In this week’s episode, we’re chatting with Neil Mullarkey.
You may recognize him from his performances in Whose Line Is it Anyway, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, QI, and two Austin Powers movies.
Yeah, you read that right!
We’re chatting about all things Improv and how you can level up your business and your relationships by using improv as a tool.
Let’s dive in!
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Show Notes 📓
✅ Learn more about Neil Mullarkey and his book, “Seven Steps to Improve Your People Skills”. https://neilmullarkey.com/sevensteps
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Read the Transcription 🤓
Taylorr: Welcome to another episode of Technically Speaking. I am so excited about today’s guest improv extraordinaire, Neil Mullarkey. Neil. Welcome to the show, my friend,
Neil: Thank you very much for having me. I’m excited to be with you.
Taylorr: Absolutely. It’s great to be here with you. So, for our listeners, you may recognize and deal from his performances on Whose Line Is It Anyway? I’m sorry, I Haven’t a Clue, QI and two Austin Powers movies. Since 1999, he has been teaching improv as a communication skill, he’s traveled to 24 countries bringing the skills of theater and especially improv to public and private sector organizations, large and small. His book, Seven Steps to Improve Your People Skills was published in October, 2017. You can visit neilmullarkey.com and yes, Mullarkey is his real name. Neil, I am so grateful you’re here. One of the questions we’d love to kick this off with is how did you get into the space of comedy? What led you down this path? And how’d you get rolling? And how’d you end up where you are today?
Neil: How long do we have?
Taylorr: We have all day.
Neil: Well, I realized at high school that making people love had a certain power and people liked you and you could get attention and you could make friends. You could create rapport. Maybe I wasn’t as Machiavellian as that but then when I was in the school play, I thought this is great. I’m on stage and people are laughing. And of course, they shouldn’t have been laughing on occasions, I was upstaging other people horribly in a Tom Stoppard play called The Real Inspector Hound. So gradually I thought, this is what I want to do and I was watching Monty Python.
Neil: And that was a big thing when I was growing up. And I heard about a thing called the Cambridge Footlights out of Cambridge university and John Cleese out of Monty Python and others had come from the Cambridge Footlights and other people. I like British comedians, like they were call The Goodies and Peter Cook, who was a great sort of satire guy in the sixties, and I discovered you go to Cambridge and you could do funny. And if nobody was looking, you might end up doing funny as a business, as a world, as a career. So, I was in the school play and I got to Cambridge and I auditioned for plays. I didn’t get to any plays my whole first term, I suppose, semester, except for the Cambridge Footlights because I was able to write a sketch or two and there were these two scary guys auditioning. They were called Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie and I had to do my show the next night. I did these two sketches, they went well, they said, well done Neil. And by the next term they’d said, actually, I’d done a couple more of these tryout sessions and they said, do you want to join the committee?
Wow. I was going to be the extra member in their first year. And by this stage, my dad was noticing, he said, do you want to do this as your career? And I said, yeah, I do. I do. And then I got to be president of the Footlights, so you do a Pantomime, you do a sketch show, which goes to the Edinburgh Festival. When I graduated, we’d all graduated, we toured around the UK and Australia, that’s how we got our equity card, which was the thing you needed it in the 1980s. And this was my opening, but of course it didn’t happen straight away so we took our show to a very small theater in London called Notting Hill above a pub. And there was a guy who’d walked past, He just moved to the UK from Canada where he was born and he’d knocked on the door because he saw on our poster, Cambridge Footlights.
So, he said to the theater, this pub theater with no heating, can I help somehow with this show? And they said, yeah, yeah, you can paint the set and then you can sell tickets. So, I first met this guy, whose name is Mike Myers, he was selling tickets for us. He was sitting in a wheelchair because we use the regular chairs on the set and he made me laugh. And I said, what are you doing here? He said, well, I moved here because my parents are British. I saw the things saying Cambridge Footlights I’ve come from second city. Second city, I said. And he looked at me. You’ve heard of second city? Most people in Britain have not. I have, because I love a movie called the Blues Brothers and I discovered the Saturday night live was a thing in the States.
And gradually I seduced him, he seduced me, we started doing a double act, Mullarkey and Myers, and we started doing improv as well and we formed The Comedy Store Players in 1985 before Taylorr was born, maybe Austin. I’m not sure, maybe vice versa. So that’s how The Comedy Store Players started, and gradually I started doing little bits on radio, bits on TV writing scripts here and there, but my heart was always with improv. This was the most fun where the audience tells you stuff and you make it a little scene with your colleague and it’s immediate and spontaneous and fun and vulnerable and something very special, magical happens in those moments.
Austin: Wow. First of all, what a cool story? All the way from making people laugh in grade school to going to Cambridge and starting The Comedy Store Players I think you said, awesome. I think it’s funny too because like you’ve honed in on improv and this might just be an Austin thing, I don’t know if it is though, because improv is you come up with on the moment it’s spontaneous, as you said and that kind of terrifies me. I’m sure it can be taught and done, but I feel like I’m in the moment and you freeze, not sure what to say. Did you ever struggle with that problem? Did improv come naturally to you or was that a skill set you had to develop?
Neil: It’s a skill set. You can be taught Austin and I will do it one day for you if nobody else will.
Austin: Take you up on that.
Neil: So, I met Mikey, started talking about improv. I’d heard of improv, but I thought it was a cheat. I thought what? No, no, no, no. They must just have a prepared sketch and they use the audience’s suggestion and get to their sketch, whatever they’d done. And my friend had seen the show, said no, I couldn’t see how they did that No, no, no and let me tell you, you have to write sketches and then they’re funny. And then Mike introduced me to the whole idea of improv, which is at its most profound about listening, about being open to ideas of the other person. It actually started with social work in the 1920s in Chicago, working with inner city children, some of them not native speakers, but he quickly started telling me about the idea of accept the offer, whatever the colleague gives you, you say, okay yeah and you give her something back that builds the story.
Now of course, that sounds good and beautiful and fluffy. The first time we did our improv, Mike and I were doing a tryout spot. Five minutes. We didn’t have five minutes material; we have three minutes so Mike said let’s just improvise. So, there we were, he asked for something, I have no idea what he was saying, my head was swimming, I had no idea who I was, where I was because I just hadn’t done it. And Mike was great, but I was next to him. We got a gig for 20 minutes to do three weeks later. But then I went to a course, Mike is a great teacher by the way. And he started teaching us and there was a woman called Kate Hollaback as well, who’d come from San Francisco who with worked with Robin Williams, and gradually you get to know and you get to that moment.
And I see that now as a teacher where people are going, I can’t do it. I can’t do it. Oh, I must let go. Hey, I can do it. Keith Johnson is one of the heroes of British improv who now lives in Calgary in Canada. But he said, you can become a great improviser if you let go of the fear of being seen as mad, bad or wrong. And of course, that’s difficult to do. You can do that intellectually, but those are the fears that keep us alive. That’s our survival instinct. So, when you suddenly realize, if I just say whatever they said plus a little bit, then it’s okay, but that’s a journey. It is addictive though. Once you’ve done that, it’s hard to then think, well, why should I sit down and write stuff? I want to be on stage with another person with an audience whose energy is making me funny, making me alive.
So, Austin, yes, you can do it, but it is a skill set and there are some simple rules almost as important as listening, as sort of emptying your own mind and of course our mind is full of stuff one of which is I could be wrong. And they did an MRI scan on jazz improvisers and the bits of their brain that kind of stilled during them improvising music are, I know what I’m going to do and I care what people think. And what’s interesting is if you kind of let go of those, you become a better improviser. And actually, people love you for letting go and they enjoy you staying stuff and being slightly shocked by what you said or surprised by what the other person said. So, it can’t be compared with scripted material, which is good and well-honed and flows well. Improv is a series of mistakes that somehow make a hole that is enjoyable.
Austin: It sounds very human too, that’s why humans do. We make mistakes and we improve and we change, it’s a very human way of being funny and comedic and I love that. So, thank you for explaining that. And also thank you for my belief that you think that I can do it. I would like to try it eventually.
Taylorr: Well, rule one is listening and you’ve already demonstrated what a good listener you are.
Austin: Oh, well good. I’m happy to hear that. I’d love to hear some of your other tips as well, by the way, I’m curious and I think we’ll segue into that. This skill set of yours, of making energy happen in a room and making people laugh and I can tell how much you enjoy it yourself obviously, but you’ve been able to successfully turn this into a business and worked with the likes of Google and Microsoft and other huge organizations like that. So how did that become that? How did turning regular improv, where you’re working, doing these fun gigs and bits and how did that translate into working with corporate audiences?
Austin: Well, there was a push and pull if you like. I was a bit frustrated with where things were going for me because I was at a level that I was making a living, but it was do I really want to audition for that commercial when there’s 50 other people who arrive in the same suit as me and look roughly the same and writing stuff for TV, there’s a lot of process whereby they yeah, this is great. We’ll let you know. And they’d never quite say no. Or they said, there’s something a bit like this. So, there’s frustrations and movies as well, i was in Hollywood for a while, thanks to Mike Mayers helping me get some contacts, I helped him do some rewrites on So I Married an Axe Murderer so I got an agent, I spent time in LA and what’s interesting about LA is anything could happen, but it doesn’t necessarily happen.
So, I got untraced amazing producers because I had a great agent, but it was kind of, I didn’t know how to pitch. And it turned out later, actually you have to be there for a while, you have to have a few things turned down. Then they say, well, what about this? Or we’ve got this idea, why don’t you work on that? So, it’s quite a process really. Anyway, I got frustrated and I was wanting to run my own little business and I like teaching. My father when he asked me is showbiz what you want to do? There was part of him that was saying, because if that’s what you want to do, go for it because he himself was an oil and gas executive and had really wanted to be a teacher but people said, teaching doesn’t bring enough money in.
And he was a great teacher and I thought this, I want to teach improv. It’s such a beautiful thing. I think it’s wonderful both onstage and in life and it is teachable. And so, I was thinking somehow, could I do this? And I met various people who are from the arts theater and other arts, working with business, bringing our view of how you create, our view of the process of collaboration into business and I said well actually improv is all about listening. Surely that’s important in business. So, I started investigating and making connections and I wrote to somebody who wrote about an amazing session they’d had with a poet. I wrote and said a poet? Hey, if you’re prepared to countenance that, an improv guy where it’s all about improv and creativity collaboration, that should be an easy sell. And they said, yeah okay, come along.
Gradually, gradually I got people saying, yeah, that makes sense. Come and do a thing for us at a business school or for consultancy. And initially I was thinking I try and solve everything in two hours. And then I realized, no, no, just calm, just try give some simple improv tips like I’ve given you now kind of. Yes, and the world rather than yes but, listen, accept what the other person has to say. That’s how they feel that’s how they see the world. Gradually, gradually, and then I realized that there’s lots of management and leadership theories that are like improv but the world isn’t certain, the world isn’t predictable. And guess what? You need some improv skills. So, improv can both be an interpersonal skill, how do I have better conversations? And also, a mindset. How do I deal with the world? Which is VUCA, do you guys know VUCA?
Neil: They say no, thank you. VUCA, V U C A. The world is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. It was coined by the, I believe the American military, but it hasn’t quite entered common parlance like disruptive, being disruptive technology, but improv is VUCA. It’s volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and we make a positive that the diversity in the group is a positive. The unpredictable nature is something we actively seek and we make a positive of that because we show our audience, we’re using their suggestions. So, I gradually started getting gigs. And then people say, can you do this? Oh no, I can’t…actually, maybe I can. Yeah, that’s right. This applies not just to team build, to leadership, to sales, to presenting, of course. But initially it wasn’t just presenting, it was as a mindset and how to have better conversations.
And then as a speaker, people were saying, oh yeah, I need to kind of have better ideas about Q and A, these days, many more pitches are improvised. There’s a bit of scripts and a bit of improv and how you deal with improv is possibly where you can make your mark. So that was it really just making a bit of a noise about it with my friends who would ring up and say, maybe you want to try this, I don’t know. And sometimes I would fall flat on my face. I went to see an investment bank and they said, oh no, you haven’t got your business speak at all. What are you talking about? What are the deliverables? What are the outcomes? I’d never heard the word deliverable before. Anyway, so gradually people started hearing what I was doing, I got the confidence to say, yes, I can do a session like that. I got the confidence that I was delivering a good thing. People were laughing and learning.
Taylorr: I like that story because it’s not like it happened all of a sudden, kind of tying back to LA where a lot of things can happen, but it’s not necessarily… I feel like that line almost summarizes life. Almost anything can happen. Is it actually going to happen though? Is really up for debate. And it’s a gradual process is iterative one and there are ups and downs and even with such a decorated background life, isn’t always easy and you have to work with that ebb and flow. And I think your improv skills and correct me if I’m wrong here, Neil, but your improv skills have allowed you really to handle that ebb and flow I wouldn’t say easily, but maybe more you have a system for it, a process you can reconcile that like, hey, it’s unpredictable, it’s vulnerable, it can be uncomfortable, but it’s all of those things improve you as a person.
And I love everything you’ve said about improv. Not only because like you can tell your passion is there, but of how vulnerable and raw improv really is. And I want to kind of segue that idea into your book, you wrote a book, Seven Steps to Improve Your People Skills. At what point in your improv journey did you realize there was a direct correlation to improv and improving people’s skills and why take that focus with the book? What problems were you hoping to solve with that?
Neil: Again, it was a bit of push and poll. So, somebody said, can you do a session for us on people’s skills? And I thought, can I? And I know that listening is essential to improv, I know that you can make life better if you lighten the atmosphere in an organization and in the conversation, I know that eye contact is good. So, I’ve got three chapters here, they all begin with L. Listen, lighten, look. Hang on a minute, what else? And it was kind of how do I make a speech of an hour and a quarter on this topic? And I found seven things beginning with L. So, I knew I’ve seen some very bad presentations that ended badly so I said leave well. Then I discovered that actually our brain remembers how the ending of a conversation, a movie or an encounter affects the rest.
If it ends badly, we see the hole in a different light. Then I thought actually yeah, I can sort of cheat here a bit. So, I got one called let, which is let the other person speak, let them disagree with you, let yourself off the hook if you make a mistake. And I gradually sort of said, I’ve got seven things here, which I can sort of squeeze into those topics. I was asked to do a speech, and then somebody asked me to write the book and I thought, yeah, I can. I can do that. It’s not the book on improv though improv is central to several of the ideas, but actually improv isn’t the answer to everything. I come at it from an improv background, of course, but there are times when you’ve got to be clearly prepared and focused and sometimes say no to what’s going on.
That might be alien to the newbie improviser but of course the experienced improvisor says, well, even the bad things, the block, well, we call it, the block can be something you can use. So, the book was a combination of several years of realizing that I could do this, people ask me to do stuff. When I did one session at the London business forum, somebody said, oh, come and do it from my company. Or we saw you do it there, come and do it five times to my company. So, you’re right. The process is iterative. And I’ve learned from my students, I’ve learned from the participants, what I’m saying can add value and also, I steal what they say to me. They’ll say, how about this story? Oh, that’s good. Can I have that? Because it’s always great to bring in a story about a real person who really did have an issue or found a way to improve their way of being, their way of working.
Austin: I kind of was feeling that that was the direction that it was going to go when you were talking earlier about how you’d get asked for one thing and it was maybe slightly different than the other things you’ve done. And yeah, maybe I can do that and then another opportunity, same thing. And I just think like these principles that you’re talking about apply to business, they apply to relationships, they apply to small talk and regular conversations. These things ripple out outwards with pretty much anybody that you talk to. And I think some of this too, has to come with like being likable. A lot of the things that you said were things that revolve around that. If you have a lot of these qualities, those Ls that you were referencing, it makes you likable. Do you think that that has a part to play in your philosophy about this? Or is it less about being liked and more about with connecting? Do you have like a root emotional thing that you’re after, when you’re having these connections and conversations with people and these instances in which improvisation can get brought out?
Neil: Definitely. It is about being liked and that doesn’t mean lowest common denominator. Sometimes I like you because you’re honest with me. I like my friends because they disagree with me. I liked my friends who tell me if I’ve made a mistake. I like my friends because we’ve been together for years and we start where we picked up. I like people fairly quickly as well, who listen. So, yes. And just checking in with you guys, do you know the work of Robert Cialdini? Robert Cialdini, he’s the King of influence.
Austin: I was going to say I know that name though I can’t put my finger on exactly where I know that name.
Neil: Well, he wrote a book about influence. There’re six elements. Cialdini is like ciabatta, C I A L D I N I, and one of his principles is liking. We’re always going to be influenced by somebody we like. And you can handle that ethically I believe. Emotional intelligence connecting, listen to somebody that’s the easiest way to connect. And one of the chapters is called lighten. There’s a guy called Robin Dreek, have you had him on here yet? He used to be a part of the FBI; he was the head of behavioral analysis at the FBI counter-intelligence unit. And he said, a smile is the easiest way to create rapport. And so that’s one of the things I say, humor is a shortcut to the relationship. Humor that genuinely shares rather than humor that objectifies or otherizes people. So, yeah, I think liking is a good thing.
And I don’t think there’s a huge difference between flirting and liking. Nonsexual flirting is a big thing. I’m asking you questions. I’m listening to your answers. I’m throwing back stuff you said, getting more. These are things, we like, people who seem to be interested in us. I’m naturally interested. Somebody wants to ask me at a party, are you a journalist? And I said, no, no, no. I’m just interested to know. And the number of people, they come to see a Comedy Store Players show, and I say, great, what do you do? And they say oh, it’s nothing, it’s boring. And of course, it’s not boring. It’s not boring. I love to know what people’s stories are. And that’s been my recompense for moving it corporate world. I’ve seen some wonderful stories about people doing wonderful things. Creative people, working in a team, working in tough conditions or creating beautiful products or services and I love to pry into people’s lives and their organizations in a way that perhaps not everyone in showbiz does.
Maybe some interpreters just like to perform and leave the stage and go home. I like to what’s going on with you? Who are you? And I want to know your story. So, I know I have a natural curiosity, I agree. But what I hope is that I can…and I find this when coaching people and doing workshops is they say, oh right, I’ve tried some of your stuff. And it seemed to work. And it was just very simple stuff, just listening and consciously backing up heard, what they said. I’d go you just said X? Oh, right, yeah. I did say X. So, expand on just the idea of taking what the other person said as an offer and use the offer and say something that builds on their offer. We call it listened to the offer, accept the offer and then send an offer back that kind of builds on what they say. Or give an offer, that’s called yes and-ing as opposed to yes but-ing. All the while, aware that whatever you hear isn’t necessarily what they think they said, but that for an improviser, that slight gap is interesting.
That gap. Because I didn’t know when I came in the scene that I’d be a doctor or that you would be a nurse. I thought I was a patient. But if you make me a patient, I’ll be a patient and I want to know how I can be a patient today. Why? How? As Mike Meyers used to say, why are the gods of improv chosen this moment for this scene to be played? So, I guess it is all about connection and improv certainly does value emotion as a driver of drama and bad improv scenes are ones that fail to connect. There’s no relationship between the characters, there’s no emotion. So yes, to answer your question, which was about 25 minutes ago. Yes, it’s a liking, connecting relationship. Yeah.
Austin: Yeah. I think there’s so many great takeaways from that. And the thing that just keeps resonating with me again and again, is this idea of the other, nothing that you’ve said has been really about you. You’ve been telling your story, but it seems like every tactic that you have is really just about making it about the other person and not about you. And I think that sometimes comedy is seen as the skill that we contain ourselves and that we are funny, but everything that you’ve said is just about drawing information out of the other person and then building on that. Would you say that that’s correct?
Neil: Possibly, yes. Maybe. And I’m probably an introvert. People will possibly find that surprising, but I like to be closed a little bit and I will tell you stuff about me, but when comedy works, it’s beautiful because we all become as one. Billy Connolly, I saw a documentary about him the other day, he said that moment when the audience becomes as one. And the comedians, I like are the ones who tell us a truth that we hadn’t perhaps articulated. We’re delighted they’ve shown us it. So, I love sitcoms that do that, I love stand-ups who do that and I would say that I do like to be on stage, I like to show off. I don’t mind that. I do a one man show that’s my outlet. I do a show called Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy as a motivational guru called L Von Spencer. He’s kind of the Anthony Robbins, but 10th grade.
So yes, I don’t mind talking about me, but I have such fun finding out about other people. I think it should always be an equal exchange where possible. When you’re performing, of course you are in a different relationship to the audience. Nonetheless, the joy of improv is we are connecting, we take suggestions and we act out your ideas. I’m naturally curious, I do think that everybody has a wonderful story. And somebody said a wonderful thing, which is, don’t be angry with people because you don’t know their story. You don’t know what they’re suffering with right now. And that is how I see the world. And it’s obviously difficult to see that sometimes when there are dark moments with humanity, but my relationship with people and with audience is always fulfilling my view that the humanity is essentially good.
Austin: I agree with that.
Taylorr: It’s awesome outlook to have. And I think the core theme to this, this episode about being improv kind of highlights that know the being vulnerable, being raw, the connecting, the being likable and how that can really accelerate your relationships, your people skills. Just in this 30-minute episode, I’ve gotten a taste for what that’s like simply by interacting with you and it’s a cool feeling. So, thank you for being here and sharing all that expertise and it’s just an honor to have you on the show. And I know as you know, we’re all about creating value for our audience so what are some of the things you’re working on that our listeners can benefit from?
Neil: Well, so the book, you mentioned Seven Steps to Improve Your People Skills. My next book, I’m working on just talking about the stuff I’ve talked today, which is improv as a mindset, as a skill. There have been books like that done by Second City Alumni and others. So, I’m still working out what to call it, what’s the focus of it? Or do I just say I’ve been an outsider in business and organizations for 20 years? Is that my story. I came in with the improv thing, I learned a lot, I’ve molded my offer. So that’s one thing I want to write that book, which is kind of how have I applied improv to business over and above the people skills book, which was, as you said before, we started, it’s kind of a short and small. You can keep it in your pocket, you can read it on a flight. Remember flights?
Neil: Barely: Yeah. So, I’d like to write that book. I’d also like to expand my practice. So, one thing I’m looking at is so much now of universities colleges is going online. And I see it with my friends who are academics. They’ve had no training in how to deliver virtual teaching and my children, I can see it at high school, the teachers haven’t been trained in this so I’d love to be able to teach people that. And I do a lot of now since March, I do a thing call bring some va va voom to your zoom. Just how do we bring some energy, some humanity, some humor to these video calls. Now people are home, you can’t realize, but they they’ve worked out their tech. They got beautiful mics, when they look at me, they’re looking at me, they’re not looking down at their screen and they have beautiful backgrounds as well. The number of people and I won’t move my laptop, the up the nose shot, the terrible mic, weird stuff in the background, the forgetting, especially if you’re delivering a speech or a lecture or a tutorial, interact as much as possible.
Be hard to believe this, everyone at home, that there are times when I stop talking and I encourage interaction. That’s how we make zoom work, that’s how we make these WebEx’s with chat with questions. It’s got to be completely different from delivering a keynote online. It’s a new medium, you’ve got to think much more about people’s attention span and much more about how do you keep them interested, changing the visual dynamic, changing the verbal dynamic, encouraging interaction. So, the plus for me of this has been, I’ve been able to do workshops all over the world. I have done them before, but now at one stage I was doing a session with somebody in Columbia and somebody in Singapore on the same call.
Somebody in Denmark, somebody in Johannesburg. So, I’m traveling the world, albeit from my office. Yes, I love to see people face to face, but I’m beginning to sort of see that the new normal will allow me more opportunities and of course listening will be one and telling stories, which is my other passion. You’ve got to tell stories better. So, I guess bringing my world to virtual, writing the book, and I suppose I do individual coaching, but I find that really, really gratifying because you can get to know somebody. You can be quite honest with them and you can see real change as you see them week after week, month after month. That’s an area I’m expanding as well.
Taylorr: Absolutely. Well, you heard it folks. I’ll have links to that book down below Seven Steps to Improve Your People Skills. And as always, if you’re looking for mind-blowing resources, go to speakerflow.com/resources. Thank you so much for chiming in. I just wanted to take a second to thank our sponsor Auxbus. Auxbus is the all-in-one suite of tools you need to run your podcast and it’s actually what we run here at Speaker Flow for Technically Speaking. It makes planning, podcasts simple, it makes recording podcasts simple, it even makes publishing podcasts to the masses simple and quite honestly, Technically Speaking, wouldn’t be up as soon as it is without Auxbus. Thank you so much Auxbus. And if you are interested in checking Auxbus out, whether you’re starting a podcast or you have one currently get our special offer auxbus.com/speakerfloow, or click the link below in our show notes.