123 Drew Tarvin on Selling a Topic No One’s Searching For

On today’s episode of Steal the Show, we’re talking about adding humor to our speeches and our lives.

Drew Tarvin, the world’s first Humor Engineer, with more than 5 million views of his TEDx talk, the “Skill of Humor,” shows us how to infuse the funny into our content and keep on improving despite the haters and the hecklers.

 

How You Can Steal the Show

 

  • Why structure propels creativity forward. 
  • How focusing on the haters does a disservice to your audience … and you. 
  • The role of analytics vs. gut feeling in assessing your performance. 
  • The secret to getting so good, people can’t ignore you. 
  • How to evolve from “staircase wit” to on-the-spot comedic skills. 
  • How comedians have become the philosophers of our time. 
  • What we can learn from a weekend of Stranger Things
  • How he used math to sell content about humor in the workplace even if they weren’t searching for it. 
  • The simple secret to seeing humor in everyday life. 
  • How Drew’s grandma’s texts can change our mindset. 

Learn more about Drew and get his book Humor That Works. You can also watch his TEDx Talk here.

 

If you enjoyed this show, you may also want to hear:

Episode 122: Phil Jones on getting the gigs you want

Episode 097: How to live a good life onstage and off with Jonathan Fields

Episode 059: You Can Be Funny. Award-winning comedian Ron Tite shares secrets of the comedy masters

 

Michael:
If you’ve dreamed of propelling your speaking career with a hit TED Talk, today’s guest knows what that feels like. Drew Tarvin’s TEDx Humor That Works has more than five million views and counting. It’s gotten him invitations to speak in countries he admits he’d never even heard of. A best-selling author, Drew has helped more than 35 thousand people at over 250 organizations learn to be more productive, less stressed, and happier. That’s important to him because he believes that success at work isn’t just about what you do but about how you think. In this episode of Steal the Show, the world’s first humor engineer shows us the math behind his thinking and shares the secrets of his success.

Michael:
I’d like to start with something very important. Andrew or Drew? What’s it going to be?

Drew:
You know what? I should go with kindergarten me. Kindergarten me picked Drew, I think because it’s more efficient and that’s what I’m going with.

Michael:
Okay, Drew.

Drew:
Yes. The Drew.

Michael:
I actually bring this up because recently I saw on Facebook you posted a question about this issue that you have where a lot of people call you Drew but often Andrew is used professionally. And so you were trying to figure this out from a branding perspective, and for the non-initiated or folks that don’t have context around what it means to be an author and a speaker and responsible for the brand identity that you developed, it might seem a little weird like, “What does it matter? Who cares?” But it does actually matter, at least to a certain degree. So what were your concerns? And what did you settle on?

Drew:
Sure. So the background for the distinction is, so full name is Andrew and going into kindergarten my mom was like, “You’re going to have to pick, people are going to start saying your name, you’re going to do attendance, you’re going to be writing your name soon,” and kindergarten me picked Drew out of all the options of Andrew, Andy, AJ, my middle name is Joseph so AJ, DJ, all of those things. And so I picked Drew and that was what people called me throughout my life and that’s what I started doing stand-up comedy as so degree in engineering and then stand-up comedy on the side. And so then when I started getting into speaking, which was this intersection of the engineering and the comedy together, when I got into speaking I was like, “Oh, I should be Andrew Tarvin because if you search Drew Tarvin you’ll get my stand-up and then if you search Andrew Tarvin, you’ll get my eloquent speaker days, my authorship and all of that.”

Drew:
And what I’ve realized is that they’re really one and the same. The comedy informs the speaking and the writing and the writing and speaking informs the comedy and Drew is what I go by day to day. So I’m realizing that they’re really more married together as opposed to separate. But that was the original reason why there was a separation.

Michael:
It’s interesting, our identity often changes throughout our life. I’m not sure if most folks are very intentional about the development of their identity. So your name influences the way the world sees you and most of us are given a name. I’ve met people who have changed their name and they decided, “I didn’t like my name so I’m going to change it.” But I remember when I was a kid people called me Mike. And I was really big in high school, I was full grown by the time I was 13, I had a mustache. There’s always one man-child in the class, I had to bring my birth certificate to little league games. They called me Big Mike. Now Big Mike is not really a moniker that inspires confidence in someone’s intellectual capacity. So when I went to college, I introduced myself as Michael and I really did feel different in terms of the way that people were responding to me as a result. And so I think considering your name and how you use it really does make a difference.

Drew:
Absolutely. I think that, and I feel a little bit different as well, because a lot of times especially with people’s full names, most people when I talk to about full names whether they’re Liz and go by Elizabeth or Thomas and go by Tom for a lot of people they’re like, “Oh, I only hear Thomas,” or “I only hear Elizabeth,” if I’m in trouble. That’s what they associate it with growing up but there is maybe more of a sense of a professionalism. And part of the reason why I stuck with Andrew was I like the double syllable introduction, I don’t know there’s something that I like about like, “Please welcome to the stage Andrew Tarvin,” versus “Welcome to the stage Drew Tarvin.” It just sounds a little bit different.

Michael:
And if it doesn’t go well, they may turn Drew into boo, which of course would never happen to you but if you were maybe a baseball player and you struck out you might get it.

Drew:
Yeah, absolutely. And actually that’s one of the things that I do like about the name Drew as a variation is one, it is the most efficient form of the name of Andrew because it’s four letters one syllable but it does make itself good for various rhymes. So for a brief period of time, I thought that I might want to grow up to become an international hip-hop superstar and my rap moniker-

Michael:
That’s usually how I think of you, first and foremost, is a future international hip-hop star.

Drew:
Absolutely. I think a lot of people, you hear this voice and you’re like, “That’s the voice of rap for sure.” But my rap moniker was Isaac Drewton-

Michael:
Oh nice.

Drew:
Made for great rhymes for sure.

Michael:
Nice. It is true, one of the things that often people don’t realize is that comedians will often use the sounds of words to influence their storytelling or the jokes that they write because some words and some sounds are just funnier than other words. I remember hearing Jerry Seinfeld talk about how he constructs a joke and he was talking about how he found the word chimp very funny, just a funny word. So he built a whole joke around that word. He had to come up with a concept that would be funny based on a word, which I thought was really remarkable. Is that something that as a comedian you’ve embraced or practiced yourself?

Drew:
Yeah, for sure. Sometimes as a comedian, you think of the setup first. Sometimes you’re like, “Huh, that’s kind of an interesting observation. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that observation yet but there’s something there.” So, for example, I’ve recently realized that, actually I had this epiphany in the shower today like, “I don’t soap up in between my shoulder blades.”

Michael:
Yeah, right.

Drew:
Just showering and I’m like, “I don’t put soap there and yet it doesn’t smell, I hope.” But that’s weird, I never had that thought that I never proactively put soap there. So that’s just the thought and so maybe that becomes a joke later, that becomes a setup and now what are the punchlines that I can come up with that? And that’s a process in and of itself. Sometimes you think of the punchline where you’re like, “Okay, this is kind of a funny idea. Now how do I set that up?” So, for example, my TEDx Talk, I talk about mint chocolate where I don’t like mint chocolate and the punchline in my head was when I’m eating chocolate I’ve never thought, “You know what would go great with this? Toothpaste.” That’s why I don’t like mint chocolate. So in my head, I first thought of chocolate is kind of like toothpaste, that’s going to be the punchline is that. So then what’s the appropriate setup that I need for it?

Drew:
And then other times, you start with just a word, just a concept, just this is kind of funny like to me. And it’s getting back to that premise or setup idea of the word palindrome I dislike because it’s not actually a palindrome. A palindrome is the same forward as it is backwards and the word palindrome is not a palindrome, which is like, “Ugh, gag,” which is a palindrome. Gag is a palindrome. It starts with some type of curiosity and then from that you explore different ideas. And that, I think, is what’s fascinating about comedy is there’s almost a logical exploration you can have to finding the humor.

Michael:
Yeah, it’s much like engineering.

Drew:
Exactly. And there’s a lot of engineers that I know who do improv or do some standup because it is … And to me, I sometimes think of comedy as math with words.

Michael:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. And very often, people who don’t practice creative art forms or specific creative art forms, they often will look at that art form like comedy or acting or keynoting as somehow magical. What’s happening up there is just something that person can do and they have some special sauce. Now, they may have some talent, may have a lot of talent but there’s a craft that underlines the work they’re doing if they’re working at a high level. And when you have craft, it means you have processes, protocols, and structures, frameworks that you can use to develop that experience for the audience.

Drew:
Absolutely. And that structure or those protocols or those frameworks make the process easier. They don’t make it any less creative, it just makes the process a little bit easier. The example that I like to give, sometimes people hear this idea of structure and they’re like, “Okay. Well, that would create a formula and I would never watch anything that follows that formula.” And then you take a look at Disney musicals and you realize that almost every Disney musical follows the same framework of an opening number and then you see the protagonist and hear their want and hear a want song and then you see the antagonist and they have a song about maybe their background or why that’s going to be an obstacle to what the protagonist wants.

Drew:
And then you’re going to see a charm scene just kind of building up the world and then you’re going to see the protagonist and the antagonist together and that’s going to lead into a bigger song and then there’s going to be a final song and then you come to the end of the movie and you’re like, “Well, I just described The Lion King, Little Mermaid, Frozen,” like all of those movies follow that same basic framework and yet people still go and spend billions of dollars, every movie’s making billions of dollars, and so it’s not that it’s less creative it’s just that process has made the creative process a little bit easier.

Michael:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. And often we complain that something’s formulaic when the creative elements miss the mark.

Drew:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michael:
So we’re blaming the framework rather than the creative work that needed to be done inside that framework.

Drew:
Absolutely, yeah. It ends up being more about the content and how good it is as opposed to the process that was followed.

Michael:
Yeah. Well, you mentioned your TED Talk. It’s called The Skill of Humor and it has garnered more than five million views and that’s just in two years. Apparently, it’s the 76th most viewed TEDx Talk of all time, which I now know is the top .6%. Now, that’s the kind of lightening in a bottle that speakers dream about. How has it changed your career or your life? Has it mattered to you? Has it made as big an impact as one might think it would make?

Drew:
Yeah. So from a purely business perspective, absolutely it has been helpful. It has brought in additional engagement particularly some of the international events that I’ve done over the years, people have found the Talk in some way maybe because they were searching for it or because it was one of the videos that came up in the, “Hey, you should watch this as well,” like the next related videos on YouTube. And so people have seen it and then they’ve reached out as a result, “Hey, can you come and do this for our conference or for our organization?” It certainly has helped from a business perspective. The validation of the … The thing that’s cool about it to me is any speaker, I would imagine very few speakers get into the speaking business because they’re like, “This is just the easiest way to make money,” because it can be tough. Instead, they get into it because they are passionate about some subject, they have a message that they feel like can positively impact the world or make a difference to people.

Drew:
And so the coolest thing to me about the TEDx Talk is that it has gotten views all around the world. And so people have reached out to me on LinkedIn and Facebook and email, et cetera, from places that honestly as maybe a slightly ignorant American that I had never even heard of. That’s a country? What? Didn’t know that place existed. But I’ve now gotten a message from someone that is like-

Michael:
Like Canada?

Drew:
Yeah, like Canada. I was like, “What? That’s not America light?”

Michael:
I just discovered the Canadians just recently, they’re lovely people.

Drew:
Yeah, absolutely. They’re very kind [crosstalk 00:14:06] as it turns out. And our neighbors, who knew? Who knew if you keep going north you reach that?

Michael:
Who knew?

Drew:
And yeah, so places certainly like Sri Lanka, I had heard of but never had really met anyone from there. I just recently discovered the country of Andorra exists and it’s north of Spain. And so people reach out from these places that I probably most likely won’t travel to, hopefully I will, but they may never see me speak live. Their company may never bring me in or anything like that but they’ve now heard this message and they’re reaching out not to say, “Hey, you’re terrible,” although some of the YouTube comments are very funny and there’s a hundred thousand likes on the video and there’s two thousand dislikes so there are some people who are not a fan of the Talk at all. And they let me know in the comments.

Michael:
Yeah, in the comments I noticed that there are a few people who have an issue with the size of your forehead.

Drew:
Yeah, yeah. So one comment, which I think is hysterical is someone telling me that this dude’s forehead is so big it has its own sense of humor, which I don’t know, it’s just funny. One of my other favorite ones is you can hear the nerd in his voice.

Michael:
Oh, that’s adorable. I’d take that as a compliment.

Drew:
Yeah, and it’s accurate. I can’t fault him for that because it is an accurate statement. Then the other last one that’s pretty funny that people tend to like is that one person commented that they would pay to hear me on helium, hear his voice on helium just to [inaudible 00:15:37].

Michael:
You know actually, that’s a really good idea. Do you have any helium on hand?

Drew:
I wish I did. If I did, I would for sure try it out. I did do a video reacting to YouTube comments on the TEDx Talk, which was a fascinating process in and of itself. It was really a way to own that experience because I think that … One of the things I realized that isn’t an advantage is being a speaker or a comedian is that when something negative happens to you or something isn’t as much to your liking as you would like or you have a tough time for whatever reason and something in the back of your head, or at least the back of my head as a speaker or comedian, I’m like, “At least this will be a good story later. This will be good content.” And so taking some of these comments on the YouTube video where people are making fun of me or saying that it was a terrible talk or that it was a waste of time, I turn that into a video, turn that into a content where I’m reacting to these comments and now I’m owning that a little bit more.

Drew:
And one of the things that I realized from that process was every ounce of energy that I spend focused on the haters, focused on the people who don’t like what I do and I allow that to impact me at significant levels, that is an ounce of energy that I’m not using to serve the people who do like it, the hundred thousand people that have said thumbs up on the video. And so it’s me doing a disservice to other people if I’m too consumed by the people who hate what I want to do because of seven billion people I’m not going to please all of them so instead of trying to please everyone, it’s more about how can I better serve the people who are resonating with what I’m saying?

Michael:
That’s right. Yeah, that’s one of the aspects of speaking that is often newest to people who go into speaking that are coming from either the corporate world or other disciplines, athletics, or military service, et cetera that they might not have had to deal with in the same way. I came from acting, you were an engineer but you also had a lot of experience in stand-up comedy. So you get used to the fact that not everybody resonates with your work when you’re a creative artist. Now, not everybody resonates with your work when you’re working inside an organization like the military or Microsoft but the way that it’s addressed is different and it’s not usually coming from random people in audiences or online around the world. So getting used to managing that process is new and it’s incredibly important, as you said, to focus on producing results not worrying about approval because if you get your name out in the world in any way that is significant, there will be people who do not resonate with your work. If you expect otherwise, it’s going to be a really, really tough road to hoe.

Drew:
Yeah. And I think your connection to that material is different if you’re like, “Okay, I’m creating a project plan for this sales project for this thing that is kind of interesting but is it my passion project?” And you get negative feedback on it you’re like, “Oh, okay. All right. I’ll adjust.” But if you’re putting something out there that is, and people have talked about your darling or feels like your baby in a way of like you’ve given birth to this book type idea and then people don’t like it, it feels much closer to like, “Oh, well they don’t like who I am as a human,” or that “I don’t have quite the worth that I thought I did.” So I feel like a lot of times we feel closer to that work because we’re more passionate about it and it’s more of a direct extension to yourself because it’s your content, your ideas, or your performance of it for sure. But I think given that, I am still very much a millennial, still very much an engineer in that I love feedback. I want to know what’s working, what’s not.

Drew:
And to me, one of the things, pieces of feedback that we often miss is the lack of feedback is feedback.

Michael:
So as a comedian, you get instant feedback. If they laugh, it worked. If they don’t, it didn’t. It’s pretty straightforward. You generally don’t leave a set and go, “Huh, I wonder if they liked that,” you usually know. Agreed?

Drew:
Yeah.

Michael:
Yeah.

Drew:
Exactly. And that’s the, I think, maybe that recognition of lack of feedback comes from because I think so often in day to day work or even from the business side of things, we’re looking for direct feedback of, “Is my website working?” And you’re like, “Oh, I wish, maybe someone’s going to email me if there’s an error or something like that.” But you get feedback on your website like if you never get a lead through your website for speaking or if people never go to a certain web page, which you can see on Google Analytics, that is feedback. So that lack of feedback becomes feedback. And so as a stand-up comedian, you get that directly and that’s what I love about it, exactly what you say, it is live. [crosstalk 00:20:45] and I know right now.

Michael:
Yeah. So as a speaker outside of working with a director or getting feedback from colleagues, how do you judge the impact of a keynote given that, yes, you will have laughter if your humor is working, but you’re not there just to make them laugh. There are very specific outcomes that you’re trying to help produce. So as a comedian, you knew. If they laughed, they like it. If they didn’t laugh, well, they didn’t think it was funny. But as a speaker, it’s a little bit different. You don’t get that same kind of immediate feedback all the time and in fact, especially for those that lean into the funny they may get a lot of laughs but then on their feedback forms they may say, “Well, it was great but I came here to learn X, not to go to a comedy show. If I wanted to laugh, I would just go to the comedy club.” How do you judge the impact that your speeches are having to determine what’s working and what needs to be improved?

Drew:
Well, I think that one of the things is there’s certainly a feel, as you perform more you get a sense of the room, you get a sense of who’s making eye contact, what general percentage is nodding their head. I am working out a start to record my audiences, something that our mutual friend Drew Davis tries to do as much as he can because you can go back and watch the audience to see their reaction. MIT Media Labs has a tool that you can use that you analyze and it will, using AI, analyze the level of engagement for an audience and what their general emotions are. So there are some data approaches that you can take. You start to get a feel of it sometimes but I also think it’s what’s that next level?

Drew:
So as a speaker, certainly was the overall message good and delivered well and a resonant message is do you get spin from it? Do you get referral business? Do you have people coming up to you afterwards? If you do a speech and there’s a break right after and no one comes up and talks to you, it’s a little bit of feedback. Either that they’re so intimidated by you or that they’re like, “Okay, that was fine,” but they’re not so moved that they have to come up and tell you that they really enjoyed it or that they’re like, “Oh, not only was I moved and did I enjoy this but I know someone you need to get this message in front of.” That, I think, is a good indication if someone is like, “Hey, we know another group that needs to hear this message,” is pretty good feedback that you did something well.

Michael:
That’s exactly right. It is one of the most important feedback loops and it’s also one of the most important, I’d say, not practices but the thing that is going to get you more speaking engagements are the stage-side leads that you get from delivering a speech that had tremendous impact.

Drew:
Yeah.

Michael:
Emailing a hundred meeting planners and saying, “Hey, do this thing maybe you’d be interested in having me,” is generally not going to be very effective.

Drew:
Exactly.

Michael:
But if somebody comes up to you after a speech and says, “Listen, I want to introduce you to so-and-so. I want to get you on this stage. I want you to come to our company,” et cetera, 9 times out of 10 that’s going to book, that’s going to land. If they’ve got the budget that meets your needs, that’s usually going to land because they saw it, they were there, they experienced it, they know that it works, and they know that it’s relevant. I think you’re right on the money with that.

Drew:
And it reminds me of what Steve Martin said, which was, “Get so good they can’t ignore you.” And people hear that and they hear, “Oh okay, so I’ve got to get good.” No, no, no that’s a very different metric or bar. Being good is a very different bar than being so good that people cannot ignore you. Being so good that people feel like they have to tell someone else about you. It’s a level of, and you see this with stand-up a lot, because you’ll see comedians watching someone who gets onto a late night special or is doing a certain show or maybe is on Comedy Central Presents and you’re like, “I’m just as good as that person.” And it’s like there’s certainly some luck that goes into it, some networking, and all that kind of stuff but if you want to get there, if you want to surpass that, it’s not about being as good as that person, it’s about being disproportionately better that, again, people cannot ignore what you’re doing.

Drew:
And that to me is my primary business development is how do I continually improve? How do I continually invest in myself as a performer and with the content that I’m creating so that I get to the point that people can’t ignore once I come off the stage? That’s the hope, that’s the goal.

Michael:
Amen. In your TEDx Talk, you referenced a concept that you call staircase wit. So what is it? And why is it important for speakers who are trying to add humor to their speeches?

Drew:
Yeah. So, staircase wit, it’s a phrase that comes from French, and I’m terrible with other languages so I don’t remember what the actual translation is, but the literal translation from French is staircase wit. So if you know French, then translate it back and that’s the phrase. But it’s this concept that if you’ve ever had that experience where you’re in a meeting or you do a talk or you’re conversing with a client or whatever and it’s a few hours later maybe you’re taking a shower or you are riding a bike or, in this case, you’re in a stairwell and you have that like, “Oh, what I should’ve said was this,” like if you’ve had that epiphany a little bit later like what you should’ve said or what you could’ve said. That is staircase wit, the idea that this ha-ha moment comes a few hours later.

Drew:
And that’s a good thing because what it means is that you have comedic instinct, that you have good ideas it’s just that maybe because of how much you practice or not practice that skill they’re happening four hours later. But if you then start to practice it and reflect on it more, you can make it so that it only happens three hours later, so it only happens two hours later, so it only happens 10 minutes later, so then it happens in the moment. And this is why I firmly believe that reflection on the past leads to action in the future.

Michael:
That’s really interesting. Let me just clarify, is it called staircase wit because you have the thought in a staircase after you were leaving that interaction? Yeah.

Drew:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep. That’s exactly. So you had a meeting somewhere else and you’ve left that interaction, you’re in the stairwell a little bit later leaving that interaction and you’re like, “Ahhh, I should’ve said this when they said that. This is how I should’ve responded.”

Michael:
That’s really interesting. That’s something that I never thought about. It really did open my mind up because that is a way that people might be able to feel a little bit more confident in their ability to be improvisational in the moment in a way that is on-target and appropriate because if they’re coming up with the right things to say, just later, that means they have the ability they just need to work on their processing speed.

Drew:
Exactly. And that comes from the practice of repetition and that, again, the reflecting on the past piece. If you go and listen back or watch back one of the talks that you do and you’re like, “Okay, well,” by doing that if you have an eye to it of like, “Oh, I should do this or maybe next time I can try this.” Or even sometimes when I’m chatting with people about humor and speaking, they’re like, “I make people laugh but I don’t know why they laugh or I’m not intentional about it.” Well, go back and listen to when people laugh and then what you can do is if you made them laugh, can you repeat that next time? Can you build off of it? So comedy is very much an iterative approach. Very rarely do you sit down and be like, “Okay, I’m going to be funny. Okay, now in five minutes I wrote a joke, it’s hilarious, it’s perfect. I never have to tweak it ever again. Move on to the next one.”

Drew:
That’s not how comedy works. It’s more of, “Here’s this idea, let me try it. Okay, let me add it into my talk or when I’m going stand-up. And people kind of laughed at this part, they’re kind of bored or weren’t really paying attention at this part so let me kind of iterate on that approach.” And so it’s very important to do that reflection piece going back to it because then the next time you’re in that similar situation either because it’s intentional because, “Hey, every single time I do a talk I know I’m going to get to this story,” or it’s improvisational of like, “Ah, you know what? Chances are that if I go to the networking meeting, people are going to actually ask me the question, ‘What do you do?'” As our friend Clay Heiberg talks about, “It’s a question you’re going to answer a thousand times in your lifetime.” Don’t you think it makes sense to preplan a good answer to it?

Michael:
Yeah. You do keynotes, you do workshops, I’m sure you’ve done breakouts also. Which do you prefer? Is there one that you prefer? And where are most of your gigs coming from these days? And what for? So let’s start with the first question first.

Drew:
First question first between speaking and training, absolutely I do both. When I first started my career, I was doing a lot more training and workshops and breakouts than I was doing keynotes. I do love both. I think I like keynotes a little bit more. They are the more rockstar version of things. They’re closer to, what I like about speaking is that it is stand-up with a message.

Michael:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:
So I get to make people laugh but then the engineer in me gets to tell them how to make things better, which I love.

Michael:
And you know what’s ironic is that the most popular comedians today are comedians with a message. Do you know in the ’50s most comedians told jokes? You go out to the Catskills and you’d hear sets of one-liners, lots of great one-liners, good punchlines, good setups, good punchlines but now, John Stewart, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, the list goes on and on they are, to me, the best keynoters in the world because they’re using humor to get pretty provocative messages across to the people that they’re trying to serve. Now, you might think, “Well, yeah, but those are people who already agree with them,” it’s true they certainly have their fans that are already on their side of the fence but because of their humor they’re able to reach a lot of people who are on the fence. They might not get the people who are all the way on the other side of the fence, that’s tough, that’s difficult.

Michael:
But often, our job is to reach the people who are on the fence, who go, “Yeah, I’m open to that. I’m not sure but I’m open.” And the comedians often through humor can get those folks listening to these ideas and then possibly embracing them so that they come over to their side of the fence. So to me, your work where you focus on humor in the workplace using comedy to get a message across is what the best comedians are doing now. I don’t really see it as different. I see it as you’re a thought leader with a message who uses humor the same way that comedians are.

Drew:
Absolutely. And I think we’ve seen that evolution even more recently and I think Netflix is helping push that because if you look at one of the best Netflix specials last year, I think, was Nanette by Hannah Gadsby. And it was very much, you could say was it a comedy special? Was it a one-person show? Was it a speaking engagement? It almost doesn’t matter because of how engaging it was and the message that it was giving. The [inaudible 00:32:49] recent special was the same way. Dave Chappelle’s recent special was the same way, not in terms of a set thing that he wanted to talk about, but that there were moments of, “Here’s a point that I’m trying to land.” And I think part of it is people have talked about in the past, at least, within some comedy circles is that comedians in some way are the philosophers of today’s time. They’re the ones out there kind of like, “Huh, this is kind of interesting. Why is it this way?” And they’re doing it from a comedic approach but it is really about a curiosity and exploration of ideas.

Drew:
And part of being comedian is by getting people to laugh, as Tammy Evans says, “By getting people to laugh, you get them to listen.” And by getting people to listen, then you can get them to learn or you can get them to take action and so people are using humor as a way to grab people’s attention and they’re realizing, “Oh, okay. Once I have their attention, sure I could do some more word play or some more puns. I could be Mitch Hedberg,” who is brilliant at all of these one-liners, “or I could throw in this message that I’ve been thinking about or this concept that maybe might help people to think about things a little bit differently.” And so I think that that’s the evolution that we are seeing and that’s what I want to do with my comedy. It’s like, “All right, if I have the platform, if I have a stage and people are listening, am I telling them something that’s worthy of being heard?”

Michael:
Yeah. I’m really glad you brought up Nanette by Hannah Gadsby. In fact, one of the assignments that we give to our students at HPS to watch that show. I feel very pleased that we’ve built an institution that gives TV as homework. But what she’s done is created a piece that is genre bending and I think that’s really important because very often we compartmentalize different types of experiences and we compartmentalize different crafts. So, for example, they say, “Well, stand-up comedy is only this,” or “a one-person show is only this,” or “a straight play is only this,” or “musical is only this,” “a breakout is only this, a workshop is only this, a keynote is only this.” But what we’re seeing from people like Hannah Gadsby is a blending. John Leguizamo just had a special on Netflix I think he had on Broadway that they turned into a Netflix special, it’s a one-person show. It’s a phenomenal keynote and it’s on the real history of Latin America. And of course, it’s very funny because it’s John Leguizamo and it’s very educational.

Michael:
So the way that we see great experiences for audiences is a blending of two things. On one side, you have educational content. And then you also have on the other side, theatrical elements. And when those theatrical elements and that educational content merge, at that point is where really remarkable experiences are created for audiences. And so that’s just what John Leguizamo who’s done, Nanette has done, I think you do where you use theatrical elements and educational content to create truly magical transformational experiences for audience because if it’s just education content it might feel like a lecture at college. You go to the lecture and you feel, “Well, that was a lot of information. That person’s really smart. I learned a bunch of things. I had to work hard to keep my eyes open but I learned a lot.” Or you might watch some performance art and you say, “Wow. That was wild, really interesting to watch, very theatrical. I’m not sure what it was about. I didn’t feel anything or I didn’t learn much but it was really interesting.”

Michael:
But then you have this opportunity to blend these different types of art forms or different aspects of the craft and you create something that is new. I heard Hannah Gadsby on Conan O’Brien’s podcast and Conan O’Brien was head over heels for the work she did and one of the things he referenced was the fact that she created a new space in the world of comedy. And I think that’s incredibly exciting and I hope that people who are using keynote space to advance a message or a cause, they look at all these different art forms and see, “How can I cross appropriate? How can I take a different aspects of these different or seemingly different art forms and bring them together, meld them to create new experiences for audiences that are transformational?”

Drew:
Absolutely. And for me as an engineer, it’s about thinking about using what works. If you think about, Jerry Seinfeld is quoted saying that there isn’t really such thing as an attention span, it’s only boring content. Because if you were entertaining people, they have infinite attention span. And you see that where you might go into a meeting and you check out within like six minutes, you’re like, “All right, I’m done,” whereas in that same exact night you’ll go home and watch five hours binge watching Chernobyl or Stranger Things or whatever, Madam Secretary, whatever show you’re watching currently on Netflix or Amazon Prime or whatever, this binge culture that we have. And so it’s not that there is no attention span for it but if you are making it engaging, then people will listen. And that is part of what I’m starting to explore or realize that I do is part of my passion is about bringing humor to unexpected places because it can have even more of an impact.

Drew:
So for example, just today coming out is there’s a report about climate changes coming out. It’s about 30 pages coming out from the Climate Summit from the UN and I worked with the Red Cross over the past couple of days to how do we make a summary of that? How can we use and partnership with cartoons collection? How can we use some comic strip/cartoons as a way to make the material in that paper more accessible so that people actually understand it and maybe they’re more likely to click on it and read it? Because as Pablo Suarez, one of the people in the Red Cross who I’ve done some one-on-one work with, he says that in his work when he’s talking about disaster preparedness or risk management for climate change and climate adaptation and all that kind of stuff, if people aren’t paying attention like boredom has very serious consequences.

Drew:
And so why would you say you have something, an important message that you want to get to people? Why wouldn’t you take advantage of what we’ve known for years, centuries now as an effective tool for getting that message across through say storytelling, through the craft of being onstage like seeing your performance and influence and it being scenes in some of the work that I’ve done on the Future of Content Creation where it’s a scene of putting people in showing instead of telling … Those are effective mediums for communication and get people to pay attention when they don’t have to. Why not use it for the things that people should be paying attention to?

Michael:
Amen. I think you’ve helped over 25 thousand people from 250 organizations around the world learn to be certainly more productive, hopefully less stressed, maybe even happier at work all through learning how to bring more humor to the workplace. How did you determine that there really was a hungry market for this? Maybe that seems like an obvious answer to that question, but still I’m interested in your process because you work for Procter & Gamble, I think you left in 2012, and you’ve probably done what? Maybe a thousand performances from comedy shows to TED Talks, keynotes, et cetera, that’s a big change. That’s a big change leaving a career, and you’re younger than I am for sure, at least you look younger than I am. So you must’ve left earlier on in your career. First of all, how did you have the guts to do it? And then also, how did you feel secure that focusing on humor in the workplace would in fact be something that you could leverage?

Drew:
Yeah. Well, to answer the second question first is you’re talking about that is how did I know it was something that people are going to want? In a way, they don’t want it or at least people don’t know that they do. And so if I were to go back and completely start over again and I were to try to pick a topic that would me become a speaker sooner and help me get to a business, sustainable business, faster I wouldn’t pick humor because no one cares about it in the workplace. It’s not something people search. I’m a data person so I looked this up and there’s according to Google, there’s less than a thousand global monthly searches for the phrase humor in the workplace, less than a thousand across the entire world.

Michael:
And out of 999 of those yours?

Drew:
Yes, they’re mostly me just trying to drive traffic to my website to try to make number one in Google. Yep, exactly. Actually no, half of those are my mom going in for me, which is very kind of her.

Michael:
We might want to pick up in a little bit in the interview the text conversation that you use between you and your mom in your speech, because I think that’s brilliant and we might want to address it. So anyhow, go ahead.

Drew:
Yeah, yeah. So we can come back to that. But, yeah, there’s not a great market, people don’t know that they need humor in the workplace so they don’t search for it. What they search for are employee disengagement or how do you reduce turn over or how do I get people to pay attention to my message or how to improve understanding or how to have better presentations, cover all these things that humor can help be a solution to but people don’t realize it. Because, back to this idea, people like you said, in these buckets or they have these perceptions. Humor is this nice to have thing, it’s over there. In the workplace, humor you don’t necessarily need. If your workplace is fun, that’s great but work is supposed to feel like work because otherwise it would be called play, that’s one of the myths that I heard before. Their workplace is too serious for humor and it’s like humor is a human quality.

Drew:
And so if you want to be effective with humans then you can use it, that’s the one through line of all the people that I’ve worked with, all the organizations I’ve done the only through line really between them is that it’s human because I’ve done certainly the tech group, Microsoft, IBM, [inaudible 00:44:13] do a lot of my speaking, PMI and Project Management Institute, accountants and financial stuff. But then I’ve also done things for the FBI, for the Red Cross, for International Association of Canine Professionals, people who train dogs. And the one common thread across all of those different organizations is that they have humans in them. And so humor is a human tool but people don’t realize that. The reason why I say if I was going back in time and starting now, I would say that I would switch it and switch to say communication and then be very funny because the challenge with humor in a title is that instantly raises the bar for how funny it has to be.

Drew:
And I found this early on in my career. If I did, when I was still at P&G, because I started part-time at P&G I did some stuff internally for them to build my own credibility and then worked for a while and then would take vacation days or other stuff to do this. But early on, if I did say a communication workshop, the feedback I’d get was this was great, one of the funniest workshops that I’ve ever been to and really enjoyed it. If I did the exact same workshop and called it a humor and communication workshop, I would still get mostly positive feedback but I’d get a handful of responses that were like I thought it would be funnier. So it instantly changes the bar for what people expect.

Drew:
I’ve heard from clients before that they’re like even though I say I’m an engineer and I speak on humor in the workplace, they’ll say, “I’m reaching out. We had a comedian here like seven years ago and he talked about some inappropriate things so our committee said no comedians ever but we’re maybe now going to take a chance on someone.” It’s like, “I’m not a comedian.” So one, they loop us together and two, they’re like, “Oh, we can’t do it because someone did it poorly seven years ago.” And so it changes the frame of what people think about. Today, I still use humor because my goal now is to elevate the status of humor. I want people to start to think of, I think we’ve seen a renaissance, or not even renaissance, but a change in perspective around say storytelling. Storytelling used to be purely for the creative arts and now people are like, “Oh no, businesses need storytellers.” And I think I want to do the same thing with the concept of humor.

Michael:
That’s a wonderful analysis of the market actually. Folks who are listening can extrapolate because there are other disciplines that the market will respond to in a similar way. If your focus is on accountability, people don’t love buying accountability. They don’t love training in it or working in it but if you can find a way to deliver that by selling something that they think they want more, then you’re going to do a really bang up job. That’s tricky, yeah.

Drew:
And it’s learning how to translate that language, learning that people don’t hire me because of the humor because that’s the problem that I’m solving. It’s learning to ask, “Okay, what are the challenges you have?” And then articulating how that’s related. And this is where the engineer in me kind of does help because I can tell you that there’s studies that we’ve quoted and the numbers are a little bit different depending on which study but if you read a study that says 70% of the workforce is disengaged costing the U.S. economy up to 500 billion dollars in lost productivity every year. Well, if you do the math on that, that’s an average cost of each disengaged employee. Each disengaged employee is roughly $4,638 loss. Well, we also know that humor is a way to effectively engage employees a little bit more because if they enjoy what they do they’re more willing to do it.

Drew:
And so if you then talk to an organization and they have 100 people in it, 70% of them are disengaged, you multiply 70 times $4,638, that’s your lost opportunity but that’s also the opportunity that if I come in that I can do. And now that’s going to take the ability to improve might be hundreds of thousands dollars and my fee which is much less than that now has a positive ROI. So it’s learning to speak the language and learning to connect what their goal is, what their needs are with what it is that you do and make the translation of how they help.

Michael:
By the way, I heard the police sirens in the back. Do we need to wrap this up and should I call your lawyer?

Drew:
I think it’s okay. They seem to have gone by the window.

Michael:
Oh good [crosstalk 00:48:48].

Drew:
If you hear helicopter noises or anything like that, that’s when it’s too far.

Michael:
Okay, good. Then I’ll call your lawyer for you. Good.

Drew:
I appreciate that.

Michael:
Look, you’re a prolific blogger. I think you’ve written more than 400 posts and on a really pretty broad range of business topics. You’ve shared your packing list for 18 months as a nomad, your top tweets for the year, 21 lessons from 7 years as an entrepreneur. This is, of course, time consuming but I imagine it must achieve some goals for you or you wouldn’t keep it up. So what does blogging do for you and your career? And who’s the audience for your blog? And then do you have any advice for people that are using speaking as a way either to generate revenue or to build their business to use blogging to build or support their careers?

Drew:
Yeah. Well, I think that the primary audience or the primary reason that I blog is for myself. So I’m not as restrictive like I’m blogging for this audience, I’m going to write this article so that these Google search terms are hit so that they come to my blog and then they go into this funnel. There are people who are great at that. That’s not what I use it for. For me, writing is an incredibly helpful exercise for that reflection piece, that reflecting on the past, the let me understand and let me process what happened. So for example, not my most recent book but the book before that was called The United States of Laughter and that was basically a travel memoir from when I was a nomad and traveled all 50 states and spoke or performed at each one in a year. And I had a great time on the trip and I kind of thought about things but I truly never reflected on it.

Drew:
I never took the time to take a pause and say like, “Okay. How am I different as a person because of this trip? What did I learn from going to these different places? What might I want to start to do differently or at least be more aware of?” I didn’t think about those things until I started writing. And so for me, a lot of the types of things I write about are the things that I review or the process. So for example, yeah it is the things that I’ve learned from seven years of doing this speaking thing full-time. That helps me understand how was I able to leave? Why did I feel comfortable leaving? What has happened since? Is it what I kind of expected, which it’s not, but also what have I learned from it? How do I grow?

Drew:
And my hope is that by me reflecting on it, people can learn from my story that they can feel motivated by it and see both the ups and downs and then for myself to say, “Oh yeah,” remind myself where I’ve been because we’re so on to the next thing so often. It’s always, “Hey this thing came up, this speaking engagement was fantastic.” Sorry, there’s sirens again. I swear I’m okay.

Michael:
Let me make a call, you can keep talking.

Drew:
I’m not injured. This is just the joys of living in New York City and in the East Village where there’s cars going everywhere.

Michael:
Of course.

Drew:
But it gives me a chance to sit back to breathe and reflect on what I’ve learned and to be able to articulate it. The other thing that it provides great value for me is I have a lot of different thoughts floating around in my head and theoretical ideas but until I put them on paper, I may not be able to articulate them completely like exactly but I sit down and I write and now it’s like, “Oh, okay, now I can,” because I’ve written in both the book and some of the blog articles, back to one of the questions that you asked me, how could I feel comfortable leaving P&G and how did I know it was going to work? I have a very clear answer that I can give to that because I’ve done some writing and some processing of that before as opposed to just like, “Well, I think it was okay.”

Michael:
This is a really important illustration of what it takes to maintain and refine your craft, because if you are going to be a speaker, it’s likely that you are going to need to do a lot of writing in addition to speaking but your speaking is driven by your writing. The best speakers in the world are not going up there and just winging it. It may look like it because they’re so naturalistic, it feels like it’s off the cuff but what they’re doing they’ve done a thousand times before generally. And one of the things I see often when people start this process is they don’t feel comfortable writing because they don’t have a practice of writing. They might write emails every day or maybe they’ll write proposals but they don’t have the habit of writing stories, working on them, sculpting them, molding them. Or writing with humor in mind and trying to find the funny inside stories or protocols or processes.

Michael:
And so it’s the same thing with authorship. If you’re not writing regularly, it’s pretty tough to just try to jump in and knock out 60, 70 thousand word book. And if you’re not reading regularly, then I think it can be even tougher. And so for those who are listening, if you do want to pursue this kind of work it’s a wonderful habit to write every day in one way, shape, or form that is designed to express ideas that you have and feelings that you have, not just, “I did writing today,” because it was a proposal. How do you feel about something? And what are you thinking about? And if you can practice that, it’ll help you both in your speech making and also in your book writing if that’s something that you’re pursuing. So it’s really interesting that you use your blogging as a place for reflection and ideation and continuing to build your craft.

Drew:
Yeah. And you’re right, that habit piece is so crucial. And I think sometimes people, they see someone else’s finished product and then they look at their first draft, their own first draft, and see that it’s so far apart that it demotivates them. They’re like, “Oh, well I can never get that,” but the only way someone gets to a finished product that is good is if they start with a first draft that isn’t necessarily great. And so when I first started blogging, I made it a goal to blog every single day for a year and that’s a good goal but I needed to hold myself accountable so then I was like, “All right,” I had only a handful of people reading it. It was all people that I went to school with or my family but I was like, “All right. If I miss a post and you comment on my blog that I’ve missed a post, then I will pay you $10.”

Drew:
I was still in school at the time, I think I was still in college. And so $10 was kind of a lot of money that I was like, “Okay, it’s not going to bankrupt me but that’s a meal that I would be missing if I don’t do this.” And then the next year, I wanted to do the same thing so I did another 365 and was like, “All right, now I’m going to make it $100 if I miss it.” And between those two years, I only missed one post and it was in the second year so I had to pay out $100 but what it did was it created accountability. It said, “Okay, it’s not about it being perfect but it’s about me getting the reps.” It’s the same reason why I still do a ton of stand-up shows is that I don’t procrastinate but I do believe in just in time productivity.

Drew:
I only do things when I have to and so I put things on the calendar that I know are going to force me to do it. Those calendar things keep me accountable and force me and it’s not going to be perfect, maybe it would be better if I move that stand-up date to another week later and I spent the entire week writing but that’s not how I work. And so instead it’s like, “Okay. Well, I’m doing stand-up a little bit later I better start working on some material now and go through it,” and that’s more effort that I’d be putting on it than if I didn’t have that date on the calendar. So I think finding ways to hold yourself accountable is also helpful.

Drew:
And one last thing that I’d say about this section is from a humor perspective specifically, like you said, write every single day, the first tip that I recommend to anyone who wants to add more humor into their keynotes or their topics or their life in general or maybe wants to do stand-up comedy at some point, which if you are a speaker then I strongly recommend you try to do some stand-up because I think it’s one of the hardest forms of public speaking that you’ll ever do. And so it’s like the weight room for speakers. And so you go to a stand-up comedy club and you’re working on material where the bar is much higher for comedy and how concise you need to be is much more specific than when you go and take that same material or same story into a speaking engagement, it’s going to feel easier.

Drew:
And so whether you’re looking to do humor as a speaker or in general life or whatever, what I encourage people is to start a humor notebook. It’s a simple spot that it’s a repository where each day you capture anything that made you laugh or anything that makes you curious, anything that you saw that was like, “Huh, that’s interesting.” So like I said earlier today, I have this spot where it’s like, “I have never put soap between my shoulder blades,” it’s constantly hit by water in the shower but not actual soap so that goes in the humor notebook and so then later when I want to try to write humor, when I want to try to be more specifically funny, I can go back to that notebook as a starting point.

Drew:
And the other thing that I think it does is it activates your Reticular Activation System, your RAS, which is basically that idea like when my mom bought a Subaru Outback as a car I started to see Subaru Outbacks everywhere. And it’s because my brain now said, “Oh, this is something a little bit more specific. This is maybe important information to you. Reticular Activation System, I’m going to let you know when you see this.” I think the same thing happens when you do a humor notebook is you start to see humor in every day life where you didn’t necessarily see it before but because you’ve been thinking about it it now becomes a little bit more aware to you.

Michael:
So tell us about the bit that you do about the text that you get from your mom. That’ll be our closer for today. So before you tell us about that, because it’s a great bit, I just want to let people know that if they want to reach out to you or learn more from you they can go to DrewTarvin.com, D-R-E-W T-A-R-V-I-N.com or humorthatworks.com, which is the name of his most recent book which is fabulous. Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work so I recommend that you read that. And you can also go check out his TEDx Talk called The Skill of Humor, and as I said before it’s the most watched Talk on humor with more than five million views. So tell us about this text bit with your mom.

Drew:
Yeah. So the text bit is how I open the TEDx Talk and it’s actually with my grandmother.

Michael:
Oh, your grandmother.

Drew:
So my mom’s mom, on that side, but my grandmother. But it is about my grandmother texting me. And so seven years ago in New York, I was hanging out and I got a text message from my grandmother and I was surprised because it was the first time she had ever texted me. The text read, “Dear Andrew, trying out texting. Love, your grandma.” And it’s like, “Aww, she thinks it’s a letter.” So I sent her a message back and I was like, “Hey grandma, you don’t have to include all that.” And so her response was, “Dear Andrew, okay. Love, your grandma.” And still sticking to the letter, which she very much appreciates, it’s her old formal style I guess. But then I go on to talk about the fact that my grandmother is getting better at texting and she’s getting to the point that she’s understanding some of the acronyms but not all of them.

Drew:
For example, I was speaking in Switzerland a few years ago and I got back from Switzerland so I sent a message to my grandmother to say, “Hey, just got back from Switzerland,” and her response was, “Dear Andrew, Switzerland? WTF.” And it’s like, “What? Oh my goodness.” So I called my grandmother up and I’m like, “Grandma, what do you think WTF means?” And she’s like, “Oh well someone at bridge told me it means wow, that’s fun.” I was like, “That is exactly what it means,” because I’m not going to explain that to my grandmother. I think the world would be a little bit of a better place if more people thought WTF, if more people looked around the world whether it was their speaking that they’re doing, the message that they’re giving, some of the hands-on work that you’re doing, whatever it is if more people looked at the world and thought WTF, like my grandmother thought, “Wow, that’s fun,” I think we’d be more productive, less stressed, and happier.

Michael:
Fantastic. Andrew Tarvin, thank you so much. You guys can find him on DrewTarvin.com, humorthatworks.com. Pick up his book Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work. Andrew, you are delightful. My understanding is I’ll be seeing you soon here at HPS. Thank you, I’ll be looking forward to that. So guys, keep thinking big about who you are and what you offer the world. This is Michael Port signing off. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be of service, I never take it for granted and I’ll catch you next time. Bye bye.

Michael:
Thanks for listening to Steal the Show. I’m your host Michael Port. We record our episodes at Heroic Public Speaking HQ. Thanks for listening. And learning how to be a performer in your spotlight moments. Make sure to reach out to us on Instagram and Facebook at Heroic Public Speaking and leave us a review on iTunes, if you liked the show. Until next time, keep thinking big about who you are and how you see the world. Bye for now.

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