Lessons from a Professional Clown Turner-Trainer

More than 200 clowns attended the recent 40th reunion of Barnum & Bailey Clown College and Ringling Bros. Today, I am the president of Trainers Warehouse, but I am proud to have been one of them.

In the spirit of reminiscing and reflection, I realized that my clowning lessons and my Clown College mottos had influenced my training style as well as my product recommendations. As we continue to search for great tools to add to our Trainers Warehouse catalog, I was reminded of the importance of the lesson learned and the mottos that I learned at Clown College. These lessons could also be useful for trainers and teachers, and it occurred to me.

  1. KISS: Keep it Simple, Stupid
  2. Make it Big!
  3. Come in, have a good time, and get out.
  4. Let it happen. (I was an uptight Yale graduate when I joined Clown College.)
  5. Have fun

KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid

Human beings are complex and have complex minds. Language is a way to communicate complex ideas and nuanced thoughts. When we talk one-on-one, this works well. Consider how many times you’ve miscommunicated with your spouse, family member, or friend. Clear communication becomes more difficult when we have to address large audiences. The likelihood of misinterpretations increases with more people. Therefore, clowning’s motto is “Keep it simple”.

Clowns can perform in an arena that has thousands of people, and they may be seated on five balconies. It is important to simplify the content and movements of clowns performing in front of large audiences. This will ensure that everyone in the audience “gets it” without having to work too hard to understand what they are seeing.

Trainers and teachers should also keep things simple and recognize that it can be difficult to learn new material. Simplicity is key, just like a clown gag. It applies to both the content and how it’s explained or presented. Reduce the amount of clutter and break down your material into digestible pieces. Make sure your delivery is clear and concise. Be sure to make the instructions clear and simple to follow.

It’s possible to make it big!

Clowns must make everything big again so everyone can see it, even from the highest balcony. Every facial expression and movement is exaggerated. Every clown’s makeup is customized to each person’s face. This emphasizes the individual’s natural facial features. A clown can broadcast to large audiences a variety of facial expressions using good makeup, such as a frown, a smile, or a frown.

Trainers should keep their eyes on the bigger picture and not get lost in the details. This is the “Make It BIG” lesson. Keep your eyes on the goal and purpose of training, and make sure you regularly check in with your group, so they are retaining the most important points.

You can reinforce your key points by using exercises, simulations, and examples that highlight and stress their importance.

Remember that clowning is all about the art of clowning. Also, gestures, props, and vocal volume should be adjusted to fit the size of the group. Larger audiences will not be able to hear subtle gestures or silent asides.

Get in, get the look, get out!

The clown vernacular motto “get in, get a laugh, get out” refers to the goal of keeping our gags short, sharp, and funny. Rest is redundant. . . This is especially true considering the many acts that await Ring Two (commonly called the center ring). Do not waste your time wandering around without a purpose.

Trainers who are concerned about the ROI of their training will find this lesson useful. Each aspect of the training session, including each icebreaker and activity, should have a content-related purpose. Your group should feel connected to your purpose. Transparency is key. Be transparent with them.

As a trainer, the “get out” part of this principle is one that I am least comfortable with. Teaching and training do not have a finite process with a specific endpoint. To ensure learning success, it is important to keep reminding and following up. We must remember that there comes a time when the teacher needs to “get out” of every phase of training and teaching. Then, the teacher can let learning take place. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you will never return, but it does mean that you are finished for the moment.

Relax and let it happen.

Steve Smith, my Clown College dean, once said to me that he could always see the gears turning in your head. Relax. Let it happen.” We were doing chair falls at the time. It didn’t help that I was a student of ballet and gymnastics in my early years. Yale was a place where I just studied and studied. The lesson was nonetheless important. My audience shouldn’t have to worry about what was happening in my head. It had to look natural and effortless.

This was my job as a clown. I had to be able “take a hit” and “put a piece in someone’s mouth,” juggle, walk on stilts, or fall on my face, without the audience worrying that I would hurt. Since medieval times, clowns and jesters have had to perform for the royal court. They also need to help them reduce stress. They should be able to forget about their everyday worries and not become more stressed by the funny antics.

We must do the same as our learners, teachers, and trainers. You can create a learning environment that is stress-free and encourage maximum learning.

Researchers have found that stress is the number one killer of memory. Stress causes high levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. Cortisol has been shown to cause the destruction of glucose, the brain’s sole food source.

There are many ways to reduce stress levels in learning:

  • Trainers should first be familiar with their material and have practiced their facilitation and presentation techniques. Preparedness is key. They will feel more relaxed if they have confidence in themselves and their ability to teach them.
  • The second is that trainers can help students relax by using social icebreakers, playing relaxed music, and putting stress toys out for them to play with.

Learning will happen if we, the trainers, are calm and help our students relax.

Have fun with yourself.

We, clowns, are taught to laugh at our mistakes, human weaknesses, and any difficult situation. Clowns don’t worry about the embarrassment and help people save face. We laughed if someone spilled soup on their fancy ties, fell on the aisle while walking down the aisle to get an award, or had a bad haircut. It was not something we ignored. We tried to find humor in everything and made ourselves laugh with the intention of making others laugh.

Facilitators of learning can understand the vulnerability people feel when they push their comfort zones and try new things. Failures are an essential part of learning. Trainers and teachers need to create environments and mindsets that support and celebrate students’ efforts.

These are some of the ways you can set an example of acceptance.

  • You can purposely travel up the stairs to reach the front of the room. . . Have fun and be funny
  • Have a little fun with yourself and encourage laughter
  • To award a prize or an award to the first person who answers a question correctly
  • Talk with the group about ground rules (e.g., when it is appropriate to laugh at a gaffe). Is it hurtful?
  • Cartoons and humorous graphics can be inserted into your presentation with Don’t Worry, Just Be Funny
  • Grab a rubber duck.

My job as a clown and trainer was to entertain and guide people. According to brain research, entertainment, and learning go hand-in-hand. When they feel good, people are more open to learning and better at absorbing new material. When I train, I will always keep my Clown College mottos and my rubber chicken in my back pocket.

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