Comedy

Coming up with creative ideas

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Photo by Amélie Mourichon on Unsplash

A successful creative meeting:

Ideas flow freely. Coffee, biscuits and emergent laughter.

Everyone is contributing.

How familiar does this feel?

Creative meetings can be great for the confident and extroverted.

But I’ve definitely been in ‘creative’ meetings where I’ve been the least experienced in the room.

There is ‘banter’ – people are laughing at one another, putting down ideas they don’t like, vying for status.

What do we want out of a creative meeting? LOTS of ideas.

‘Lots’ means good ideas + bad + terrible ideas.

And if this is the ‘creative’ atmosphere, what you get are the ideas of the socially high status people, and nothing from anyone else.

So how can we run successful creative meetings?

The rules must be clear: we want all the ideas. That old cliche, ‘There are no bad ideas,’ is obviously wrong, but that needs to be the vibe at the meeting.

It’s important to encourage everyone to contribute in order to capture everything and keep the ideas coming until we have exhausted every avenue.

Under no circumstances must any idea be assessed, judged or analysed at the ideas stage.

If in doubt, use the rules of improv with your team: affirm and build. Add to other people’s ideas, rather than judging them.

The four animals in the room

There are, according to One Minute Millionaire, four types of animal that you can have in your team. Not only is this much more adorable than Myers-Briggs personality profiling, it is easier to understand, doesn’t require an online quiz, and can be summed up with an easy acronym, HOTS:

The hare – has lots of ideas, likes to hop from one to another and is more interested in generation than execution.

The owl – is wise and measured. Best placed with the hare to catch ideas. Good at seeing the bigger picture and working out how to take ideas forward. Team leaders are often owls.

The turtle – troubleshoots hare-brained schemes. Turtles like to turn ideas into plans, so that they can work out the problems and suggest solutions.

The squirrel – loves getting things done, happier with a list of tasks than in a creative session.

Work out which animals you have in your team. Encourage everyone to understand their spirit animal, and to embody it during the creative process.

Let the owls and the hares generate ideas. Encourage turtles to resist the urge to problem spot at this stage, or ask them along once generation is complete.

Some of your team might be less happy speaking up. Some people come up with ideas hours after the meeting. Allow ideas to come in late and/or submitted in private.

Give it a bit of time.

Once the ideas have been generated, it’s time to work out which ones to proceed with.

This is where the turtles come into their own. In a separate session, the owl invites the turtles to interrogate ideas. We send the hares for lunch at this point so that they don’t get upset.

The ideas the turtles like can now be given to the squirrels to execute.

If there’s just you in your team, you have hare, owl, turtle and squirrel within you.  You can use this model to plan your day.

If you’re generating creative ideas on your own, separate idea generation and analysis to ensure that you’re not talking yourself out of half the ideas at the generation stage.

This must be why writers like the Ernest Hemingway quote, “Write drunk, edit sober,” (despite there being no evidence he actually said it.)

How do you run your creative meetings?

 

How to start a creative meeting

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Photo by Davis Sanchez on Pexels.com

Regular creative meetings can be a bit of a challenge.

Who says I can pull an idea out of my ass at 2pm on a Tuesday, just because we agreed to talk then?

I may have just had a stressful morning trying to link up a wireless printer.

Or be in the middle of a complex situation with a friend/SO.

Or have been trying to engage my kids in homeschool for the last three hours.

We ask each other, ‘How are you?’ at the beginning of meetings and respond politely rather than give an answer which indicates how fit we are to do creative work at this moment.

Here’s an idea from Nathan and Barrett at The Future Belongs to Creators.

Start your meeting with a simple traffic light guide.

Each person reports whether they are ‘red’, ‘yellow’ or ‘green.’ Find colours which represent a mix if three options are not enough.

‘Green’ is in a good, open and creative mood. We’re not stressed, the creative juices are flowing, good things are going to happen today.

‘Yellow’ is somewhat stressed, perhaps there’s a lot going on at work or personally, we might be a little distracted.

And ‘Red’, presumably is the day when it might be best to sack the whole thing off until tomorrow. Not in a creative mood, distracted, stressed beyond the point where anything useful is going to get done.

Now you know how everyone’s feeling, adjust the approach of your meeting accordingly. Today might not be the best day to push hard for a huge brainstorming session. Or to deliver some difficult feedback to a colleague.

Are you red, yellow or green today?

 

Why is the ‘Rule of Three’ funny?

This article was written with the very kind help of Clare Jonas:

Clare Jonas

Clare Jonas is a science communicator with a PhD in the psychology of perception.

When she’s not talking about merkins in the name of explaining science, she enjoys attempting to guess the names of other people’s dogs and listening to the music of Four Tet.

You can read more of her work at www.thatthinkingfeeling.co.uk.

Why is the ‘Rule of Three’ funny?

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”

– E.B. White and his wife, Katharine S. White

Rach: My driving instructor was a lovely Chinese man who grew increasingly frustrated with my questions about how exactly a clutch worked.

I couldn’t get my head around the biting point if I couldn’t see what I was biting.

How does the engine work, how does the clutch work, what are we doing here in a car park in Mitcham at 10 o’clock in the morning?

Mr. Yeo placed his head in his hands and sighed quietly.

Since learning how to perform stand up comedy, I’ve been struck with similar confusion about how jokes work. I need to know why something is funny to be able to write and perform it with confidence. 

The frog is dying, but I can’t help myself.

Take the rule of three for example. Every comedy course in the world will tell you that the rule of three is funny.

And it is. There’s no question about that. The age-old mechanism of establish, reinforce, subvert is as tried and tested as ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ isn’t.

But why are three things funnier than two? Why don’t four things work so well? And above all, why do some third-thing punchlines work better than others?

To help me with this, I consulted Clare Jonas from That Thinking Feeling.

Clare, why is a comedic triple funnier than a double or quadruple?

Clare: Good question! I don’t think anyone’s actually tried to figure out this exact thing with an experiment… so I cobbled together an answer from my psychology knowledge. 

First, let’s tackle the number element. In order to make this kind of joke work, you need to establish a category and then flout or subvert it in some way.

It should be obvious why one item in the list won’t work: you usually can’t establish a clear category from just one thing, and you certainly can’t subvert the category. Because a lot of words have multiple meanings, you need the second item in the list to solidify the category, which means it also shouldn’t be the funny thing.

Here’s an example first item: boxers. This could belong to a number of categories…

Underwear: Boxers, Y-fronts

Sportspeople: Boxers, rowers

Dog breeds: Boxers, spaniels

Words that end in -oxers: Boxers, foxers

So, why not establish the category even more solidly with a third or fourth or fifth item before subverting? Because humans have limited attention spans. We usually use working memory (a sort of temporary store for information) to keep track of things that we need to keep in mind right now. When you’re reading or listening to someone tell a story, a lot of your working memory is taken up with what’s going on in the story – events, characters, how things relate to each other. If I ask you to remember a long list while you’re listening to a story, either you’ll forget the list or you’ll lose track of the story. A two-item list is a balance between the need to establish the category and the need to keep your audience’s attention.

A different use of this kind of three-part list is an age-old rhetorical device called hendiatris, which gave us such classics as friends, Romans, countrymen and reduce, reuse, recycle. We have a powerful cultural expectation that the third item in a list will complete it in an emotionally or aesthetically pleasing way. The subversion of that expectation is funny – but why?

I’ve written before about how humour works, and the honest answer is that there’s no one theory which can explain all of it. In many cases, it’s probably about mild tension being resolved. In something like stand-up comedy, this tension might come from a variety of sources, say the topic is mildly taboo or emotionally difficult, or the narrative is gripping and you don’t know what to expect, or even that you’re worried whether the comedian is going to land the joke. If the tension is resolved, you’re relieved – but add a silly or incongruous subversion to that and you are likely to express relief by laughing.

Let’s talk a bit more about incongruity, because you can’t just whack any old incongruous thing on the end of a list to make a funny. Returning to one of the earlier examples…

Boxers, Y-fronts, briefs -> Congruous, not funny

Boxers, Y-fronts, cathedrals -> Incongruous, not funny

Boxers, Y-fronts, merkin -> Incongruous, funny, BINGO!

I like to think of this as a series of concentric circles. The trick is to find something that’s slightly outside the category you’ve established, but not so far that you can’t see any connection between the first two items and the final one (Only Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard can make this funny – Rach.) Underwear and pubic wigs are reasonably closely related, underwear and large buildings not so much. 

In this case, merkin is also good because it’s slightly rude (another type of subversion, this time about social norms of what we ‘should’ talk about in public) and it’s one of those words that sounds funny even if you don’t know what it means, like spatula.

Clare Jonas concentric cirles 1

Not every minor subversion is funny, of course. Some minor subversions might be offensive or confusing, in the general sense or in the specific context of what you are saying and who you are saying it to. 

As with all comedy, the key is keeping in mind who you’re talking to. 

Perhaps your audience is entirely comprised of Conservative women over the age of 80. Will they know what a merkin is? If they do know, will they think it’s too rude? 

Perhaps your audience is made up of curators at the Amsterdam Sex Museum. Will they be so used to merkins that they find them boring? Is it not rude enough?

Clare Jonas concentric cirles 2

Rach: So, the category circles might change size, depending on your audience. If your ‘third thing’ is in the central established category circle, it won’t be a surprise, so it won’t be funny – though if you’re lucky you might have made a hendiatris. If it’s in the ‘TOO FAR’ circle, it doesn’t make any sense.

If it’s in the offensive section, it could be funny, but a stand-up audience might be nervous to laugh out loud. It’s certainly not going to get you booked for the Royal Variety Performance.

In conclusion, establish, reinforce, subvert by the correct amount and you have yourself a punchline.

Postscript: Rach eventually overcame her clutch based confusion, and nailed her driving test on the fourth attempt.

Douglas Adams and Artificial Intelligence

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In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is revealed that the Earth is a supercomputer designed by Deep Thought, the supercomputer that came before it.

“DEEP THOUGHT: I speak of none but the computer that is to come after me. A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate – and yet I will design it for you. A computer which can calculate the question to the Ultimate answer, a computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself will form part of its operational matrix. And it shall be called The Earth.”

I wonder whether Douglas Adams was influenced by a 1965 paper by British mathematician, Irving John Good, Speculations Concerning the First Ultra-Intelligent Machine.

Good is responding to the commonly held view that a machine could never be as intelligent as a human.

He argues that humans have limitations in intelligence. Ultimately, a machine could be constructed that would match or even exceed a human’s capability.

Good fundamentally believed that computers and their ultra-intelligent machine successors would deliver a benefit to humanity. The opening line of this seminal paper reads:

“The survival of man depends on the early construction of an ultra-intelligent machine.”

In it, he also originated the idea of an “intelligence explosion”:

“Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever.

Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.

Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”

So is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy supercomputer Earth docile? According to Ford Prefect it is, “Mostly Harmless.”

If you enjoyed this article, and know where your towel is, you might like this episode of The End of the World by Josh Clark:

And you also might like to join my Hitchhikers appreciation group, Stand Up for Towel Day.

Remembering Towel Day 2018

On May 25th, 2018, the second Towel Day was held at the Star of Kings in Kings Cross.

Photos by Mike Conterio.

If you’d like to attend Stay In for Towel Day, which will be on May 25th online, due to lockdowns around the world, you can RSVP to Save the Rhino here:

https://www.savetherhino.org/get-involved/events/stay-in-for-towel-day-2020/

6 Easy Ways to Start Writing

Photo by Lum3n on Pexels.com

The blank page is terrifying.

But the good news is, writer’s block doesn’t exist.

Not really.

Not being able to think of anything to write is easily overcome with a few strategies.

And if writing is what you do, and you’re serious about it, not being in the mood is not a good enough excuse. You just have to keep turning up, and getting started.

Which is not to say that I’m not the world’s greatest procrastinator. Lately I’ve been tackling this head on.

Here are 6 of my favourite ways to get started.

1. Start by writing an email to a friend

Here’s a lovely way to trick yourself into writing when you’re not feeling it.

Don’t.

Start an email to a friend instead!

Address the email to a friend you think might like the post or the story you’re about to write, and start writing directly into that email, instead of into a word document.

This also helps to make the style of writing friendly and relatable.

2. Start first thing in the morning

First thing in the morning, our brains are at their quietest.

If I can wake up early, and give myself a couple of hours in which to get some writing done, it can feel like there’s nothing else I should be doing.

No children clamouring for me to download them an app, no washing to put on, no emails pinging around or messages coming in on my phone.

3. Start by getting really bored

The Internet is sometimes not terribly helpful for writers. It can provide a million different types of distraction.

And yet, the most powerful way to overcome writer’s block is to have nothing else to do.

So if it’s difficult to start writing, and there seem to be a million and one other things you could do to procrastinate, turn all of that off.

Put your phone on airplane mode, and sit quietly until ideas start tumbling around in your brain.

4. Start by writing longhand

I was writing a couple of days ago about Pen and ink vs computer.

Starting to write with a pen in a notebook might be less intimidating than watching a cursor blink at you on a screen.

It can change the style of writing that you do as well. Having to physically form the words we want to write can make us more thoughtful.

5. Start by knowing what kind of writer you are

“There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners.

The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house.

They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be.

They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.

The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it.

They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever.

But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.

And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

George R.R. Martin

If you’re an architect rather than a gardener, it might be helpful to plan your writing before you start.

More and more detailed planning can be satisfying if you write this way. All you need to do afterwards is fill in the sections you’ve created in your blueprint.

I love everything that ConvertKit does, they have a great blog template on their site.

If you’re a gardener, the best thing might be to just start writing. Don’t worry that you haven’t had an idea yet. Allow the idea to emerge as you write.

To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing…

When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head.

What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.

Pablo Picasso

6. Start by blocking distractions

Having Whatsapp messages, texts or carrier pigeons flying in through the window can be distracting.

Start by putting your phone on airplane mode. Or use an app like Flora to keep you on track. This is a lovely app. You plant a seed, the tree grows while you’re writing. If you close the app or wander off into other apps on your phone. THE TREE DIES. Brutal.


Above all, don’t panic! Writer’s block can be more to do with what else is going on in our lives than a lack of ideas.

If you can make space for it and try all these techniques, the ideas will start to flow.

Unless you’re trying to come up with a completely new idea. I’m not sure that’s possible.

Leave me a comment if you have any more ways to start I should know about. What works for you?

Remembering Towel Day 2017

If you’ve RSVP’d to the Save the Rhino event on Towel Day 2020, you might like to know what #Team42 got up to at previous Towel Days*.

The very first Stand Up for Towel Day was in 2017 in the basement of Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road.

My sister, Helen Puddefoot, very kindly made me a towel jacket.

The towel jacket, by Helen Puddefoot

Trystan Mitchell of the Big Foot Studio made us our beautiful logo.

Steve Cross interrogated the original Hitchhiker book to find out which day the world ended for Arthur Dent and the rest of the population of Earth in the book.

You can watch the set in full, here.

Steve Cross. Photo credit: I think possibly I took this with Steve’s camera.

There were Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters courtesy of the Waterstones bar, and Andy Mil of the Cocktail Trading Company, who very kindly gave me the recipe.

Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters. Photo Credit: Stuart Green

Paul Duncan McGarrity materialised as a sperm whale at a probability of 8,767,128 to 1 against.

Paul Duncan McGarrity. Photo credit: Steve Cross

Nell Thomas and Katie Overstall won our costume competition.

Kimberley Freeman, Nell Thomas, Katie Overstall and me. Photo credit: Steve Cross

And John Lloyd joined us to read some extracts from the book he wrote with Douglas in 1983, The Meaning of Liff.

John Lloyd. Photo credit: Steve Cross

And everybody had a generally hoopy time.

Stand Up for Towel Day attendees. Photo credit: Steve Cross

This year’s Towel Day is going to be online and you can sign up to attend here.

And if you’d like to be first in the know about the event on May 25th, you can join our Facebook group.

I’ll be back with a review of 2018’s Towel Day events soon.

* Towel Day is an annual celebration on the 25th of May, as a tribute to the late author Douglas Adams (1952-2001). On that day, fans around the universe carry a towel in his honour.

Pen and ink vs computer

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Is it harder to write now that it’s easier to write?

Hundreds of years ago, there was no digital editing, paper was expensive and to find a pen you had to butcher a peacock*.

*Or something. Turns out quill pens were made from goose, swan and turkey feathers.

19th century landowner, explorer and ‘first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister used to write her letters using every last inch of paper – it was pricey stuff.

In a ‘cross-written’ letter to her lover, Sibella Maclean, she turns the paper to write across what she’s already written.

In it she says, “I am an enigma even to myself and do excite my own curiosity.”

With thanks to the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

When writing materials were expensive, you would want to have a pretty good idea of what you wanted to say before committing quill to parchment.

Shakespeare, (who may have written King Lear during lockdown) never crossed a line, according to legend. But maybe he just had a massively inflated ego.

These days, you can just digitally vomit onto a word document, and there is no cost to you if the majority of it is garbage.

But is this a less satisfying way to write?

Some modern writers still swear by the pen and ink approach.

Neil Gaiman explained on The Tim Ferris Show that he usually writes his first drafts longhand, with notebook and fountain pen.

Nobody is ever meant to read your first draft.

Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life.

Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Neil Gaiman

Then he extracts the best lines to type up..

Then, I’ll sit down and type.

I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Neil Gaiman

Creativity is about gumption as much as it’s about talent.

And there’s a lot to be said, psychologically, for doing things this way.

A second draft sounds more satisfying if the method is to select the best lines from a notebook, rather than deleting great swathes of digital text.

There might be something to slowing down and writing ‘analogue’ before committing finger to keyboard.

Stay In for Towel Day 2020

Stay In for Towel Day logo by Trystan Mitchell of The Big Foot Studio

Delighted to announce that Towel Day this year will be performed online in collaboration with Save the Rhino.

Towel Day is an annual celebration on the 25th of May, as a tribute to the late author Douglas Adams (1952-2001).

On that day, fans around the universe carry a towel in his honour.

Due to the UK’s COVID-19 lock down, grab your towel and join us for ‘Stay in for Towel Day’ from the warmth and comfort of your own sofa.

Join me, Save the Rhino and some comedy pals for an evening of stand-up comedy, slam poetry, sketches, improv and more in homage to H2G2.

For more information, go to https://www.savetherhino.org/get-involved/events/stay-in-for-towel-day-2020/

Stand Up for Towel Day at the British Library

The cast of the original Hitchhiker series, with Douglas Adams

To celebrate the 42nd anniversary of the original radio broadcasts of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the British Library are hosting a whole day of events.

Stand Up for Towel Day will be there, with Steve Cross, Cerys Bradley, The Underground Clown Club, Declan Kennedy, Jonathan Hearn and The Story Beast all performing homages to the late, great Douglas Adams’ work.

https://www.bl.uk/events/the-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-at-42

This event is sold out but Stand Up for Towel Day will be back on international towel day, May 25th, in collaboration with Save the Rhino International.

Watch this space or join the Stand Up for Towel Day Facebook group for more information.