How do you manage the stress of working 90,000 hours in a lifetime? In this episode, Pitch Whisperer, John Livesay, shares more than a few laughs with Humor That Works author, Humor Engineer, speaker, and facilitator, Andrew Tarvin. Andrew reveals how being forced to join an improv comedy group started it all. He teaches us the value of humor in the workplace to increase satisfaction, engagement, and manage stress. Andrew also lets you in on the secret of humor MAP, how you can be a humor curator, and how you can communicate in a way that people will listen and respond to, and have fun with at work.
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Humor That Works: The Value Of Humor In The Workplace With Andrew Tarvin
Our guest is Drew Tarvin who is the world’s first humor engineer, teaching people how to get better results while having more fun. As a speaker, he’s delivered more than 500 talks in front of 35,000 plus people with organizations like Procter & Gamble, GE, Microsoft, PepsiCo, and many others. As an author, he’s written three bestselling books, including Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work. He is also the primary contributor to the Humor That Works blog and has written more than 400 posts on business topics such as humor, leadership and decision-making garnering over one million page views every year. As a thought leader, Drew has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and Forbes best company and had been a guest for more than 40 podcasts. He has a social reach of more than 25,000 followers. The most impressive to me is his TEDx Talk that has been viewed over four million times. Drew, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me.Get a humor habit-one smile per hour. Click To Tweet
Would you take us back to your childhood? Were you always somebody who is funny or were you more the engineer?
I’ve always been an engineer. I was born in engineers to the standpoint that I was born three weeks early. Even in the womb, I was ready for efficiency. I was like, “We don’t need a full nine months. We can go right now.” I went to my high school reunion not too long ago and people found out that I did comedy and I talked about humor. They’re like, “You’re not funny.” I was not the life of the party or the class clown. In my senior year, in my Senior Superlatives, I was voted the teacher’s pet. I’m much more engineering-minded, academic-minded and socially awkward a little bit. It wasn’t until college that I discovered improv and stand-up.
I’ve seen some of your improvs. It’s hilarious and it’s funny. How did you marry the two? You talk about dating a lot in your improv that I saw.
I talk about all the topics. When you do improv and stand-up a little bit more, you start to develop a persona or a point of view. I’ve realized that my point of view is an engineer’s point of view on the world. Not only think of things like productivity and communication but also things like dating or emotions. For me, as an engineer, emotions are just data, which I have learned is the wrong thing to say when someone is crying. You find that perspective and persona. I went to Ohio State University and got a degree in computer science and engineering. While I was there, my best friend wanted to start an improv comedy group. He needed people and forced me to join. That started my journey of improvisation.
A year later, a bunch of us in the improv group started doing stand-up comedy as well. That began the journey of learning about humor. What was interesting to me is by the time I graduated, I was working at Procter & Gamble as an IT project manager. I was drawing a lot from what I learned from improv and stand-up as a way to be more effective in the workplace. I was communicating in a way that people listen and I was sending emails that people read and responded to. I had fun in my own work. That’s where that discovery started to happen a little bit.
What motivated you to write your book?
People ask me, “How long did it take you to write the Humor That Works?” In some ways, it’s like, “About six months of sitting down and writing,” but the real answer is about ten years. I have been filling in the corporate humor space for the last several years while I was still working at P&G. It was really to say, “How can we provide one cohesive guide for the people that are out there that are like, ‘I do want to enjoy my work a little bit more. I am interested in getting a little bit better results. I want to look forward to going into the workplace or going into this meeting of this pitch that I have. I want to be excited about it instead of dreading it.’” I wanted to create a resource for people to be able to do that.Be a humor curator versus a humor creator. Click To Tweet
You talk about in your book, Humor That Works, that there are three ways that humor helps. The first one is it helps us beat stress. Can you talk about that?
There are 30 benefits backed by research case studies and real-world examples in terms of how humor helps in the workplace. One of the primary ones is beating stress. As I’m sure many of your readers know and you know that stress by itself isn’t a bad thing. The stress of a pitch coming up or the stress of a meeting that you have with a client that you’ve been working with or the stress of additional roles overall improves your capacity. It forces you to get better as a presenter, as a speaker and as an employee. You’re getting more efficient and all of that. Stress by itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s how we grow. Chronic stress, when we don’t relieve that stress, that’s when we see an increase in muscle tension and blood pressure and a decrease in the immune system, all the negative effects of stress.
It’s much like when you’re working out. When you grow, it’s not when you’re working out, it’s when you rest. It’s when you refuel and recharge your body and that’s something that we don’t do as well when it comes to our work capacity stress. Humor is a great way to relieve stress and all the negative effects of stress. If you start laughing or if you’re smiling and you have the release of endorphins that comes with appreciating humor, you see an increase in blood flow and an increase in the immune system. You see a decrease in blood pressure and muscle tension. Laughter and humor can be a great counterbalance to the stress that we deal with every day.
They’ve done the research that can even help people heal who are dealing with illnesses in the hospital and stuff watching comedies and things like that. You talk about how humor can help engage employees and it unites us in a way. What if the person who’s managing a team says, “I would love to be funny with my team. I’d love to use humor to beat some stress, but I am not funny or I can’t tell a joke to save my life.” How can you help them with your book and your talks?
It’s a great question because a lot of people have this worry. A lot of people think that the ability to use humor is innate. That it’s something that you’re born and able to do. The reality is that it’s much more of a skill. It’s much more of cooking where you grew up in a household where one of your parents cook and you learn from there, you picked it up. You might feel like you have a little bit of natural talent. There are certainly some things that come into play, but you probably got better over time. If you’re like me and you start cooking a little bit later in life, which I’m still not good at, I can at least follow a recipe. I can follow a guideline and I do get better over time. I’m an engineer, so when you’re like, “Add a pinch of salt,” I’m like, “How much is a pinch?” I don’t want to just wing it. I need to know.
Humor is a similar skill that can be learned. It’s something that you can learn some of the general techniques and improve. What we say in our programs is that we can make anyone funnier, not necessarily across the board funny where you’re going to get a Netflix comedy special as soon as you’re done with a workshop. We can take you from wherever you are and improve. That improvement comes from a couple of key things. Maybe one of the most important things for people to recognize listening is to use humor effectively in the workplace. You don’t have to be a humor creator, instead, you can be a humor curator. You can find interesting humor that you like.
If there’s a Ted Talk that you like, you want to share that out. If there is an image that you come across online that you find funny or a gift that you want to respond to in a text, you can share those things. You didn’t have to be the one that created it, but instead, you can curate it and put it into a context that makes sense. Not only does it make people laugh, but it also gets a result that you’re going for. It makes people pay attention because you have an interesting image at the beginning of your presentation that makes people laugh and draws them in a little bit more.
I like that because it takes off some of the unknown fear of, “Is this going to land?” If it’s somebody else’s content that’s been proven time and again, a cartoon or whatever it is from the New Yorker, odds are it’s going to get a smile. We’re going to tweak that out as a quote from you, “Be a humor curator, not a humor creator.”
That’s a great starting point for other people or after you get more comfortable with that, you might move to like, “I do want to create some. I want to tell my own story. I want to come up with an image myself.” Do you want to craft a joke? Those are all things that you can learn as well and it takes a little bit of time. It takes practice like any skill but it is something that people can learn for sure.
Besides being a humor curator, is there something else that you were going to give as a tip for getting people funnier?
One key is recognizing, “I can be a humor curator. The other thing to recognize is that the goal of using humor in the workplace is not to be funnier. It’s not to be funny and it’s not to be seen as the class clown or to get people to be like, “You’re hilarious. You should do stand-up comedy.” The goal is to be more effective and to get better results. When you look at the broader definition of humor, it is defined as a comic, absurd or incongruous quality causing amusement. One of the keys is to think less about, “How do I be as funny as possible?” and more about, “How do I make things a little bit more fun?” It goes back to that point that you said that humor can be helpful to engage a team or engage an audience. I’ll ask you a dumb question, but I still want an answer to this dumb question. The dumb question is, “Would you rather do something that is fun or not fun?”
It’s a dumb question, but that stands to reason that if you were to make your pitch a little bit more fun, do you think people are more likely to pay? If you were to make your own work a little bit more fun, would you be more likely to stay engaged with it longer? If you were to make your commute even a little bit more fun, would you be a little bit less stressed about it happening?
Is there an easy step that someone can make to make something more fun like a commute or just a presentation?
That brings us to the third big tip that helps people. It’s understanding what we call a humor map. Your humor map stands for your medium, your audience and your purpose. Your medium is, “How are you going to execute the humor?” Is it to yourself sitting in a car? Is it to a potential client in a pitch meeting? Who is the audience? Is it just yourself? Is it people that you’ve worked with for years? Is it members on your team that you’re trying to engage more? The final piece is your purpose and this is the most important one. Why do you want to use humor? It’s not about just to be seen as funny. This is why some people were like, “Didn’t Michael Scott in The Office try to use a lot of humor and wasn’t even more of a client?” It’s like, “His reason for using humor was more about seeking validation,” which is not a great reason.” Your reason might be, “I want to use humor. Maybe I’m going to start this presentation with a story that has some humorous moments to it. Not only do I get people paying attention because it’s not a boring presentation, but rather get them interested in the story and that story sets up the thesis of what I’m going to talk about.”Keep a humor diary creator. Click To Tweet
What you said that I love is that humor is a skill like cooking because often, I give talks on how to be a better storyteller. People often say to me that I’m not a good storyteller and I said, “It’s a skill you can learn.” I want to get into your expertise as a keynote speaker because a lot of people think, “If I had to give a talk, I have to open up with something funny or show a funny cartoon.” I was giving a talk and I was more concerned with telling a story. I was running that story by a friend and I said something that made the friend laugh. I wasn’t consciously trying to be funny. I was just being myself and I thought, “I wonder if I said that in front of a crowd if it would work,” and it did.
Let me tell you what I said and you, as the humor expert, might be able to say why that works. I was opening the talk and I said, “The first thing I do every morning is taking a freezing cold shower. Research has shown that it helps fight depression, burns fat and trains your brain to tolerate discomfort and get out of your comfort zone. The research had me at burns fat,” and that got a laugh. I was saying the three steps of what the research said and then I said it to my friend as an aside because he’s fit. “That’s why we need that thing to get me doing it.” What makes that funny without consciously knowing what I did that made that funny?
There are a couple of things that make it compelling. One, it started a talk with something interesting rather than jumping into content right away, you’re talking about starting this. Immediately upon sharing this story, you’re putting people in their head of taking a cold shower, “Would I do that?” There are some people that are going to be for it and some people that are against it. You’re giving reasons and justifications, which are great. What are the three reasons again?
It fights depression, burns fat and teaches your brain to tolerate discomfort.Stress by itself isn't a bad thing. It forces you to get better as a presenter, speaker, or employee. Click To Tweet
You think about like you hear that and you think about, “It burns fat. It’s interesting.” Maybe the more of teaching your brain to go against discomfort or being used to it. That’s the best benefit. That’s the primary one. Burns fat seems like the least important one of those three qualities that it provides. The fact that you then come back to it and say, “You had me at burns fat.” Whether it helps you be more comfortable in discomfort, I don’t care about it, but this applies and there’s this interesting skill that you have. Part of the skill of humor is your ability to create humor. Part of it is your sense of humor. It starts with their sense of humor on what do you find interesting. Part of it is your ability to create and there’s this concept that comes from UCB, which is an improv school in New York and LA that says, “If this is true, what else is true?”
You can even extend that joke a little bit further where you can say, “You had me at burns fat. If this is true, what else is true? If standing and taking a cold shower burns fat, what else could be true?” It could be like, “I have stopped working out. Now I just take three cold showers a day and that’s my workout.” You can extend that, but it can be a surprise. This is where humor is interesting and why I love it as a problem solver and as an engineer is you never know what’s going to work. One, when you make other people laugh as you said, this started in a conversation and you make them laugh, that’s a great thing to take note of. What most comedians would do is they’ll have a humor notebook and the humor notebook is simply a repository where they write down funny things, interesting thoughts or anything that they’re curious about.
You put that in a humor notebook and that way, later when you want to add humor intentionally to something rather than starting from scratch. Rather than be like, “Something funny happened a few weeks ago. What was it that could work?” You just go to the notebook and then copy that down. The fact that that trigger of someone laughing got you to think about it. You could put that in a notebook and then you’re like, “If it made someone laugh in conversation, maybe it will laugh in the stage.” From that, there are things that you can iterate and you could play with like, “Is it funnier for burns fat to be first, second or third in that list?” Maybe it’s funnier for it to be first because it’s a little bit more of a surprise when you bring it back. That way, you don’t care about the two other ones or maybe it’s funnier if that’s the third thing and it creates what we call a comic triple.
There are certain devices within comedy. One of the most common they made that is the simplest explanation is a comic triple where you give a list of something. In that list, the first two things are normal expected things in that list and then the third thing is something that’s a bit unexpected and that will create a laugh. It might be like, “Maybe burns fat and the comment about burns. That’s the most important one to me. Maybe that comes last.” I can’t say for sure, but that’s where the practice and iteration come from of like, “The next time you do it, you might tweak it.”
What we’re giving everybody are real-life examples of how they can start to play around with starting a humor map and starting a humor journal. The other reason I was excited to have you on, Drew, is because we’re both speakers. When I was hired by Anthem Insurance to give a keynote to their audience on how to be better storytellers to sell, they said, “In the end, we’re going to have an improv session and the audience is going to shout out objections. Some of the people are going to pretend to be doctors and some are going to pretend to be Anthem people.” I offered to stay, be on stage and whisper in people’s ears if they got stuck. I would say some things from the keynote to keep the conversations going because for those who don’t know, improv is all about “yes, and.” I’m sure you have some stories of how you have taken some of your lessons and expertise in improv and applied it to the business world.
A large part of the way that we train, less so in the keynote setting, although every single one of my keynotes almost always incorporates some applied improv. Applied improv is simply taking concepts, ideas or exercises from the world of improv and applying them to something else like communication skills, leadership skills, problem-solving and innovation. Our workshops are often heavily steeped in applied improv and that’s because it’s an effective way to train. Rather than me talking about communication. If I get you doing an activity about it, you’re going to have the a-ha moment yourself. There’s going to be some team building that goes along with that and you’re going to remember it a little bit longer while you’re practicing this skill. We use a lot of it.
You mentioned the core fundamental principle of improvisation of “yes, and,” even that explains the humor in the workplace because the average person will work 90,000 hours in their lifetime. That’s a long time. That’s longer than everything that’s on Netflix as far as I know. “Yes, and” is a mentality. It is not about being a yes person. It’s not about blindly saying yes to everything and being Pollyanna optimistic about all of that. It’s about seeing a situation and deciding to build on it as opposed to talking about all the things that are wrong. It is about picking one thing that you do like and building on it. The “yes, and” mentality of using humor is, “Yes, I’m going to work 90,000 hours and I might as well enjoy them. I might as well find ways to make the work that I do a little bit more fun.”
Even that mentality is fundamental to how we do things. There are principles to applications from improv that you apply. One of the things that I like about improv is the idea of not present with an apology face. I’m sure you talk about what storytelling you’re with. Pitching is where you present an idea and you discount the idea yourself before you’ve ever even heard it. You’re like, “I’m thinking of this and it’s dumb. It’s probably not good at all.” When you see it, you’re like, “Is this okay maybe?”Rather than being innate, humor is much more a skill. It can be learned. Click To Tweet
The other thing I work with people on is don’t open your presentation to win a new client with, “I’m excited to be here now.” Nobody cares that you’re excited. It’s not about you. What you are also doing that I have not seen anyone else do and this is valuable is humor reducing turnover. People don’t realize how expensive it is to leave a job open, the time required to interview and check references. I spoke to an executive search firm and they’re constantly talking about, “We don’t even get our commissions if the person doesn’t stay in the job for two years.” If humor can help solve that problem, it’s going to be a huge takeaway for you. I keep thinking to myself, “If I have a job to do and I’m having fun with the people I work with, even if the job may not be exactly glamorous or fun. I get another offer for slightly more money, but no one there looks like you’re having fun, I might just stay where I’m having fun. The time will go faster if nothing else.”
They’ve done studies to show this. Once you get to a certain salary level and I think at least in the US, as of a couple of years ago, it was $75,000. The increase in pay from $75,000 does not move employee satisfaction. If people similar to you and other jobs at other companies are making $500,000 and you’re making $75,000, there might be a difference there. In general terms, money isn’t going to have a huge change in terms of your satisfaction score if it’s somewhat comfortable. An increase of say $5,000 a year may not move the needle, but enjoying your work absolutely will. One of the things that they have found is that 31% of employees leave their company because of their manager. They like what they do, they like the project that they work on and the company, but if they don’t like their manager, it’s not that they’re like, “It’s just a manager. Let me find someone else.” They’re like, “I’m just going to leave.” If you can, as a manager, find ways to not only make work more fun for yourself but make it a little bit more fun for your direct reports, that’s where you see an increase in engagement and retention and a decrease in turnover because it’s a cultural thing.
One of the things that people say about P&G all the time is the reason why they stayed or the thing that they miss the most if they did leave was the caliber of people. It’s partially the culture that exists. I’m one of those people that agree with that although it’s not seen as a funny culture, it’s not like seeing Southwest, Zappos or anything like that, it was a culture of empowerment. I proclaimed myself the corporate humorist at P&G and no one stopped me from doing that. They embraced it and they allow me to be who I was and leverage my own strength. Those types of benefits certainly helped to reduce turnover.Laughter and humor can be a great counterbalance to the stress that we deal with every day. Click To Tweet
You have many great tips on your website, Humor That Works. One of them is this concept of giving a pirate name to people. Did you do that at P&G?
Yeah. We had all types of fun with our project, simple things. We did prior names early on, but then we switched to one of the things that I liked doing. It was giving personality assessments to my team rather than Myers-Briggs or other ones we would do like, “Which Disney princess are you?” “I am a Pocahontas.” We would have nicknames based on Disney princesses, Star Wars characters and that stuff, any fun thing where you can create camaraderie for sure.
Let’s talk about your TEDx Talk. How did you come up with the name? How long did it take you to prepare for that?
I’ve had the fortune of doing two TEDx Talks. The first one, I did at Ohio State and was all about humor in the workplace, the general idea and the concept of it. I was approached by TEDxTAMU because I’ve done some guest lectures there. They were looking for speakers and they reached out. I shared with them a couple of different things that I was working on. I had wrapped up being a nomad and traveling all 50 states in a year, speaking and performing at all 50. I was like, “I can talk about that or I can talk about this other thing.” What I’m realizing is that one of the things holding people back from using humor in the workplace is that they do believe it’s this innate thing. My thing was like, “No, humor is a skill and it can be learned.” They’re like, “That’s new to us. We thought that it was natural. If we weren’t funny, then we were just out of luck.”
That’s where the premise of this skill of humor came. As far as prep goes, as the engineer in me, I wrote up a blog post all about it. I have a personal blog that went into it, but I did a ton of work for it. I knew that it had the opportunity to potentially get in front of a number of eyes and to help a lot of people. I did a ton of stand-up shows to prep for the talk. I did a number of speaking engagements where I rearrange the outline of the talks that I could do the full eighteen minutes of the talk nonstop just to learn because I iterate. That’s how I learn what’s funny, what doesn’t work and what does work. I did a tremendous amount of additional research for it, so I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I have a blog post detailing the whole thing. It was quite a bit of research to get it to that point that I was like, “This is something that I’m proud of.”
It’s important to share that behind the scenes preparation with people because a lot of people will say, “You’re a natural speaker. You’re a naturally funny person.” You don’t realize that it comes across naturally because I prepare. If you try to get up and give a talk, be funny or do anything in your career without the preparation, odds are it’s not going to land the way you think it will. Many people are not a big fan of preparation, but it sounds like you and I are on the same page with that.
There’s something that tends to resonate with a lot of the engineering groups and IT people that I speak with. There is a big difference between being efficient and being effective. It might be more efficient for you to wait until the last minute to plan your presentation to throw into. It might be more efficient to add a bunch of texts to your slides so that you don’t have to memorize what you’re going to say. It might be a little bit more efficient to not memorize it and read from notes, but it’s not going to be long-term more effective. You put in the hours for that rehearsal and that practice. Over time, one, it doesn’t take nearly as long. If you have a Patriot presentation skill and you’re building those skills over time, there might be things that you can reuse. If they talk with you and work on a story, it’s not like that story can only be used once. They can use it multiple times as they go through and every time they answer the question, “What do you do?” Every time they start a presentation by giving the background of why they started and whatever it is that they started. It becomes efficient in the long-term because it is effective in the long-term.
This has been fascinating to learn that humor is a skill that can be learned like cooking and that we can be a humor curator versus just a humor creator. The concept of efficiency and effectiveness is fascinating to me. Are there any last thoughts you want to leave us with including how people can hire you as a speaker, buy your book and all that good stuff?
If people are interested in learning more about humor in the workplace, we have a ton of resources on HumorThatWorks.com. It’s free blog articles and a free newsletter. There’s a link to the book there. There’s information about our workshops and our coaching. If they’re interested more in using humor, that website is a great place to go. If they want to connect with me personally or have specific questions, they can find me at Drew Tarvin on all social media. Whether that’s LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, they’re all under that same handle.
The thing that I would say for the readers if you’re thinking like you’re an engineer, “What do I do differently after having read this?” The one thing that we encourage is simply to start thinking one smile per hour. Think about what’s one thing that you can do each hour of the day that brings a smile to your face or the face of someone else. What that does is it starts to develop a humor habit. You’ll start to notice small, subtle ways, “I’m on this commute. How can I make it a little bit more fun?” I’m saying, “Maybe I’ll bring up John’s podcast and listen to a couple more episodes as I’m driving. Maybe I’ll have a concert and rock out to some Hamilton in the car.” If you start to do that, you’ll develop a humor habit. You can build your skill, whether as a curator or a creator as you go. Hopefully, each day you’ll get a little bit funnier and have a little bit more fun.
Thanks again, Drew.
Thanks for having me.
- Drew Tarvin
- Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work
- Humor That Works blog
- First one – Drew Tarvin’s TEDx Talk
- TEDxTAMU – Drew Tarvin’s TEDx Talk
- Drew Tarvin – LinkedIn
- Instagram – Drew Tarvin
- Twitter – Drew Tarvin
- Facebook – Drew Tarvin
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