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Training Circus

Lessons from a Professional Clown-Turned-Trainer

A few years ago, more than 200 clowns attended the 40th reunion of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College recently. Although today I am president of Trainers Warehouse, I’m proud to say I was one of them.

While in the reunion spirit of reflection and reminiscing, I realized that the lessons learned from clowning and the mottos that were ingrained in me 20 years ago when attending Clown College have influenced both my training style and my product recommendations, as we search for great new tools to add to the Trainers Warehouse catalog.  It occurred to me that these lessons might also resonate well for teachers and trainers.

  1. KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid
  2. Make it BIG!
  3. Get in, get the laugh, get out
  4. Relax and let it happen (I was a slightly uptight Yale grad when I started in Clown College)
  5. Laugh at yourself

KISS – Keep it Simple, Stupid

As human beings, we are complex creatures with complex minds. Language allows us to communicate nuanced thoughts and complex theories. This usually works well when we are talking one-on-one with another person. Even so, consider how many times we’ve had miscommunications with a spouse, family member, friend, or colleague. The challenge of clear communication is magnified when we address larger audiences. In fact, the more people involved, the greater chance for misinterpretations. Hence, the clowning motto, “keep it simple.”

Clowns perform in an arena with audiences of tens of thousands, seated in as many as five balconies. When performing before groups of this size, it’s critical to simplify both the content of our “gags” and our movements in performing them, so that every person in the audience can “get it,” without working too hard to interpret what they see.

Teachers and trainers should keep it simple, too, and understand that it’s hard to learn new material. Just like a clown gag, simplicity is important as it relates to both content and the presentation or explanation of it. Cut down the clutter and boil your material down into easily digestible parts. Practice your delivery so that it is concise. Make sure directions are clear and easy to follow.

Make it BIG!

For clowns, everything we do must be big-again, so that everyone can see it, even those in the highest balcony. Every movement and facial expression is exaggerated. Each clown’s makeup is tailored to the individual’s face, emphasizing the person’s natural facial contours. Good make-up will help the clown broadcast a range of facial expressions, be it a frown or a smile, to large audiences.

The “Make it BIG” lesson for trainers is to keep their eye on the big picture and not get muddled in the details of the lesson plan. Stay focused on the goals and purpose of the training and periodically check in with your group to ensure they’re picking up the biggest, most important points.

Reinforce your big points with exercises, activities, examples, and simulations that illustrate and emphasize their importance, thus making them memorable.

In the spirit of clowning itself, remember, too, that gestures, props, and vocal volume should be scaled to the size of the group. Subtle gestures or quiet asides will be lost on larger audiences.

GET in, GET the laugh, GET out!

In clown vernacular, the motto “get in, get the laugh, get out,” refers to the goal that we keep our gags quick, tight, and funny. The rest is unnecessary . . . especially given the number of acts awaiting Ring Two (commonly referred to as the center ring.) Don’t waste time meandering without a purpose.

This stay-on-task lesson is a good one for trainers concerned with the ROI of their training. Every aspect of the training session-each game, icebreaker, and activity-should have a content-related purpose. Help your group appreciate your sense of purpose. Be transparent. Tell them exactly why they are doing an exercise such as a role-play or icebreaker.

The “get out” aspect of this principle is one I’m least comfortable with as a trainer. Teaching and training are not finite processes with a precise endpoint. Learning requires frequent reminders and follow-ups to ensure success. Still, we must recognize that in each phase of teaching and training, there is a point at which the teacher should “get out” and let the implementation of learning happen. It doesn’t mean you’ll never be back, only that you are done for now.

Relax and let it happen

My Clown College dean Steve Smith once told me, “I can always see the gears spinning in your head. Just relax. Let it happen.” At the time, we were practicing chair falls. It probably didn’t help that in the early years of my life I studied the precise movements of gymnastics and ballet, and that at Yale I simply studied, studied, studied. But the lesson was important nonetheless. Whatever was going on in my mind shouldn’t be the concern of my audience. I needed to make it look natural and effortless.

As a clown, this meant I needed to be able to “take a hit” or “put a pie in someone’s face,” juggle, walk on stilts or fall on my face without having the audience worry that I would get hurt. Since medieval times, performers like clowns and jesters have been tasked with this same challenge: to entertain the royal court and help reduce their stress. The funny antics should take their minds away from everyday worries, not add to them.

As teachers and trainers, we need to do the same for our audience of learners. Create a stress-free environment that will enable maximum learning.

Brain researchers have asserted that one of the biggest destroyers of memory is stress. When we are stressed, our bodies release high levels of cortisol into the bloodstream. Cortisol is known to destroy glucose, our brain’s only food source (T. Konstant, “Teach Yourself Speed Reading”).

We can reduce learning stress in several ways:

  • First, trainers must know their material and practice their presentation and facilitation techniques. We should come to sessions prepared. If our group has confidence in us, and our ability to help them learn, they’ll feel more relaxed about the process.
  • Second, trainers can help individuals relax by using icebreakers to introduce them to fellow students, by playing relaxing music, by integrating humor into workshops, and by putting stress toys on the tables for learners to fiddle with.

If we, as trainers, are relaxed, and we help our students to relax, the learning WILL happen.

Laugh at yourself

As clowns, we’re taught to laugh at ourselves, at human weaknesses, and at any kind of difficult situation. Clowns aren’t too worried about embarrassment or helping people save face. To the contrary, if someone spilled soup on their fancy tie, tripped on the way down the aisle to receive an award, or got a really bad haircut, we laughed. We didn’t politely ignore it. We looked for humor in everything, purposely embarrassing ourselves with the goal of getting a laugh.

As facilitators of learning, we can appreciate the vulnerability that people feel when pushing their comfort levels and trying new things. The truth is, foibles are an important part of learning. So, trainers and teachers must create mindsets and environments that encourage and celebrate students’ efforts.

Here are some ways to set a tone of acceptance:

    • Purposely trip on your way up to the front of the room . . . and laugh at yourself
    • Poke a little fun at yourself and encourage laughter
    • Give a prize or award to the first person to answer a question incorrectly
  • Discuss ground rules with the group (for example, when is it appropriate to laugh at a gaffe? When is it hurtful?)
  • Insert cartoons or humorous graphics into your presentation
  • Pull out a rubber chicken.

As a clown and as a trainer, my job has been to entertain people and help them grow. Based upon the brain research I’ve read, I believe that entertainment and learning go hand in hand. Individuals are more receptive to learning and better at absorbing new materials when they feel good. So, whenever I train I’ll continue to keep my Clown College mottos in my back pocket, along with my rubber chicken.

3 thoughts on “Training Circus”

  1. selina harrison says:

    Please call or text or email me to let me know how I can help my daughter become a clown. It’s her dream and I bought some stuff and let her talk to some clowns but I need to find training for her. She is nineteen and everyone always tells her it’s crazy to want to be a clown however I want to help her follow her dreams and her father did too till he past away from colon cancer at end of 2019 he fought three years and it started when she was a young teenager so it was really hard on her. I am reaching out in hopes of getting help or info on this. Thanks so much and God bless

  2. SharonZ says:

    Wow. This is my favorite article about training! I too was a circus performer and have always compared what I learned there to what I do today. I wrote two articles myself. I posted on my linked in profile. I’ve been in the field of training for 30+ years and still going! Again. Love this!

    1. Susan Landay says:

      I love that you were in the circus also! Where and when? I can’t find your articles. Maybe you can direct me to them. ~Sue

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