Hello, I'm Matt Abrahams and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast. Talk Smart. The podcast humor is like a Swiss Army knife. It allows you to connect with your audience. It can diffuse tension, elevate status, compel others to your point of view. Humor can help you and your message stand out. Yet most of us hesitate to use humor, especially in our professional lives, to learn more about the power of humor and how to better use this tool.
I am thrilled to be joined by Jennifer Crocker and Naomi back Donis, who together have just written the book Humor Seriously, and they also teach the wildly popular GSB class humor serious business. Jennifer is the General Atlantic professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. She's the author of the award winning Dragonfly Effect. Naomi is a lecturer at Stanford and runs a strategy and media consulting company, coaching CEOs and celebrities on how to appear best in front of the media. She trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade and teaches courses about humor at the GSB and the San Francisco County Jail.
Thank you, Jennifer and Naomi, for being here. Thank you for having us.
Yeah, we're thrilled to be here. Awesome.
So first off, congrats on your book. I really enjoyed reading it and I learned a lot and I have never laughed out loud while reading a business book before, so thanks for that.
I'm curious what got you both interested in studying humor in the first place?
For me, it started as a personal passion. So I've always loved comedy and found humor and improv in particular to be a really important part of my life. But it wasn't until my early 20s that I had this aha moment at work and it was not a good one. So I was working at a large consulting firm and I had a client named Barney, who I had been working with for a while now, and she knew me pretty well. It was a Friday afternoon and we were getting off the phone.
As she said to me, Naomi, I thought, I know exactly what you do on Friday nights.
A weird, weird thing. But I went along with it and I said, great body, what do I do? And she said, I bet that you watch History Channel documentaries while ironing your blouses for next week. Re ironing.
And she was serious and she went on to describe this drab apartment with grey landscape paintings and a cat, what she guessed was named cat. Oh, no. Yes. Oh yes.
And and it was this real this realization for me that I had been leading a double life that, you know, by night and weekend I was in comedy clubs in L.A. and I had so much joy and personality, frankly. And at work, my persona was really serious, really polished. I was good at my job, but I had no semblance of joy or personality. So it happened for me then was I made it a point to bring more humor into work.
And as I did, I found that it could actually be a powerful tool. So not only could I have more joy in the office and feel more authentic, but it could actually be a powerful asset for me in the professional world, just like it was for me personally.
And Jennifer, tell us how you got interested in humor. So meanwhile, for me, humor was really never a focus. So, I mean, I like to laugh, which is impossible to say without sounding like a sociopath, but I was always more more interested in research and writing, getting shit done. Most all of my life has been really focused on falling in love and finding ideas, testing hypotheses, gathering large data sets to test those hypotheses and over the course of time, publishing papers that were documented scientific findings.
There's nothing really in that process that lends itself to humor or for me to understand that humor could be powerful toward toward my goals.
But everything really changed for me. In 2010, I wrote a book with my husband, Andy Smith, called The Dragonfly Effect, and it was about the power of story and networks to drive positive change in the world. And what ended up happening over the course of a year is we ended up working with families who needed to find matches in the bone marrow registry or find matches outside of the registry in order to hopefully save the life of a child or a parent or a friend.
And in that process of helping try to get over one hundred thousand people in the bone marrow bone marrow registry and putting the model to work, we were able to meet a person named Amit Gupta who had leukemia and had such irreverence and such humor and used such levity with his friends and his family, that seeing him get people in the bone marrow destry and fighting this deadly disease and persisting and rallying and ultimately surviving it, I realized how how much the power of humor and levity could play in in things that were so serious in ways that I had never imagined before.
Both of you coming to the same topic in very different ways, I think is really curious and cool. And the result in your book, in the ideas you have, I think is fantastic. Know humor might be more important today than ever. What can business leaders and managers do in this current environment where everyone is stressed out, working, remotely, interacting through screens? What can they do to implement or make it known that there is still a place for humor in the workplace?
Well, good question, Matt. I think you're welcome. One of the things that we found is that there is these myths or misperceptions about humor. With me, I just I really had this misperception that humor was not only not serious, unimportant, important, but it would actually serve to distract.
And we find that again and again when we ask people what holds them back from using humor at work. Many believe that humor simply has no place amidst serious work. We're worried about harming our credibility and not necessarily being taken seriously.
And yet in studies, large scale studies that we've done and that others have run, the large majority of leaders really prefer our employees with a sense of humor and believe that employees with a sense of humor do better work and not and not just that. But but it affects the way people interact with you. Showing your sense of humor can make our peers and our friends attribute even more perceptions of competence, competence and even status to us and vote us into leadership roles while also cultivating a sense of trust.
Yeah, and that last point about trust is more crucial now than ever. We're finding the fact that humor is a powerful tool to build trust, especially when you consider two things. So first, Matt, you mentioned this shift to remote remote work living in a different world, and it's simply harder to peel away some of those superficial layers and feel comfortable enough to share with each other authentically. And then and then second, a growing body of research shows that our businesses are facing a crisis of trust.
One twenty nineteen. Our survey found that fifty eight percent of employees trust a complete stranger more than their own boss.
Oh, wow. So we're finding that the expectations of today's leaders are shifting.
That's exactly right. I mean, think about it. It used to be that leaders needed to be revered and now they need to be understood. Mm hmm.
And all the while, humor is particularly potent elixir for trust. And when we laugh with someone, be it in person or even over screens through Zoome, Neomi, Connor and I are teaching a class right now and it is remarkable how much we laugh with our students, even through screens. What happens is our brains release the hormone oxytocin and we're essentially cued to form an emotional bond with that person.
And oxytocin, by the way, is the same hormone that's released during sex and childbirth at both moments when from an evolutionary perspective, we benefit from feelings of closeness and trust, but also both moments.
You don't want to be laughing. All right, well, all right. Well, I don't know how to do that to Naomi and I have data on everything. The bottom line, Matt, is giving birth, having sex and laughing with colleagues in zoo meetings are actually have a lot in common. We're building trust and no one's wearing pants.
There you go. Yes, self restraint.
So on this podcast, we've spoken a lot about the importance of engaging others when we communicate. How can humor help us with that engagement? And do you have specific recommendations for when you should use humor and when you shouldn't? Yeah, one of our favorite examples of this was back in 2011, so I remember watching President Obama's State of the Union address and about 40 minutes and a 60 minute speech, he makes this small joke. He's he's talking about the layers of government bureaucracy.
And and he illustrates it by making this joke where the punch line is smoked salmon. And it's sort of it's it's totally not hilarious. But in that context, it was really funny. So the room erupts in laughter and he pauses and he moves on. And I remember at the time thinking, oh, that was that was clever, but not really thinking much more than that. Well, when NPR the next day surveyed its listeners, they asked which three words most stood out from the entire State of the Union.
So an hour long watch three words. Do people remember? And so can you guess that a single word most frequently mentioned salmon.
Salmon. What do I win, Naomi? What do I win? You win an extra book.
Oh, excellent. And a book. Thank you.
And what was fascinating about this is this held true across political affiliation as well.
So humor helps with engagement in part because laughter when we laugh are the reward center of our brains is flooded with the neurotransmitter dopamine. So this engender deeper focus and better long term retention. So in other words, using humor not only can make our content more engaging in the moment, but it also makes it more memorable after the fact. Or, of course, it could have been that listeners were hungry.
Jennifer, you spent a good portion of your career studying storytelling. Can you share two or three best practices for effective storytelling that also apply to humor? You never really think about this, but a good story has a goal, there's an AHA at the end of it and in a similar way, when you use humor or you try for a joke or you even just laugh in one context, oftentimes either implicitly or explicitly really effective humor, there's a goal.
And the goal might be to actually increase status. It could be to build bonds. It could be to diffuse tension in the room, but or just be to spark joy and have fun. But but what I found to be interesting in the story work is, is the degree to which you dive into the science of story. You start to understand that there's there is always an AHA or goal of the storyteller when sharing the story a second. I think a second commonality is that good stories that grab your attention neurologically, we're wired to see things or pay attention to things that are differentiated.
And in a really similar way, humor is something that makes you laugh, is oftentimes attention grabbing. It defies your expectation. You think that the joke teller is going in one direction and then that direction is subverted. So I think both have those two commonalities. I would say two other things. One, when you share stories in compelling ways or even just kind of create stories with others, it oftentimes becomes really engaging and done well. It's done authentically.
And the real magic comes with when the storyteller and the audience are so connected. The story is kind of what lives in between the storyteller as well as the audience in a similar way. Good humor, humor that Naomi and I define is like lifting others up or moving something ahead is often also in. It's so engaging, but it really lives within between the space of the joke teller and the audience. And then at least I would say that this idea of of creating good stories leave the audience transformed.
Right. It's not just the protagonist that's transformed into a good story. It's also the audience. And in a very similar way, what we found is that humor when done well and not inappropriately. We'll talk about that later, really can transform the audience.
So there's an AHA behind the ha ha is what you're saying.
Oh, you're so good already. Naomi, can you provide specific guidance on what we can do to create and demonstrate humor? First is simply recognizing that humor comes from truth. One of the most common misconceptions among our clients and our students is that humor involves inventing something from thin air. And when you think about it that way, it feels really hard. The reality is that it's more often about simply noticing things that are true for you. So how you feel, what you uniquely think, what makes you.
Unusually happy or unusually cranky, this sort of oddities or incongruities in your life, all of these things can be incredible fodder for humor. It's about giving voice to these observations. So I grew up watching Seinfeld. And if you think about time. OK, great.
You know, every Thursday night. Perfect. OK, so the show about nothing. Right? The entire premise of each show is one of these observations. A low talker, the close talker, shrinkage guys who paint their faces for sporting events. And we often laugh at these things from a recognition of truth. I've done that. I've seen people do that. I've heard people talk about that. And so step one is just recognizing that we're not creating things from thin air.
We're just mining our lives for these truths. So what kind of truth are we looking for?
The easiest one for people to access is generally finding areas of contrast or incongruities. This would be my second tip. So these are things like how your colleagues describe you versus your family or how you want to behave versus how you actually behave. One of our students, for example, is getting an M.D. while he's doing his MBA. So he was talking about how he needs to remember the intricacies of Krebs cycle for his boards. So he's got all of these in these incredible memory tasks that he has to do.
And yet for the life of him, every time he walks to the fridge, he can't remember what he came there for and see.
So he says, can I open the fridge? I can't remember. And then ultimately I go to I get an ice cream Snickers bar. So this is but these are just little tiny observations and finally specific. So the more specific you can get, the better know the fact that the Krebs cycle or it's not just ice cream, but it's a Snickers bar. These specifics, when you're Minding your life for for content, for little incongruities or oddities, are often where the comedy gold is.
That's really insightful and very specific, I think all of us can do an inventory of our lives and we can come up with things that we can then try to be funny about.
Yeah, actually, that that is an exercise, but I will challenge your listeners to do for a week, this is what our students do all quarter every week. They have to write down 10 observations from their life. So you could do this. I mean, you can even do one a day, write one observation of an incongruity, something odd, something that you noticed. And then at the end of the week, look at your seven observations and just try and turn one into comedy while ever the professor assigning homework.
I love that homework.
What advice do you have for the many of us who understand the power of humor and levity but just don't think we're that funny? Well, first, it's it's really important to recognize that the bar in business is very low. It is so, so low, absolutely so low.
So even in the beginning of our class, our students report a real lack of laughter in their lives. We have this direct quote from a student on Tuesday. I did not laugh once, not once.
Their left journal was empty on Tuesday. Yeah, exactly, so that's part, though, Matt, is the second part of this quote, so it goes on Tuesday. I did not laugh once, not once. Who knew a class about humor could be so depressing. Oh, wow. Day one.
Day one. Well, you could only go up from there. Exactly.
Set a low bar.
So we build on that and we say, like, it's not even about being funny, it's just being more generous with your laughter. Dick Costolo, who is the former CEO of Twitter, he came to our class the other day and as he puts it, the easiest way to have more humor at work is not to try to be funny. Instead, just look for moments to laugh.
I like that. Yeah, it's like it was over the course, the costs our students really experienced this remarkable shift, though.
And so what began as a sobering realization about humourless Tuesdays and the students reporting significantly more joy in their life and the shift is is about so much more than becoming funny or funnier. They become more generous with their life.
I like how you you pivoted that from being about worrying that I'm not funny to something that I can do, which is be more generous and laugh more. So it's definitely something that gives me a sense of agency and feels like something very real that I can do. Right. Another thing our students find helpful is recognizing that it's it's not about being funny, it's about navigating the world in a slightly different way in the classroom. Talk about the distinction between levity and humor.
Where levity is is a mindset. So think of that as sort of an inherent state of receptiveness to an active seeking of joy. How do you go around the world? Are you going are you walking around the world expecting to be delighted or expecting to be disappointed? And so what we work on more than anything is this mindset, noticing opportunities for humor that would otherwise pass us by. And it's it's our point of view and the class that when you walk around on the precipice of a smile, you will be surprised by how many things you encounter that will push you over the edge.
That notion of being receptive to what's happening in humor around you, I think is fantastic. I like the idea of the precipice of a smile. I would love to live my life in that position. Before we end, we always ask the same three questions of all of my guests, and I am really excited to hear how you will answer these questions. So, Jennifer, I'm going to start with you. If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?
I would say no, your content audience. And space in between. That's right. Tell me more about the space in between. We've talked a lot on this podcast about knowing your audience. What do you mean by the space in between?
Well, it's that magical moment when you you have a point that you want to deliver or a story that you're sharing or a joke that you're trying out.
And there's the audience. Right. And and so it's what happens in between my story or my joke or my content and and you it's it's that in-between space that I think is the most interesting. And I'm right.
And it's the most alive. To Naomi, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
I would say, number one, lean into your style. So we talk about this a lot in humor class. If you are shy and understated, lean into that. If you are naturally character based, charismatic, if you use a lot of hand motions, whatever that is, lean into it and embrace it. We see folks trying to embrace different humor styles that don't feel natural to them or just different communication styles. So whatever your natural style is, lean into it.
The second I got from a longtime mentor of mine, Chrysotile, who wrote the book Moments of Impact, and he talks about the last 20 minutes before you do anything, you should only be focused on your state. So forget your content, forget what you're there to talk about, forget everything and just focus on your state getting in a good mindset, getting in a positive mindset, recognizing who's in the room, what are they probably feeling. And then the third talk like a human.
We talk about this in class that there's so much jargon, especially in the way we communicate over email. And if we can strip that out of the way that we talk, especially as more of our communications are moving over email and over different forms of electronic communication, if it's not something that you would say in a casual conversation and then don't say it in an email, wow, whatever recipe that those ingredients go into is going to be fantastic.
People will be amazing communicators if there's a lot of O'Reagan now that you've got to put it, Ragano, that's true. Spice spice it up for both of you. Question number three, who is a communicator that you admire and why? Jennifer, you go first. I think Leslie budget, you know, she she is not only a dear friend of ours, she is the Huma CEO, ambassador of our class, was also the CEO and founder of Bear Minerals.
But whenever she comes in, it's authentic and and she uses humor as oxygen. She she needs it. She prioritizes it in every single moment of her day, which includes leading teams, really in very inspired ways. For me, it's Alison Kluger. So Alison teaches strategic communications. She was on the podcast.
Yeah. So Alison is a is a dear friend and mentor of mine. And and she was a professor of mine when I was a student at the GSB. What I admire about Alison is the way that she is able to balance such a broad range of herself. So being powerful and approachable, kind but unafraid to challenge insightful and emotionally attuned. And she's always, always caring about the needs and wellbeing of the people around her. And that comes through in how she communicates and just in her presence.
That's a great tribute to Alison and everybody listening can can hear some of that. If you listen to the podcast we did on reputation management, both of those communicators exemplify some of the key concepts of what it takes to be not just a good communicator, but a good human being. Thank you both so much. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning from you and laughing with you. I am going to try my best to put into practice the principles from your book.
An approach that is seeking joy is just a wonderful way to live your life. Thank you both. Best of luck with the book and let's all have a good laugh when we're all done. Thank you. Thank you so much for having us, Matt.
Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast produced by Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. For more information and episodes, visit GSB, Stanford, Edu, or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media at Stanford GSB.