For our Spring 2023 Storytelling Masterclass, we brought together nationally renowned experts in behavioral science, improvisational comedy, and visual design to share their advice on how to create more emotionally engaging business content and become a better collaborator.
While the insights Dr. Jennifer Aaker, Second City’s Lele Mason and Jeannie Cahill Griggs, and Connie Malamed shared may be most relevant to people working in L&D, HR, marketing, or sales, their funny and enlightening presentations will be inspiring and useful to just about anyone.
We highly recommend watching (or rewatching) the session replays in full; you’ll find links to do that throughout. But in the meantime, here are a few of the big ideas that stuck with us the most.
To be a better leader, bring more story and humor to work
During a time of massive change, record-low levels of trust, and prevalent remote work, we’re seeking human connection more than ever, says Dr. Jennifer Aaker, professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
Today’s environment is changing what we want from leaders: once revered and mysterious, leaders now need to connect and be understood as authentic, fallible humans.
Stories and humor are powerful ways of building connection. And story gives meaning to the whopping 1/3 of our lives we spend at work.
Here are three lessons from Dr. Aaker’s session on the power of story and humor at work—and why they’re needed now more than ever.
Dr. Jennifer Aaker on why we need story now more than ever
1. Keys to a good story
As you bring more story into your work life—whether you’re explaining a new change to your team, building training courses, or creating business video content—it’s helpful to know what makes a good one.
Dr. Aaker shared a few characteristics of stories that land well with us on a neurological level.
- There’s a goal: You have a reason for telling the story
- There’s a hook: It captures the audience’s attention
- It engages in an authentic way: It’s not overly contrived
- There’s a call to action: At the end, the audience understands what they should think, feel or do
Keeping these four qualities in mind will help you develop stories to connect with your audience, whether they’re employees, prospects, or customers.
2. Humor has a place in business — and we need more of it
Humor has been shown to inspire confidence, build bonds, enhance creativity, and boost resilience. Dr. Aaker cited a study from Wayne Decker on managerial humor and subordinate satisfaction that found leaders with a sense of humor were rated as 27% more motivating.
Here’s the problem. We fall off a “humor cliff” in our lives right around the time we join the workforce, Dr. Aaker explains.
A 2013 Gallup survey asked 1.4 million people in 166 countries, “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” In younger years, “yes” levels were high. But starting at age 23, people start saying “no” – and it doesn’t increase again until about age 80.
And the poll found that when we do laugh, it tends to be on weekends, indicating it’s a problem related to work in particular.
3. Tips for bringing humor to work
Dr. Aaker insists that when it comes to humor at work, the bar is low: don’t think you need to bring in a full standup routine. She shared a few guidelines for bringing a little more levity to your workday:
- Never ask yourself, “will this make me sound funny?” Instead ask, “how will this make others feel?” Start with moments of truth. Truth lies at the heart of all humor.
- Then, create surprise and misdirection — a swerve from the expected can create delight.
- Mine your life for truth – then exaggerate and compare/contrast.
It can also help to recognize your own and others’ “humor styles,” based on where our brand of humor falls on a spectrum of subtle to expressive and affiliative to aggressive. You can take the humor style quiz on Dr. Aaker’s book site, Humor, Seriously.
Watch Dr. Aaker’s full session for more insights on humor, connection, and the power of story.
Watch Dr. Aaker’s Session
Adopt a “Yes, and…” mindset for better communication and collaboration
Improvisational comedy, unlike stand-up comedy, is all about collaboration: team members build upon each other’s ideas to create scenes in the moment.
Good “improv” requires a few key ingredients: active listening; a willingness to consider, accept, and build on others’ ideas; validating and restating others’ needs; and delivering ideas with confidence. All these skills and behaviors are valuable in our work lives.
Chicago’s Second City is a world-famous training ground for improv comedy talent with alumni like Joan Rivers, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert.
Lele Mason and Jeannie Cahill Griggs of The Second City Works (the theater’s corporate training and teambuilding arm) demonstrated improv’s lessons for our work lives through a series of short activities.
Here are our top three takeaways.
1. Listen to understand
How often do you find yourself able to block out distraction and listen intently to your coworkers (or customers)?
In improv, active listening is non-negotiable. “We treat listening like a muscle in our art form, because we’re making things up as we go,” says Jeannie. “If I’m completely not listening to Lele, I might not realize it at first — but the audience will realize it. They’re always our ‘tell’ and they’re always keeping us honest.”
At work, active listening means listening to understand instead of waiting to respond or push our agenda — whether we’re brainstorming ideas for our next eLearning course, mapping out marketing campaigns or getting Sales’ feedback on a new enablement asset.
When we listen to understand we’re living in the moment. This naturally generates empathy and allows us to better pick up on our conversation partner’s unspoken cues.
2. Embrace the power of a “yes, and” mindset
Collaboration is about exchanging and responding to ideas. And when we respond to others’ ideas, those responses tend to fall into three buckets. Each generates different energy.
This is your standard “no.” This closed mindset instantly snuffs an idea by burying it in challenges, not offering solutions, and failing to explore the approach behind the idea.
It can be easy and tempting to shut down ideas with a quick “no, because,” especially in busy times. And sometimes a “no” is justified, Lele says. But we should watch closely when and how we’re saying no.
When people hear “no” frequently, they may internalize it, feeling their teammates are saying no to them—not just their ideas. We risk losing out on good future ideas because these team members stop contributing.
This mindset comes across as “yes, with concerns” or a “polite no.”
“We call it ‘no in a tuxedo,’ says Lele, “Or as I like to say, ‘Beyoncé with a stop sign.’ It looks amazing but you’re not going anywhere.”
With a “yes, but” mindset, someone says yes to your idea—and then offers completely different suggestions that push their own agenda.
This mindset can sometimes be a way to gather more information about an idea. But when it’s us using it, we need to check in with ourselves to clarify, “am I really interested in saying yes? Or am I trying to further my own agenda?”
“Yes, and” is the philosophy that improv is built upon. It’s an open mindset that invites curiosity and reserves judgment about others’ ideas. It encourages team members to offer smaller contributions toward a greater whole, rather than steamrolling with one fully formed idea.
“At Second City we say ‘bring a brick, not a cathedral,’” says Lele. “If we’re talking about building stories and working together, ‘yes and’ is a great place to start. And then, if we need to scale it back, we can get to the ‘yes, buts’ and ‘no, becauses’.”
A “yes, and” mindset is a key to building a more collaborative culture.
Lele Mason sums up an activity about the “yes, and” mindset and why it’s a key ingredient for successful collaboration.
3. Speak with confidence
Improv requires acting like an expert and selling a concept, even when you have no idea what you’re talking about. The key to believability? Confidence.
Applied to the workplace, this doesn’t mean you should try to be a know-it-all on unfamiliar topics. But when it comes to a subject you know – own it. That conviction has an influence on your audience, whether they’re customers, employees, or project stakeholders.
“You know what you know. It’s okay to not know something and say that, but when you know something, say it with confidence,” says Lele. “If you believe it, your audience believes it.”
Watch The Second City Works’ session replay to learn more about how bringing improv skills to the workplace can improve collaboration and communication.
Watch The Second City Works’ Session
For more effective visual communication, reduce your audience’s cognitive load
Learning is a high bar to achieve. It’s about much more than getting a message in front of an audience and making sure they remember it, says Connie Malamed, author of Visual Design Solutions and Visual Language for Designers.
To foster successful learning, L&D pros need to gain and sustain learners’ attention, make sure learners comprehend, understand, and remember new information, and are able to apply and transfer that knowledge in new situations.
What gets in the way?
One of the biggest challenges with communicating visually for L&D teams – and professionals across all disciplines – is the constant strain on our audience’s working memory.
We’re flooded with sensory information. And for any information to have a chance of getting stored long term, it has to make its way through our limited, temporary working memory.
As visual communicators, anything we can do to help ease this “cognitive load” for our audience around the information we’re presenting gives them a better chance to grasp and retain it, Connie says.
Here are a few pieces of advice Connie shared for reducing cognitive load in presentations and videos.
1. Make the graphics and text easy to process
Overly intricate font styles and text with low contrast (like gray text on white background) put more strain on a viewer’s cognitive load.
In one study, researchers showed a group of people a writeup about a stretching exercise in a difficult-to-read typeface. Participants said, “I don’t think I can do this.” But when other participants were shown the same writeup in an easy-to-read font, they said they were confident they could do the exercise successfully.
Another study found that when people were shown two true statements in either low-contrast font or high-contrast font, they were more likely to believe the statements that were easy to read: those in high-contrast font.
The lesson: readability matters.
Using simple fonts with high contrast makes information easier to process, reduces the demands on working memory, and creates a positive affect in the viewer. Whenever the viewer has a positive affect, it’s motivating, and they’re more likely to learn, Connie says.
2. Remove visual distractions
Visuals either help or hurt our message, by either increasing meaning and understanding for viewers, or distracting them. Connie shared a few quick ideas for toning down visual noise:
- Avoid placing a logo on every slide
- Remove irrelevant text, like dates and slide numbers
- Remove cutesy but irrelevant graphics
- Avoid putting text on busy backgrounds
In a nutshell: “To reduce cognitive load, focus on the critical part of your message. Then remove extraneous elements,” Connie says.
3. Reduce realism in your graphics
There’s a misperception that ultra-realistic imagery is always best to support learning, Connie says. But research shows that often, reducing the realism of a graphic can help people learn more quickly.
Depending on the subject matter, an illustration, icon, or symbol can sometimes convey information more effectively than a photo or 3D rendering.
“An increase in the amount of realistic detail contained in an illustration will not produce a corresponding increase in the amount of information a student will assimilate from it.”
Connie Malamed outlines why reducing realism in graphics can help improve the audience’s understanding
Reducing realism can remove distractions, decrease the time it takes the viewer to visually scan, and minimize load on the viewer’s working memory.
Watch Connie’s session for more tips on reducing distractions and increasing meaning in your visual communication.
Watch Connie’s Session
With a live audience topping 3,000, speakers got more questions than they could answer in the moment. We got a few more minutes each with Dr. Jennifer Aaker and Connie Malamed to get answers to your overflow questions. Watch bonus material from the Spring 2023 Masterclass.