Andrew Tarvin - Humor Strategy


Brian Lord: Hi, I'm Brian Lord, your host of the Beyond Speaking podcast, and today we have on Andrew Tarvin, who's the author of several books, including Humor That Works. And then also your TEDx video has been viewed six million times.


Andrew Tarvin: That's true. I think only half of which were my mom.


Brian Lord: She just has it on repeat. [Laughing] 


Andrew Tarvin: She just repeats like, "Oh, that's my boy."


Brian Lord: Train the cat to hit the button and keep going.


Andrew Tarvin: Exactly.


Brian Lord: So how did you- So you're pretty interesting, guy. So you've written these books, you're an engineer. What made you focus on humor?


Andrew Tarvin: Sure. Well, the starting story for focusing on humor as a topic was I remember being in a meeting at Procter and Gamble. So I started working at P and G right after I graduated and I was in his meeting- And it was when those incredibly boring meetings, you know, like the point like so boring, you want to cry type-meeting. Like the boring, where you're daydreaming about doing other things and the other things aren't exciting. They're things like you're like, "I wish I could be folding laundry right now" and "I wish I could be like doing emails" or something like that. And the problem with that particular meeting was that I was the one leading the meeting. And it's like "Alright if I'm bored while talking, they have to be bored while listening." And so I had this kind of epiphany. I'm an engineer by background and I was like, "Okay if I can solve most problems, can I solve the problem of boredom?" And I had been doing improv in standup since college and I was like, "Oh, maybe I can bring some of the improv and stand-up into what I do just to make it more fun for me." And as I started to do that, I started to realize I was getting better results in the workplace. Right? As a project manager, people were actually coming to my meetings and they are responding to my emails and all that stuff. So I started to explore that intersection more of not just humor for the sake of entertainment, but humor as a strategic tool.


Brian Lord: Now, did you actually get more people at your meetings like did this pan out? Did it make other meeting leaders jealous or anything?


Andrew Tarvin: I didn't necessarily make them jealous, but it did cause people to come. Like people would tell me where like, "I had two meetings on my calendar today, but I chose yours because I knew it'd be more fun." Right, in terms of like if their double schedule or the way that I knew it was working with emails, I used to include a joke at the end of each one of my weekly status reports because I love puns and wordplay so I'd write a custom joke for that. And I remember coming into the office one day and having a bunch of replies to a certain e-mail message and I was like, "Oh no. Like, what did I do?" And I opened the email reply and it was basically people saying, "You forgot your jokes." I'd forgotten to write a joke one week. And they're like, "Where was the joke? Yeah, I was expecting a joke. Are you still doing the jokes? The jokes are the reason why you open your email." And so it was this saying, this recognition that as a project manager I realized like, oh, the jokes were actually getting people to pay attention to this one message. So it did- It seemed to work.


Brian Lord: Wow. So what was the- Were you afraid at all? I know a lot of times people don't use humor because of fear that they're going to say something wrong. You know, there's a lot of environments now where you can't say- there's a lot of things you can't say. How did you get the courage to do that? And I guess what advice would you give to people who might want to do the same?


Andrew Tarvin: Well, I think for me, the reason why wasn't quite as afraid is pretty early on in my stand-up career I decided that I always wanted my material to be Rated Mom. I always wanted my mom to be out to watch me doing comedy and be like proud that I was up there. Right. Because some comedians talk about some pretty- what we in the industry call "blue material." And I never wanted to do that. So the jokes that I was making in the workplace were appropriate to begin with. But you're exactly right. You know, you want to make sure that what you're saying is appropriate. And one of the things that I've realized since then is it's not always about trying to be seen as a funny person. It's not always about making the perfectly crafted joke and pushing the boundaries. That's what a comedian does, push the boundaries and all that. But as a person in the workplace, it's more about, "OK, how do I use humor to be more effective? And how do I maybe it's not about making someone laugh, but it's about making them smile." And so in general, keeping it kind of positive and inclusive is a good rule of thumb. Like what we say is the Newspaper Rule. Right? Would you want whatever it is that you said, showing up in the front page of your hometown newspaper, and if you're like, "I don't know if I'd want my boss to read that I said this joke to this person," it's probably not the right thing to say at work.


Brian Lord: So if someone is not- If they don't think of themselves as funny- So even though he is funny, we'll use our silent producer, Eric, who is who's on the other side of the camera now and the other side of the... I guess not the other side of the mic... Anyway, if you wanted to give him advice on how to start this tomorrow if he's writing emails or running a meeting or something, what advice would you give him to start?


Andrew Tarvin: Well, first of it, it's a mindset change, right? Part of it is recognizing that humor is a skill, which means it can be learned. And I know that because I'm someone who had to learn how to use humor. You know, I've done over a thousand shows as a stand-up and improv comedian. As you mentioned, the TEDx Talk has over six million views on the scale of humor. And so there's reason to believe that I am at least a somewhat funny person to funny to some people. And I went to my high school reunion not too long ago. People found out that I did comedy and they're like, "But you're not funny." Because I'm not that life of the party type-person. I'm very much an introvert. Even sometimes when I speak, I'll chat with people before, and then I'll get up on stage and do my thing and I'll come back afterward and they'll be like, "We had no idea you were the speaker. We had no idea that you like a comedian." I'm not outward- We have this stereotype of people that they're like the boisterous ones, the ones always talking. And the reality is, again, humor is a skill, which means it can be learned. And so it's about, OK, what are what do you need to learn for humor? How do you get started? And so the tip that I would give for anyone who wants to start to incorporate a little bit more humor is to do what most comedians do and that's keep a humor notebook. Right, to keep a repository where anytime you have kind of this funny thought to yourself or anytime in conversation, you make someone laugh or anytime you see something in the world that you think like, "Huh, that's kind of interesting." You write it down in this notebook and what that does is one, gives you a repository to always go back to, like, then if you want to be funny, I'm like, "Oh, what are some of the interesting ideas that I've had?" But two, it also starts to train your brain to see humor in the world. Right? It's kind of like an expert aspect of the reticular activating system. If you're familiar with RAS, if you're listening and you're not familiar with RAS, it's basically, the way I understand it is it's kind of about selective attention- That's one of the things that it does. And it's that idea, like if a friend of your buys a certain type of car and then you start to see that car everywhere. Right? Is not that there's more of those cars on the road. Usually, it's more just that your brain used to filter that information out. And now it has this new information is like, "Oh, maybe you should notice when that car is there because maybe it's your friend driving next to you." And so the same thing is true with humor as you start to capture more of the humor that you see every day, you start to notice it more and more. And I don't think that funny things happen to funny people. I think that funny people see the world in a funny way. And so that the tip number one that I would say is to start with that humor notebook so you're capturing, one, you're probably going to notice more that you're laughing a lot day to day, more than you realize. You probably notice that you make other people laugh more than you realize, like with your friends and stuff. And then you can start to articulate, you know, that a little bit more intentionally.


Brian Lord: So that's a little bit on the how of being funny. But why should you want to be funny in the workplace other than getting people to meetings?


Andrew Tarvin: Exactly. Why even do it? Well, it's a great question. And there are more than 30 benefits to using humor in the workplace that are backed by research, case studies, real-world examples. Right? I'm an engineer, that's what I like. We've done the research on that. And it ranges from all manner of things. It can help you to be more efficient in terms of how you execute things, like if you enjoy your work, you're going to do it more. Because I can ask you a dumb question and for the people listening, you can think about this for yourself as well. But would you rather do something that is fun or not fun?


Brian Lord: I'll go with "A."


Andrew Tarvin: Right? Yeah, Most people are going to say "fun" so it stands to reason if you were to make your meetings a little bit more fun, people would be more likely to come. If you were to make your own work a little bit more fun, you'd be more engaged in it. You'd be more excited about going into it, you know, each and every day. So I can help you with execution. It can help you with stress management. Right. We know that stress by itself is not a bad thing. Stress is how we grow. But when we don't relieve chronic stress, that's when we see an increase in blood pressure, a decrease in our immune system, an increase in muscle tension. Well, when we laugh, we actually release stress. We see an increase and our boost to our immune system. We see a decrease in our blood pressure, decrease in muscle tension. And so humor can be a great kind of way to counteract the negative effects of stress. You can do it from a communication perspective. When people use humor, people are more likely to listen. Right. If you think about the people that you pay attention to every single day, a lot of times it's people who entertain you. Like Seinfeld says, there's no such thing as an attention span, only boring content. So if you want people actually listen to what you're talking about, you sprinkle in some humor, and that will get them to do that all the way up to like leadership leaders who use humor are seen as being more in control and more on top of things. Leaders who use humor, whose sense of humor is rated as above average, see less attrition, less turnover year to year. So there's like- There are tons of benefits to using humor it's more about, okay, why do you specifically want to? And I think that's an important distinction. This isn't you know- I don't talk about humor when it's like "Use humor for the sake of humor and try to be funny and, you know, hope that people think that you're a really funny person." No, like, use humor as a strategic tool to get these specific results when you're looking for it.


Brian Lord: Who are- and I know we didn't prep for this- but who are some funny business people?


Andrew Tarvin: Who are some funny business people? That's a great question! I think... who am I thinking? I mean, like say you immediately think of some of the meme-worthy type-people, so like Elon Musk certainly has a sense of humor in terms of how he does certain things and some of the memes that he shares out as well. Warren Buffett is actually very humorous in ways. If you've ever read Warren Buffett like Annual Report, there is intentional humor throughout some of the interviews that he does. He has some great, you know, metaphors that are kind of comedic and humorous that he's used. So I think he's a great example of using that as well. And of course, you naturally think of some entertainment to entertainers who like if you think back to Jon Stewart, some of the things that he was talking about- Yes, he was on a comedy show, but at least of my generation, most of us got our news from The Daily Show because it was entertaining and informative.


Brian Lord: Yeah, and that's one of those things that I think is pretty fascinating about how you can kind of go back through and look and see. I mean, there are some very dry, boring, successful people, but there are some pretty funny ones as well. And you can kind of see how they use it in there, even though, like, sometimes maybe like Warren Buffett- I don't know if you want to call it folksy type of humor, and other people may have some more different types of humor, but it all kind of plays into having that relatability, that connection. And obviously, in politics, you know, like remember Ronald Reagan was really funny and, you know, some others have used humor quite a bit there as well.


Andrew Tarvin: Yeah. And Obama had used a lot of humor in the types of work that he's, you know, that he was doing and in debates and Lincoln. I mean, if you look at some pretty big leaders, pretty popular leaders, they have all used humor as well. So Lincoln was a huge proponent of humor. Gandhi talked about the importance of humor. Martin Luther King talked about the importance of humor. So that's, I think, the other thing that people can recognize is that, you know, just because you use humor around something doesn't mean that you don't take it seriously. And in fact, you know, some of the work that we do is with more serious organizations. And if what you have to say is important, then if people are bored when you're saying it, there are very serious consequences. And so if you want people to really resonate with a certain message because it's important to get out there, then you would use whatever tools exist that are effective with humans. And we know that humor is particularly effective with people.


Brian Lord: Now, The Humor The Works blog is the best place to go to learn about humor. But where are some other places? That's of course, that's for sure. Andrew's area there. But where are some other places like podcasts or other places where people can go that you recommend?


Andrew Tarvin: Yeah, there's a lot of fascinating content out there in this space, I think, you know, so some of us earlier we're talking about the Good Ones podcast, which is getting famous comedians on, and then they talk about how the process that they wrote pretty popular jokes and kind of what they went through. So I think, you know, the Good Ones podcast is a really good one. I think just experiencing more of it in general, whatever your sense of humor happens to be, that's another good step to take. If you're like, "Hey, I want to maybe get started in using humor as you experience it more" and discover what is your sense of humor. And so just listening to other comedians and look at it just from an eye, not just of like, oh, did this make me laugh, but then start to look at to be like, okay, why did I laugh? What did that person do with their voice or what did, you know, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was actually a pretty accurate show when it comes from stand-up in the sense of how long it takes to write some things and that it's an iterative approach. So, like, look at, you know, even a show like that of like, OK, "Why are people laughing? Why did that make me laugh?" And just analyzing it from a slightly different perspective helps you to start to develop that that skill. There's also plenty of great books out there. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin is a fantastic book. It's more of an autobiography, but in it, you kind of learn what his process was like learning humor. He also has a master class on, you can kind of check that out. So there's tons of resources out there if you're interested in it, there's opportunity to learn more.


Brian Lord: You know, in a lot of comedians I've noticed will share that. Like there's Jerry Before Seinfeld is fascinating where he lays out- it takes up an entire street of his yellow notepad, pieces of paper of all his jokes. I don't know if you've seen that yet, but, yeah, it's just incredible what it goes through. But not that people that are listening have to do that-. 


Andrew Tarvin: -Yeah, it's not that level of detail, but it is recognizing that, you know, sometimes, especially as we get older, we try something once and we don't do well at it. And we're like, oh, I'm just not good at that. And so we give up forever. Like, I just recently started- I went skiing for the very first time and of course, I fell a lot. And if it's like, "Oh, if I stop skiing after the first time I fell, it's like, I would be done." But, I went through the process and learned a little bit more, I still fall a lot, but I had a great time. You know, I got all the way up to intermediate routes, which I was pretty proud about. But the same is-. 


Brian Lord: -Is that blue or green I can't remember? 


Andrew Tarvin: -That is blue. So I went from the baby slopes were you ride the magic carpet and you're there with the toddlers who, like, can barely walk but are great at skiing. Then the green rounds and then one or two, you know, blue routes. But, it's like any skill. You're gonna fail at first, but over time, you get better with practice and repetition and stand-up is the same way. And so actually, that's kind of step two of typically what we teach. Number one is to keep a humor notebook. That helps you develop your sense of humor and identify it more. Then, number two is to improve your ability to humor, which is by getting, quote-unquote, stage time. And this is practicing it. So stage time could be going and doing an open mic, which is a great way to like- I think stand-up is one of the hardest forms of public speaking you will ever do. So if you get good at that, you get it other forms. Like that's why I still do standup is working on materials for some customization when I'm working with different clients.


Brian Lord: On your site, you got the link there where people can go type in their city and find it. So which is really funny, there's like barbecue places in Tenn- I just looked it up. There's barbecue places where you can go do stand-up.


Andrew Tarvin: Right, exactly. There's tons of places you can go on and do this. But you can also think about, I mean, to be a Shakespearian about it, right? "All the world's a stage." So you can also use- I tweet out puns and wordplay and then I'll often go back and look after, you know, a few weeks to be like, okay, which jokes actually did well? What did people respond to on Facebook or on Twitter? And so that's a way to test it. Or you can test small ideas with, you know, your coworkers or with your friends. Be like "Hey, I was thinking about this idea. What do you think of this?" Right. So there is this iterative practice approach that whether you are Jerry Seinfeld writing this all out or someone who's starting for the first time, there is going to be a practice component to what you do.


Brian Lord: One thing that you point out that's really fascinating. So in the speaking role, the corporate world, you know, the past three or four years, storytelling has been the thing where people, you point out, used to be kind of this thing people didn't really see as a business tool. But now it's very much so in that humor- And I've noticed this a lot, too- humor is kind of the next wave that storytelling gets you there. And then and then humor gets you even farther. Kind of tell us more about how you feel that's playing into the speaking world now.


Andrew Tarvin: Yeah, I think it's absolutely true. Right. We've recognized that, you know, and it took us maybe a surprisingly amount of time to understand the value of story, even though, like we thought, oh, that's just entertainment. But it's like, oh, no story is how we communicated before we ever had even the written word. Right. It's how he passed on information. We have naturally been storytellers as humans. And so people have started to pick up on that. But the next wave, I do think, is going to be humor. One, because humor improves stories. Right. Because sometimes we tell a long, epic story and there's valuable kind of plot pieces to it. But if the story is boring, no one's going to listen to it. So you can use humor throughout a story so that people stay engaged and they stay listening to that message in that story. But also humor is more broad than jokes. It's more broad than comedy, it's more broad than story. And so when maybe a story doesn't quite work- Right, story maybe sets the stage and gets people ready. But then if you're going to explain something, you're not necessarily going to be like, here's a story of, you know, me telling you where you then just tell the person the steps that they need to do those things anyway. Right. You don't necessarily need to put that into a story format, but you can use something like an association where you're then relating something that you have to train with something that people like. Right. So, for example, you see this a lot and say content marketing where people are more effective at, they're going to explain something rather than just explain it there and be like here are the five ways that, you know, content marketing is like Game of Thrones and people are like, oh, I already like Game of Thrones. So now I can kind of connect these dots and see, OK. "It's like [Inaudible] and this and just make sure that you don't have like a season eight fiasco on your hands," like whatever your commentary is on that. But association is great because you can connect what people have to know with what they like to know. And so that's where humor comes into play. Why I think it's the next evolution from storytelling is it builds office storytelling and also helps to fill in some of the gaps where it maybe isn't quite the right fit.


Brian Lord: So to close up here, you have a pretty interesting story on how your video went from 3,000 views to millions of views. So let's tell us how that happened.


Andrew Tarvin: Yeah. So I'm an engineer and so I like to understand cause and effect. And so my TEDx Talk on the skill of humor came out in like June of 2017. Six months later, in January, it had three thousand views by the year anniversary. So six months after that, it had a million. And the only thing that I did differently was I put the image of me on the TEDx stage, on my dating profiles, so I put it, like on Hinge and Bumble. And that's the only thing that I know that I did differently. And then it shot up. If that many people saw my dating profile, not that many people matched with me. So there's a lot of people that were like, "Nope, no, he's too nerdy. He's not for me." I don't know if it was that, but or it got popular somewhere and people started to see it because it was always good, like to dislike ratio. And I've done actually the calculations, all of that, like, I talked about stories about my grandmother and she's an amazing person. That's probably more of why it happened. But who knows, maybe it was just the dates.

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Andrew Tarvin: Humor Engineer, Best Selling Author and Former Project Manager at Procter & Gamble

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