The NEW ABC’s Of Success

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on August 26, 2013

TheArtOfUsAnd now, our second guest post from Shana Merlin, founder of Merlin Work, an improvisational training company in Austin, Texas.   If you’re looking for training in communication and persuasion that appeals to a younger workforce, improvisational training delivers the goods!  Use our contact form to let us know you’re interested, and we’ll get back to you with the details.

And now, here’s Shana!


“I got arrested,” the broad shouldered young man says to an older woman he met fifteen minutes ago. Then he smiles, spreads his arms up into the air and proclaims, “I failed!”

The older woman in the cardigan applauds him, takes a beat and says “Me too!” These strangers, with seemingly little in common except this confession, laugh together. They are twenty minutes into their first improvisational workshop.

I’ve done this activity with thousands of people from all walks of life. It sounds downright awful: go up to a stranger, admit a personal or professional failure, smile, bow, and let them applaud you. Then return the favor. But it is actually surprisingly delightful. It changes the energy in the room and bonds people who initially feel defensive and self conscious when the class begins.

Although I’ve been doing this exercise for years, it wasn’t until I read To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink, a bestselling (and also really good) business book, that I got some new insight into why this exercise is so powerful. Pink outlines the three qualities that make a person great at sales in today’s market. He calls them “the new ABC’s of moving others”: Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity. Each of these qualities is something I’ve been teaching in my improvisation workshops, whether I knew it or not. And Pink actually dedicates an entire chapter of his book to improv training, so the guy’s got to be onto something, right?

Attunement is the piece that we refer to in my field as ‘Yes, AND.’  It is how to see what the other person is presenting, accept it, and add on to it with something, some idea, that is connected. That could be someone’s emotion, concern, body language or more. So when a prospect shows up in a hurry, you match their pacing and energy to get them the information they need in the time that they have. Clarity is something I’ve added more and more of in my curriculum in recent years. We have two classes in our performance series dedicated to specificity, so that the offers you are make on stage are clear, concise, and easy to catch. It’s the difference between “the man flew” and “The man in the red cape soared through the skies of Metropolis, looking for the burglar.”  Buoyancy, however, was a newer concept to me in interpersonal skills.

Buoyancy is the ability to bounce back. It’s the positivity. The future looking. The resiliency. And it’s something that’s been all over my improv curriculum in different ways, but I didn’t have a cohesive name for it until now. I realized that was what this very first failure bow activity was all about: admitting mistakes, celebrating them, and moving on. That’s how we improvisers start practicing buoyancy. I believe so much in the value of this skill that a lot of activities at the top of my classes and workshops are intended to make us mess up, acknowledge it, and then get back in the game. It’s what gives long-time salesmen the ability to get out of bed in the morning and keep plugging away, knowing they will have many unsuccessful sales calls that day and every day. They have a specific way they talk to themselves about these routine failures.

Pink sites Martin Seligman and his work in “positive psychology” to get into the specifics of buoyancy. Seligman observed how people with learned helplessness explain negative events to themselves.  In their “explanatory style” there are three main ways people who give up easily perceive failure. People who lack buoyancy see their mistakes as:

  • Personal: This is my fault.
  • Permanent: I always do this.
  • Pervasive: Everything’s ruined.

Sound familiar? This is such an accurate description of where many of our heads spin when we make a mistake. And it paralyzes us. We can’t move forward. We can’t let it go. We are stuck in a very sucky place.

Buoyant people have a different way of self talk. They see mistakes as:

  • Impersonal: There’s some external reasons for why this happened.
  • Temporary: I’ve had successes before and I will again.
  • Limited: This is an isolated incident.

This helps people shake it off and get back in the game. It gets to the heart of the spirit of play I try to teach– take the game seriously and yourself not, take a failure bow and get back into play, that mistakes are gifts to be honored. In improv performance classes as well as in communication skills training, we get to practice this stuff in a low pressure setting, hoping to rewire some of our routine responses.

I’m excited to incorporate this idea of buoyancy more explicitly into my classes because the benefits are clearly huge. In Seligman’s Research, Buoyancy was the number one predictor of sales success. It allowed people to get back in there and try again with a positive attitude, giving them the numbers they need to achieve the success they desire.

People often want to avoid or minimize failure. But failure is going to happen. It’s part of life. So the question is more about training yourself to handle it. My advice: make like a balloon and get buoyant.

Shana Merlin is the founder of the Merlin Works Institute for Improvisation. She has toured internationally as a performer, has trained with some of the top teachers in the field of improvisation including Keith Johnstone, and members of Second City, The Annoyance, IO, The Groundlings and more and has been winning awards as a teacher in Central Texas since 1995.   MerlinWorks has partnered with The Art Of Change Skills For Life to bring improvisational training in positive change, communication and persuasion to the next generation of business leaders.  Use the contact form at to find out how you can bring this engaging style of training to your organization.


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