Four lessons from Keith Johnstone for conducting training

Impro by Keith JohnstoneThose who speak with me about training or read this blog regularly will know I’m a fan of Keith Johnstone’s book Impro. I was fortunate enough that one of my best friends lent it to me when we were doing improvisation at uni, and it’s been a constant source of inspiration.

And before you think I’m talking about acting training, I’m not.

Corporate training, volunteer training, leadership training or sustainability workshops, Johnstone has valuable lessons to apply to all of these.

Not only is it full of his joyful philosophy on teaching and the theatre, but it’s enjoyably well written too.

Here’s 4 things I use in almost every class.


1. Blame Me

“I’ll explain that if the students fail they’re to blame me.”

This amazing trick for opening a class by Johnstone does a lot of great things for the class and your relationship with the participants.

I go on to explain that every class is different, every learning is different, and together we’ll figure out what works best for this group.

The standard social contract with teachers is that they dispense the knowledge and if you don’t get it, there must be something wrong with you. Though we’ve moved beyond this intellectually, it’s still very much embedded in the standard dynamics of a class.

If student’s don’t get something, there’s a good chance they won’t say anything to save face, unless you explicitly set up the expectation that you have to find a way to get the knowledge to them.

This also starts to lay the foundation for trust and a genuinely good relationship by reaffirming that the purpose of the class is their development, and giving them permission to ask questions. When they have questions they’re more likely to trust that you won’t judge them for it, and even that you’ll be happy to have the question because it’ll help you as a teacher to figure out how best to teach.

It also let’s us set up the expectations between us in a balanced way, not just “this is what I expect of you”, but also “this is what you should expect of me”, and setting a tone that together we trust that we’re both working towards a productive class.


2. Create “AHA” moments, Don’t Tell

“The teacher’s skill lay in presenting experiences in such a way that the student was bound to succeed.”

When I was new to teaching I wanted to tell my student’s everything: all the lessons I’d learned all the “aha” moments and discoveries.

But that’s just it, those lessons stayed with me because I of the “aha” moment.

Johnstone’s exercises are all about giving student’s the chance to have that “aha” moment.

Whenever I’m preparing a class, I will ask

“What is the best way to experience this learning?”

(and honestly, I wish I could say I did it more in response to questions.)

This is hard, because it requires a lot more work than just preparing a power point with 3 key lessons, or just getting up and speaking. It requires you to go and find games and exercises and really look deeply at the key learning outcomes you’re seeking and figure out how to turn them into an experience that you can create in a classroom.

Once again, Keith Johnstone’s books are a great resource. I’ve adapted his games to exercises that people would never have suspected had their origins in acting classes (and a good thing too or they might’ve frozen up or tried to perform).

The payoff for all this extra work is student’s remembering and having a deeper understanding of the content.


3. Side Coaching

Johnstone’s book is full of stories where he calls out direct and frequent instructions to his students.

At first glance, this seems to contradict the above point about discovery. I used to avoid it for that reason.

Not wanting to get in the way of student’s having a discovery moment, I would sit quietly and watch them fumble their way through the exercise, and at the end everyone would have a sense that they hadn’t gotten what they could out of the exercise, but aren’t sure what it is they’re missing.


It’s like taking the scenic route around a coast line, no amount of explaining is the same as someone seeing the waves crash on the rocks, or feeling the wind in their hair. But in order to experience it, they will need someone to instruct them on the way to get there.

So too, when you run an exercise, you need to call out directions, or even pause the exercise to review and change course. You’re their compass to help them navigate to where the experience lies within the exercise.


4. Involve them in observing and teaching

In Johnstone’s stories, he’ll often ask the student’s to help observe.

It’s tempting in our time constrained world to get everyone to do an exercise at the same time, but then they miss out on a valuable way to learn.

When I was teaching acting to animation students some exercises I would get half the class to practice and the other half to sketch what they saw or something inspired from what they saw. (since animators tend to be visual people, the sketching turned out to be a good prompt for reflection and discussion)

Watching others work through an exercise can be much more instructive than watching an expert. They get to see the mistakes and directly compare the difference between when it works and when it doesn’t. The observers imagine themselves in the shoes of the people doing the exercise, but without the pressure to perform from being put on the spot, they can make better observations (and we’ll all laugh and appreciate each other’s struggles better when they swap places and make the same mistakes).

Ask them to give each other positive feedback. This again changes the dynamic of the group – rather than asking them to cut each other down, get them involved in building the group’s confidence and creating an atmosphere where everyone is interested in everyone else’s success.

Stepping them up from observing to teaching grants them even more confidence and a chance to master the material better.

Here’s a few ways you could do this:

  • observations and feedback as described above
  • pair up and go and work together on an exercise – one person does the exercise, one person gives feedback
  • buddying up more experienced with newcomers

Helping to teach the class gives them an opportunity to understand the learning even more deeply as they figure out how to navigate from what they’re observing in their partner to where their partner would like to be.

And more …

Of course, this only scratches the surface of what’s to discover in the book. If you think you’ll be conducting training in the future, or if you just want to enjoy a beautiful story of how an “untalented” student became one of the most influential people in theatre and improvisation, grab your self a copy of Keith Johnstone’s Impro.

What are your go-to lessons when you’re preparing training?