Active Listening, Free Association & Great Radio Shows

Active Listening, Free Association & Great Radio Shows

by Tracy Johnson

Aside from being a genuinely likable person, the most important quality an air personality can master is the ability to respond spontaneously, in the moment and advance a topic. Doing so requires two skills common in improv: active listening and free association.

Both of these skills are difficult for many air personalities, but both are skills that can be developed.

Active Listening

Active listening means accepting a new reality every time something is said. Each comment changes the current dynamic. An active listener responds to that new reality without prejudice, meaning they accept the new reality and work with it.

Most personalities are so preoccupied thinking of what they’re going to say next they ignore the current reality. The result is usually negative:

1) It confuses the audience. The conversation doesn’t flow naturally.
2) That “great line” comes off as forced and un-natural, often sounding self-absorbed and egotistical.
3) The potential of a great moment is missed.

Applying this concept demands that you give up ownership of the big moment, sacrificing personal achievement for the benefit of the team. This self-less approach not only improves performance, it makes each personality more likable!

In improv, each performer’s goal is to advance the story by contributing an active element, thereby setting up the other performers. Doing so creates an rich environment, greatly increasing the chances of something good happening. And that requires active listening.

Active listening demands that each personality truly pay attention without distraction. Locking in on the “moment” forces you to stay out of your own head and go with what you’re given.

That concept can be quite uncomfortable. Just reading this probably sounds scary to many of you. At first, you feel like you’re flying on the trapeze without a net. But, in reality, there is a net!

Your partners are the net! If everyone on the show concentrates on moving the story forward, the performance becomes a judgement-free zone. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, funny or dumb. Someone will pick you up. Listening actively and responding in the moment means going with your gut, again with the goal of setting up partners and moving the story forward.

Free Association

Of course, active listening and responding spontaneously doesn’t work if you have nothing to add to the conversation. An important companion of active listening is free association. Some personalities interpret this directive as being an excuse. They think they’re off the hook for show prep and planning.

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Not so fast.

Free association is training your brain to trigger key images for every new reality that’s introduced. These images, words and concepts become a tool chest to use in conversation.

For example:

Topic: A bank.
Association: Cash machines. Tellers. Wood. People in suits. Small, private offices. A bank robber.

Topic: Peyton Manning
Association: Football, NFL, Super Bowl, TV commercials, Papa John’s, MVP, Dish Network, Colts, Broncos, Tennessee, Manning family, Eli,

As you compile a mental inventory of possibilities, you’re equipped with reference points to use as tools if and when the time is right. You won’t use most of those references, but having them available instantly makes you a more spontaneous performer.

Combined with an adjusted goal of simply moving the story forward rather than coming up with a punchline that hits it out of the park, each break has a chance to find that magic moment.

Take It Further: Making Connections

Making connections from things that were naturally not connected is a tremendous skill. And it’s a skill that everyone can learn, but most don’t take the time. Or, they don’t quite know how to do it.

Coming up with original, funny material is something you can do with a little practice. The technique is making connections.

When you find a way to bridge the gap, you find humor. This practice is used regularly in Improv, and with stand up comics.

Check out some examples from a website that’s populated by fans. They use the term “Crossovers” to connect otherwise disconnected items. Click Here. Warning, some of these aren’t very good, but they give you an idea of how the exercise works.

How To Improve Active Listening and Free Association Skills

There’s a fun and easy improv training game to help develop these skills. It’s the One Word Story game. Start with 4 or more players. There’s no limit to how many can play. Start with a topic. The goal is to tell a complete story with each person adding just one word to move the story forward, each responding quickly and in context to the reality of the scene when it comes to them.

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The nature of the game means that some will contribute a much smaller part than others. When your turn comes up, the proper word may be “the” or “a”. You may be disappointed, thinking that you’re being cheated out of delivering a great line. That’s one of the points of the game. It makes you a team player, making the whole greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Try it. The game almost always bogs down because:

1) Someone tries to be brilliant and create something instead of just allowing it to happen naturally.

2) Someone thinks of a great line as the story is being built, but when it’s their turn, their idea makes no sense. But they try it anyway.

3) Someone isn’t really listening, and an unexpected twist in the story takes them by surprise, leaving them with nothing to say.

4) Someone isn’t practicing free association and has no point of reference for the storyline.

Practice it. Work at it. You’ll be amazed at how advancing the story through active listening and free association can transform your show.

When each person on the show is actively listening, trust follows, especially when each player takes responsibility for moving a story forward.


A funny thing happens when air personalities become active listeners, responding in the moment. Not only is the show funnier and more relatable, it’s also genuinely more likable, which is the #1 thing every personality should strive for. That’s a win-win!

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