Being funny is not just a natural talent you are born with. It is also a skill you can learn. And it’s a skill that can be invaluable in building your personal brand. My guest today is David Nihill, founder of FunnyBiz – a company that specializes in helping people be funnier in print and in front of an audience. Among other things we will talk about how doing improv comedy can make anyone a better public speaker, how to use humor to connect with your audience, and the tips and tricks you can borrow from professional comedians – to get a laugh.
Listen to the Podcast here:
Can Being Funny Help Build Your Brand?
The following is an edited transcript of this podcast. Since how we talk and how write is often very different, this transcript may contain uses of the English language (including grammar) that are not 100% correct. We are counting on your understanding in advance.
Karen Leland Branding Expert: Thank you for joining me on the Branding Blowout. I am really thrilled to have David Nihill here today as my guest. He is the founder of Funny Biz, and he is the author of Do You Talk Funny?
David, thank you so much for being on the program.
Thanks for having me.
It is my pleasure. We met at a TEDx party, and I was enthralled with your beautiful Irish accent. That was the first thing I noticed about you.
Thank you very much. Normally, it is my goofy-looking head, but the accent comes a close second, but I’ll take it.
I was really fascinated with what you do as the founder of FunnyBizz and the author of Do You Talk Funny? You really help people look at how they bring humor into their lives and into their business lives. I Being funny is something that I think of as a natural talent that you are either born with or not. You talk about it as something that you can learn as a skill.
I think it is as much a skill as being funny. Certainly there are those people in the world that are naturally more gifted with it than others, but there is also a huge amount of people out there that are very famous, successful, and very known for being funny, that didn’t start off very funny at all. In my own experiments posing as a comedian for a year for the sake of this book, I met a lot of people that I would not have said were naturally funny and who were not even funny at all at the start of their journey. A year later, I was seeing these guys who are not maybe famous for being a comedian at this stage, but they certainly got funnier along the way.
There was evidence that there was a skill behind it as well as a set of techniques that if somebody is aware of, they can certainly become a wee bit funnier.
Talk a little bit about the process that you went through. You were not a comedian, and you really don’t want to be a comedian. I think you did it for this purpose of research. Talk a little bit about how you got into that.
I was definitely more of a kicker and screamer doing it. Public speaking has always been my biggest fear. To be honest, I would have described it as a crippling fear until a friend of mine suffered a spinal cord injury. His insurance had basically cut him off, and we were looking for ways to do fundraisers and keep funding his continued rehabilitation as the hospital bills increased, we were looking for ways to fundraise and fund his continuous rehabilitation. I suggested a comedy show, which wasn’t the best plan I’ve ever had in hindsight. It wasn’t that I was going to do the comedy show, I just knew a couple of comedians. One in particular, he said he’d do it. What I didn’t anticipate was my friends insisting that I host the event. What they did not know is that at University, my nickname had been Shaken Stevens because of the mess I turned into. The paper in my hand started shaking whenever I had to publicly speak, and it just seemed to transcend somehow into the rest of my body.
I did not want to do it at all. To be honest, compared to what my friend was going through, it just didn’t seem like that it was one of the things that I could back down from. I said, “I better get my head around this.” It was very much a conscious decision at that point. I had to figure this out; who are the world’s Malcom Gladwell 10,000 hour–rule true masters of public speaking? And then I figured that must be comedians. They are on stage in more adverse conditions than anybody else.
For a full year, I pretended to be a comedian, which sounds like an absolutely terrible plan. I crashed a couple of comedy clubs and shows and did my best to not tell anyone about it, and I did it all under the extremely creative stage name of Irish Dave. It seemed too obvious to me, but Americans seemed to like it.
We like the obvious; Americans like the obvious.
Irish Dave doesn’t seem to me to be funny at all, but it was catchy. It saved me in explaining to my family and friends over and over again what I was up to. They were like, “Really, you’re going to take a full year to try and be a comedian with no intention to try and be a full-time comedian? That does not sound like a good plan. Just never mind the fact that you hate public speaking.”
What I find so fascinating about it is that you were not someone who was known for being funny before that. Correct?
It depends on who you ask. I’d say my mother and a select group of people that I would probably pay to say I am funny would have said that I was fairly funny, but it went to pieces when I was on stage. I went to pieces in any form of public speaking. For me, even if I hit on some humor sometimes, it was kind of a hit and miss. I didn’t realize that there are underlying techniques. I was kind of funny, I would like to think.
If you go to Ireland and ask people if they are naturally funny, most people would say, “Absolutely.” It is quite different in the States, where people seem to think that they are not naturally funny. Being funny on stage and being funny off the stage are two quite different things. The funny thing is that if you become funnier on stage and you learn some techniques to facilitate you, you would be funnier off stage. It tends to rub off on you and you find yourself speaking with some of the techniques from on stage to off stage. It definitely does transcend.
There are other people who are just not funny. Even if you teach them all the techniques in the world, they are just not going to be funny.
I think with everybody, whether funny or not—and there certainly are some people who are a bit more naturally unfunny and are pretty serious—you can always draw some form of entertainment out of them. Those people who have seen something happen in front of them that was funny, they would have seen something at some stage, something that would make them laugh. Most of the time, being funny is just repeating that particular thing that made you laugh in an effective manner.
What a lot of people do is they get lost in the additional words or the awkwardness of delivery, or they don’t really know how to structure it, like they will put in all these extra details that kill the laugher. A lot of times, all it is is taking something you enjoy and sharing it with other people. The missing link is those people who consider themselves not funny. Nobody has said, “That is a great story, but you need to retell it like this, because this is the way to make it funnier.” A lot of times, it is just an awareness of those underlying things that allow you, even if you are not naturally funny, to be a little bit funnier.
It is interesting to me that you can take a story that a CEO, an entrepreneur, or an executive tells in a public speech, presentation, or in a meeting, and by using some of the techniques you are talking about, you can make it a little bit funnier, which means that people will be more engaged. I find that as a speaker and when I lead things, when people are laughing, they are actually learning.
One hundred percent. The most engaged your audience will ever be is just after the moment that you make them laugh. There’s an expression I love that goes, “The end of laughter is followed by the height of listening.” Whenever you are in a conference, and most people are generally sleeping, because the speakers are not the most exciting normally. When someone gets up there who makes you laugh all of a sudden, you hear it and you are receptive to it; it creates an engagement and an awareness all of a sudden, and you are like, “Oh, give me more of that.” It is the most alert that you will be. It would be easy to take things that you like sharing and stories you like doing, and just quickly identify the key funny part and understand how to best deliver that on stage in a way that is going to facilitate that engagement.
Business speakers aren’t looking to be comedians; they are just looking to have people’s attention, and that is something that is increasingly harder to do.
Give us an example of one technique that people could use that actually helps make something funnier in their speaking.
The first thing is having something that you feel is funny or enjoyable, and then taking that story and asking yourself, What is the key surprise in that story? What is the funny bit? Where do people normally laugh when they share it to family and friends? Where do they normally react? And how do I get to that particular point in a more effective manner?
We were speaking once upon a time about sheep in cars, which sounds like it might have been a strange party that we met at in the first place. But just to pick a story, if you are telling a story about a sheep being in a car, something that would be a bit strange in California but not too strange in my part of the world, ask yourself, What is going to be the key part of that story? It’s easy: There is a sheep in a car. Is that strange? Is that unusual? That could be potentially funny, and it normally gets a laugh. How do I tell that story in a way that my timing would look better, that gets me to that key reveal? The reveal is the surprising part of the story. How do I put that key word at the end? If I put the key word, the key part, the key change at the end of the story, it would make it interesting. Now I wanted to say that in the car there was a sheep. That makes a massive difference because it allows the people to follow the timing of it and keeps the surprise until the last minute. It also stops me from talking after the key word, which in effect allows people to laugh. That makes a massive difference because it keeps the surprise until the last minute. It also stops me from talking after the key word, which in effect allows people to laugh.
That is what business speakers don’t realize. When they hit on something funny, everything they say after the key funny word is likely to stop the audience’s reaction straight away. If they just stumble on something funny, but they keep talking, then the audience would want to hear more. They are literally sitting there thinking, “Give me more!” They stop and start listening. It actually stops your own laughter. It is realizing the story you have, what is the funny component? How do I get there more effectively? And how do I structure it in a way that is most likely to give me success and allow the audience to appreciate what I am saying, and react to it?
Well, and I think the time to react to it is giving that silence. That is what I see a lot when I work with CEOs and executives on their presentations. They often don’t pause, and they just keep on running through because they are afraid of that silence. When people are laughing, stop and let them laugh. When the laughter is over, continue on.
One hundred percent. It is not just applicable to the humorous items. If you have a key metric in there and your key metric is ”We have an 80 percent year-on-year growth rate,” you want to structure that so the key element—the exact same as the sheep in the car, but in this case it’s the 80 percent that is the key element—you need to change that sentence to allow people to soak it up and react to it. It is not “We had an 80 percent year-on-year growth rate.” But it is “We had a year-on-year growth rate of 80 percent.” You slow it down, pause, and make sure that is the end of your sentence. Automatically, your timing looks better. It applies whether you are going for a laugh line or an impact line of something important you want to draw people’s attention to.
That is a great tip. By the way, your next book should be titled, “Sheep in the Car.”
Sheep in the Car! Ha! I’m not writing any more books ever, but if I do, I think it’d be way too stereotypical if I wrote about sheep in a car.
When you think about CEOs, entrepreneurs, and executives looking at and using humor, what lessons can these people take away about humor from those top TED talks?
I think the most important one is there is an expectation for you to be somewhat funny. If you don’t think so, just go into one of these top talks or go to your next conference and wait until you go on after the funny person. I think we all know that feeling where you are standing backstage, for those of us who have done public speaking, and you’re like, “Oh, that person is crushing it; they’re doing so well. Everybody’s laughing. I’m going next with my one, maybe, joke.” You really get to feel it in that moment waiting to go on stage, and you think that what you have isn’t as good as it could have been. A nice thing for CEOs or any business leaders, looking at the top TED talks at the moment and any of the top speakers, is that the humor that they are using is extremely replicable. They are not trying to be funny, and they are not going for funny one-liners; they are just looking naturally funny. They are doing that by telling stories. They are identifying the key part of the story, and they structure it exactly the way a stand-up comedian would so there is a level of a flip of expectations. The key part is at the end, and it looks extremely natural.
There is never that moment, the one that especially worries business leaders, where you are visibly seen trying to be funny, and the audience decides that they are not going to laugh. They know that you are trying to be funny. When they know that you are trying to be funny with something that is very visibly a joke or cheesy humor, they have the opportunity to disengage really quickly. You are telegraphing your intent. If you are just telling a story, and that’s what we were seeing in all these top TED Talks, or they were structuring it in a way where there just happens to be a sequence that sounds quite natural, you then don’t have that risky moment that really worries business people. They are like, “I don’t want to have egg on my face. I don’t want to stand there really awkwardly. I don’t wanna be met with a sea of groaning noises.”
The humor doesn’t have to be just verbal. In some of the TED talks, some of the humor is in the images people show, right?
One of my favorites at the moment is Tim Urban’s about procrastination, which was TEDx Vancouver’s main stage this year, which I think has the highest view count at the moment, but it is certainly the funniest. To give you an idea, he gives you 2.6 laughs a minute. To give you an element of comparison, the Hangover movie gets in around the same amount of 2.9 to 3 laughs per minute. The funniest movies of all time will make you laugh about the same times per minute, as a lot of these leading TED talks. When you break it down a bit, an average of about 35 to 36 percent of the laughs generated in this talk are linked to the use of images within this talk. He is really just using funny and engaging content that either he’s created… For the most part in his talk, he’s created them.
If you look at the talk of author and very famous marketer Seth Godin, about 57 percent of the laughs that he gets in his funniest Ted talk are from the use of images. Most are just some that he got online, or taking a photo of himself, or are already socially proven. He knows that people are going to laugh and react to this. The key thing is just setting them up in the key way. The images really give you an easy advantage over funny people like comedians, because they would give their left arm to just show funny pictures and videos that other people make, and it’s something that is accessible to business speakers that a lot of the time they don’t use. What we are seeing now is the most successful ones are doing it.
Is there a particular way that you have to set up the image so that it is funny?
Yes, and I would say that that is one of the things that I can see going sideways at conferences most of the time. They show a kind of funny image, and they just stand there and look at it as something that is funny, like, “Look at that; that is something funny.”
It has the potential of being funny.
They think, “If I just stare at it long enough, they might react.” The key thing is that it is quite a sequence where you have to treat the image as the funny thing. It is not what you say after you show the image, but very much what you say before the image. You treat the image like the sheep in the car, like the punch line. What is the key reveal to your sentence? Then that is always going to be the image.
For example, if you are very emotional and stressed out about something, instead of saying to people that you are, you say, “I looked exactly like this.” You then pause for a second and have a photo of a young girl in front of a fire hydrant with the water blasting her in the face. It looks stressful and wacky, and everybody laughs because you have built up the image itself as the funny bit, and not what you are going to say after you show the image.
In Tim Urban’s talk, he had a flip of expectations. He said, “Well brain science is extremely complex, and some of you won’t understand it, but I’ve used this diagram,” and I thought, “Well let’s just have a try.” He showed a very simplistic image of a monkey inside the brain with a drawing that looked like it had been done by an eight-year-old. The image is the funny part. If you are playing a video that is already funny, you just set it up and you let the video get the laughs, and not just you going, “Hey, let’s watch the video!” And then just saying something after it: “Oh, that was funny.”
It is interesting because in one of the talks I do on branding and marketing and becoming a thought leader, I tell a story. I start to talk by telling the story. I talk a little bit about someone I met and how I felt meeting that person. After I did this—and you are validating me so I know I did the right thing—after I finished setting it up, I flipped to one of the pictures, and the picture is of the Wicked Witch of the West from the book The Wizard of Oz. People always laugh, but I wondered why they laughed. I realized that they laughed because I set it up, and then the visual is what closes it. That is what it does. The visual closes the joke or the humorous part.
A great example of that was President Obama this week in the White House correspondence speech. He said, “You can only show how I have aged by looking at me and Michelle in photos. Michelle gives it away. You can’t tell that she has aged at all, but you can tell I have aged.” He shows an image of them together looking really normal, which was the first element of the sequence. Then he shows an image of him looking a little bit older. And then the third element—which, by the way, it’s always expected that the third element is going to be the funny one—so the third element of the sequence is an image of Michelle Obama next to a skeleton. That is a huge laugh, and he set it up, and he literally just let the images do the work for him. He is not trying to make any smart comments after it.
Very much everything funny in comedy is a lot of times—and writers know this—linked to the rule of three, which is the idea that three is the smallest sequence here that your mind can identify as a pattern. In comedy, the third element in that sequence is always the change. One and two will be very usual and creating a pattern, while three breaks the pattern. President Obama’s example in one and two are very normal images, while three is the exaggerated effect or element, and you are effectively breaking the pattern. That break in the pattern and the flip of expectations usually results in laughter.
The brain can put it in a pattern of three, so the brain is actually expecting it to be apple – apple – apple. But if you do apple – apple – orange, the brain makes it funny because of the breaking pattern.
Apple – apple – orange is comedy. I have never heard it explained that way, but I have never heard of people talking about sheep in cars before either.
It’s not funny, but it works.
I used to box when I was at University, and it was very much jab, jab, and then hook. It was always two things and then another one. Your brain never expects that third one coming. It expects the third one, but it expects the third one to be the same as the first two. Comedy writers, marketers, and anyone in copywriting who is trying to produce anything remotely funny or memorable always uses patterns of three elements. Comedians just always make sure that that last element is the orange.
Where is the fine line of being funny and hokey?
If you just stick with telling stories that are meaningful for you, that you care about, and the audience could never see that you are trying to be funny, your story seems to have a funny component, and you just happen to make it look natural and have that exact right place at the end of the sentence, it is really just that you are sharing a little slice of humanity with them, and it just happens to be entertaining. In that way, it is not for you to try to come up with Jerry Seinfeld’s wit, which is fantastic. But as the average writer, businessman, or comedian trying to be funny, they can’t replicate what he is doing.
When it doesn’t work, that is the time you can end up being hokey, or you can end up being seen as having egg on your face. To avoid that, you just have to stick with images that are already socially proven, videos that are already viral, or stories from your life or from your business life. It may be a strange customer or strange scenario that you have or exaggerating the pain point of the product you have, and what it is like not to have this product. Then you can have fun with something that has meaning to your audience, and it does not look like you are trying to be funny.
Lots of business people get in trouble because they try to be funny. They tell jokes or they say things that they think are going to be funny, and it is not, because they are trying too hard as opposed to just telling a story, naturally being funny, and using the techniques to highlight the story with humorous elements.
It is not normally trying too hard to be funny, but it is when your audience can visibly see that. Comedians will put an average of 22 hours work into 1 minute of content in a 60-minute yearly special. They tend to produce an hourly special each year—22 hours of work just to look like they made it up at the top of their head. The main goal of that time is to make it look spontaneous and to avoid looking like you are trying to be funny. You can really shortcut that process as a business speaker just by speaking with short form stories and setting them up so that they can relate to the audience. The most powerful thing you can do with storytelling, or in any form of performance, is to allow the audience to see themselves within your story.
It is very important to make an opening statement in a way on why you are telling this and why it’s relatable. Tell your short-form story. The reason that you are telling it in the first place just so happens to be at the end. That way, you are not visibly seen as trying to be funny.
You have a company called FunnyBizz. Tell the audience about what FunnyBizz does.
We take any form of written content and make it funnier. Anybody who is doing anything in writing, whether it be blog posts, funnel emails, or white papers, we send it to a bunch of very high-level comedians to punch it up. Not with the aim of making it hilarious, but more so to increase engagement, right, which is a real pain point for companies. I run a conference around that as well, where we try to demonstrate using comedy in any form within the business realm to really give people a how-to: Here is what happened, here is how you can make it cool, here is how you can do it too.
What do you find when you get this writing from people? What do you find as one of the biggest problems with people’s writing that makes it not funny?
My writing is totally rubbish as well, so I can’t be critical in any way. I write my own stuff, and I’m like, “Oh gosh; I give up!” I sent out this one email this morning, and I’m like, “I tried to be funny with this email, but you can see it has the funny factor of a dead penguin. I need my own product, and so do you.” Sometimes just acknowledging your own failure is a way of being funny.
I did one yesterday, which was a very long script for a conference, and it was just so full of buzz words: “We highlight this, we X this, we multiply this metric.” That is all great, but surely you have a customer and you could just tell me how your product helped them. Put a name to that person, put a story around them, and how did you make a difference? Now, let us connect those to the other elements of your talk, presentation, or content. When you are really trying to emphasize the hard sales or using the industry buzz words, you make it hard for people to relate to what you are writing at a human level. That is what is missing a lot of the time in the stuff that we work on. It is usually overwritten or is too complex when you want it to come across as something that is more conversational.
I personally think that being funny is a critical skill in building a successful brand today. I would love to know your take on that.
I am all for being funny. I think being funny is critical and it is expected. Some people think that they don’t have that, and some companies obviously do it more than others, but there is a lot of interest and research around being funny. I think it was 97 percent of CEOs are identified as having a great sense of humor. Whether you are leading a company or creating your own product, people expect a human element to it. They don’t get lost in the bingo words we use or the jargon, like B2B or B2C. They are just human to human. They expect to interact with a human. They expect your content or yourself to have a bit of personality.
If you are advertising your brand or you are promoting it in any way, more and more you are going to be in mediums like Facebook, where people are going to consume entertainment. If you are competing for their attention or if you are building your brand across those mediums, then there is an expectation for you to be entertaining in some way. That is what I see in a lot of companies that I have worked with. They really feel like they are putting out all this content and nobody is consuming it: What are we doing wrong? I think a lot of the time being humorous or being playful or just being human allows you a real advantage in building your brand. Humor is certainly a big tool that you can utilize in doing so.
I am wondering if, like in writing how writers always have a “voice,” if people also have a “voice” when they are humorous or a style of being funny or being humorous, even if they are not comedians.
I think they do, and the funny thing is, if you copy the style of Chris Rock and go to the next conference, there is a huge chance that you are going to be thrown out of that conference. His style is pretty much his personality, and it is very hard to copy personality. I think it is Jerry Seinfeld that said, “In comedy, the closer you get to being yourself, the funnier you will be.” Comedians go through a long process, and the same with writers. Writers basically try and find their voice, but you can always circumvent that process.
In writing, for me, I dictated my book. If I dictate the book, then surely that is my voice. I’ve just saved myself a lot of writing because I’m not very good at writing. If you pick up something that I have written, you should say that it is like I spoke those words, because I did. When comedians are going through that creative process, at the start they are aiming to be on a five-minute television slot because, that is the marker of success, and usually the breaking point. When they get on a late-night TV show like Conan or one of these big TV shows, they get on stage for more time. People want to see them for an hour. They don’t have an hour of making witty, short observations, so they start going on to their own personal stories. All of a sudden, they are said to have found their voice. But realistically, what’s happened over those many years, they just became closer to being themselves.
We all have that within us. In America people journal a lot, more so than they do here, and it’s very deep and emotional stuff. They’ll write, “Last Tuesday I was emotionally traumatized, and I felt really unhappy, and I’ve never been like this.” Who wants to read that emotional stuff? That’s the stuff that people are going to skip over when they are reading in your journal. What we tell business leaders and anybody creating content to do is to get out their iPhones or smart phones and start a Funny Stories file. And every time you see something funny and that makes you laugh, or you hear a story and you’re like, “Oh I have a story like that.” When something happens embarrassing or wacky, write it down, because all that stuff is funny and will be funny. You will then have a bank of pure happiness that you can tap into when you are creating your own content. The nice thing is that it will probably save you reading that journal as well. Cause you are like, “Well I have my smart phone here, and it reminds me of all the cool, funny things that have happened to me in the past year.”
Now granted, there are some embarrassing things in there. Everything that is embarrassing or traumatic for you is funny. The only question is, are you comfortable in telling people about it? If it is the first time you failed in something, there is always humor in the learning process. It is just building a file of things like that to be able to tap into. All of a sudden, the people who were like, “I’m not really funny; I’ve got nothing to share,” they are now like, “Wait a minute; I have a whole file of things that I can draw upon.” That is key in building your brand, whether it is public speaking or you just want to get out there and use some humor in a non-cheesy way. That really gives you the ammunition to do it.
You’ve given me personally that tip before when we’ve talked, and I’ve done it. I call it my funny file. I keep a funny file based on that tip, and I think it’s a fabulous, fabulous idea.
Thanks, and honestly, all comedians have been doing that forever. The comedian’s big advantage in the world of being funny is that they are out there consciously not just looking for funny stuff, but documenting it. I am living in San Francisco, and all I have to do is walk to the Tenderloin District and keep my eyes open, and see wacky stuff which will happen in five minutes. I just document that, and now I would just have to link that to a business topic.
A lot of the time, that is easy to do. People see it and say, “That’s related to my talk.” My point is, if you like it, make it be related to your talk.
You can always integrate it into your talk.
Build your talk around the humanized, humorous story components that you like sharing with people. The nice thing in that is that it is your story. When it comes to public speaking, nobody knows it better than you. If you screw up and leave something out, nobody knows. It takes a lot of pressure off you as a public speaker on stage, when you are trying to memorize stuff, to just be sharing your stories with the world.
Do you still do public speaking or comedy?
I do. I don’t do a whole lot on comedy. I did a conference in New Orleans where I was interviewed on a Collision Tech conference with 11,000 people. I don’t want to look like an idiot on stage, so I will try and practice beforehand.
Public speaking is very much like anything in that if you do not do it in a while, you get rusty fast. So just to get that nerve pathway in the brain going again, and the words to get quicker and to be comfortable to get up there, I will want to get some practicing beforehand, if it is either stand-up comedy or some form of storytelling event in the evening. So I do do it, but only if I have something coming up. In hosting my own conference, I will do some stand-up comedy or get on stage on any format, whether it is giving a talk at a co-working space or in a library or volunteering somewhere, just to get on stage and work out a few of the kinks. It’s kind of fun too. If I just have something in my mind that I want to get out there, or I’m writing something and I want to test it out in front of a live audience, it gives me a medium to get out there and try it.
Interesting. I know you host this conference on being funny. Can you talk about the conference and the kind of people you have speak?
We have never structured it so that we only have a keynote speaker; we have 12 speakers. I think 8 of the 12 we have coming up are all very much business, but they all have a sneaky background in performance or stand-up comedy. They are creative directors within companies, or they are content marketers or CEOs and founders. We have Scott Dikkers, who is the founder of The Onion on there. We have Marty Wilson, who is a great speaker from Australia who was an Australian Comedian of the Year at one stage and has written about 15 books. These guys happen to have a huge advantage on stage because of all that comedy training and performance training.
We were really looking to find people who could very much give a TED-style talk with a lot of active takeaways, but every one of them was funny. They were funny because they had that sneaky element of training in comedy and background. This somehow kick-started their career in creative pursuits or they abandoned being a comedian for working at some company like Lyft and became a creative director. These guys and girls seem to have a pattern where they had some element of performing arts in their background that they utilized within their career.
We try to bring all those people together in one place to teach people how to put out less boring content.
This comes up so often in this podcast no matter who I am talking to, this element of performance, being funny, entertaining, of people having this in their background. I have acting in my background. So many people I know comment that performance is really useful to have in your background in business period.
We have certainly seen that in a lot of talks we were analyzing. When I was writing my book, I was trying to figure out who were the best business speakers out there and why. If they were unusually funny, what made them so? If they are really good on stage, what gave them the advantage in doing that?
Recently I was reading Originals, the book by Adam Grant, where they had said that there is a study of scientific Nobel Prize winners. They had said that those involved in the performing arts were 22 times more likely to win a Nobel Prize than the average of their peers. I think that study was done by the Highway Group. It made me stop and think, “Really? Twenty-two times more likely? That just sounds insane.” When you are looking at these people doing creative and innovative things, at some stage, they were doing something performance orientated, or maybe they just didn’t pursue their original passion, but they found a way to build that into their work.
When they get recognized for their work, all of a sudden they are doing a lot of public speaking on business, and they end up doing a TED Talk about it. All of a sudden they have really put in those 10,000 hours that make a master just by chance as they were pursuing a different dream. That skill set of theirs lent itself into a new role.
I think that is what makes this whole thing so fascinating. The power of performance is something anyone can learn. It doesn’t mean that anyone can be a comedian or an actor, but that power of performance and techniques from performance can be learned as a skill.
I knew nothing about comedy apart from watching it, but I do now. When I started this, I knew absolutely nothing. I had never been on stage in any format and did not have ambitions to be a performer in any way. What these guys are saying is, “I don’t want to be a famous comedian. But if I want to be a funnier business speaker with the same techniques, how likely is that?” We have all been to conferences where people are boring the pants off of everybody from the stage. It is not that hard. The bar is really low for you.
That is so true. The bar is so low!
It’s really very true. If you make everyone laugh in a business conference, the audience just turns into like a group of happy dolphins slapping their hands together going backwards. They are like, “That was amazing! Did you hear that guy? So funny!”
One joke will get you ranked as the funniest speaker sometimes. Stop walking out there saying, “I am very privileged to be in front of you; it’s my first time here,” because every single speaker said that. “I’m gonna share a story of…” Don’t do that. Just tell the story. It’s lots of little things like that that a performer wouldn’t do. They wouldn’t telegraph what they were going to do; they would just do it. Little changes like that will give you a huge advantage. You don’t have to want to be an actor or a comedian. You just really have to take an interest in what they are doing differently, and how you can apply that to what you want to do.
I think it also has something to do with setting the expectation. There are a few ways to do that. One is, the person who introduces you has a big impact on the expectation that is set.
Huge. What happens, and I think it’s the worst thing they could do when I go on stage is, “Next up, it’s David. He’s a comedian; he’s really funny.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m so in trouble.” That happened at my book launch; it was at the NASDAQ Center. I was like, “No, I only pretended to be a comedian for a year.” What happens when there is “Funny” on the book cover is that people say that you better be funny when you get up there. When someone says that David is a comedian and he is funny, which is mildly true, I’d like to think I am funny, but I’m not a comedian. My background is business, and this is something that I just did on the side. Then your expectation would be funny and not very business savvy.
Whereas if that same person is given an introduction beforehand like, “Ladies and gentlemen, our next speaker is the author of a bestselling book. He was the contributor in this and that and the other. He has been featured in this. Please give it up for David.” He has sold me, so I don’t have to sell myself.
Some friends of mine call that edifying you. He’s edified you.
One hundred percent! They establish your credibility so you don’t have to spend the start of your talk listing your own achievements, which is a horrible thing to have to do. It is automatically seen as you are not human, you are not relatable, and people feel your talk is going to feel like sales.
Your talk always begins with your introduction, and if you could give that introduction to someone beforehand in a way where they don’t mention your work and name until the very last words of that introduction, it will have a big impact on what you are about to say and how warm your welcome to the stage is going to be. You are building the anticipation very much like a comedy club. You’ll have heard this before, “Our next comedian has been featured on Comedy Central, he’s been on tour with Conan O’Brien; you have seen him everywhere. Here for us tonight is, ladies and gentlemen, we have…” And all of the minds are there saying, “Who is it?” There is the same level of expectation that is there with a joke, with a funny line, when you show them the sheep or the next image, you want to do it the same way as your introduction, where the only time that the name is said is last, and that is the way that the audience knows it’s time to applaud and warmly welcome you to the stage. Little things like that really do set you for success.
I am deeply concerned about the degree to which, amount of which, and intensity with which you talk about sheep.
You and me both. My mother is out there somewhere going, “I didn’t raise him like that! I tried to introduce him to nice girls!”
Your mother is out there throwing up her hands saying, “It’s not my fault. Don’t blame me!”
I might have been a farmer, but surely it’s not my fault.
Exactly. It’s interesting because I was giving a presentation a few weeks ago, and two other speakers before me both had these big, loud, and booming introductory dazzling videos to introduce themselves. Anyone can do whatever they want. But for me, it is something that I would never do because I feel it would put me at almost a distance from the audience. I wouldn’t want to be at that much of a distance from the audience.
It basically puts you on a pedestal all of a sudden. It makes you not really relatable, especially if it is a very high-quality produced video, and you look amazing. The audience is sitting there saying, “This speaker is amazing. I can’t relate to them because they have achieved too much. They will try to be funny, and I probably don’t like them, so I am not sure I am going to laugh at their jokes.” Although you have certainly grabbed the audience’s attention at the start, you won’t really get anywhere on the likability side. You are up there to be memorable, tell stories, and be relatable, someone people can relate to and take action on. The video doesn’t really help that. We had a speaker who did the same thing with a very polished video. The guy had business achievements that netted him over $400 million. He had a fantastic video that he played that made him look like Elvis. Like he was Elvis combined with everybody. It was Mick Jagger meets Elvis meets Mark Cuban, all rolled into one for success. All of a sudden, people weren’t responding to him or responding to his jokes.
When you are in a position of power like that, you really want to make fun of yourself a bit. President Obama was great in doing this. We just asked this guy to do the same. He still played the video because he really liked it, but he said, “If my wife made it, it would be a very different story. She likes my failures. Let me tell you about a few of them…” It just humanized him. What I have to say is that you just stay away from video as much as you can, and stay as human and as humble as possible. You’re not going to see a TED talk too often where the guy or girl plays an amazing video of them self and then comes out on stage. From a production standpoint, they know how that’s likely to affect the performance of the speaker and the crowd’s reaction to that speaker. Go for a relatable and human aspect over flashy videos every time.
Again, and I think that’s beautiful what you had that speaker do, was he had all of that but with humor, you had him bring it down to a human level, with humor.
He had to make fun of himself before anybody else would laugh at his jokes and relate to what he was saying.
For me, personally, I wouldn’t use it, but I’m not going to have a negative view if anyone else uses it. The point here that you are making, and I completely agree with, is that people won’t laugh and they are not as engaged if you are too distant from them. If they can’t see themselves in you and your story, they are not going to be as engaged or see you as being funny.
You just make your own life much harder. If they can’t relate to you and they can’t see themselves in your shoes… Like if I tell you that when I was young, I had this beat-up car and don’t give you any other details, that’s it. But if I tell you, “Oh, I had this car, and it was a Ford Fiesta, and it had one door, the other one just sort of fell off. The sunroof actually flew off one day and smashed into a cop car that was following behind us.” Which, this actually did happen. The exhaust was hanging off, it was a real junker, brown and disgusting.” When you hear of this, you then make an image in your head of an old beat-up car that your father or first boyfriend or girlfriend had. You start to create a visual of that story in your mind. That is the most powerful thing that you can do in public speaking is you allow the audience to see themselves in your story. It is hard to do that with a flashy video.
Fabulous. So one other question for you on being funny: When you think about some of the top tips of how to be funnier, to make your brand funnier, to make your presentation funnier, what are your favorite tips for that?
It’s quite easy just to take something and exaggerate it. If I’m a rideshare company like Uber or Lyft, and I’m trying to get people away from taking the bus and position Lyft as the alternative to that, I don’t want to just take the easy route and describe it as a bus. I want to exaggerate it. What a comedian will do that always makes a big difference is try to add some emotion to that. “Do you really not want to take Lyft? Do you really want to take the bus every day?” I heard a comedian describe it as a steel, gray tube of sadness. I think that acquainted to people who commute. They are like, “Yeah, that sums up what it’s like every time I have to get on the bus.” It’s entertaining, but it’s kind of sad because they don’t really enjoy it.
If you are creating a script or you are being playful with your brand, just play on the pain point. Uber, at their conference, when they were doing it, making advertisements, they emphasized all the pain points in conference calling. We’ve all done that where it’s like, “Oh, is Jim on the line yet? Is Bob dialed in? Oh, he will be with me in a minute. What’s the code again? 7642AB or something more complex?” You’re like, “Well this is ridiculous, but we still use it.” What they did was rather emphasized all their selling points. They just made their funny and quirky videos around the pain points of using an alternative product. This is what your life is going to be like if you don’t come with us. In a funny and quirky way, they exaggerated some of the items and they did it to trigger an emotional response in people.
To quickly be funny, take something and take the flip side. What is it like if they don’t do this or they don’t have our product? Can we exaggerate that a bit and make it more playful? If your descriptions are three elements, and if the third element is the flip item, when you are delivering the story of that exaggeration in person, the key funny word is hidden until the end, and it makes your timing look awesome. All of a sudden, you are starting to get really funny. If that sounds way too much for you, as a brand or a speaker or anybody, especially a speaker, go on stage. If somebody does something funny, just repeat it. The easiest way to get a laugh is to just call back and reference the speaker before you that said something funny, and just call the attention to the same joke. Mention it again or build on it again. Comedians call that a callback, but essentially it’s just repeating something that was already funny and making it a little bit funny again.
Fabulous tip. So I’m going to ask you a couple of questions that don’t have to do with this topic on being funny but have to do with you. These are questions that I’ve started asking all my guests, based on Inside the Actors Studio. These are not those questions, but I got the idea from it. The first question is: Who is someone in your life who has a huge and positive impact on you, and what is the impact?
My friend Arash, who suffered a spinal cord injury, and he was the one who ultimately gave me the TED Talk at the Ted event. We did a charity event for him that started all of this mess. He has been very inspiring. He was told that he was never going to stand up again. But there are times where he stood up on his own, and he also started to walk in a swimming pool after four years of really hard work. He has had the biggest positive impact in my life because he has really proven very visibly that a lot of people will tell you that it can’t be done, and that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it.
Who is someone in your life who has a negative impact on you? No names please!
Most of the lads that I grew up with back in Ireland is perhaps the answer to this. Ireland is very good at poking fun at anyone who is doing something extreme outside the normal. It was pretty funny growing up with them. If I had told them that I would be a comedian for a year and was going to write this book, they would say, “What are you doing that for?” It’s funny; I would be telling them that as well if one of my mates told me that was his plan. I’d make fun of it.
It does have a little bit of negative impact on me, just because it is never fun when some people shoot down an idea. I think America is more responsive to that, and I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. Someone can be like, “I think I’m going to sell dead penguins on the internet.” They will be like, “That’s an amazing business! You should do that! You could have some real success with it!” They don’t even stop to tell you it’s a terrible idea. When you sell dead penguins on the internet here in Ireland, they are like, “That’s a shocking idea. You must be taking drugs to come up with that.”
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Focus. Pick something you want to do and just put everything toward doing that, and do not get distracted by going around the world and travelling for many years, which was fun, but it is always possible at any stage. I am very glad I did it, but I would have liked to create something that I could stand back from saying to myself, “I did this because I focused solely on creating this one thing and doing that well.” And then I’d want to have fun as much as I could before I go and create something else. I have travelled around the world for a number of years, trying to learn languages and having as much fun as possible, which was great. But I would have liked to focus on one particular goal before I did that.
You are not only charming and have a great accent, but I have to say that you have been very funny in sharing about being funny.
Thanks very much.
Thank you for joining us today; it is a pleasure to have you on the show.
Thanks very much for having me.
About David Nihill – Founder of FunnyBizz and Author of Do You Talk Funny?
Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, David is the Founder of FunnyBizz, a community, writer platform, and conference series helping content creators tap into the power of storytelling, comedy and improv to create better content. He has performed standup comedy at Californi’ís leading clubs including Cobbs, the Comedy Store, the Improv and the Punchline even though he strongly denies being a comedian and is well aware most people don’t understand his accent. His learning, taken from one years intensive experiments in comedy,performed on someone from the business community with a huge initial fear of public speaking (ie him!) have been featured in Inc., Lifehacker, The Huffington Post, Forbes,Fast Company and became the best selling book, Do You Talk Funny?
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Karen Leland is President of Sterling Marketing Group, a branding and marketing strategy and implementation firm. She works with individuals, businesses and teams to enhance their business and personal brands. Her clients include LinkedIn, American Express, Apple, Marriott Hotels and others. Her ninth book, The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build and Accelerate Your Brand, (Entrepreneur Press, 2016) is available online at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com, and in bookstores now.