s true that it’s a lot about campaign because what I would like to do is create a very strong brand around myself, around the person I am. So to be the value of what I do. It’s not like…I really think that normally when people create something, they do for a good reason. And this is normally what I do and when I work with my clients, is this, is find what is the real meaning that took them to that point, and work on it and tell their story. And then try to do the same over myself now, to be that specialist that can make the difference. That’s why I work on campaigns with what I do.
Julian: Yeah, I see.
Nicky: Because for me, important point is explain people that I have a value. It’s not just the skill that I have, but it’s also the way I use them and the way I communicate with people and the way I do the things I do.
Julian: You mentioned a book called ‘Love Marks’ by Kevin Roberts that was one of the inspirations of the way you think about campaigns and branding, or not branding. ‘Love Marks’ really, the basis from what I was understanding is to create mystery, and to create—it centers around mystery, sensuality and intimacy built into experiences that are kind of the next thing. If a company wants to create brand, it’s not about creating brand, it’s about creating experiences that involve mystery, sensuality and intimacy. And I’m wondering, do you follow that when you do what you do and create campaigns for your life? Are you following the ‘Love Marks’ principle?
Nicky: Uh…not yet. I mean, I got into this, I discovered…everything started this way: I was starting services design and furniture design and I have this way of communicating things and they couldn’t give a name to it. And they couldn’t find a way to explain what I wanted to do. Then I just ran into this book that was explaining exactly that—that communication is about creating relationship with people and get this kind of empathy and empathy that can create connection. And this is exactly what I want to do. So it started from there. But now it’s more going with the feeling. It’s not just following a structure that’s made by someone because I’m not working under such and such, I still not meshing to that kind of structure, I’m still free, that of course, it comes from there.
Julian: When I looked at the…your blogging around what you’re doing right now which is traveling around the world using social media to find friends and friends of friends and friends of friends of friends and friends of friends of friends of friends—I think that’s four levels of connections—to find people that will allow you—to put you up, people that will show you around and people that will assist you in your way around the world. I know that you’re using social media. I know that you’re heavily using communication technology for social media, you’re talking to me today, and I’m wondering with all of the technology that you’re focusing on as such a central part of your travel experience, I’m wondering if you…does it take away from your focus on the experience and on a connection to the people that you’re meeting and the new experiences you’re having as you’re going along? Is there a sacrifice in focusing so much on the technical side of it?
Nicky: It’s half and half. That’s what I was telling you before, like it’s very tiring because of course, I have to create this first connection through social media and then I have to skip to the personal part and then I have to skip again to social media to tell the story that happened. Hopefully when you meet somebody, you meet somebody—I mean, you have a Coke, you have a beer, you have a chat and the mobile phone is no longer with you, until okay, now we have to take our selfie to put on the blog and tell the story. So hopefully no, hopefully I can still like half and half. But it’s very difficult because this is one of the main problems that can happen, that you’re with somebody having a coffee and it’s kind of talking with him, you’re looking at your mobile—mostly this is what’s happening today, but here, no because also when you’re traveling, all that input you have all around you are so many that it doesn’t make sense to look at your mobile phone.
Julian: I can imagine. I totally can understand that. I’m wondering: what role—I mean, you know improvisation because I know that you actually spent time doing some, building an event for Improv Anywhere in New York City which is a organization that enlists the use of many, many people to go out and just do something altogether that’s interesting or unusual. And I’m wondering what was the project that you coordinated with them and what is your personal experience in relation to improvisation?
Nicky: With them, I work on three projects. One was the mp3 Experiments. That’s one of the most famous things they do and then I went to the Black Tie Beach and Say Something Nice that was a project with the…I don’t really remember anymore…it was with a museum. So improvisation was half and half, like I think improvisation works very well when there’s a good preparation on the base. You cannot improvise if you are not ready to know what can happen and you don’t know very well the subject you’re doing.
Nicky: So with them, of course, it’s a lot of improvisation because when you have so many people coming out without really knowing what is going to happen, you cannot control them. What you can do before is to make a very nice plan and be ready to go with the flow and just find the best way to make accomplish. Because most of the time it’s exactly what you didn’t plan is what is going to make it special because it’s so natural and so unexpected that it’s also unexpected for you so people will feel it. And it’s how I think things should work. And it’s something that really is connected with my job also nowadays. I was talking the other day with a guy that, he said to me something like, I thought he was much more structured, but then I see that he is just improvising every time and it was yeah, he can improvise just because I got structure on the base because if I don’t know what I want to do and where I want to go and no plan a, b, c, d, e, I cannot improvise—especially when you’re a girl alone in the world—lost. So you cannot just, “Okay, let’s go.” You have a plan.
Julian: How are you, today as you’re traveling around, how does improvisation play a role in your day to day this year?
Nicky: If you want to know, it’s like eighty percent because one of the most interesting thing that I discovered, especially traveling is that if you have a plan, you’re stuck. If you just go with the flow, the things happens. Like for example, today I went out just to go and see a temple because there’s a very big celebration in Nepal for Shiva, it’s Shiva day so I wanted to go and see the temple, the big celebration. In the end, I didn’t see the big celebration and I end up in an engagement party. But this is part of the flow, like okay, you know what you want to do, so I passed through on the festival and I saw what it was about, but of course when I met a friend of a friend that was just around and he told me, “Ah, you know what, I’m going to this engagement party, do you want to come?” Of course, yes. It doesn’t matter if you gonna lose this party, I saw enough, but I’m ready to do something different. And when you travel this way, I just get to my host place, of course I know more or less what are the most interesting things to do in that place, but it’s just talking with people that you discover the most interesting things. And you just be ready to catch what is comes to you.
Julian: Totally. Do you ever have an experience, have you had an experience in your travels where you have had a situation that was negative to where you were able to work through it off script, as it were, in an improvisational way that turned out well, but perhaps would not have turned out well if you weren’t able to go with the flow and roll with it.
Nicky: I think, more or less, everything, but I’m thinking about something very bad, because you know, I’m a very positive person so it’s very hard to finding something very bad that’s gonna happen to me. I always find like something nice that’s going on. Something bad that turns…okay, maybe can be this…two days ago my phone got stolen, so I was completely cut off. I’m here to make my life on social media and telling my trip and I was without the phone. The good part has been that because I was so desperate—not really desperate but I was so sorry and I really wanted to find my phone back, I started talking with everybody because I understood that talking with people is the best way to let things happen. I started talking with everybody so now I have a nice story with a bad ending because I didn’t find my phone. But I got a guy that just dropped me on the motorbike and took me to the local newspaper and wrote for me a very heart touching message asking to my…please give phone back to this girl, she really needs her phone to work. And from there, this man just took me to the police office and also there I become like the girl that really needs to have her phone back so I have a nice story to tell, like okay, there are bad people everywhere, but if you just talk with people, they can be very helpful so I found this amazing man that just left everything that he was doing, he just said, “Okay, jump on,” he took me around and now I have my very nice piece of paper that I will keep for all my life to remember the day that I went to the newspaper asking please give me back my phone and of course, it didn’t work, but…
Julian: But it became something of an experience you’ll never forget, right?
Nicky: Yeah, this for sure. This for sure. And at least I know how they handle here. Like…and also I saw the difference between people because this guy that took me to the newspaper because he really believe that it’s possible to touch human soul with words and so convince them to give me back the phone. And there was other people that were just looking at me like, “You’re really desperate and like you will never find your phone again.” So it’s half and half, but it has been an interesting experience.
Julian: I want to ask you, do you ever have to worry about having what you need? In your work, which is so different in so many different directions, you don’t have a 9 to 5 job, you know, with a paycheck that’s steady, but you’re finding your passion and executing your passion and being able to get what you need, to get what you live on, I think based off of that…and I’m wondering do you ever have to worry about having what you need—money, food, healthcare—those kind of things in your work?
Nicky: No, because as you said before, I did everything. It’s not like I started from the waiter and then I got to manager. They are really mixed. Like I can be like a business manager during the day, and the day after being there giving leaflets to people. I don’t really mind. I think that, on the contrary, I think it’s very important because the day that I go out at six in the morning to give leaflets to people, I really remember how hard it is so when I have to organize this kind of job, I know how to handle with the people that are going to do it and I really remember that we should smile and take every day that our world give to us because it’s very hard to do. No, because I’m ready to do really whatever kind of job, I don’t mind because it’s not because I studied, it’s not because I got to some point that I’m not ready to start through the beginning again. Maybe what is going to happen after this year going around and blogging is that I’m ready to go and apply for a McDonald’s.
Julian: I’ll bet you are. To those people who might look at your life and work and coming from a steady paycheck, and kind of dreaming of doing the kind of thing you’re doing, but are scared to do that, scared to leave the security and the routine of that, what would you say to someone who was thinking about and wanting to do that?
Nicky: That this is exactly the difference between me and them. And between them and somebody else. If you’re not ready to risk, nothing will ever change. And of course you need to do it, but with cautions. So it’s not like okay, you want to leave and you leave. For me, it took two years to organize the trip, to find a good story to tell, to make all my presentation to find a sponsor. It’s…it takes time, but it’s a very good investment. So anybody can do it. If I did it, anybody can do it. The real difference is have a plan, really believe in it, work for it, and when you’re ready, just go. And just push to go because if you don’t do it, you will never do it. You just need to put a date, buy a ticket and then it’s too late to come back. I still had a problem with my ticket, I bought it last week and I start telling everybody I was leaving for a world tour so everybody was expecting this from me and it was too late to say, “Ah, no I’m sorry, I just changed my mind.”
Julian: You burned the ships, as it were. What are you afraid of?
Nicky: What I am afraid of? I am afraid of become too independent because I think that trusting people is one of the most important thing. But when you get used to count on you, all on you, every day, the risk is not be able to just live your life in the hands of somebody else at some point. This is something I’m afraid of. And I’m afraid that going very far away will keeping me very far away from my family. This is very Italian, I know. But it’s true, for us family is very important. So those are the only two things, that something can happen to my parents and that I can be so independent that I will be alone forever. Sounds good?
Julian: It’s hard to separate your traveling from your life, your work from your life. You kind of, your life is your travel and your life is your work, so my question to you is there, is a love and passion that drives you to be you and do what you do, and I’m wondering what is that?
Nicky: I think it’s the person I want to be. Maybe. Because if you really do what makes you happy, you have this kind of good energy that you give to the other people and you can feel it because, like right now, I have so many people that I just crossed through my way and I growing a lot with them, but I also feel they are taking something from me. Like what you saying, a good example, if I did it and I’m not special, I’m exactly like whoever else, so if I did it, somebody else can do. And this give you a lot of energy and makes you feeling very well about what you do. And also when you feel that you’re doing the right thing, you’re giving to your life what you are supposed to, you just feel very well. Three years ago, I had a car accident, just a car ran over me, and I ever been the person that I need to do today what I want to do, but after that, it becomes even more and during this three years that I was working on the project, I was really loving my job in the agency, but for me working is something that cures me. I need to have new things every day to let my mind keep growing, keep growing. And if I feel that I stop, it doesn’t, it doesn’t go anymore. So if it is traveling, if it is working, if it is whatever it is, I just need to have new information and new things that’s happening every day. So traveling and working are my passion because I keep on growing and becoming a better person, becoming the person I wish one day I will be because I’m still a lot to run. But sometimes I really feel that I’m going the right direction and it is happening where I have nice exchange with people.
Julian: Nicky, thank you.
Thank you for listening to Improvisationally Speaking where you can also find us now on itunes, Google Play and Stitcher. Next week, we are going to be interviewing Tessa Frost as our special guest. Tessa uses improvisation in her dual professional careers, one in politics on the Hill, as in Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and the other as a singer, songwriter and performer. It promises to be an excellent episode 3.
This podcast is a production of Improv Alive LLC, Seattle, Washington. See you next week.
Chris Schembra – Founder & Chief Question Asker at the 747 Club in NYC
Julian 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.