How To Make Boring Things Funny
So luckily, we have an epic, epic guest speaker for you guys today who's gonna tackle a topic of how do I make boring stuff funny? 'Cause a lot of people are saying, "I have a job and it's kinda boring. "How am I gonna make this content? "It's heavy, heavy content, I wanna make it lighter. "How do I make it funnier?" So I run a conference, every time this lady speaks at it, I get emails that say, "You should improve your conference "by getting 11 speakers exactly like this lady." Or, "You should build it around her." She's an author, she's a comedian. She's really, really lovely and she's a pure expert. Everything she's ever done has gone viral pretty much around topics that you would consider boring. She's also the author of the book A Hundred Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings which if I woulda had in my time working for the Irish government, my life would've been a lot more entertaining. So ladies and gentlemen, please give a huge, huge welcome to Sarah Cooper for joining us.
Thank you so much.
Thank you! Oh, I'll sit over here.
Thank you guys! I am a comedian so I have to ask, how are you guys doing? (audience laughing) So my name is Sarah Cooper, I'm a writer and comedian. And I'm gonna talk to you today about how to turn boring things into funny things and I'll specifically be talking about four tips that I've learned from trying to do the same thing. So my website is thecooperreview.com. I started it about two years ago. And it mainly focuses on corporate humor. And the corporate world is probably the hardest place to make people laugh because they have like looks on their face, like you. This gentleman here, you look very serious. Very used to that, it's okay. So I try to make things that people deal with everyday in an office situation with their co-workers and meetings and things like that. I try to make those situations funny. And my site gets over 500,000 views every month and the only reason I say that is because it sounds pretty impressive. And so you guys are really impressed with that. So I'm gonna talk to you about four tips that I've kind of discovered through creating content for my site. Number one is tell the truth. Number two is teach something silly. Number three is compare and contrast. And number four is mash it up. And I'm gonna go through each of these with some examples to kind of give you an idea of what I mean by each of these tips. So the first one, tell the truth. I was in meetings all day, I was a manager at Google and this was just my life, I was always in meetings. And I noticed something about being in a meeting. I noticed that if I said something that made me look smart, I would replay that moment in my head for hours, sometimes days later and it just made me feel really really good and I thought to myself, you know, what if that's the point of my career? Just to go to meetings and look smart in them. And I started noticing that people would do things just to sort of look smart and I came up with this and this is my most viral article, Ten Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. And this was based on some very clear observations that I made of what people would do in meetings just to sort of make themselves look good, like translate percentages into fractions. If someone's said, "%25 of people clicked in this button," someone would say, "Oh about one in four," and make a note of it and I was like, "Wow!" (audience laughing) That's really impressive. Quick math skills are always impressive and so it didn't necessarily mean this person was really smart it just made them look like they were really intelligent, really getting it, you know? Another one was pace around the room. I remember when a VP got up from the table and just started pacing back and forth and I was thinking is he pissed off? Is he about to cancel this project? What is going on? I had no idea but I knew that my respect for him went through the roof when he did that and I always wanted to try it and never got to. Another one is ask, "Will this scale?" No matter what it is. (audience laughing) You know, no one even knows what that means but it just makes you look really, really intelligent. So these are things that I actually saw people doing and just to bring it back to you what the tip is, I was just making observations. And a lot of times people think that to be funny, you need to be zany or really, really clever or really creative. But a great way to make people laugh like I just did is that laughter of recognition. You recognize it, you identify with it and so you laugh. It's this weird thing where if you see yourself in something it kind of triggers that laughter. And so my lesson is don't try to be funny, try to be honest. Because if you are as honest as possible about your real experience, people will relate to that and they will laugh from that. So make observations and if you wanna keep a diary or a journal, I kind of write down things that I find not even funny, just kind of weird all the time and I refer back to it anytime I wanna come up with some ideas. And another way to come up with ideas is to ask your community, ask your family and your friends. You know, what things they're experiencing. If you have a specific topic that you wanna talk about, you know, I had to speak at a car conference a year ago and I didn't really have much experience buying cars or anything like that. So I asked my Facebook friends, you know, what is the weirdest thing about buying a car? And someone said, "You know, it seems like every time "the guys says I gotta go talk to my manager it's like "they're putting on this huge performance." Right, they're like oh okay, let me go talk to my manager. And they do it like five times, it looks like they're trying to win an Academy Award, you know exactly what I'm talking about. And so this is a great way to just identify some of those observations. The other thing is you can exaggerate but always start from a place of truth. And I'm gonna give you an example. I was traveling a lot and I was on an airplane all the time over the holidays and I noticed that the seats were getting smaller and the space in front of the seats were getting smaller and these airlines would introduce all these economy classes that just were ridiculous. And so I came up with this, Delta's new airplane seating chart and I came up with these economy classes. Economy comfort, economy, economy discomfort, economy agony, economy two: the reckoning, where is your god now economy, Satan's den economy and of course, in the back is poop. (audience laughing) And these aren't real economy classes, well some of them are, I won't tell you which ones are real. You'll just have to figure that out. But this is how it feels, you know? You start from that place of these airplanes are really, really uncomfortable and then take it to this crazy, exaggerated place. So that's something that you can do, but just start from that place of honesty. So the next one is teach something silly. And going back to meetings, which again is another boring topic, I noticed that when I would look around the room in these awkward meetings people were always nodding and everyone had their own sort of way of nodding but it was their way of kind of letting everyone know that yeah, I'm engaged, I'm totally listening to you, even though everybody's somewhere else usually. And I thought well maybe there's something here with trying to think about different and new ways to nod in meetings. So I came up with nine nodding strategies for your next meeting. And the ones I came up with, some of them are here. What you're saying makes no sense, the very slow nod. That could work, maybe, probably not though, the kind of side-to-side nod. My favorite, good point, I'll pretend to write that down nod and then the what you're saying is truly fascinating nodding off nod, which I was doing a lot of meetings. (audience laughing) So no one needs to be taught how to nod. Obviously it's something that everyone does. But taking this very, very simple, obvious concept and sort of breaking it down, like it needs to be broken down kind of made this hilarious effect. So when you do something like that, when you take something really, really obvious that doesn't need to be taught and then you try to teach it? It can be very funny so that's another way to sort of bring out the funny in that very sort of boring topic. It's just over-explained but very simple. The third one, compare and contrast. About a year ago, I moved to San Francisco from New York and I noticed a lot of differences between the two cities. And I wanted to create some comparisons between those differences that I was seeing. So I created these comics and one was occupations. Like in New York there's law, medicine, finance, and tech. San Francisco, there's tech law, tech medicine, tech finance, and tech tech. (audience laughing) Attitude in New York City, get the bleep out of the way and San Francisco, everyone's just silently judging you. (audience laughing) Just always internally judging everyone else. False pretenses in New York City, you might see someone who looks rich but they're not. And here, you'll see someone who looks poor but they're probably a multi-millionaire. So these are just the comparisons of things, again going back to honesty, that I noticed about the two different cities. It was just sort of a contrast between the two. Now the other thing you can do is take two things that are very different and say hey, they're actually pretty similar. And I did this for take your child to work day. Toddler versus CEO to kind of show actually, toddlers and CEOs actually have a lot in common. Blurts out random opinions that are then treated as gold, uses special made up words, asks you to drop everything to do something then changes his mind, five minutes later, replies with answers that make no sense, gets completely obsessed with the most insignificant things. So this one did really well and it was basically just taking two things like a little toddler and a CEO and showing how similar they actually are. So with compare and contrast, if there's a topic that you wanna try to make funny, think about two different ways or two different perspectives you can look at that topic and try to pick things that people will really identify with. They will really try to take sides and then people will be engaged. They'll say, "Well I'm a New Yorker "and I don't think that's right." And that's good, you want people to say, "Hey, I'm gonna take a stand on this." 'Cause then they're really willing to fight for it and they're engaged with your content. And use unexpected comparisons, like false pretenses isn't a normal way you might compare two cities but it worked for New York and San Francisco. So that's another way you can kind of find the funny in a boring topic. The last one, mash it up. I wanted to write about how annoying co-workers are but if you look up annoying co-workers on Google you'll find a million results that are all the same thing. 10 of the most of annoying co-workers you've ever met or whatever, it's all the same. It's pretty boring and dry and so I wanted to make it a little bit more interesting and so I kind of took it and I mashed it up with something that I am excited about, rap. So I came up with, what if your co-workers were rappers? And came up with these sort of mash-ups between annoying behaviors and rappers. Like Two Cent, (audience laughing) always giving you his unsolicited opinion and kinda weighing in when he wasn't asked. Kendrick Lamartyr, he's always taking on extra work when he shouldn't be and then complaining that he has extra work. Notorious WFH, that was me, always working from home, (audience laughing) always calling in sick, never in the office. And Ice Cubicle, (audience laughing) always in his cubicle, can't get him out of there. So if there is a boring topic that you have to talk about, think about the thing that you're excited about that has nothing to do with that boring topic. And see if you can create some kind of relationship between those two things. And if you guys have ever seen the show on Comedy Central called At Midnight, they do these hashtag wars on Twitter and that's basically what they're doing. They're taking kind of a standard, generic topic and mashing it up with something that's very topical or fun. And you can create a lot of interesting kind of situations that way. So that's another way to create a funny sort of concept from something that's boring. And so here are some bonus tips that kind of flow through all of those. Make it visual, stay positive, and test it. So the first one, make it visual. My Ten Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings was actually presented just as text first. But when I turned it into an infographic with some drawings it did much better. So if there's any way for you to make whatever you're presenting visual, it will stick with your audience a lot better. Even something like the toddler versus CEO, it has a lot of text in it but it's presented in a very visual way and that will kind of get people more engaged. Stay positive, this is something that someone noticed about my work that I didn't even notice myself, was I try to stay away from things that are sort of mean and cynical and angry. And I always ask myself, "Who am I making fun of?" And I wanna make sure I'm not making fun of the person that nobody should be making fun of. You don't want to make fun of the little guy. You can make fun of CEOs, that's fine, they have money. Make fun of them, but you wanna be sort of sassy and playful and sarcastic, you don't wanna go into the mean and cynical route. And if you're not really sure what note you're hitting, this is another trick that I learned is that I actually test my ideas. A lot of times I will put something out on Twitter that takes me no time at all and see what the response is. And then I'll also share it with friends and family and say, "Is this hitting the right note? "Is this offensive? "Is this funny?" If it's funny, is it funny in the right way and the way that I want it to be funny. So with that, I'll open it up for any questions.
[Male Participant] So you had amazing visuals, how do you go about creating them?
Sure, so I don't know how to draw at all but I really wanted to create visual content and after lots of kind of trial and error, I was tracing stock photos. So I basically took really cheesy stock photos of people in meetings, pretending like they're having a good time, and trace them to make those illustrations. It's sort of an embarrassing technique, I was like, "Ugh I can't free-hand draw, this sucks!" But it sort of worked for the content that I was creating. And a lot of people have said, "Oh, what a great way to "learn how to draw is just to trace actual photos." So that's how I created my visuals.
We've got some online questions.
That I can ask as well, so this one comes from Cam Perry who says, "What kind of advice would you give "to someone who is an introvert trying to be funny?"
I would say, "Make fun of that."
You'll see a lot of people kind of taking whatever quirks that they have, like for me I'm a people pleaser. And I recently put out a post that is the people pleaser's guide to pleasing people. And so take the thing that, just like what David was saying, take the thing that you're embarrassed about and exploit it. One idea is to do sort of this how-to, like how to be an introvert, you know? And tell people your struggle and the things that you go through but in a funny way that's sort of like, "Hey, be like me," even though no one really wants to be like you but that's what kind of brings it to light and I find that it's also therapeutic to talk about those things and make fun of them and have a laugh with them.
I think I know the answer to this one for the most part, but how much of your stuff from the world of stand-up comedy, 'cause you're obviously an active, very successful comedian, but you're obviously a business speaker as well. And a very popular one that I know 'cause she spoke at my conference and always steals the show. How many of those jokes are you able to use in a cross-over environment? Whether they're jokes or stories or just opinions, do you find that one will translate easily to the other?
Sometimes, a lot of the one-liners that I can do, like on Twitter, I can use as a one-liner in my stand-up comedy or I can kind of expand it into like a longer bit. But a lot of my stand-up comedy goes back to your story telling sort of thing. I try to tell a story about myself, about my family, that's kind of the funniest stuff and it kind of gets people on my side from the beginning. So a lot of my stand-up has to do more with that kind of stuff, more family stuff. But once in a while, I'll be able to sneak in some office and corporate humor in there.
Well and we made it harder for you today 'cause we're like, "Here's all the techniques." And now you kind of stare at her. "She's doing it now, I can see her." (audience laughing) That was like a rule of three but it went to four when she broke the variation on everybody.
[Female Participant] What happens if you can't use visuals in the setting you're at?
Yeah that's a tough one, I think I would say in that case try to make your descriptions as visual as possible. Try to be as descriptive with metaphors or whatever you can to kind of give people an image in their mind if they can't actually see it. You can do a lot with just text, you definitely can. I think it just takes a little bit more description and some really good timing.
You guys remember the word for to fit, right? Caber?
Oh yes, caber.
But you remember the story? It's a yellow taxi cab and it's a hairy bear and you can't see the picture of that. I remember it from a picture 'cause I first saw that as an image but I think in your mind you will have recreated the same image. So the same thing we saw with the joke funnel, get in to those details when you can. If you can't show someone the visual, describe it in as much detail as possible. Describe it like you're describing something to somebody who's listening to you on the radio. So there's a very good tip I got from one of my favorite comics in the Bay Area. But he's like, "Always tell it like you're telling it "for somebody who can't see you. "Describe it like you're describing it to "a blind person or for the radio." Put that level of detail in if you can't use the visuals.
And acting things out a little bit sometimes helps too. If you can't actually show the two people talking to each other, say--
Bring that to life a little bit for people.
I think that gives you a pretty awesome idea. I didn't even mention the fact that Sarah went from what? One blog post to a trade book deal within 12 months. So if anyone out there is watching, they're like, "How can I get a book deal? "How can I ditch my job that I'm kind of bored at? "How do I get great concepts goin'?" And it's a very good insight into that. She's sticking around so you can ask her questions. And she just so happens to have just published this lovely book.
It just happened to be here.
Huh, what, how did you?
It was following me around.
Oh my god!
I had it sneaked in here. (laughing) But yeah, it's pretty good. I would buy one of those for everyone I ever met who had a boring office job 'cause I think it would have made life, my life, a lotta fun. But ladies and gentlemen, can we hear it for the wonderful Sarah Cooper?
Yes, thank you so much!
Cool and thank you! But it's great, it's just something that always comes up is like I have boring stuff, how do I make it entertaining? And Sarah's stuff pretty much dominates my Facebook feed and a lot of my friends. And whenever she speaks at a conference they're on, people always are always like, "Oh that's the girl behind all that stuff, I love that!" It's quirky, it's engaging, it's grabbing your entertainment in a place where you're going for entertainment and it is very much content you didn't think could be funny. So that's pretty much the first half of this class. Again, we're gonna get into tons of tips later. We're gonna start with storytelling. So we're gonna take you, "Okay, I wanna know "how to tell a good story, how can I do that?" And then we're gonna show you how to deliver it. But very much, if you didn't do this part of it which is not as fun or is not as tips-intensive, I don't want to put you on stage just kinda telling you, "Oh, go wave your arms around and look at people." This hopefully will shape the content for you, that it puts your personality in it, puts you at ease as a speaker and when we come back after the break we're gonna give you all the tips to make you avoid things like potentially going blank on stage. Has anyone ever had that fear? My biggest fear always with public speaking. We'll teach you how to avoid that, you're never gonna have to worry about it again.