Thoughts While Shaving…
Are you familiar with the “Fun Theory?” At it’s foundation, it states that
“fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better”
Here is an example – the Piano Stairs.
You can see more great examples at http://www.thefuntheory.com/.
The Fun Theory in Business
In the 1970’s, Video Arts introduced the business world to humorous sales and soft skills training videos with John Cleese, of Monty Python fame. The idea was the same…let’s use fun to help socialize learning and change behaviors. It was quite innovative at the time and was quite successful as they shipped video tapes all over the world to help sales people be more effective.
Seven years ago, while working at the famed Second City improv comedy institution, we picked up on this idea and thought, why don’t we adapt and modernize the concept and apply it to the most pressing needs in corporate education. I had the pleasure of leading the development of a product line of fun video communications dedicated to the wonderful world of ethics, compliance and corporate risk…subjects that are quite important and typically reviled when presented to employees “for their own good.” We were first met with a series of comments along the lines of “I love it, but it would never work here.” But over time, as more and more companies came on board and had success, there were fewer and fewer objections. Why? Because the foundational logic is still the same – “fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.”
Another recent example of this approach in action is with the inflight safety messages of several major airlines. I will give credit to Southwest Airlines for being the first to allow their flight attendants to use their personalities to convey these important messages in an entertaining way. Now there are several airlines that use entertainments and fun to get people to focus up and pay attention to safety. I’ll give a shout out to Delta Airlines and Air New Zealand whose videos are excellent. Here is an example from Virgin American Airlines
the more important the subject, the more effective entertainment can be in helping people pay attention, engage and remember.
This has been working in advertising for decades. There’s no reason why these same techniques can’t be utilized to engage employees around corporate values, corporate policies & risk, safety, leadership development, customer services, sales training, product training, etc. All can benefit from a positive, proactive, empathetic approach to make these subjects more accessible and digestible. It makes logical sense and there has been proven success – see above.
So why do we still have dry, boring, preachy corporate training and communications that not only makes employees want to put their heads in microwaves, but also has the residual effect of making employees resent the company? Here are some of the excuses we’ve heard along with some rebuttals to help you build a business case for the use of the fun theory in your company.
- Corporate Culture Excuse – “It doesn’t fit our culture.” This is a b.s. excuse. See previous blog post, “Why your Corporate Culture is Your Fault”. We can all actively affect corporate culture by how we choose to communicate. Your leadership is interested in results. There is logic and a track record for successful use of “The Power of Fun” in business. We all need to be responsible for making the case to affect change. It begins with you.
- Perceived versus Actual Risk – Anything new or different is first perceived as risky. While everyone from the front lines through the C-suite embraces fun and entertainment in their personal lives, it is often perceived as risky when applied in the workplace. But it is really? With increased regulation and complexity in the workplace, it seems to be far riskier to continue with the boring, check-the-box approach to training and communications, because then you are assured that your audience learns nothing. They actually resent you for it. If its important, you need to make sure employees pay attention and remember. Humor, music, entertainment and fun can help you win mindshare.
- Misunderstanding – Use of Humor – There is a misunderstanding that humor has to mean “to make fun of.” But this is not the case. In comedy circles we know that things are funny when they are based on truth. In corporate education and communication, we use humor to highlight and exaggerate common behaviors and teachable moments. We use humor to hold a mirror up to the real world so we can see it from a fresh angle. We use humor to pop the tension bubble around difficult subjects and to call out B.S. so that we can then talk about it instead of avoiding the elephant in the room. And we use humor to get to empathy, to put people on an even playing field and to provide a shared experience. Entertainment and purposeful humor can be utilized in service of your message.
- Misunderstanding – Age – The power of fun is not just for millennials. There is growing sentiment that these kinds of fun, social approaches are great for educating and communicating with millennials. This may be true, but I don’t care what age you are. If you are human, you crave fun. Whether you are 22, 42 or 62, you likely go to the movies, listen to music, watch TV, read novels, use Facebook or Linked-in or Twitter, watch videos online, check the news on your smartphone and have probably tried out an emoji or two. Fun and play is for the entire human population. We just need to use these same fun formats and apply them to our corporate environments. It might just help you improve your corporate culture.
- Misunderstanding – Global – “We’re global and humor doesn’t translate.” I’ll grant you that jokes don’t always transfer across culture boundaries because of language, translations, reference levels and rhythms, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to entertain, engage and connect. Music is a great example of a communication device that has great success working across cultural boundaries. Using recognizable conventions such as talk shows, commercials and movie trailers are also fun formats that can help convey important information in way that will stand out. No matter where you are in the world, people appreciate fun more than boring. Even if some of your efforts are lost in translations, your audience will appreciate the effort.
- Time & Effort – Communicating with empathy and humor takes effort. Most companies spend their time coming up with “The What” and not enough time on the “The How.” It takes time to take your messaging/training and find creative ways to convey that information in a way that your audience will best receive it, as opposed to how you “need” to say it. This doesn’t have to be complicated. It just takes initiative and thought. We all have the capacity for creativity – see previous blog post – Your Company Needs You To Unlock Your Inner Artist. And if you’re too busy, there are professionals who can help. Shameless plug – www.learningsentertainments.com
- Fear – Specifically, fear of offense. Companies work quite hard to ensure that ever single word/ sentence/picture in their corporate messaging will be palatable for the masses. By the time a simple idea has been run through HR and legal and a few rounds of leadership review, it’s as flavorful as broth. There ends up being a zero percent chance of engaging your audience. This is not advocating insensitivity, nor is it an excuse for sloppy, inconsiderate writing. The point is that when you to try to appeal to everyone, you engage no one. Corporate educators and leaders need to try new things, lots of different things, to try and get a pulse out of the audience. Each initiative shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. You need to try different things to to try and reach different people. And guess what? Many of these things will not work because different people like different things. In the melting pot of most corporate enterprises, it’s an absolute certainty that any new initiative will illicit some criticism. This is okay. Don’t be paralyzed by seeking out the perfect. Try new formats, devices and styles. Mix it up. Learn from your experiences and use negative responses as teaching opportunities. You can’t dumb things down or you end up dissatisfying everybody. In the improv world there is a saying from the great Del Close, “treat your audience like artists, poets and geniuses and they’ll have the chance to become them.”
As corporate educators and leaders, we all have the power to influence our corporate culture by how we choose to communicate. Be proactive. Look for opportunities to inject some positivity and a sense of play. Smile, play games and have fun. Try new things. Remember the Fun Theory. It’s the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better. And if you’d like some help and support, give us a call!
To read more posts, visit Thoughts While Shaving
L&E Creative Communications – Comedy, Communication, Corporate Education
“the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful”
-David Foster Wallace
This is how most employees feel about their corporate training and communications. Dullness is intrinsically painful. We’re all frogs slowly being boiled by flavorless soup. If you look it up, here are a few synonyms for boring: monotonous, repetitive, unvaried, tedious, dull, unimaginative. Can any of these adjectives be applied to your training, your presentations, your emails, your PowerPoints, your policies, or your corporate culture? Boring is the enemy of learning.
In previous blogs we’ve talked about “The Forgetting Curve” and the importance of “invertising” highlighting the importance of ongoing engagement and reinforcement. As they say, the positive, proactive vitamin approach is more effective than the one-time training inoculation. In a sea of noise, a consistent, thematic, advertising-like message can help keep important topics in the forefront. A corporate values campaign comes to mind as a relevant example. You want to consistently showcase and share what your company stands for regularly and often so it infuses and affects the culture.
Building and Audience – Embrace Variety and Surprise
Equally important is variety. Different and new is essential to getting noticed. Breaking the pattern works quite well in comedy. The unexpected rug-pull gets laughs. It’s the art of surprise and people are drawn to it. The same is true for your corporate training and communications.
“the cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity” – Dorothy Parker
People are curious. They find new and different interesting. This may seem contradictory with the idea of ongoing, thematic, consistent messaging. But it is not.
Like good advertising, you are tying to build an audience over time – an audience of employees with varying backgrounds, tastes and interests – to get them to pay attention to your training, engage in it, and remember it. They won’t remember everything, which is why themes and consistent messaging are important. Consistency and familiarity can work for you or against you. If it’s consistently boring, it will be ignored. But the lesson is that even the best campaigns often have a shelf life. Think about TV. With the exception of the Simpsons, most TV shows run their course and end and new ones take their place. And not everyone likes the same shows. If you have a good thematic campaign, look for new formats and delivery mechanisms. If you have a good message, look for different ways to put “old wine in new bottles.” You need to change it up and try new things. People crave new and different.
To get your compliance, leadership, sales, customer service, values and other corporate messaging noticed and embraced, you need to periodically reinvent your format and find new ways to surprise to help break through and get noticed.
A Consistent Stream of New & Different
Not everything will work for everybody, which is why a consistent stream of new and different is key to help you build an audience over time. People are curious. You want them to wonder what’s coming next.
To some, I imagine this sounds exhausting. It does take time and effort to make the dull or complex, interesting, engaging and fun. It’s hard enough to get the right information to the right people at the right time, much less make it interesting and entertaining. This is why most corporate training and communications are as exciting as a tax return. It’s also why employees would rather stick a fork in their eye than sit through another online course. People are busy. Their time is valuable. But you need them to learn which requires some thought and effort. You can’t just think about “The What” you also have to think about “The How” and “How Often.”
Now for creative types, this is a great challenge and it can be a lot of fun. (Remember YOU ARE CREATIVE – see blog post “Unlock Your Inner Artist” Frankly, the creative challenge of making the dry, boring, mundane, complex but important more interesting and engaging, is why L&E is in business. See, there are thousands of ways to tell a story. And you don’t even need to reinvent the wheel. Just look at the things that you do outside of work for inspiration. Game Shows, Radio & Podcasts, Sitcoms, Commercials, Talk Shows, TED Talks, Music & Song, Books, Articles & Blogs, and Movies are all different ways we consume information in our daily lives. Within these conventions there are an infinite number of ways to create content around most any subject that can make the mundane more appealing.
Good corporate messaging includes these elements
- Regular Messaging and Reinforcement: Effective frequency to stay top of mind.
- Themes – High Level Message: The song chorus…the slogan…the tag line.
- Interesting & Different: Change the way you convey those messages within the theme. Try new formats and delivery mechanisms. Have some fun with it.
- Clickbait: Keep messaging short and find easy ways to drive access to more information when you need it. Interactivity is key.
Try New Things – Some Won’t Work – This is Okay
Not all of your training and messaging, no matter how creative will work for everybody. Its important to know that that is okay. You still need to try new things. And when you do, some people will complain. This is okay too. Anytime you break the norm it can be jarring. And not everyone will get it. But jarring can be good. If no one is complaining, then you aren’t doing it right. Its likely that no one is paying attention. A complaint is an opportunity to teach. “I’m glad you noticed. Tell me what you didn’t like? Do you understand what we were going for?” Your goal obviously is not to offend. You do however need to be interesting to engage the many. The alternative is watered-down programming that interests and engages no one. And that is far riskier because then no one learns. You are building an audience over time. An audience that is curious to see what’s next.
“Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves?”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
The good news is, the bar in corporate communications is low. It takes far less to stand out than it does in life outside of work. Let’s raise the bar together to make work more interesting and fun to our mutual benefit. Variety is the spice of life. You can’t bore people into learning.
Now That’s Refreshing! *** This is the advertisement part of the blog…enjoy 🙂
At L&E, our business model is based on providing a regular stream of fun, interesting, meaningful content built around corporate messaging. We create. We refresh. We continually re-invent. Contact us to learn more!
To read more posts, visit Thoughts While Shaving
L&E Productions – Comedy, Communication, Corporate Education
Here are the results of a completely unscientific survey.
Please rank these in order of preference, with 10 being the most annoying.
- You are forced to share an office with your loud eating, aromatic, talkative co-worker
- You are stuck in traffic with all stations tuned to a Bieber marathon
- You hear your dentist say, “oh that’s interesting.”
- Buffering…damn buffering
- You found out your spouse won the lottery and never told you
- The person in front of you at the grocery store has a checkbook and is trying to return grapes
- You realize that your beagle has more friends than you do
- You’re trying to go to sleep and you hear a mosquito
- You encounter an uncovered sneeze and you feel the breeze
- It’s time for you to take your Annual Corporate Compliance Training
Employees are Drinking Out of the Fire Hose
Talk to a typical employee and the thing they hate the most is their corporate training. It’s a necessary evil like mother-in-laws and health insurers. When it comes to corporate training there is a lot of it – legal and regulatory training, your new five step sales methodology, updated product qualities, code of conduct certification, safety training, data security reminders and on and on it goes. There are so many policies and trainings that are required and/or are being force fed to employees who for the most part just want to do there jobs well and not be hassled. Mix that with the fact that employees are busier than ever, have shorter attention spans and are under various degrees of internal and external pressure to be successful. And to top it off, there are 10 different departments each with their own set up rules and they are all a priority and important. This is the reality of an employees’ environment, which is why it’s important to be thoughtful, empathetic and creative when engaging employees with your most important policies and trainings.
Out of site, out of mind.
In many companies, finding corporate policies are the equivalent of Where’s Waldo. Employees certainly aren’t looking for them but if even if they were, no one can find them.
Or perhaps there is a dedicate learning intranet site or policy portal and they are readily accessible, but then they are often written by this guy.
Booooorrriinnng. And we all know you can’t bore people into learning.
Your policies and trainings are hidden in plain site…like apocalyptic, futuristic survivors from a lost era that have morphed into unintelligible, painful legalese not meant for human consumption. They don’t need to be protected by firewalls or war rigs or masked bandits because employees just aren’t that interested.
*note I recently watched Mad Max Fury Road so that may have influenced my forced analogy here. But it was fun to write. 🙂
Communicate Like Human Beings
Here’s the thing. Most policies and presentations are written from the writers’ perspective, pushing out information like a monologue. But communication is not one way. What you send has to be received, accepted and understood. That means that policies and presentations should be re-written from the employees’ perspective, telling them what they need to do and why, to better facilitate understanding. Don’t push information. Create dialogues. When it comes to complex concepts, do simple better. It’s the only way to win mindshare.
*In improv there is an exercise called “Red Ball” which is an excellent exercise to demonstrate this point.
Many trainings are set up to show (measure) that employees have read something and presumably understand it. Often educators need to prove that you took the course and passed the test. But there is no actual learning going on. Just because you check the box saying that you’ve accepted and understood the rules associated with your software upgrade, doesn’t make it so. Demonstrating 100% compliance presumably provides legal protection but there is no pretending that employees are learning, which actually, in my opinion, increases risk.
Let’s say you’re one of the good companies that has invested in making learning more interactive and fun. There is some interactivity. There’s a gaming aspect. There’s some videos involved. Etc. That’s cool. You care about learning. You’re on the right track. That is step 1.
The importance of training AND communication
See, even if it’s great, that 45-minute annual training doesn’t work on its own. You can’t treat your employees like bears and expect one big meal to sustain them through the winter. They aren’t camels that can store up water and live off of it walking across the Sahara. They aren’t penguins that live off their fat or pythons swallowing warthogs in one sitting. In these analogies your training is the fat and the warthog. These animals do survive, and penguins are cute, but nobody thinks camels and pythons are smart. You wouldn’t ask them to help with your finances.
According to Association for Talent Development, “effective long-term learning is rarely achieved by a one-off event.” The forgetting curve is steep with 87% of corporate learning is lost within the first month. And this makes sense. We’re all busy! There’s a lot of info to keep in our heads. So even the best training needs to be regularly reinforced to get knowledge into practice. Both training AND communication are significant parts of the puzzle.
Invertising – Internal Advertising can Help
- “Can You Hear Me Now”
- “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance”
- “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands”
- “Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is There”
- “The Few, The Proud, The Marines”
These are just a few memorable slogans that have been reinforced time and again and are imprinted on our brains. Good advertising works. Effective advertising makes an emotional connection with the audience. Humor is great way to make an emotional connection. But more important than funny is to be interesting and empathetic, in service of a message. Advertisers talk about effective frequency, meaning the number of times a person has to be exposed before the message sinks in. There is no right answer as to how frequent that is, but safe to say that not all your messaging will get through the first few times. A regular, repeatable, thematic approach has a better chance of getting noticed by more people and breaking through employees’ outer shell. The internal advertising methods – or Invertising – can work for your internal training, policies and corporate messaging.
Employees need to be fed throughout the year with a variety of interesting “snacks” to keep them nourished. Variety and volume is important. Short and interesting is essential. Add in thematic and you can really be effective. Regular, repeatable, fun, positive communications can not only help with learning transfer, it can help establish culture. Focusing on fun, effective communication, demonstrates to employees that you believe their time is valuable. It demonstrates that the message is important. Its’ so important, you need to ensure that they pay attention and remember. A few additional thoughts and recommendations.
- Clickbait – you don’t have to say everything in your message. Use teasers to highlight themes and employees know to click further when they need more info. (You also can measure click-throughs)
- Establish themes. Think through high level messaging that serves as an umbrella over the lessons/examples/teachable moments that fit underneath.
- Chop it Up. Take your training and chop it up to its essential snackable parts and dole it out throughout the year.
- Marketing Support – Make friends with your marketing and communications team and plot out a communications calendar. Map out what you are sending, to whom and when.
- Building an Audience – Take a long term approach. Employees won’t receive every message. You are bombarding them with short, fun, thematic communications and hoping that some of them get through.
- Have Fun! Most importantly, have fun and be creative. People engage and learn when there is a sense of play.
To read more posts, visit Thoughts While Shaving
L&E Productions – Comedy, Communication, Corporate Education
“Have you ever been on stage or been a performer?” is a question I like to ask when I meet new people. The responses you get are really interesting and sometimes quite fun. Unfortunately, “Oh I’m not creative” Is a common response. #teardrop. Or sometimes their eyes light up and you learn that they played Frenchie in their high school production of Grease or rocked bass in a metal band called Brnt Toest! Now they are lawyers, accountants, IT guys, sales people, healthcare professionals or executives of some sort. There is no judgment here. As Bill Murray once famously said “It’s hard to be an artist. It’s hard to be anything. It’s hard to be.” “Do you still perform?” I ask as my follow up. More often than not it’s a fond memory from the past. But for a moment you can see their humanity. You see a glimpse of their inner-artist.
Everyone is Creative. Everyone is an Artist.
First of all, everyone is creative. It pains me when I hear people say that they are not. Because their response is a product of self doubt or self consciousness rather than truth. The person who says they are not creative probably tells stories at parties. They write notes on napkins in their kids lunch. They make fun, weird noises in the elevator when no one is around. They probably sing in the car or shower. For those of you that were writers, musicians, finger-painters, or actors in your pre-business years, we know that its in you. But perhaps it lays dormant.
All of you “non-creative people” and “secret artists” have the ability to tap into a plethora* of unique problem solving skills that aren’t being accessed because our learned behavior is that it’s not appropriate in the workplace. And it’s a shame because work is where we spend most of our time. We have all of these creative people from the top executives to the people on the front lines all walking around with our own weird, fun, unique perspectives on the world and no one is letting it out to our mutual boredom! We talk in buzzwords and statistics instead of telling stories. We lecture from pre-prepared speeches instead of interacting with our audience. We send out wordy emails instead of videos, Gifs & Memes or other fun communication devices. We conform and it’s hurting our productivity, our corporate culture and our sanity.
* “plethora” is fun to say. So is “cornucopia.” Say it three times fast. Do it now! 🙂
I say, learn to let the monster out! Creativity is contagious. It can help you and your business succeed.
Now I’m not suggesting that everyone has amazing talent. And often you get the interesting combination of lack of talent paired with overconfidence, which is only funny from a distance. But this is not the point. The point is that we are all creative animals and we should embrace and feed that part of ourselves. In addition, the pursuit of artistic endeavors helps you acquire new skills that can make you be more effective – more creative, a better listener, a better collaborator, a better leader, more positive, and more interesting to be around. There are skills that can be acquired and there are muscles that require practice. Working on your inner-artists can’t make you talented, but it can help you build skills and improve exponentially.
Art and Artists Can Teach You Things
I’ve been a student of improvisation for the better part of 20 years, and one thing you notice is that the vast majority of people who take classes in improv, music and theater have no intention of making a run at Hollywood. They do it because it’s fun. They do it because they want to meet new people. They do it for professional development or the challenge. They do it because humans like to learn new things! My favorite are the people that do it because it scares them. Yes!
Here is a list – because apparently people like lists – that offers some tips from the wonderful world of theater and improvisation.
- Say Yes. Give up control. Be open to possibility.
- Reserve judgment of yourself and others.
- Collaborate with others. Jump out of the plane together. Figure it out on the way down.
- Care about ideas, not who provides them.
- Listen like a thief. Absorb everything.
- Don’t be funny. Be honest. Be interesting. Be genuine.
- There are no right and wrong choices. Just choices.
- Solutions aren’t good or bad. They are working or not working.
- Play to the height of your intelligence. Treat your audience like geniuses, artists and poets.
- Embrace Failure. Fail spectacularly. Mistakes are gifts. It’s how we get better.
- You don’t have to love every idea, but you should love every idea for a little while. It will open new doors.
Improv can teach you things.
Bring an Improv Skills-Building Workshop to your Company.
- Improv for Sales – listening, agility, storytelling
- Improv for Consulting – engagement, rapport, trust
- Improv for Legal & Compliance – collaboration, managing difficult conversations
- Improv for Technical Professionals – communication, confidence, presenting
- Improv for Leadership – coaching, status and presence, collaboration, trust
- Improv for Team-building, Collaboration & Fun!
Matchmaking & Translating – Syncing up Artists with Business
I’ve had the good fortune to have spent time with a lot of talented artists who have not only tapped into their inner-artist, they’ve let the monster out! Many of them, at first, don’t realize the skills they have, have implicit value in the workplace. Let’s face it, performers don’t dream about the big day they get to perform a scene about data security at your annual leadership retreat. But many improvisers, comedians and theater folk do have a background in business and most do not go on to SNL. Many of these artists embrace their roles as teachers, writers, performers, consultants who have wisdom to share and they love sharing it.
I launched L&E in no small part to empower these artists, to enable them to share their knowledge and expertise and apply it to different challenges in corporate environments. We’re matchmakers who bring artists and business together to solve problems. We love helping “non-creative people” and “secret artists” tap into and improve their business communication and leadership skills. We love collaborating with corporate educators, compliance officers and general counsels, sales executives and HR professionals to find fun, creative ways to simplify messaging and make stuff (live or digital content). Art, entertainment, music and humor helps to socialize learning and bridge alignment and it can help you improve communication and corporate culture. Charles Bukowski once said, “an intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.”
Embrace your inner-artist. Bring it to work. Your company culture needs you!
To read more posts, visit Thoughts While Shaving
L&E Productions – Comedy, Communication, Corporate Education
EMBRACING YOUR ROLE AS CHANGE AGENT
How many times have we heard or read or written or said things like these? Perhaps you are already numb to it. Or you have accepted your fate. Or there’s justification as to why in this situation, that’s the way it has to be. What’s interesting to me is that in my 20 years as a business, creative and communications professional, who has been in hundreds of corporate environments across a broad spectrum of industries, what I’ve found is that most people recognize this kind of negativity, but don’t associate it with themselves. It’s unconscious. I’m not that way, but oh gawd, Susan is! (Note: in this example Susan = your boss or co-worker or the powers that be. Apologies to the Susans reading) People have trouble recognizing their own behavior. Or we do recognize it and don’t feel empowered to do anything about it. Or perhaps we just choose not to fight. And then we find ourselves living in a corporate culture that bores us to tears. We spend most of our work lives in an environment that doesn’t represent who we are as interesting, creative individuals. I find it fascinating how we separate or disassociate ourselves from our ability to influence our environment. I believe
Negativity is like yawns…it rapidly spread from one person to the next and it’s your responsibility to break the chain.
Think of “Yes” as the gas and “No” as the breaks. “No” stops action. It’s safer. It also kills creativity and stops ideas, both good and bad, from advancing. “No” in it’s many forms is at the root of the problem. We can’t control everything, but we can control how we choose to communicate. This applies to one-on-one conversations, emails, small group presentations, webinars, conference calls, speeches, trainings, policies, documents, posters, newsletters and company-wide communications. Each form of communication can be positive, interesting, often creative and fun. And these things have the power to affect those around us.
Corporate culture can be affected by how each of us chooses to communicate.
I was at a conference, pontificating about corporate communications and the importance of “tone-from-the-top” and creating “mood-in-the-middle,” when the Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer at a Fortune 500 aerospace and defense company, says this to me. “You realize that there is no such thing as corporate culture. We’re actually dealing with thousands of mini corporate cultures that vary depending on the country, work environment, office and manager. Basically if you like and respect your boss you have a good corporate culture and if you don’t you have a bad corporate culture.” The simplicity of this stopped me in my tracks and changed my opinion about the subject. He was right. The lesson here isn’t that there’s not much we can do if your boss is a jerk-wad. Or that corporate wide initiatives don’t have an effect. It’s the opposite. We all have an active hand in shaping our own immediate culture. And if you’re in leadership (or want to be) or happen to be in a job function that touches a broad part of the organization – learning, compliance, communications, HR, talent development, etc. – then you have an even greater ability to affect change. You are responsible. You have the power to affect the person or groups in front of you. You can’t change negativity, but you can change how you react to it. You can’t make everyone think the way you do, but you can bring energy, creativity, empathy and passion. The good news is, there are many tools at your disposal to help you improve how you communicate as an individual and how you communicate across the organization.
I happen to have spent much of my career in the improv, comedy and theater community, and have found many effective tools that can be adopted in the workplace. Here are a few that can help you be a more effective communicator.
Individual Communications – Tips from the world of Improv
Improvisation is not just about the funny. It is the craft of creating something out of nothing, in the moment, off the top of your head, in collaboration with others, quickly, confidently and without fear of failure. These are skills actors use on stage and can be learned to help you be a more effective communicator and build trust. These are muscles that can be exercised, that require practice. Here are a few improv tenets and philosophies to try to adopt.
- Practice Active Listening – listen to understand, don’t wait to talk. This is harder than you think. Practice listening all the way to the very end. Pause, absorb, and then formulate a response. Everybody loves a good listener.
- Stay in the Moment – Don’t think about what happened 10 minutes ago and what might happen 10 minutes from now. Apply yourself to the person in front of you and the task at hand. Play the scene you are in, not the one you want to be in.
- Be Others Focused – some say improv is the art of being others focused. Don’t think about yourself. Think about making your partner look good. Put yourself in service of their needs and they are more likely to respond in kind.
- Say “Yes, And” – in this context, don’t think of the “yes” as agreement, but rather affirmation and validation. I’m listening…I hear you…I understand. The “And” is there to help you build on the conversation positively. Exercise: Try to go one whole day without saying “no.”
- Bring a Brick not a Cathedral – Add one thought, one idea, one comment or solution. Then pause and allow others to contribute. This is a lesson in collaboration. You may know more, but you can go further when you allow space for others. It empowers them. You also might learn something new or find unexpected connections and solutions.
- Say Thank You – Try silently saying “thank you” before responding. This is a lesson in being grateful for information, regardless of what it is. It can help you have what might have been a difficult conversation in a positive way. “Thank you” can help take you from the emotion of the topic to a more thoughtful productive response.
There are many improvisational and theatrical techniques that can be utilized to help you avoid boring podium speeches, dull webinars and “death by PowerPoint.”
- Involve Your Audience – improv works in part because the audience is a contributing partner in the show. Ask questions, utilize polling, create little competitions and games. Make them do something. Interactivity leads to engagement and learning transfer.
- Embrace Failure – Everybody screws up. It’s how you react to it that defines you. People crave authenticity. Mistakes are interesting. Acknowledge, move on, and utilize them to your advantage.
- Utilize Entertaining Formats – Wrap your messaging in fun forms. Hosted “Talk Show” style Interviews vs. lectures. Interactive “Game Shows” vs. lists. Show with videos, visuals and cartoons vs. tell with slides.
- Embrace Storytelling – don’t just tell the what, tell the why. Use specifics. Stories are filled with colorful characters, heroes and villains and anecdotes that paint a picture, all of which can help you make an emotional connection with your audience.
- Bring Energy – Energy is contagious. Let your personality out. Be interesting! Newsflash…you can’t bore people into learning.
Utilize the communication vehicles, storytelling devices and media that people use to consume information in their every day lives and apply them in the workplace. If it’s important, you need employees to pay attention and remember. Humor and entertainment are great ways to socialize learning. Here are some fun devices to help get your corporate messaging noticed.
- Movie Trailers & Fake Commercials – to introduce new corporate policies
- Songs and Music – to highlight values and themes
- Scenic Videos – right way, wrong way videos to highlight behaviors and teachable moments
- Podcasts – with featured guests to share best practices across the organization
- Gifs & Memes – to highlight and reinforce key messaging
- Top-Ten-Lists & Listicles– to surround rules and policies to make them more memorable
Remember that we’re business people some of the time and regular people-people all of the time. People like to have fun. People like to learn new things. We don’t have to accept dull, boring communications as the norm. It’s ineffective and nobody likes it. You don’t have to shut out your creativity the moment you clock in.
Regular, positive, proactive, empathetic communications are the gateway to improving corporate culture.
We all have the power to make a difference to the people and tasks in front of us which will ultimately improve the culture around us.
“Follow the Fear” is attributed to the legendary improv teacher/mad scientist, Del Close. Do what scares you most. If it’s uncomfortable…do it more. Lean into it and you will discover new worlds. With improv, as with life, it’s the fear that stops you from moving forward, not the thing itself.
Another favorite quote of mine is “most people live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them” which is attributed to Henry David Thoreau. It’s a sad commentary about society but I’ve always divined inspiration from it. Don’t be afraid of (calculated) risk!
I also love this quote from another madman, Charles Bukowski. “Find what you love and let it kill you.” I interpret this to simply mean, give it your all. Follow your passion. Do not be deterred.
I have found these inspirational quotes entering into my thoughts for much of the last year as I’ve contemplated making a change.
Embracing Risk – Round 1
After starting my adult life on the straight and narrow with a strategy and planning business degree followed by a modestly successful consulting career, I took one of the biggest risks in my life, when at the age of 30, I quit my corporate job and pursued a life on the stage. It was foolish and fun. I learned to live with less (meaning poor) which was a much needed humbling experience. I had fallen into the Chicago improv comedy community which has now been a part of my life for the better part of 20 years. “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
Though I rarely perform these days, I will always consider myself an improviser. It has become part of my DNA and I’ve taken great pleasure in introducing the philosophies of improvisation and its applications to the business community, family, friends and all who would listen. For those not in the know, the improv community is filled with a tremendously diverse group of interesting people, from all ages and walks of life, who value things like listening, collaboration, creativity, being supportive, non-judgmental and others-focused. This community embraces the concept of “following the fear” on a regular basis which propels them to do great work on stage, television and film, but maybe more importantly, makes them interesting, insightful and thoughtful people. You should take an improv class. It will help make you a better person.
Embracing Risk – Round 2
When it became apparent that SNL wasn’t calling (on my corded land-lined phone), I made what seemed like a difficult decision at the time, to push performing to the background and join up with famed improv institution, The Second City, but in a management capacity. I was offered the opportunity to help lead the growth and development of a corporate education business that would become my life for the next 7 years. I found joy providing work for my gifted friends and colleagues and it has been great fun introducing the corporate world to the benefits of improv as a communication skill and using comedy as a tool to socialize learning. It was a transformational time at The Second City as I was able to both lead and learn and exert influence on the business and we experienced tremendous growth and success.
One of the interesting things about a “dream job” is that one of the words is “job.” Even working in the wonderful world of comedy, there is a business to be run that comes with all the same stresses and personalities and conflicts of any job. And while I am grateful for the friends and colleagues and co-workers who I was able to associate with, learn from, and sometimes mentor and lead, I started feeling more of the stress than the joy. It was comfortable but limiting. Question – Do you leave something you love if its no longer feeding you? I don’t think there is a universal answer, but I do know that you can’t be afraid to make a move out of fear of failure. The great improviser, Stephen Colbert famously said, “you’ve got to learn to love the bomb” meaning that you have to embrace failure and the discomfort in that. It removes the barrier to try new things and the result, even if its not what you expect (because it won’t be), leads to the next thing. “Follow the Fear.”
A New (Ad)Venture
I left my “destination job” at the end of the year to take another risk and build a business of my own. I’m excited and nervous all over again. I look forward to taking everything I’ve learned (on the shoulders of giants) and building something new out of nothing, with it’s own unique voice. In the improv community we say “bring a brick, not a cathedral.” I don’t need to know every step I’m going to take, just the one in front of me. What I do have is an understanding of what’s important to me, which I’d like to outline here.
Introducing Learnings & Entertainments
I’m quite excited to introduce to the world, Learnings & Entertainments (bad grammar, good communication ☺) focusing on comedy, communication and corporate education. We will help companies improve corporate communication through the use of improvisation and purposeful humor. We will leverage a network of musicians, writers, and performers from the improv comedy community to create multi-media advertising campaigns around important internal training programs…Inverstising! We will collaborate and co-create lots of fun, meaningful content (digital and live) to help socialize learning. We will bring improv philosophy to the world whenever we can. We will have fun.
L&E Vision – This is what drives us.
- We will care about the work and will fight to make it great.
- We will care about the ensemble. This will be an artist-friendly business that empowers the creative team to do great work and rewards them for it. They are the engine that drives success.
- We will listen. All colleagues, clients and partners should feel heard and respected.
- We will collaborate, pooling together expertise from multiple disciplines to co-create.
- We will focus on creating content that is both fun and meaningful.
- We will create an environment where the best ideas advance, regardless of their source.
- We will emphasize quality over quantity. Growth for growths sake can be counter productive.
- We will be honest and trustworthy and genuine. We will do what we say.
- We will introduce improv philosophy to the world. It has value. It can teach you things.
- We will have fun.
L&E Services will include:
I thank you for reading these rather self-indulgent musings and making it to the end. I’m excited to build this creative enterprise and look forward to speaking with many of you to join me on this next adventure.
“Follow the Fear” / “Find What You Love And Let it Kill You”