Category Archives: Professional Communication

Three Ways To Engage A Business Audience With Humour

 crowd laughing

About a third of my work is comedy-related. I don’t have ‘funny bones’ but I’m workmanlike enough to know how to construct and do funny. I realise LinkedIn isn’t Comedy Central but enough non-comedy business folk have contacted me via LinkedIn for help with speeches, presentations, training, journal articles and such that there’s clearly a latent demand out there from the accidentally comedic to the professionally unfunny to amp up their game when the occasion requires it.

Not everyone should attempt to write or perform jokes or standup. Some of these ideas I’m suggesting do come from that world. Neither you nor I should expect a NetFlix special to be offered to us. Let’s calibrate our expectations. Maybe you’re a self-employed professional or you’ve got aspirations within your newly joined firm or industry association? How do you stand out and engage people, drawing attention to your key messages and aiding people’s retention of those messages and of you? One way is workplace appropriate humour. They don’t have to be jokey jokes or even obviously a joke per se.

These are tools to put in your toolbox, techniques from which you can choose. They can be a bit ‘colour-by-numbers’ but if you’re competent and confident enough to be asked to write an article or deliver a speech, then the humour aspect isn’t any harder than the technical aspects of architecture or whatever your subject is. Once you know the basic principles of architecture, you can give it a crack. (Note: I do not know anything about architecture).

1. Defined-interaction Questions.

This is a good technique to start with in a low-risk and engaging way. (It’s low-risk for both you and your audience). Indicate how you want them to answer – “Raise your hand if…”, “Shout yes on the count of three if…”, “On a scale of one to five raise some fingers…”.

“Who’s got kids? [Raise hand – Pause] Who’s ever been a kid? [Raise hand – Pause] Who’s waiting on DNA tests? [Pause] I like to include everyone.”

My quote might be a joke for the sake of a joke but it also has the purpose of connecting and creating opportunities for involvement. That principle is fundamental to every field in which I work – writing, training, facilitating, speaking, MCing, comedy. Even if it gets no laughs, as long as you’re not left hanging desperate for a laugh, everything is fine if you’ve created an opportunity for involvement. These are inherently engaging. Here’s a short video on the three critical ingredients for the optimal engagement environmen

For your own opening, what might be your questions relevant to your topic, your audience, this place and time?

2. Point Out Inconsistent Behaviours

“You know how you look at a photo of yourself from 20 years ago and think oh that haircut how embarrassing? You know how you look at a photo of yourself from 10 years ago and think oh that haircut how embarrassing? Yet all of us at some stage today looked in a mirror and said, ‘Nailed it’!”

What might be some inconsistent behaviours in your industry, organisation or team? You can poke at sacred cow topics and at least raise avoided topics using this technique. Does your firm talk a big game on customer service but don’t walk the talk consistently?

3. Misdirection + Dramatic Reveal

I was MCing a conference at which a speaker was talking about workplace drug testing. Her objective was to sell workplace drug testing. She had one session in the morning and the same session with a different audience after lunch. At one point she asked the audience what they thought the percentage of the population who had tried the drug ‘P’ (meth) was. People shouted out numbers and it escalated quickly getting to 40%. When she told them the answer was 15% it was something of an anti-climax. She made no sales that morning.

Over lunch we had a bit of a chat. I talked about a particular type of joke-writing technique called the dramatic reveal. You give some information leading logically in one direction then the punchline is a surprise. Usually this requires a minimum of three steps. She constructed a slide showing the preceding years’ ‘P’ usage that were all very low and only gradually rising – 0.2, 0.4, 0.9, 1,9 Then she rhetorically asked what they thought the last year’s figure was and before they time to answer but while their brains were in a state of curiousity, she dramatically revealed the last bar in the bar graph – a staggeringly larger 15%. That afternoon she made three sales, the least of which was worth to her $10,000.

“I learned most of my job skills via trial and error. Unfortunately, I’m a lawyer”


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How Open-Minded Are You?

Minds are like parachutes

This blogpost might be challenging for some. It was for me. I like to think of myself as open-minded. (Actually, I just like to think of myself generally. But that’s something else I need to work on). But am I really that open-minded? How would I know? Is there a scale of 1 to 10 upon which I’m a 7?

Psychologist Carol Dweck led the way with research on fixed versus growth mindsets. Crudely and sweepingly summarised, there are two types of default thinking positions and if you don’t effortfully choose one, you likely have a default. The post explains more. I especially like point 2 – when you meet an idea, do you start in response with statements or questions? That was something of a relief to me as three of my five sentences in paragraph one were questions.

There’s a quote that the ability to change your mind is a superpower and another that the true test of intelligence is the ability to have two opposed ideas in your mind and retain the ability to function. If I’m having a good day after a good sleep and have eaten wisely without deadlines yelling at me, then I’m in a resourceful state and I’m certain I could manage that. Other days not so much. It’s the other days that can cause us and our people some problems. It’s for those other days that wee need to prep and practice so when it gets tough, our open-mindedness keeps goings.

Do read the article but if you’re having a low resourcefulness day, here’s 7 quick questions to assess yourself against:

  1. How do you respond when your ideas are challenged? (My new thing is ABC – always be curious – WHY are they challenging them?)
  2. Are your first responses statements or questions?
  3. Do you seek first to be understood or to understand?
  4. Do you use the phrase, “I might be wrong but…”
  5. How often do you interrupt?
  6. Can you simultaneously hold opposed ideas?
  7. How much effort do you put into testing your own views? Do you deliberately seek evidence to the contrary?

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Commonly Confused Words: Method & Methodology


Thought Leaders

thought leader

Political Correctness

Never Offend - Terry Williams

I performed some comedy shows in Singapore a few days back. Such a diverse crowd and real fans of comedy. It really reinforced to me the power of, and need for, humour as a means for humans to express and provoke. Express thoughts. Express opposition. Express alternatives. So, to me, offending through humour is less about topics such as race etc as much as context, purpose, timing and style. And it better be funny. And, if the joke has a ‘victim’, that victim should be an idea. Never “punch down”.

No one’s ever complained to my face that I’ve been offensive. I’m not trying to offend and I’m not trying to not offend. I do try to challenge and provoke. I’m never going to mock someone directly for being overweight or what I might consider to be overweight. I’m not going to mock a group that I might label the ‘overweight’. But I do think society generally need to be healthier and eat smarter. My only platforms to express my views are my presentations, my writing, my comedy and my social media. That’s how I try to tell the emperor he has no clothes. I’ll direct the joke at a behaviour not a person or group. I did do a few race-based jokes in Singapore, a highly multicultural society. I wasn’t going to initially but it became clear that not only was it OK, it was expected and demanded. It was almost an act of inclusion. But, again, it wasn’t attacking people or groups, it was drawing attention to behaviour and ideas. Why did the racist chicken cross the road? Out of ignorance and fear.

That said, I’m a professional, so if you book me to entertain at an event, you’re not looking to change the world. You’re looking to fill a gap before dessert. I get that and don’t fret. That said, maybe your company should tell your emperor a few things and maybe humour is a means. Several native American tribes such as the Navajo and the Lakota have a great system of ‘Sacred Clowns‘ to drive improvement and often survival through humour. Pointing out flaws with purpose – kind of a useful application of humour and one that a few corporations and Governments could benefit from. Although Mr Trump seems oblivious and impervious to it.

This is getting way too deep for me. I’m clearly putting off shifting that half tonne of lime metal into the boggy patches by the barn. Barn owners – you know what I’m talking about right?! Barn owners, make some noise.

‪#‎politicalcorrectness‬ ‪#‎2sidestostories‬

Feedback, Positivity Ratios & Functional Fixedness








Debriefing: A Powerful Problem-Solving Tool (For the Whole Family)


This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach, repeated over and over:

  1. Frame the activity
  2. Conduct the activity
  3. Debrief the activity

I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently  summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory sunday night family dinners.

To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…

The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:

  1. Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
  2. Create a learning environment
  3. Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing? (I’m a big fan of stop / start / continue; That’s the name of one of my books ‘Stop Start Continue’!)
  4. Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)


The Communication Issues That Prevent Effective Leadership (According To Employees)

comms issues

I found a short and snappy graph today about where workplace leaders are supposedly falling short. This is from the US, is a survey of a thousand workers and I haven’t delved into its methodology at all but it might be a conversation starter. It asked employees but it was clearly offering a pre determined list of options – I’m pretty sure someone isn’t going to refer to themselves as a “subordinate.” Myself, most days, I feel at least ordinate.

I’ll probably trial this in the communication workshops I run. I might give my participants that list (without the results) and ask them where they think most managers fall short, or where their own manager falls short, or where they feel they themselves fall short, or all those things. Then reveal the results. To start a conversation.

Pretty shocking that 36% result for bosses not knowing their own employees’ names! (Employees now, not subordinates. Consistency please.) I’m self-employed and I manage to remember my employee’s name.

Companies Engaging Customers Via Social Media. (The Importance Of Sock Etiquette)

Barkers Panel

It’s interesting to observe how some businesses are trying to engage their customers or potential customers via social media. Clearly, if your company name is being ‘talked’ about online, you’d like to know. And if not the details, then the general mood of the room. I know some celebrities (and some real people) run little robots to search their names to run reports so they can fret &/or respond to perceived trolls and so forth, or bask in the glow of perceived adoration. Some do it personally rather than run the robots but who has that kind of time? Oh yeah, celebrities.

I’m no social media expert or even much of an expert on business communication or marketing. I’m just a customer and low-rent user of social media myself. This is more of a story. It started with me buying some shirts online. Risky you might think but there are basically three providers of shirts I generally use for me and my son. Again, I’m no marketer but to my mind they seem to inhabit three different strata.

Hallensteins is where my mum bought my clothes decades ago. They’ve updated themselves and very successfully polished themselves up but they’re still proudly in every mall and very much an affordable and accessible chain of stores. If my teenage son and I walk into one of their stores, the staff will talk to him which is great as that gives me time to complain about the music to myself and wonder, given that the store also houses a hairdresser, why do all the staff need a haircut? They’re great, good value for money and a successful retailer in even tough times. That said, once you know what range they have and what size you are, clothes are a commodity that a mere male can purchase online.

The same can be said for Barkers and 3 Wise Men. Barkers is younger, classier and more expensive. It’s great quality and I have many a Barkers item. 3 Wise Men is younger still, upmarkety exclusive, only have a few very-non-mall locations and quite business-oriented or, at least grown-up oriented. “3 for a hundy” is their catchphrase. Their adverts are witty, provocative and subversive. They explain their shirt logic and technology. I dig them even if I don’t buy much.

Anyways, I saw some shirts I liked in-store at Hallensteins with my son and went back online to buy them. I believe what I did to that bricks n mortar retailer is called ‘showrooming.’ They did the legwork in real time and space but they didn’t get the sale. This happens a lot and will do so increasingly. I did the same with a camera tripod recently.

The woman in my life Mandy observed and complimented me on one of my new shirts. I took it as a compliment but it may have been phrased along the lines of, “Oh, that’s new. It’s nice. Did you get that by yourself?” That’s probably a side issue, the analysis of which would need a blog by a psychologist or counsellor so let’s park that for now. What it did do was prompt me to write a joke. I then posted a couple of different versions of it. The one on my comedian FaceBook page got a couple of dozen ‘likes.’ That’s pretty good for me. Here’s the other version from my personal FB page. My family liked it and they know Mandy.

FB extract

I then posted it on LinkedIn and it got a lot of ‘likes.’ So I thought I’d experiment and tweet a version for Hallensteins, a version for Barkers and just see what might happen. Could be some co-promotional love for a future show if I could schmooze a clothing retailer ahead of a comedy festival? (Nope BTW.)

Hallensteins never responded at all. I don’t know if they scan social media for references to themselves. They might do. Maybe they only respond to glaring complaints. I’ve seen good and bad examples of that. Some companies strip out negative remarks, failing to address them, leaving only seemingly overwhelmng positives. Some like Air NZ fall on their sword and do something about them as much as they can, and, more importantly, get seen to be doing so which often gets them likes and retweets etc. The reality is that businesses are going to get justified and unjustified noise about them from customers online. They need a plan. Doing nothing might be a good plan – why pour fuel on a fire, right? But doing nothing out of ignorance, laziness or disinterest will bite back eventually.

Barkers however did respond:

Barkers Tweets

Did they fail to get the joke. Are they over earnest? Or, is this quiet and clever marketing? I suspect that they got the joke. They did ‘favourite’ it. But they used it to everyone’s advantage in a non-pushy, non-manipulative way. And they did so to promote a feature of their site that would benefit anyone who has ever wondered what the hell “smart casual” or semi-formal” means on an invitation!

Barkers online have a panel function – an online forum where your burning questions about tie-knotting or hat-matching can be dealt with professionally by experts. Or smart casual or semi-formal. Neat. Really neat. I always did wonder about short-sleeves for work and the woman in my life at the time was of little help either. Barkers’ panel is definitive on the subject. I’m not sure if Barkers’ experts are anonymous or female but it’s a great idea. Certainly I would’ve liked that function for my camera tripod purchase online. I’m sorted tie-knot-wise (Windsor) and hat-match-wise (no hats unless sunny then a Breakers 3-peat championship cap.) But on photography, less so.

Retailers could learn from @Barkers. Maybe they got the joke and chose to ignore it? Either way, they intrigued me and via social media got me to discover one of their functions that is a point of difference for them and got me to blog etc about it. Short of them sending me some FREE SHIRTS, or SPONSORING MY NEXT FESTIVAL SHOW, everyone wins out of the whole experience. Except maybe Mandy but she’s used to that.

I’ve subsequently tried the joke out on stage and it kills. It’s not got me any free shirts but it has got me free drinks.

Feedback: What Happens In Vagueness Stays In Vagueness


Here’s a blog post about the dangers of non-specific feedback. The blogger references the work of psychologist Carol Dweck who I also quote in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ on the subject of fixed versus growth mindsets. Here’s an excerpt:

The work of psychologist Carol Dweck is germane here. What she’s found is that, when children are praised in abstract–“You’re so smart” or “You’re so creative”–rather than concretely about how they improved their performance–“You put in an enormous amount of work, and it paid off”–the feedback is diminished. How come? Because the child takes from the teacher or parent the idea that she is innately smart or creative, and that she doesn’t need to work at it–so she doesn’t.

On the other hand, very specific feedback–especially about something an individual can control–can work wonders.

Quite rightly, the blogger points out that general statements such as ‘Good job’ might make you feel better and make you think that you’re dishing out some positive feedback but it needs to be more than merely positive to be useful and conducive to enhanced productivity. That phrase would need to:

  • be said at the time the specific action warranting praise occurred or as immediately afterwards as possible.
  • be said to the specific individual performing and controlling the praiseworthy action that you’d like to see more of.
  • contain a few more details and expectations than 2 words of generality (what exactly was the bit that was good?)
  • some connection to a greater goal, the wider team or higher purpose.

So, here’s some specific feedback to several new Twitter followers I’ve gotten recently – If you’ve only got 17 Twitter followers yourself, best not describe yourself as a ‘social media guru.’

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