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Develop Play

We were born to play. Play is how we learn and develop our minds and our bodies, and it’s also how we express ourselves. Play comes naturally to us. I was reminded of this while listening to a cool little jazz gig near the beach on Maui, Hawaii, in early 2010. I snapped the photo below of a little girl enjoying the simple beauty of that musical moment by dancing happily all by herself.

I love this picture because it shows both adults and a child at play. The adult musicians are expressing themselves through jazz, a complex form of play with rules and constraints but also great freedom—freedom that leads to tremendous creativity and enjoyment for the players and for the listeners. The child did not know or care about the complexities of the chords and the rhythms or the wonderful interplay among the musicians, yet the energy and beauty of the music made her smile, laugh, and dance. She did not care if her dance was “good enough”—she just danced because she was moved by the music. She danced with such exuberance and speed that she appears only as a blur in the photo. Dance is perhaps the purest form of play. Children move to music long before they receive instruction on how to dance. We are born to move and we are born to play. Children remind us of this. They remind us that we are passionate, expressive, social beings.

No matter what your age, play is important for learning, creativity, and innovation. Play makes us smarter. “Nothing fires up the brain like play,” says psychologist Stewart Brown. “The thing that is so unique about our species is that we are really designed to play throughout our whole lifetime.” You can be a serious professional or student and be playful. We need to think differently about play and realize that it is not the opposite of work. As Brian Sutton-Smith famously said, “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” The playing skills we learned as kids are not superfluous, they are a necessity today.

We need trust to play and be creative, and trust is established through play signals such as a smile. We can use the tone of our voice, a facial expression, a gesture—all of these send subtle nonverbal signals and encourage playful engagement.

Play keeps us in the moment

A spirit of play engages us and brings us into the content and into the moment. Children remind us that we need more play in the classroom, the lecture hall, and especially the typical conference presentation. But first, we adults must give up the notion that play is not serious. We must abandon the notion that work (or study) and play are opposites. Work and play are inexorably linked—at least the kind of creative work in which we are engaged today and hope to prepare our children for. As designer and computer scientist Bill Buxton declared in his impassioned presentation at Mix ’09 in Las Vegas, “You can not be anal. These things are far too important to take seriously. We need to be able to play.”

Play is not anarchy, however. There are rules, especially for group play. Play also involves negotiation. There are rules about how and when to play. Old habits are hard to break, which is why we need some rules (for example, suspending judgment during a brainstorming activity) to break free from the habits that get us down and dampen the creative process. Shocking people out of their normal way of thinking and getting them to forget their “adult behaviors” for a while can lead to better ideas.

A spirit of play engages

Play creates a relaxed feeling of connection between the presenter and the audience and among the audience members themselves. Play fosters a collective experience of engagement with the content. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the needs of the audience and the material seriously. It’s important to take our work seriously, but we should be careful not to take ourselves so seriously. We do not need to be somber, especially during a presentation when we are trying to effect a change in people.

Good things happen when we stop taking ourselves so seriously. It’s OK to have fun. It’s OK to enjoy the experience and expose some of your true self without the doubt and worry about what other people will think. What would happen if you removed the fear? Play energizes. Do you want your audience to be energized or solemn? Or merely observe the established norms of formality?

Infuse play in your presentations

To instill a playful spirit, the presenter needs to create a secure environment. Tim Brown is the CEO of IDEO, one of the most innovative design firms in Silicon Valley and a company that understands the importance of play. According to Brown, children who feel the most secure in their environment are the ones who feel the most freedom to play. We can extend this to adults in the workplace as well. Fear—including fearing judgment from our peers—inhibits us and often prevents us from taking chances or sharing our ideas with others. Fear, says Brown, leads us to be overly conservative and to keep our “wild ideas” inside. As adults we become overly sensitive to the opinions of others and we lose a bit of our freedom. In presentations, we should create the kind of safe environments that encourages others to participate and take chances.

You can instill a subtle atmosphere of play by using humor naturally, as discussed in Chapter 3. Using humor naturally means relaxing, being your playful self, and interacting with your audience. You can point out irony, bust a myth, tell a story with an unexpected twist—anything that evokes a smile or a bit of laughter. Laughter is a fundamental social activity. When you laugh—and laugh together with others in your audience—you create engagement. In the best-selling book A Whole New Mind (Riverhead Trade, 2006), Daniel Pink identifies play as a key aptitude for success in a 21st-century world. Humor, of course, is a key component of play. “Humor represents many aspects of sophisticated thinking required in automated and outsourced times,” Pink says. “And just plain laughter can lead to joyfulness, which in turn can lead to greater creativity, productivity, and collaboration.”

A child’s playful activities often involve exploration and experimentation. These are the very activities that some “serious” adults engage in as well, at least until they get up in front of a group of people to speak. As adults, we are too quick to categorize and put things in nice little boxes. We quickly come up with reasons why it can’t be done rather than explore the possibilities and use our imagination the way children might. It’s important, then, to encourage playful exploration and experimentation that contribute to a sense of discovery in presentations. Experimentation is crucial.

When you instill play by taking people on a journey of exploration, experimentation, and discovery, you arouse the brains of the participants and you just never know what you’ll discover together. Discovery happens, after all, through a kind of play. Learning happens through a kind of play. And a playful spirit is opened to the possibilities. This is just as true for medical doctors and scientists as it is for designers, businesspeople, and teachers.

What is the role of entertainment?

Our society generally condemns the adults who dare play at work. People say play is simply entertainment, and therefore a passive and superfluous diversion. Many presenters resist the idea of bringing a playful spirit to their presentations. They may say that they are not in the business of entertaining. Their job, they will say, is simply to give the information and analysis, not to entertain. But there is nothing passive or distracting about a brain that is engaged, exploring, and discovering something new. Isn’t an engaged brain in a sense an entertained brain? Perhaps the word “entertainment” has simply gotten a bad rap with the rise of informercials, infotainment, and the watered-down version of cable news networks that put sound bites, glitz, and pizzazz ahead of journalism and hard news.

We have to be careful with the term entertainment since it has many associations that serious businesspeople want to avoid. Its synonyms, after all, include distraction, diversion, and leisure activity—not what we usually think of in terms of business or academic presentations. But entertaining is also synonymous with many very appropriate terms, such as absorbing, affecting, compelling, delightful, engaging, engrossing, exciting, fascinating, inspiring, interesting, lively, moving, poignant, provocative, stimulating, and so on. We should be so lucky as to have an audience describe our presentations with one or more of these adjectives.

Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, is a visionary and driving force in the multimedia revolution. While speaking to an audience in Monterey, California in 1984 about the future of technology in education, Negroponte said, “Good education has got to be good entertainment.” He is right—and this goes for most public-speaking situations as well. Anytime we are trying to teach, inform, and create a change in people, we need to entertain them. But you have to think differently about the word entertainment. By entertainment, I think Negroponte means engagement, meaning, and “personal involvement as well as activities that stimulate our natural curiosity and attraction to that which is novel and challenging. Education is knowledge and information. But the hunger, drive, and curiosity in the pursuit of understanding and meaning is emotional—it’s human.

Many presentation situations—and education in general—have a lot in common since both can leverage the power of entertainment. The thing about being entertaining is that it is focused on others, the way it should be. It’s not about us, it’s about them. Different audiences are engaged and actively entertained in different ways. It’s up to us to figure out what the most effective methods are for stimulating, affecting, and informing. Entertainment is not necessarily a distraction, diversion, or escape. In the best sense, entertainment is about engagement, connection, and meaning; it’s about instilling a sense of play that opens minds and amplifies the engagement. You do not need to think of yourself as an entertainer or a performer, but virtually all solid presentations will be entertaining if targeted to the right audience. You say there are just some data sets that cannot be interesting (or revealing or provocative)? Then, as the saying goes, perhaps you have the wrong data (or the wrong audience).

Children need play to develop healthy brains. Everyone gets that. But the need for play is not limited to children. We’ll have better and more empowered lives if we don’t think in terms of a work-play differential. Rather than view play as something we do only outside of work time, we should instead live a life that is consistently infused with the myriad transformational dimensions of play.

Bringing a spirit of play to your presentations—and the feeling of exploration and discovery that it instills in the moment—improves learning and stimulates creative thinking. But often it’s good to play for no other reason than to have great fun and feel good and recharged. We can find inspiration in play itself, and we are inspired by those speakers who understand that play is too important not to bring to work and include in presentations.

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