Neil Mullarkey

This week Maria’s guest on the show is Neil Mullarkey. Neil studied economics, social and political science at Cambridge University, where he was also president of the famous dramatic club, The Footlights. In 1985, he co-founded the London Comedy Store Players with Canadian-American comedian Mike Myers.

Neil’s credits include “Whose Line Is It Anyway”, “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”, “Have I Got News for You”, “QI”, and two Austin Powers movies. Since 1999 he has been bringing theatre skills, in particular, improvisation, into the world of business. His work has taken him to 24 countries. Neil is currently a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School, City University. Neil’s book, “Seven Steps to Improve Your People Skills,” was published in October 2017.

Improv says we are all different, and that is creative. That diversity is powerful, not destructive.

Neil Mullarkey tells us why after studying economics he went into comedy where he met Mike Myres who introduced him to improvisation. Neil talks about the lessons that a business can take from the world of improvisation.

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Podcast Transcript

This week Maria’s guest on the show is Neil Mullarkey.  Neil studied economics, social and political science at Cambridge University, where he was also president of the famous dramatic club, The Footlights. In 1985, he co-founded the London Comedy Store Players with Canadian-American comedian Mike Myers.

Neil tells us why after studying economics he went into comedy where he met Mike Myres who introduced him to improvisation. Neil talks about the lessons that a business can take from the world of improvisation.


Today my guest is Neil Mullarkey.  Neil studied economics, social and political science at Cambridge University, where he was also president of the famous dramatic club, The Footlights. In 1985, he co-founded the London Comedy Store Players with Canadian-American comedian Mike Myers.

Neil’s credits include “Whose Line Is It Anyway”, “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”, “Have I Got News for You”, “QI”, and two Austin Powers movies. Since 1999 he has been bringing theatre skills, in particular, improvisation, to the world of business. His work has taken him to 24 countries. Neil is currently a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School, City University. Neil’s book, “Seven Steps to Improve Your People Skills,” was published in October 2017. Neil, you are very welcome.

Neil Mullarkey:       

Hello. Hello, how are you, Maria?


I’m really good, thank you very much. And I want to start with a silly question, but it has to be asked. Is Neil Mullarkey your real name?

Neil Mullarkey:  

It is. My father had the name, my brothers have the name.  I did a show some years ago called All That Malarkey because people thought it was a made-up name, because I started in comedy in the 1980s when people did adopt silly names like Birch Tyler Moore, or there was a double act called the Entire Population of China. So some assume that Mullarkey was a made-up name.

So, I did a show called “All That Mullarkey”, and I looked in the phone book in London, and there were about 25 Mullarkeys with my spelling or something approximating. And I said, if you’re called Mullarkey, you can get in for free. People brought their birth certificates, their marriage certificates, their passports. I was expecting a handful, and there were 25 in a small theatre that held 50 who got free tickets because they were all celebrating our wonderful name.

It’s an Irish name, and so my show was about the fact that my name may have held me back or perhaps others. So I’ve never been in Casualty, I’ve never been in EastEnders, and if you’re a jobbing actor, this is unheard of. I’ve got friends who’ve been in The Bill, for example, seven times playing different characters. So, has my name held me back?

Well after that show, I decided that, no, I loved my name because it makes people smile and I can chat about it. But the derivation of the name is apparently from the Gaelic, O’ Maoilearca and earc means either ox or trout, so it said on this thing that I got from, my brother got from someplace in Oxford Circus for too much money before the days of the Internet. Earc means either ox or trout, so the original bearer would have had the strength of an ox or the mythical trout’s quality of wisdom. Now, I didn’t know trout were wise, but I like that dichotomy that my name means nonsense, all that sort of load of Mullarkey, but it also means wisdom. I’m as wise as a trout. So I’ve taken that as my motto, to share foolish wisdom with the world.


I love that, wise as a trout. I might have to use that. That’s genius. So Neil, you studied economics and went into comedy. How did that happen?

Neil Mullarkey:    

It’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t tell my parents. I studied physics, chemistry, math, A levels, as had much of my family. My mother was a primary school maths teacher.  My brother did maths physics for his degree. My other brother did chemical engineering. My father did natural sciences and then chemical engineering. So, we’re a fairly scientific family. But then, in the sixth form, I got tired of wearing a white coat, and I got interested in public affairs, what’s going on in society, politics. And so I decided to do, I really wanted to do a course called social and political science. But in those days, you couldn’t do that as your first part of the course at Cambridge. You had to do a part one, something else, something more grown up, like economics. So first I did economics, and I learned about econometrics, and I learned about macroeconomics and microeconomics and fiscal and monetary policy.

But one of my supervisors was from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and so he’d start off supervision by saying, “Okay, let’s assume perfect competition”. Now, this is where you have a theory where all the suppliers know what all the other suppliers are charging, and all the customers know all the prices available. And so, eventually you settle on the right price, because they’ve got all this knowledge.  And I said, “But why do we have to assume that, because it’s so unlikely?” Because most people buy things because they like the look of it, or they know somebody, or they’ve bought it before. They don’t go and look and research everything. Well they, perhaps, with eBay, they do. I don’t know, what’s these days, I think people do go into a shop and look what else is available, the same product, cheaper.

Anyway. He said, “We must assume perfect competition, otherwise supply and demand doesn’t work.” The only thing I’m going to remember, really, from economics, was the indifference curve, which is, you are motivated not by how much you want something, but by how much you don’t want it, how indifferent you are. So, do see what I mean? So, do you want a Rolls-Royce, Maria?


Not really.

Neil Mullarkey:     

What if I said you could have one for £10?


I’ll have it.

Neil Mullarkey: 

Yeah. So, somewhere between £10 and what it really costs is the sweet spot for you. I don’t really want a Rolls-Royce, but if somebody said, here’s one for five quid, and we’ll pay for the garaging and the servicing, then I say, alright, I’ll have it. So it’s how indifferent you are, and that’s what I liked about economics. But then, I did two years of social and political science. I studied sociology of politics, so I looked at how society and politics intertwined. I did a paper on attitudes and developments so that personality, psychology of personality, as children develop how we become who we are, how we learn things, how we change, how we develop. And I did a paper called, “Deviants”, which was about how we as a society treat those who are outside the mainstream, and when I was studying in the 1980s, there were many more people outside the mainstream than perhaps you would imagine now.

So, there were unfair rules concerning sexuality and so forth. So, it’s how do we label those who are different from the norm, as it were. But, it made me realise that everybody is unique, everyone is different. But, it’s very easy to say, “Oh, well he’s a this, she’s a that” and then you paint them with the same broad brush stroke which is interesting with my work now. Because I often work with people now who aren’t what they think is in the front office, as it were. They’re back office. We’re compliance. We’re support. We’re tax or whatever. We are risk. And I say, no. Without you there would be no business. So, it’s interesting to see how these people who might be labelled as being not as creative as marketing and sales, not as entrepreneurial. They actually can be as creative and as intriguing, to me, as anybody else.


Wow. Okay, and so, coming back to comedy, then. Who were your heroes? Who inspired you?

Neil Mullarkey: 

I loved Morecambe and Wise, which I’m sure anybody of my age would agree with. The Christmas show was something we waited around for, and it’s astonishing to think that Eric Braben wrote all of those on his own. Amazing. But, Morecambe and Wise, and then I gradually got into things like, Monty Python and Laurel and Hardy. I really loved Stan Laurel, and then Oliver Hardy as well. But, I just loved their relationship and I got to understand how joyous the simplicity of personal contact is. How those two people who loved each other, but were greatest enemies as well. That sort of sibling rivalry. The physical stuff as well, so Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and the Goodies. These were the people that I liked, and then I went to America for a holiday.

My grandfather, who died before I was born, said to my mother, “When eventually this house comes to be yours,” his house, his family’s house, “Don’t invest it. Spend it on something fun and wonderful.” So, my mum spent it on a trip to America. We spent several weeks in America. Can you imagine Pan Am used to have a thing a bit like Airbnb, which was a booklet where you say, “My house is in this place. It’s got so many bedrooms. My family is XYZ.” And then, you write somebody’s got a similar sort of house or setup and say, “Please, can we have your house? You can have our house.” So, we swapped houses. Somebody in Santa Barbara and somebody in Florida.

The reason I’m saying this is because I got to watch American TV, and I began to love American sitcom. And there was a brilliant sitcom that I think only ran one series and it was called, “Arnie”. And there was some reason why this blue collar worker got promoted to a white collar position, and all that that entailed. Because his children like many children, took the mickey out of their dad the whole time. But at work he had a suitcase, a briefcase and looked the part and be grownup. And his old mates were saying, “Come on. He’s Arnie. He’s no different.” And he was just very funny.

Then there was “MASH” as well, I really liked, and so those were my heroes if you like. They were not stand-up comedy. They were writer performers or people performing a really well written script.


Yeah. No. Brilliant. I was a huge fan of “MASH” as well actually. You named some great shows there. And so with that, how did you come about to set up of the Comedy Store Players? How did you meet Mike Myers?

Neil Mullarkey:  

When I graduated, I said to my mum, I’m going to go on the dole now and not get a proper job. She was delighted by that as you can imagine. We went on tour. I was the president of Footlights and then we went on tour. We had a show called, “Hawaiian Cheese Party”, and we took that round the UK. We wrote a few more things. We went on tour around universities. We went to Australia. Eventually, I got my equity card which is what you had to have in the 80s, cause it was a closed shop. You had to have an equity card to get on TV in mainstream theatre. By the time we came back from Australia there was a new bunch back in Cambridge who took the name, “Cambridge Footlights”, obviously. So, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis and others were in that era.

So, we had to sort of call ourselves, “Ex-Cambridge Footlights”, and we did a show with the gay theatre in Notting Hill. Small pub theatre which is now quite a grand theatre that does really excellent plays. But in those days it was a bit run down. We had this guy who sold our tickets which were just raffle tickets, and he was sitting in a wheelchair, not because he was a wheelchair user but because we used all the regular chairs on the stage for our set. We had to change next to the kitchen, or actually in the kitchen where there was paint everywhere. And this guy’s name was Mike Myers, and he’d seen on our poster, “Cambridge Footlights”. So he knocked on the theatre’s door and said, “Can I help in some way?” And they said, “No, who are you?” Well, I’ve just arrived from Canada. Well, never mind, Pick up that paintbrush and paint the set. So, he painted our set. He was selling tickets for us. But, he made me laugh and I discovered he’d come from Second City Theatre Company is somewhere I’d heard of. Because I love the Blues Brothers and then other things people would have heard of like, Saturday Night Live and Ghostbusters.

Alan Alda from “MASH” had come from Second City, and Ed Asner who played Lou Grant had come from Second City. So, I’d heard of this. But I didn’t know it was improvised comedy. I just thought it was sketchers like I’d come from that world like Saturday Night Live. But, no, Mike said they’d develop and do an improv show separate from the scripted show as well. And he just made me laugh. He was the funniest man I’d ever met, and we started doing a double act called Mullarkey and Myers, and he was telling me about improv. I’d never seen an improv show. I didn’t believe it could happen. I didn’t believe that actors could go on stage and ask the audience for a suggestion and then create sketches. I thought there must be a cheat.

A friend of mine saw a show by Olma broadcasting, featuring the wonderful Jim Sweeney, Steve Steen, Peter Weir, Justin Case, and she said I couldn’t see the joy and I couldn’t see where they took the suggestion and pushed it towards their script. And Mike said, No, there’s a genuine form of theatre. The joy of improv is it’s completely spontaneous, but there are rules and you really have to listen and work with what your fellow partner gives you. How can you work with what she gives you? Treat it as an offer. So that’s the beginnings of improv.

We did an open spot. We had to do five minutes, we didn’t have enough material, so we improvised. I was rubbish. My head was swimming, and I nearly fell over, such was the panic. Mike managed to just carry on, and we got the gig and then we got a paid gig a few weeks later alongside a group called The Jockeys of Norfolk featuring Hugh Grant and a wonderful writer call Chris Lang and a great act called Andy Taylor. So, we gradually got onto the circuit, the comedy circuit of the 80s.


That sounds like an amazing story, to have someone like Mike Myers painting your set for you. That’s pretty cool.

Neil Mullarkey:      

Only in hindsight, cause he was this guy, this fellow who had arrived from Canada a few months before and nobody knew who he was. He had a bit of a career in Toronto. He’d been a child actor and people knew him, and they knew his character, Wayne of Wayne’s World, because he’d done it on a thing called “Much Music” which was a local Toronto music station.

But arriving in London, not knowing anybody in the 80s when there wasn’t a lot of comedy available. There were four TV channels. There were about three comedy venues, Comedy Store plus a couple of others. So there wasn’t this amazing pool of possibilities for a comedian, for an actor. So he was writing sketches. Nah, don’t write sketches. Nobody’s doing sketches these days. It was all stand-up, alternative comedy and so I took him to some gigs, and that’s how we eventually created our act.

We were a bit more theatrical than others, so we had rehearsals. And we put on different clothes to perform and we had a sketch where I played the entire population of an American Midwest town when the aliens had landed in a 1950s movie. So, I tried to go “Uhuhuhuh”, as I was playing hubbub and Mike was on stage going, “Okay, calm down now”. He chose a volunteer, who happened to be me, and I ran up to go and fight the aliens and then I hid in another part of the room and said, “I need a volunteer from over here.” Now I’ve had one from that area. Oh, I know, you.” And he picked me again.

So, it was kind of a spoof of B movies which in the 1950s, the aliens were, you know the Communists. And so, that was the undercurrent of that. There was a bit where Mike, I’d be walking on the pavement and he’d go to the other side of a car and he’d walk down the stairs as it were, which he’s done in Wayne’s World. So, he’s moved shoulders moving down, as if he’s going downstairs into the street. And I said that’s so funny. We’ve got to do a whole sketch around that.

So, we set up a couch and another couch at the other end of the room and this bed sit in Ladbroke Grove and just thought of jokes where you could only see the top of half of somebody. And we wrote a story around it, and we called it Dr Wicked. Dr Wicked was actually invisible, but the only way you’d see him was if he put a tea towel on his head. So, that’s how I played Dr Wicked, a man with a tea towel and glasses attached to said tea towel, and various jokes that we then made into a story that became a longer set. But, it was enormously prop heavy, and because it required a sort of semi-screen and it needed lots of props and Mike had to have wig. I had to have the tea towel, and there were about 12 other props we had to have.

So, we had to set it up in some low brow pub, room above a pub where normally the pigeon fanciers would meet. So we had to set that up, and then other stand ups would come or poets to do an alternative comedy piece. Nevertheless, we continued and got to Edinburgh Festival and then Mike had to go back to Toronto. They called him back. They said, “We need you for the main show in Toronto. You’ve been in a touring company hitherto, Second City”, and we kept in touch. And we’re still in touch now, 33 years later.


Wow, wow. With the Comedy Store Players, did you have resistance at first because improv wasn’t around and it was so new?

Neil Mullarkey:  

I think so, yeah. I’m not quite sure who had the idea, because Don Ward and Ken Kenny of the Comedy Store spoke to Kit Hollerback and Dave Cohen with whom we’d done a sort of trial in Edinburgh and Paul Merton the summer before. But they said okay, they’ve agreed to it. The Comedy Store, at that stage, only did comedy Fridays and Saturdays, only did stand up. The other nights, they sublet to discos. And so, the idea was, Sunday, let’s do improv or impro as we called it in those days.

Now, in those days nobody really knew that improvised theatre was an end in itself. They thought probably it was a way of devising theatre, like Mike Lee. So, you’d improvise a bit. You’d get a script, and that becomes the script. But no, improv, improvisational theatre like Second City or Robin Williams had done in San Francisco with Kit Hollerback was where you improvised in front of the audience. You did it there and then, and so, there was resistance. So, the Comedy Store said, well let’s do the first half as stand up and people feel like they’ve got their money’s worth and then you can faff about in the second half without a script.

But, it was a bit of an uneasy marriage because people, “Are we buying improv or are we buying stand up?” So, by January 1986, we’d started October 27, 1985. We did the whole show and we called it “Comedy to Go”, like take away comedy. That helped to brand it. But it wasn’t an easy world because people didn’t really understand it. Even now we get people saying, well you must have rehearsed. Even though they’d seen the show, I’d see them on Sunday afternoon. They’d say, well what are you gonna do tonight. I don’t know. It depends on what the audience gives us. It’s entirely improvised. We know the games you’re gonna play, but it’s all improvised.

So, what really did help us was when Whose Line Is It Anyway came on the radio. So, then people were, I see. I can understand now how it works. It can be funny. It’s a bit messy, but it’s funny. And then Whose Line went on the TV, and was incredibly successful, won BAFTA awards and many of the Comedy Store Players were on it. So, Josie Lawrence was on very regularly. Paul Merton was on regularly and that helped us to get on the map, as it were. And they insisted, and Clive Anderson said to me once, it was annoying because it took several seconds of his time, saying Paul Merton of The Comedy Store Players, Josie Lawrence of The Comedy Store Players, but that is still there for the world to see.

That did help us enormously, both to understand improv as a form, because even now, people don’t understand. I say I do improv, and they think I mean I do sort of spontaneous stand up. I think, even now, people think stand-up comedy is somebody saying things that they just thought of, which occasionally they do ad lib in their set. But a proper stand up, she’s got great material. She’s tried it out. It’s been road tested, and you know it works and you may ad lib here and there, but it’s a different form of comedy.


Excellent, excellent. Now, you’ve also got an alter ego that likes to wear a yellow suit and a ponytail and tree hug, L. Vaughan Spencer. Who is L. Vaughan or L-Vo, as he’s known, and what’s he doing?

Neil Mullarkey:

L. Vaughan Spencer is my alter ego. I started teaching improv to business people, so speaking at conferences, doing workshops. And I went to all these conferences, and I noticed that quite a few people speaking, saying look at me, aren’t I marvellous. And, people in the audience who were doing regular jobs, saying, yes, you’re marvellous, and then going, yes. “Go do it”. And then after, you think what was that about? How did that help me be a better accountant, compliance officer, marketer, sales person? Because somebody was shouting at me, haranguing me, saying, yes. I can do it, sort of thing.

And then I also had lunch with a friend of mine who works with a management consultancy company and he told me about Jung, the psychologist who talks about the shadow, the dark side, which is all that unconscious stuff we don’t admit about ourselves, and he said that’s the creative side. So I said all the things I don’t dare admit about myself are put into this character. He’s all the things I daren’t be that I don’t want the world to see. He says things I daren’t say, but when I put on the ponytail and the orange suit, then I can become him. So, he’s L. Vaughan Spencer. He’s L-Vo, like J-Lo.

And, so I’ve done him quite a lot in corporate events. I don’t do him that much these days. But I did a show at the Edinburgh Festival and wrote a book called, “Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy”, and I must say it’s enormous fun to put on the mask, as it were to be as outrageous as he is, because he has no fear. Actually, he has an enormous fear. Clearly his life is a mess, and like Frasier the psychiatrist who needs a psychiatrist, he’s somebody who’s deeply empty in his life, but L. Vaughan Spencer spends all his time telling other people what to do with their lives.

I think it was interested to look at lots of those people who are busy telling everyone else what to do and their own lives are a mess. So the counsellor; the marriage guidance person who’s on his fifth marriage and so on and so forth. So, he’s a conglomeration of the worst parts of myself and a few people I’ve seen speak who are a little bit lacking self-awareness.


Love it. Love it. And I love the character, and I’ve seen him. So, I’m glad he hasn’t retired and he’s still there lurking.

Neil Mullarkey:    

He lurks. He lurks. I do him every now and again and so, I love donning the suit, I must say.


Brilliant. You mentioned that you started teaching improv to business. So, what are the lessons that a business can take from the world of improvisation?

Neil Mullarkey:  

Improv, when you see a show, you see two people or three people or four, five, six people really listening to each other. We don’t have a script. I don’t know what you’re going to say. I don’t know what you’re thinking. But we can create something together that is greater than the sum of its parts. You and I can create something wonderful because we collaborate. Rule one of improv is to listen. I have to listen to what you say and even to use the jargon that Mike introduced me to 33 years ago, I treat what you say as an offer, an offer. And that’s something I can build on.

So, in a scene we might ask the audience for a location. They might say hospital, and I might say, “Good morning Doctor”, and you’ll take on doctor. And, I’ll say, “Oh, good morning, Nurse.” And so we become nurse and doctor. We create a scene together. We don’t go, well I’m not a doctor. What do you mean? I’m not that, which is called the block. And so, people pick up that idea because how can we be more collaborative, how can there be better teamwork in an organisation if we’re not really listening?

And real listening means actually showing them what we say that we’ve heard what you’ve given us. And in the broader context, the unexpected could be treated as an offer. So, there’s a change in technology. There’s a change in the marketplace. There’s a change in regulation. You’re competitive in this, and so, instead of saying oh no, this isn’t what we expected London to cry, you go, aha, there’s something here we can build on.

There’s a man called Robert Poynton who does similar things to me, came from the world of marketing but then got intrigued by improv. He wrote a book called “Everything is an Offer”. So, there’s always something that said okay, what’s the opportunity here? What’s the possibility? Rather than thinking, oh no, it hasn’t worked out as we expected. Eisenhower, a great military man, said there’s a difference between a plan and planning. You should always be planning, but as soon as you hit the enemy, your plan is dead.

So, improv helps us to communicate better, to be more creative. And I also work with leaders, as well because, as a leader, if you’re really leading well, you’re acknowledging you don’t always know the answer. You’re dealing with uncertainty or you’re dealing with ambiguity. Everyday leadership, everyday management might be people come to you, you tell them what to do, you know the answer. You’ve done it before, x=y+3, whatever.

When you’re being innovative, when you’re looking to the future, when you’re dealing with a disruptive world, you’ve got to think then what’s the next step? And sometimes the leader doesn’t know the answer, but her job is to say, well, what’s the question? Or to be encouraging her people to ask the question or find their own answers. And, there’s a lot about these days employee engagement for example. I came across this idea a few years ago, and then discretionary value which is are your people giving all they can? Or are they just arriving at 9:00 and going home at 5 PM? Are they bringing themselves? Are they bringing their brain? Are they thinking, how can I be doing a better, or am I just filling in the boxes? Can I be thinking in a new way? Am I really engaged and how can I can contribute more?

Because people want to contribute, and I don’t think people want to feel disempowered. Improv is saying, as a leader, right, how can I listen to my team? How can I encourage them? And the main metaphor is how can I do a “yes and”, as opposed to a “yes but”? How can I make you feel that I’m listening to you, that your idea is worth something?

On the other hand, there are times, and I point this out to people, improv isn’t just chaos. So, when you come and see a show, we’ve got some structure on the basic level. We start at 7:30. We finish at 9:30 at the Comedy Store. We do it on Sunday. We do it on a Wednesday. There are six people. They’ve been booked in advance. We do the same games every time. The Comedy Store has organised lights, insurance, drinks, foods, technical capabilities.

So, we have a structure within which to improvise. And the difficulty people have is improv is just whatever. Make it up. Yeah. Whereas, I always try to say to people, improv is a form that started actually in the 1920s. It was a social worker helping children who were a bit shy in class, didn’t know what to say or backwards in, sort of, speaking up. Saying, yeah, give them a chance to speak, so she graded the exercises, and it was her son who then formed Second City Theatre Company, and that’s how I’d heard of it. And that’s Mike.

So, it originally was a way to enhance people’s communications. But there are sort of structures. I’ve given you the structures, of the kind of outside structure of the show, but there are many structures. The main one is yes and. Okay you give me something. I give you something based on what you gave. There aren’t structures in terms, oh, somebody says, west, and we do XYZ. Or, we do a whole half hour show, you know, x=y, and the next thing. So there are sort of, little mini structures which is I’m “yes anding you” isn’t it great, for example, if you are the boss and I am the servant, at some point for the servant to have one over on the boss? Little tiny things like that.

In fact, in Italian, comedie de l’arte. What we call comedy business. So, for example, coming on with sausages or the custard pie or the ladder gag. So they call laxing or sort of comedy bits you try and introduce, and they had stock characters. Sort of very like improv in a way. So you’ve got some funny bits of business where the thing you expected didn’t happen. There’s a high status character who needs to be brought down. There’s the servant who speaks truth. There’s the lovers. There’s the pompous man who’s a coward, sort of things.

So, those kind of stock characters happen in panto and certain improv. So, that’s the structure, but that’s kind of talking about theatre. But improv, the way I teach it, people really say, wow, I had never realized, first of all, that I’m not listening as much as I thought in the way that I thought. I’m just listening for stuff I can pick myself and tell you why you’re wrong or I can talk about myself or I can take it in a direction but not the direction that perhaps you would like. I’m filtering it through my own agenda.

Improv, really, and I call it “intentive listening”. I’m intending to do something with what you give in the way that I respond.   It’s over and above normal listening, even more than active listening, which tends to be just sitting quietly. So, there was a Harvard business review blog a couple of years ago by a company called Zenger Folkman who talked about what is real listening? And many of us think about is real listening is you’re sitting there, like you are now, Maria. You’re nodding. You’re being quiet but you’re really looking at me and we call that active listening. And some people think a metaphor would be sponge. You’re soaking it all up.

But, a conversation they said asked 20,000 leaders, what is real listening? And they said, it’s more like being a trampoline where you’re bouncing back ideas. You’re reflecting what the other person’s…


People won’t know, but I’m bouncing now.

Neil Mullarkey: 

She was bouncing up and down on the chair, but a trampoline means you’re not just listening. You’re kind of actively contributing. You’re saying, well, you’re summarising. You’re throwing in an idea. You’re kind of saying, well what you mean is this or you’re challenging, do you really mean that? And that doesn’t quite make sense?

So, you’re actually reflecting back, challenging, provoking. You’re not deterring the other person. You’re not attacking them. But, when the other person comes away, they feel better than before they started. So you’re sending them back energy. So, that’s what improv does, which it’s not just me versus you. It’s not just me running with the ball, you behind me. It’s you and I co-creating. And, that’s the most powerful image people have. And then leaders think, well sometimes I am running with ball, sometimes I’m not. And, I’ve got to deal with both actually. Encouraging my team to run with the ball and step back. Sometimes I’ve got to look at the bigger picture. Sometimes I’m the conductor of the orchestra. Sometimes I’m the one playing the lead.

And, that’s a difficult dynamic, because a lot of leaders think they’ve got to be doing it all. They’ve got to know the answers. They’ve got to role model everything. And, if people aren’t like them, they don’t quite know what to do. And improv says we are all different, and that is creative. That diversity is powerful, not destructive.


That is really brilliant. And you can apply it, not only to a conversation, you can apply it when you’re commenting on social media as well, to actually take it as an offer and to, you know, make the other person feel better, which I think is wonderful. I really like that. I’m going to bear that in mind. Tell me, you’ve got a new book out. Is this covered in the book? And do you expand on this?

Neil Mullarkey:  

I do expand. The book is based on a speech that I’ve given a few times with the London Business Forum, and they said can you do something on personal impact? And I thought, okay, well, as you can sense, listen is the one, my favourite thing. And the yes and, I call that listen and link. Link what you said to what she’s just said. Okay, that’s two. They both begin with “L”. Okay, and I started thinking, well I could do workshop for a whole day, talking about this and interesting different ways brain and neuroscience stuff, and telling stories, and then people at the end of the day say, well how come you remembered our names so quickly?

So, alright, is that all you remember? Not necessarily. So I said “L”. L for learn. So, in the book I talk about how I remember; how to learn people’s names. And I actually thought that, if we treat everything as a learning experience, we won’t feel downhearted. But, I can learn something from this person. I can learn something from that failure, that apparent failure, that upside, that downside. No matter how I meet somebody, there’s always something I can learn from our encounter.

So, learn became, they all begin with “L”. But, the chapter on listen, I could have spent the whole book. In fact, maybe in my next book, I’m planning to be about what I’ve learned, how can improv enhance business and organisational life. But there is a lot on listen and link in there and the other one is look. It’s about eye contact in our society. Eye contact is very important. Let the other person speak. How many times have you been cut off by the other person before you’ve fully formed your thought?  And you can only really listen if you let the other person speak.

I’ve come across lots of other people from different walks of life who stress the importance of listening. So, there’s a man called Robin Dreeke, Dr Robin Dreeke from the FBI. He used to be the head of behaviour analysis at the FBI in counterintelligence unit. So, he knew how to run spies and win people’s rapport. And he said the best way to influence somebody is to listen, to understand their goals and objectives, he said to listen, to validate rather than to judge.

So, I had to come up with another “L”, and I think, quite often, my workshops make people laugh. They laugh. They make each other laugh in a way that normal life, normal business, normal organisational processes don’t. It’s all about being serious, and that’s not the most creative environment. It’s not just, oh we need to let our hair down once a year or at the away day. It’s really humour which sees life in a different way, gives us different perspective, is very affiliative. The right sort of humour, which means we can all laugh together at the problem. We can all point and say, ooh, it’s difficult or remember that time we couldn’t think what to do and we overcame that?

So, it’s life enhancing when used properly. And the last one is to leave well. Is how many times have you seen a speaker and he or she finishes badly? The last bit sort of spoils it. Or you’re at a networking event, and it’s going well and then each of you thinks, I’ve sort of done it now with you. I need to meet that other person, or there’s three of four others I need to go to talk to, and I don’t know how to get away from you without being rude. So I say, I’ve got to go to the toilet, or I’ve got to go and get a drink. Then you come back and that person is still there.

So, you have to give them the drink and carry on. How can you be positive and say, I’ve really enjoyed meeting you. It’s fantastic. We’ll speak to each other tomorrow. I’ll send you an email or a LinkedIn request, and I’ll find out XYZ that we’ve discussed. Then you take them to meet somebody else and give them a great intro. So, how do you leave an encounter? How do you finish meetings? How many meetings sort of fizzle out? Or end where somebody’s still seething with resentment. Or they haven’t got to the bit where they really want to have their say. So, how do you end an encounter well?


And, that is a brilliant place for me to try to end this encounter well, and to say Neil, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for all the wonderful stories, all the wonderful knowledge. It’s been a pleasure having you.

Neil Mullarkey: 

Thank you for having me, Maria.

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