Cycling in the rain is never fun. But that day I didn’t care one bit. My destination was a standup comedy venue, for the first in a series of six classes. I’d been looking forward to it for a while. It might have been pouring outside, but my inner forecast was sunny, no showers.
Yet when I walked out back outside a few hours later, dark clouds had gathered.
I felt a desperate sense of shame, frustration, and sadness. I was wiped out. Drained. Despairing. My self-esteem hovered near zero. And a full 24 hours later my vibe remained deeply overcast.
Not because I bombed. Not in the typical sense, at least. It was something else.
Later, I thought about how many others must have had these same feelings. And not just as an adult in comedy classes - at any age, in any learning environment.
I wanted to figure out some solutions. But first - what was the problem?
Turn it up to eleven
For most of the class, I wasn’t quite sure what was the matter. Early on, I had some nerves, but nothing major. It felt similar to when I teach or speak somewhere. New people, new place, destination unknown.
But by halfway, a very nasty sense of deja vu: chest burning, pounding heartbeat, fidgeting in my seat, impatience, checking the clock. Anxious. Agitated. Two, three, four thought channels whirring away at once. None of them clear. Crossed wires. I could feel myself disintegrating, unable to synthesize a single thing. It was awful.
In the class’s final third - its final act - I had a realization. The issue wasn’t ‘doing standup’ - I feel pretty ok about it, overall. Something else was going on. I know that from time to time I suffer from some form of social anxiety, and today it was amplified. Up all the way up to eleven. The environment and design of the experience seemed to be giving me serious problems. This wasn't 'edge of your comfort zone'. This was deep agitation.
Quick dictionary check: agitation can be defined as “exceeding restlessness associated with mental distress” and “excessive motor activity associated with a feeling of inner tension.”
Yup. That's about right. And I believe a lot of my agitation comes from rigid or maladaptive learning environments. This might be why I do a lot of teaching, facilitation, and learning design (yes, ironic indeed).
The morning after, I had a go at writing through the lingering weird vibes. My Morning Pages ostensibly started as processing the feels, but quickly flipped to jiu jitsu: using the weight of an opponent against itself. In this case, a bid to use my issues and what caused them into positive learning and progress.
After all, while I may be a horrible student, I enjoy learning.
A few hours later, an extensive, risky - yet I hope valuable - blog post emerged. And this is it.
Notes on a remix
This post is my breakdown - and remix - of that 3-hour class, along with some notes on my personal experience.
I’ve aimed to make the remixed design as flexible and inclusive as possible - with the goal for all kinds of humans to feel empowered to do cool stuff. I also hope some of these ideas are helpful in designing your own classes, workshops, or other live experiences.
In case you're thinking 'wtf?!' (understandable), a few notes before we begin:
- While I've included my own feelings and responses to help contextualise the live session that day, the primary goal here is to offer ideas on how to optimize any live workshop/class, not just something for moi.
- From what I can tell, the school is very well-regarded. I’ve also been to a few excellent shows they've hosted. And as long as they don't expel me (edit: they did...), I plan to go back for the rest of the course. This post isn’t intended as a hatchet job - we have enough of those in the world already.
- I'm no expert on standup comedy (that's why I'm a student), so perhaps there are very good reasons for the original design of this session. But as someone with LX design experience I want to share an alternative approach.
- This post is 4,500 words. Don't worry though, it's broken down into short sections and bullet points, so it'll go quick, honest.
Ok, with all that out of the way, here we go.
The 3 Hour Standup Class (Level 1)
I think of workshops and classes as having a groove - just like music. So this post is a slice of vinyl with two sides. On the flip is my remixed version, but first here's Side A - the original 3-hour mix. Let's get into it.
Side A: Original Mix
- A1: Environment
- A2: Outline
- A3: Exercises
- A4: The Inside Track
Here are the basics:
- It’s a single room, about 15’ x 15’. Door to a bathroom at the back. Large rug in the middle of the floor.
- One decent size window. Soundproofing on the walls. Brightish lighting.
- Folding chairs for everyone (12 participants + 1 teacher).
- aka, a typical performance studio space. They're not the very best learning environments, but they ain't bad either.
Next, the session outline. Some of the timings are a bit off but the general structure is accurate. Also, I'll explain the exercises in detail in a minute. Here’s how I remember it running:
- 0:00-0:30: Intro from teacher. Intro from students. Round the room, 1-2 min intro per person
- 0:30-1:00: Exercise 1: ‘Hate/Love’. Full group, round the room.
- 1:00-1:05: Break
- 1:05-1:25: Exercise 2: ‘Hometown’: Teacher intro. 10 mins silent journaling, solo
- 1:25-2:10: ‘Hometown’: live performance. Full group, each person performs around 3 mins
- 2:10-2:15: Break
- 2:15-2:25: Exercise 3: ‘Party’: Round the room, people name types of parties
- 2:25-2:50: ‘Party’: live performance. Full group, each person performs around 3 mins
- 2:50-3:00: Homework and Wrap
At first look, it’s a pretty solid outline! A few things you may have noticed:
- Enough breaks, and they’re well placed. A short duration for each is usually good in this kind of class
- Not too many exercises, and each has a primer of sorts
- There’s a solo activity plus group work
- I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but the number three is used a few times (3 activities, 3 'acts', rules of thirds, 3 mins, etc). Three is very often the magic number...
To add some context, here's my understanding of the exercises/activities (note: if you want to skip these, scroll down to the 'The Inside Track' section)
Exercise 1: Hate/Love
The primary goal is to create a simple way to excavate potential material; with secondary goals of loosening people up, and building empathy and connection
- Everyone stands in a circle. The teacher picks someone to stand in the middle.
- Participant introduces themselves ("Hi, I'm Howard")
- The teacher then gives a prompt which is a version of either ‘What do you hate?’ or ‘What do you love?’.
- The participant then starts talking about this (and why!), sharing with the whole group, i.e. continuing to turn and move as they speak.
- e.g. 'I love my phone because...', 'I hate dating because...'
- Every so often, the teacher throws in one of three prompts:
- flipping the focus from either hate to love, or love to hate;
- asking them to go deeper on something that’s interesting;
- steering away from a topic that’s getting repetitive or running out of road somehow
- Each participant stays in the middle for 2-4 minutes, with the goal to keep talking throughout
- The teacher calls time, participant outros ("Thanks, I'm Howard")
- The teacher picks the next participant at random
- Repeat until everyone's been in the middle
Exercise 2: Hometown
The goals of this exercise are similar to those in exercise 1 - finding material, and building connection. Except this time, it's:
i) more personal and niche (exercise 1 can be very general/accessible/relatable, whereas this is going to be more specific to the individual);
ii) both generated and delivered solo.
These two factors mean the dynamics shift. There's also a goal to build some confidence and experience doing a 'real' performance (with a mic and a seated audience). Here's how it runs:
- The teacher asks everyone to spend around 10 minutes silent journaling about their hometown. The goal is to approach this like ‘Morning Pages’ - continuously writing, free form, don’t let the pen leave the page
- During the 10 minutes, the teacher offers some prompts: ‘tell me about characters who lived there’, ‘what kind of events took place’, 'what did it look like in different seasons', etc.
- The teacher then invites participants to stand up and do a routine based on what they wrote. The rest of group stay seated in a semi-circle / 'in the round' seating plan
- Each participant has an open timeframe, but most come in at 3 minutes or so
- The teacher offers some feedback - both positive and constructive critique
- The teacher then invites another 2 or 3 people to stand up and do their individual routines, before picking the rest of the group at random one by one
Exercise 3: Party
The goals here are very similar to exercise 2 (performance, material, connection), but with the personal context / intimacy levels dialed back a bit. This one has just a few steps:
- The teacher asks the group to name different types of party.
- A couple of people start, then the teacher points at different members of the group to get more ideas. This keeps going until the well begins to run dry. Some prompts may be needed to shift it in different directions, (e.g. to try and surface ideas like 'Political', 'Divorce' etc)
- Each person then goes straight into a solo standup routine about one of these kinds of party, with some flexibility to riff a bit as they wish. The teacher picks people one-by-one to go next
- Each person choose their own duration, but time is capped at approx 3 minutes
Ok, so that's the rundown of the exercises. Let's go deeper inside.
A4: The Inside Track
The intro bit of this post was about how problematic I found this class. But I don't want it to be about me. A lot of learning environments - largely inadvertently - cause a lot of people to struggle (for example, the AADA believe 15m people in the US have social anxiety disorder - and many learning spaces just aren't set up to accommodate things like this).
In this section I'm going to outline where I think the session had some problems. BUT - I also want to highlight some stuff that worked well. Because there are some great bits!
To do all this easily, let's look at some general stuff before breaking it out by 'Acts':
- Act 1: Intros; Exercise 1 - ‘Hate/Love’
- Act 2: Exercise 2 - ‘Hometown’
- Act 3: Exercise 3 - ‘Party’
- Single Modality: The whole session took place in a large group (bar the 10 mins of solo writing), and nearly all of it took place in a single seating plan (full circle or 3/4 circle to allow for a 'stage').
- Environment: The room was warrrrrm, with very bright lights. This leads to rapid wooziness - no bueno. Now, these are tricky things for the teacher to fix, but in my remix version I offer a couple of ways to help mitigate them.
- Movement: This class had a LOT of sitting down (yeah, I know - 'standup'). Sitting made up roughly 80% of the 3 hours, and nearly all of it in the same place.
(Intros + 'Hate/Love' exercise)
- Intro - Teacher: While there was great info shared on local gigs and the class's wider community, the only background we really got on the teacher was their name. Could we have had some more on their work in standup, their backstory, or their 'why'?. It's such a great way to build both authority and rapport.
- Intro - Students: Everyone shared their name and 'why they are here'. One at a time, a minute or so each. This was cool - there are a few ways to make it more engaging (and efficient) but it did the job just fine
- Hate/Love: This one is great. My remix offers a couple of adjustments, but not much else. Here's why it's cool.:
- People move in and out of the circle;
- The person in the middle moves within it (and however much or little as they wish);
- The teacher offers personalized prompts and reframes to keep the right groove.
- Also, the teacher didn't offer any feedback, and this was a good thing - because speaking of groove, this exercise is all about building it. It's too early in the session for critique, or in some ways even positive affirmation (this can feel contrived, imo).
('Hometown' exercise - silent writing, followed by performances by all)
- Signposting: Most people - both kids and adults - like to know what's coming next. There was a bit of signposting in that we’ll do ‘something’ with the writing, but it wasn't really enough given the gravity of what was coming (remember - this is a level 1 class ostensibly for people who haven't done it before, and the school have zero background on anyone's comfort or experience levels). Instead, the moment the 10 minutes was up, we were effectively told: "Surprise! Now you need to do this as a standup routine. Right now/".
- Cognitive Load: Have you ever tried to... be present and listen to someone else speak; attempt to learn from the subtext of what they're saying; and think about your own ideas that you may be revealing either 1, 5 or 25 minutes from now - all at the same time? Like that previous sentence, it's a lot. This was personally my biggest issue - although most others seemed ok with it (tbh, this surprised me - in most contexts like this I'd think many would struggle)
- Optionality: The material had to come from the writing. Now, this is a constraint (and constraints are often positive), but what if you don’t want to write about your hometown? Or nothing really comes to mind? I may diverge from standup/improv experts here, but from a learning perspective I believe prompts, nudges and alternative paths are essential (see my remix for more on this).
- Modality & Movement: We did this one using two modalities (solo writing + solo performance to the full group), but only in one fixed seated position (bar the 3 min performance). An hour straight on a metal chair is rarely joyous.
- Time burn: This activity felt like it went on a long time - partly due to the single modality. There are efficiency issues when having 12 people (especially novices) all go up one at a time, do a bit, get feedback, then switch. Not a big issue in isolation, but it compounds other design kinks
- Loops: Related: the feedback and learning loop is pretty long. The one-by-one approach does have its positives, but gaining learnings is even harder when you blend in the cognition issues referenced above
- Improvised: Nothing wrong here, improvising is (largely) cool! The problem is when it’s mixed in with these other elements - especially that lack of optionality
('Party' exercise - Party name ideation, followed by performances by all)
- Signposting: Again, not much given, but it had way less impact than previously as a) the exercise was lighter, and b) by this point we'd kinda guessed the pattern
- Everything mentioned in Act 2 also cropped up here too - except Optionality as we could choose a type of party. While the impact of these issues was smaller - mainly because of said Optionality - they still made the experience feel less than optimal
- I think there may have been a callback to the 'Hate/Love' activity ('I hate parties because...', 'I love parties because...') but it wasn't made explicit - doing so probably would have helped people with some pattern matching
As you can see, most of the issues happened in Act 2.
While humans overvalue the beginning and end of experiences, if the middle is a slog, it's really not good. Remember movies you've dropped out of because the second act sucks? Yeah, me too. And this is where my experience fell apart. Which reminds me...
Before we go to Side B - a side note
A note on my personal struggles in this class. To skip this, scroll down to 'Side B'
It's important I be honest. During 'Hometown' I found myself in a pretty bad place. I wrote very little during the journaling. I already felt a bit frazzled, and the topic seemed uninteresting and tired - particularly given I'd explained where I'm from so many times in the past few years, and find so few people are really that interested (despite asking!). So I opted out. (Yes, this is baggage I need to deal with.)
In that 10 minutes, my mind went to two places:
1) a riff on that topic of how people don't care, and so many places are kinda the same anyway (seemed like an interesting meta comedy thing to explore?)
2) the feelings of frustration that eventually led to this post
So, with this information and the points I made above re. the design issues, guess what happened to me at the end of the 10 mins? I had nothing, was caught in a possible yet completely off the cuff meta bit to share, couldn't concentrate, and was feeling increasingly frustrated and anxious. Youch.
When I was picked (number 7 of 12 I think), I nearly stayed put. And I should have done. Because I hadn't even made it to the mic when it started going wrong.
We'd been asked to record all our stuff on our phones. But I left my phone by my chair. When this was remarked upon, I politely declined to record my live bit but was firmly told it's a ‘class rule’ to record every bit that you do. I got the intention here, but did not enjoy being forced to record the thing on my phone. In my opinion, if it's not hurting someone else, I don't see the issue in allowing some flex. Honestly, it reminded me of talking to my 2 year old. Except, last time I checked, I'm legally an adult.
Anyway, up there I made an attempt at leading deadpan with 'My hometown..? I mean, come on, you really don't care...' . It instantly bombed. Fine, but the weird thing was that some of the audience looked genuinely shocked. (note to self: never forget that Americans are indeed more sensitive than Brits).
I fumbled on for 30 seconds or so, but it was horrible. I wasn't bombing. It was far worse than that. I felt a lump in my throat. I stammered that I didn't write much in the 10 minutes and found the prompt triggered little for me. Someone audibly tutted(!) (they did later apologise, which I appreciated). The teacher, visible annoyed, snapped ‘Why did you sign up for a class then?’. This was far from helpful. I nearly came back at them, but fortunately held my tongue. One other thing to add to the list of issues in Act 2? Empathy (or at least just checking if I was ok).
By the time I crawled back to my seat I felt utterly terrible. In hindsight, I just should have passed on speaking, full stop. But then, that doesn't send out a great message either, does it?
Perhaps even more unwisely, I used my final performance slot to clarify my difficulties during the previous couple of hours. My chest still gurgling with my molten lava, I explained to the room (on mic) that a heady concoction of design factors could render kryptonite for someone like me. Hoping for solace, I was instead met with a room of bemused and blank faces. This may have been because I’d been so deeply awkward and uncomfortable standing up in front of everyone only 45 minutes before. Even so, I felt slightly better for providing an explanation. If not yet at peace, I’d at least said my piece.
The reason I include this lengthy side note is to:
1) Present a more balanced view (i.e. I'm far from perfect),
2) Illustrate how design factors can create severely negative experiences for people
Alright, enough of that. Let's go to Side B!
Side B: Howard's 'Yellow Bike Rainstorm' Remix
- B1: Outline
- B2: The Inside Track
Time to flip it. Let's have a go at a remix. Just two tracks here. I'm going to take the elements from the 'Inside Track' section of the Original Mix and rework 'em a bit. All the actual activities stay the same.
Let's start with the remixed outline. We'll compare it with the original in a minute.
- 0:00-0:10: Intro from teacher
- 0:10-0:25: Connection activity
- 0:25-0:35: Round the Room intros
- 0:35-1:05: Hate/Love
- 1:05-1:10: Break
- 1:10-1:20: 'Hometown' intro + journaling
- 1:20-1:30: 'Hometown' pair activity
- 1:30-2:10: 'Hometown' performance
- 2:10-2:15: Break
- 2:15-2:30: 'Party' intro + ideation
- 2:30-2:55: 'Party' performance
- 2:55-3:00: Homework and Wrap
That's it. But it's hard to tell from this what's different, right? Let's look at what's going on inside.
B2: The Inside Track
- Modality: There were issues with one dominant modality (large group) and one layout/seating plan. Instead, we now have multiple modalities (solo, pair, small group, full group); multiple layouts; and both 'diverge' & 'converge' themed activities.
- Use the power of 12: We're lucky to have a wonderful number of participants. 12 divides by 6, 4, 3, and 2, so let's make the most of it.
- Environment: Warm room, bright lights. Not a ton we can do here, but modality switching can go a decent way to mitigating it. We'll change the setup of the people, activity type, and/or space every 15-30 mins.
- Movement: We can also shift the vibe through movement and layouts. Small group stuff is an easy way to get people moving. Shifting to a different part of the room also offers them a subtle change in visual environment. And to provide optionality here, people can be offered to do group work either in place (i.e where their chairs are), to move around, and to stand, sit, or even do a yoga pose if they really want to
- Teacher intro. Loads of ways to do this, but hitting these is a good start:
- Who am I?
- Why am I here?
- Who I hope you'll become at the end
- Why does this matter?
- Teacher intro. Loads of ways to do this, but hitting these is a good start:
- Primer on the class's code of conduct, blended with some 'guidelines for greatness' to make it feel less stuffy. As part of this, address some unspoken objections (could also do this later on, even at the class midpoint).
- Connection Activity:
- Before we go to the big group, start small. A quick thing in groups of 3 or 4 offers a chance to - at the minimum - catch a couple of people’s names and vibes.
- We can also throw in a prompt or two to remove fear and build connection (e.g. ‘what scares you most about standup?’, or 'what do you want to be different 6 weeks from now?').
- And to extend it out, we may want to rotate people between groups to maximize peer-to-peer interaction.
- We could probably keep this per the Original if the connection activity preceded it. One change would be to switch the scale down from a single 12 to 2 groups of 6. It builds on the previous group activity size (3's), and might also be more effective and save time (albeit with slightly trickier facilitation).
- When we're done, we could bring the group together as one for a super-quick name intro activity including one thing they noticed/liked from the previous activity. By now most people will likely caught an initial vibe with at least 4-5 others, so they only need to closely focus on another half dozen or so.
- 'Hometown' intro and setup
- We'll signpost that we’re going to do something with the writing - even ‘you’re going to build a short performance from this’ would be enough - and help us catch any deep anxiety or discomfort
- We'll also add a couple of layers of optionality. This can be as easy as ‘anyone feeling stuck?’... ‘ok, here’s another approach to try’.
- If time is running tight, we could trim the journaling to 7 mins with minimal impact.
- 'Hometown' performance:
- Even though this had a lot of issues before, the changes are actually quite small. We'll start with a modality shift.
- This could be as easy as a 7-8 min pair activity. Do 2 mins each with the person next to you. Share one bit from your writing and get their feedback/input ('I like...', 'I wish...' is an easy framework to use), then switch places. This helps people make a choice of where to focus, and puts a teeny bit of shape around rough ideas.
- Then, we'll add a 3 minute limit to the ‘live performance’ full group part (they can jump out early if they like).
- Another option in the large group setting is to ask the performer to 'only' perform to their partner, i.e. pretending they are the sole other person in the room. The teacher could also select people alphabetically or a semi-random sorting hat approach
- Note: 30 mins per the outline should be ok, just... :)
- 'Party' intro and setup:
- There's a great opportunity for a small group activity here. Here's an example:
- Get into groups of 3, each with pens and sticky notes. Find a bit of wall to use. Each group has 2-3 mins to write down as many types of party as they can, one idea per note, stick 'em on the wall.
- Then, 5 mins to pick 1-2 ideas each and tell your teammates why you like it.
- This allows people to explore both 'divergent' and 'convergent' approaches
- Even if two people in different groups choose the same type of party, we'll likely get a different performance (content, delivery, life experience etc)
- 'Party' performance:
- This stays as per the original :)
- Note: this one runs a touch longer, so we'll use the time saved during Hate/Love (via our two groups of six)
And that's it! That's the remix.
Now, this seems like a LOT (and when broken down in detail, along with tales of my own anguish - it is).
BUT - and it's a big old but - when it comes to rebuilding the session, there are actually only a handful of General design adjustments, and each Act only has two main changes:
- Act 1
- Modality switching
- Opportunity to build connection, set goals and allay fears
- Act 2
- Use small groups to tone down the heavy dynamics of solo writing + enforced improv amid constant stimulus (!)
- Add optionality
- Act 3
- Capture more ideas
- Collaboration to help shape chosen ideas
Believe it or not, there's a lot more to explore here - the learning science stuff goes DEEP. But that's for another post (if I could manage it...). For now, I'd love to attend this remixed class and see how I feel. Shame I can't :-/
Finally, three things:
First, I can't believe all this spilled out of me off the back of one class I attended, but I found myself deeply upset afterwards and wanting to do something about it.
Second (and far more importantly), I truly believe there's huge scope to make all kinds of experiences - classes, workshops, summits, company meetings, and beyond - more engaging, accessible, dynamic, and enjoyable. To be clear, this is not a diss to things that don't work so well - we don't know what we don't know, after all. I really do hope this post comes across in a positive way.
Lastly, if you're working on something that may benefit from a remix, do get in touch - I'd love to hear from you. And I promise won't get agitated (or try a standup routine).
See you on stage.
Update: a couple of days later the director of the school called, and asked me to leave the class. I offered to share some of the ideas in this post via email, but was met with no response.