Spin Creative Gold with “Yes, And . . .”

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Photo credit: Brian Schultz

If you want to inspire people to do great work, try the “Yes, and . . .” approach.

“Yes, and . . .” is a popular expression in theater, especially in improvisational comedy. You might have encountered the idea in Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants. The concept refers to accepting someone else’s idea (“yes”) and building on it (“and . . . “). Improv theater absolutely depends on “Yes, and . . . ” because the actors create scenes by building off each other’s improvised ideas and running with them. One actor might start a scene by, say, spontaneously portraying William Shakespeare getting time warped to a modern-day Beyoncé concert. The “Yes, and . . .” occurs when their acting partner onstage builds upon the idea — perhaps improvising as Beyoncé and inviting Shakespeare for a duet of “Drunk in Love.”

By contrast, replying to Shakespeare with an unhelpful “But, Shakespeare, how did you get here?” or improvising with a scene that ignores the presence of Shakespeare shuts down the actor who came up with the idea of the time-warped Shakespeare and kills the improvised moment — the equivalent of a “No, but . . .” that alienates everyone, including the audience.

At the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor theater where I act on summer weekends, “Yes, and . . .” shapes how the cast collaborates, whether we’re developing new bits of improvisational comedy or ideas for enriching the characters we portray. The principle behind “Yes, and . . . ” is that people become more effective when you affirm them with positive reinforcement and when you apply the power of collaboration to make their ideas better.

The power of “Yes, and . . .” is an important theme in my recent appearance on Allison Pettengill’s Helping History Happen podcast, which focuses on how history inspires people. I hope you will give it a listen. The first part of my conversation with Allison focuses on how I fell in love with history and how historical figures such as T.E. Lawrence and Queen Elizabeth I have inspired me. The second half focuses on how I overcame my self-doubts to successfully audition for the Bristol Renaissance Faire and then built a popular character named Nicolas Wright even though I had zero acting experience when I joined the cast in 2014.

About Bristol

The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a recreation of Bristol, England, on a day in 1574 when Queen Elizabeth came to town (which did in fact happen in history to celebrate the Queen’s signing of the Treaty of Bristol). Each summer, patrons pay to walk through the gates and immerse themselves in a world that recreates, with incredible authenticity, the sights, sounds, and smells of a Renaissance-era village. Since joining the cast, I have returned each year to shape the irascible barrister and guild master Nicolas Wright into one of the major Bristol citizens whom patrons meet in the streets and watch onstage. The experience has enriched my life in more ways than I can say, although I’ve tried to express some of the lessons I’ve learned on my blog.

Photo credit: John Karpinsky

The Role of “Yes, And . . .”

As I discuss in the podcast, I doubt I would developed Nicolas Wright into a recurring character had the Bristol cast not been so supportive. Joining the cast meant overcoming my own fears and the questions of those who wondered why on earth anyone would want to sacrifice their weekends to dress up in stifling Renaissance-era clothing during summer’s hottest days. And I had no idea whether Nicolas Wright would be a very interesting character to patrons.

The power of “Yes, and . . . ” made all the difference. What I soon learned as a cast mate was that I did not have to shoulder the burden of developing Nicolas Wright by myself. My cast mates and director Ansel Burch constantly used “Yes and . . . ” to make him better. They celebrated my basic idea of creating a bombastic barrister who has a bit of Severus Snape in him — and yet through the constant back-and-forth of brainstorming and through the interplay of rehearsal, they helped me make Nicolas Wright a more fleshed out person capable of revealing different dimensions, ranging from arrogance to kindness, especially to families. (I also learned that actors receive plenty of training on how to take care of their bodies so that we can better endure the summer heat as we play outdoors all day.)

Photo credit: John Karpinksy

For example, at one point, I wanted Nicolas Wright to become concerned with mortality and his legacy. And yet, I wanted to play up mortality without being morbid. I bounced the idea off of fellow actors such as Steve Deasy and Tim Wright until we collectively came up with the idea of Nicolas Wright embarking on a comical and somewhat ridiculous quest to discover the Fountain of Youth. His obsession with finding the fountain created some moments of effective theater, combining humor with a deep-seated fear of growing older and dying.

The basic concept of Nicolas Wright worrying about morality was mine. I sketched out a few scenarios where Nicolas Wright might become interested in magic to gain immortality, but I wasn’t sure how to make the idea work within the Bristol setting. Crucially, my colleagues didn’t second guess me. They didn’t raise obstacles or place limitations on me, especially because I think they realized that if the idea were not going to work, I would have to come to that realization myself. Tim and Steve, in separate conversations, kept asking questions like, “If you feel confined by the Bristol setting, let’s take him out of Bristol and try another setting that we can imagine together,” which is how the Fountain of Youth quest arose.

How “Yes, and . . .” Works

“Yes, and . . . ” applies to anyone who works on a team to create an outcome, such as you are developing advertising copy, managing an event, or brainstorming on blog post ideas. In a corporate setting, “Yes, and . . .” looks something like this:

  • Let’s say Cheryl and Jon are in a brainstorming session to plan a company’s next employee meeting. Cheryl has idea: “We need to challenge our employees to embrace technology. Why don’t we have a guest speaker discuss the future of virtual reality?”
  • Jon affirms Cheryl’s idea (“yes!”), recognizing the value of challenging employees with ideas that are new to them. Then comes the “and”: he suggests, “How about we find a way to demonstrate virtual reality at the event in addition to having a speaker talk about it?” Cheryl might build upon Jon’s idea by suggesting that employees be invited onstage to participate in the demonstration instead of watch it. Then Jon asks, “Why not give away some virtual reality headsets as prizes to a few lucky employees in the audience?”
  • The “Yes, and . . . ” continues until the idea is fleshed out within the context of any practical considerations that Cheryl and Jon take into account, such as their budget, schedule, and the venue. Cheryl and Jon are careful not to shoot down suggestions outright although they may mutually agree to park some ideas for consideration another time. If they run into a brick wall — maybe the speaker they really wanted is not available — they work around the challenge or even turn the limitation into an advantage (maybe they’ll find an employee in their company who happens to be developing an idea for virtual reality, and no one knew it until Cheryl and Jon started to flesh out their idea through their “Yes, and . . . ” process).

This kind of collaboration builds momentum, trust, and, ultimately, a better creative outcome. “Yes, and . . .” really applies anywhere, whether engineers are designing a new product or executives are creating a company’s five-year strategy.

But . . . .”

Now, I’ve heard some criticisms and doubts about the usefulness of “Yes, and . . . ” They look something like this:

  • Bristol Renaissance Faire is not a business. You don’t deal with real-world problems. In fact, we are a business comprising actors, directors, executives, stage managers, merchants, and many other employees and contractors. Bristol charges people $24 a ticket to enter the gates, and we take very seriously our responsibility of delivering an outstanding experience to every patron (although we have a lot of fun doing what we do). The Faire celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2017. We did not get where we are without operating as a business. What’s more, the concepts of “Yes, and . . . ” do apply to businesses outside theater, and business schools apply its concepts in formal training, as discussed in this Fast Company article.
  • “Yes, and . . .” works only with experienced people who know what they are doing. In fact, I had zero acting experience when I joined the Bristol cast. The “Yes, and . . . ” approach built my confidence and also challenged me (and continues to challenge me) to grow. “Yes, and . . .” does work well in context of a broader training program. At Bristol, we don’t yank people off the street and “Yes, and . . .” them into becoming actors. Everyone who successfully auditions receives intensive training, such as learning an authentic dialect; mastering the customs of 16th Century Bristol; and learning improv comedy, stage choreography, and many other elements of theater. We also develop our characters’ personal backstories, or histories, so that our actions seem more real to patrons and to us. So, indeed, “Yes, and . . .” should be a technique applied in context of a broader approach to developing a team. Strictly speaking, though, the concept works regardless of how experienced your team is. It’s more important that your team members have a desire to learn and a hunger to get better at what they do.

Photo credit: Brian Schultz

  • But not all ideas are going to work. Don’t be so sure about that. Maybe not all ideas will work in their original form. Through the “Yes, and . . . ” process, the end product might not even resemble the original idea. As I noted, considerations such as budget and resources might make the original idea unfeasible. But the brainstorming process will transform the original notion into something even better, turning perceived limitations into advantages. I’d also add that any collaborative process, including “Yes, and . . .,” operates in context of boundaries that need to be understood and respected. For instance, at Bristol, our ideas absolutely need to respect the authenticity of the experience — we live in 16th Century Bristol, where iPhones are unknown to people like Nicolas Wright — and our ideas must uplift patrons. Boundaries are good. Boundaries liberate creative minds by giving them context.
  • “Yes, and . . . ” doesn’t work when you are in a crisis and need to deliver results instantly. In fact, a team that has practiced “Yes, and . . .” is in a better position to act under pressure, improvise, and deliver a great outcome even when things go wrong. And things do go wrong in any creative endeavor, including Bristol. A prop might break. Someone might forget their lines during a scripted show. A joke you share with a patron might bomb. An actor might become ill and need to bow out of a performance. Flourishing at Bristol is all about mastering the unexpected. When those times occur, our “Yes, and . . .” training kicks in. Team members learn to huddle and improvise on solutions — quickly. “Yes, and . . .” becomes “Yes . . . and let’s do it now.”  Each of us on cast feels empowered to improvise under pressure because we’ve built trust and confidence in each other through “Yes, and . . . “

I’m pleased that “Yes, and . . . ” has taken hold as a form of training in the arts and business, especially as a counterweight to hypercriticism that can take hold if you don’t guard against it.

The Tyrant’s Alternative

The opposite of “Yes, and . . . ” is the Steve Jobs approach to management and collaboration. He was renowned for being a bully and a tyrant, pushing his creative teams to produce innovations such as the iPhone. I cringe when I hear people interpret bullying for “telling it like it is.” For all those stories you hear about Jobs bullying people into delivering brilliant results, you hear plenty more about how horrible it was to work for him, including how his punishing style ground people down. If anything, Steve Jobs demonstrates how dangerous it is to apply lessons that are unique to one person in one narrow setting. What worked for Steve Jobs is not going to work for you. As great as Steve Jobs was in many areas, he was a flawed executive, and fortunately a more balanced view of his style has emerged.

If you want to produce sustained results in a creative environment, don’t be a jerk. Don’t push people around. Instead, embrace the positivity of “Yes, and . . . ” I hope my appearance on the Helping History Happen podcast gives you just a little nudge.

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