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SARDisms 07 - Peter McGraw


A behavioral economist and global expert in the scientific study of humour, Dr Peter McGraw is a busy man. He runs two podcasts, has co-authored several books and released his own bestseller ‘Shtick to Business’ in April 2020. He’s also a sought-after speaker and professor who teaches MBA courses at the University of Colorado Boulder, University of California San Diego, and London Business School.

Episode summary

Should all organisations embrace comedy in their workforce? How about hospitals?

During this episode, we chat with Peter about what we can learn from the process of how a comedian creates humour, how techniques such as ‘reversal’ and ‘benign violation’ can be adapted to build success in any workplace and how you will never please anyone by serving lukewarm tea!
Our MD Kevin Monk also shares his own ideas around the 'doggy play bow' and how he believes it helps provide a safe, encouraging and engaging work environment at SARD.


Mariah [00:00:02]
Welcome to SARD’s podcast SARDisms, where we take great ideas and bring them together to have great conversation. I'm Mariah Young and I'm with Kevin Monk, Managing Director of SARD. We both love great technology coupled with great customer service. The main aim of SARD, is to help improve the NHS, England's public health service, health care and IT are ever changing and we are interested in the ways that we can help it evolve with the growing population.

Mariah [00:00:23]
In this episode, we are fortunate enough to have Peter McGraw joining us. Peter is a behavioural economist and global expert in a scientific study of humour. Amongst his public appearances as a speaker, Peter is also a professor who teaches MBA courses at the University of Colorado Boulder, University of California, San Diego and London Business School. Peter recently released his book, Shtick to Business, which is about looking at famous comedians, breaking down their process to create humour and applying that to help you build a successful career. Welcome, Peter.

Kevin [00:00:52]
Thanks for joining us.

Peter [00:00:53]
Thank you.

Kevin [00:00:54]
I'm curious about, which is, you know, is there a place for more informality and hinting at the ‘Doggy Playbow’ in a company, as well as the, the idea, the concepts behind...introducing..things that comedians do in, in their sketches? So they're just the creative processes, you know, the one pager that you described in there and things like that. Yeah, I'm totally on board with that.

Peter [00:01:20]
So I'm sympathetic to the idea that organisations want to foster, let's call it a sense of humour, a playfulness, some levity in the workplace. And why wouldn't they, right? I mean, this is something that is highly valued, it's one of the top things that we look for in friends and partners. It's something that we pursue in our entertainment choices, how we spend a Friday night, it, it affects who we, who we target when we're at a conference or, you know, show up at, at, at lunch, at work. And so, so this is a highly valued skill and it's a, it's an incredibly important experience to have. And so why not, is sort of the idea. And I wouldn't say that, that organisations shouldn't pursue it at all, you know, it's, I'm an academic so I can acknowledge some of the complexities of their source, so so I would say is that if an organisation is interested in getting the value from humour, from a light workplace, it has to be something that first of all comes from the very top, has to be highly valued, and ideally that person or persons have that skill to begin with.

Peter [00:02:31]
That is that they can model it and that they can sort of show how to use it in a way that is helpful and not hurtful. Because the thing that comes up time and time again in my work, is that even well-intentioned humour attempts can miss. And they don't always miss on the boring side of the equation, so to speak. That is, that the jokes can very easily go awry. And there's a variety of reasons for that. One, of course, is that when we tell a joke, we tend to use our own sense of humour to judge the goodness of it. And we often fail, there's what we call an empathy gap. We don't understand that our audience may not share that same perspective. Let's assume for a moment that, that an organisation is committed to this, that a, that a founder CEO type is committed to, to trying to reap some of the benefits of it. Well, then I think this is a matter of culture building for most. And, and it is a way to do this where you're building kind of a see, encouraging space. So a space where people are allowed to experiment, and they're allowed to fail, but they have to know some ground rules, I think, associated with that.

Peter [00:03:43]
So one, for example, is when you fail, it is not your audience's fault, which is a natural tendency. I mean, I see it with elite professional comics, where they are telling jokes, an audience is not laughing, and then they start to talk down to, I don't know if I can curse on this podcast-.

Kevin [00:04:03]
Yeah go for it.

Peter [00:04:04]
They shit, they begin to shit-talk their audience, which has the opposite effect, which is like now I'm definitely not going to laugh at your jokes because now I don't even like you anymore. And so, so this idea of being quick to apologise, quick to acknowledge, a culture in which mistakes are allowed, as long as they're well-intentioned, they're not, you don't hide behind, 'it's just a joke'. So, so the culture, but the other thing about this is that it is something that you look to select on, that it becomes an important part of a hiring decision. And that is that that you look for people who are adept. That is, they have either the kind of skills to sort of be fun, be funny, or they have the skills to sort of let funny happen. You know. That, and I've seen this, I can't remember the bank, I think it's TD Bank, you can't quote me on this, but this is an American Bank, when they were conducting their interviews, they were looking for their candidates to laugh or smile in the first 15 seconds of the interview.

Peter [00:05:06]
And the reason that they were doing that was because they wanted, you know, they were hiring bank tellers, these are people who are on the front lines, and they were looking to differentiate themselves as a welcoming bank. How often do you go to a bank and it just feels like the post office?

Mariah [00:05:19]

Peter [00:05:20]
Which is the least welcoming place, where you have people who don't even want you to be there. You're in the way of their coffee break. And so, so if you make it an important part of your hiring decisions, beyond the obvious things, what are the skills … I think you have a fighting chance to make this work. But it has to be a very thoughtful effort. And I am just reluctant to this idea of like, let's pull this lever and increase hilarity in the workplace.

Kevin [00:05:46]
I mean, we don't necessarily look for a sense of humour in every member of our workforce, right. Because people bring different skills, like someone's creative, someone's artistic, someone's technically capable, but in my preamble email to you, one of the things I brought up was that I built this sort of white elephant project in the past, and I had to throw it away and I'd invested a lot of time. And then bear in mind, I'm the boss. And then one of my engineers, in one of our away days comes to me and says, 'oh, no, is this going to be the Finance App 2.0'? And the kind of jokey way that he conveyed that to me was acting like the court jester. I see Rory Sutherland who I'm a big fan of and that actually doesn't live far from us in England, he sort of gives a nod to this idea of the court jester and, and somebody who's got that skillset to know when it's the right point to make a joke, and they can then challenge authority, like, the jester was the only person who could speak truth to the king, that sort of thing.

Peter [00:06:51]
I like that idea. I'm not against that idea. It's... So my premise is we don't want everyone trying to be funny. So, you know, some of this came out of me doing professional speaking. I'm standing in front of a roomful of five hundred people talking about the virtues of comedy. And I just couldn't have all five hundred people go back to work and try to be the court jester. You know, like, these are people who are, who should be selected and developed based upon this unique skill. You know, it's a, it's a challenging one. And so I do agree with you. I think, you know, obviously there's a long history of comedy speaking truth to power, to being entertaining, to being a lubricant. And so when you have that person, or that small group of people, who are adept, who are over-skilled, then I'm like, OK, that's fine. Again, as long as they play by the ground rules. Which is, they're not the arbiter of funny, the audience is. They need to be quick to apologise.

Peter [00:07:53]
So I went and saw Dave Chappelle and friends in Yellow Springs, Ohio recently. So I went out to the Midwest, he's holding these, he was holding these pop-up comedy sort of comedy shows, socially distant outside in a cornfield. And he was hosting it, and he told this story where he was at the supermarket, his Netflix special, "Sticks and Stones", had just won three Emmys but it had been panned by the critics and so he used that moment to, basically, to shit on the critics for a little while. And he, he told me, he told me, he told all of us, felt like he was speaking to me, about a woman who approached him in the parking lot of the supermarket and was chastising him for some of the things that he had said in that- it's a controversial special. And he said, ‘I'm going to listen to you, but one thing that I want to point out is, you watched my special.

Peter [00:08:46]
You turned it on and you watched my special. I didn't follow you into the parking lot to tell you those jokes.’ And so I think there is this sort of notion about who's signing up for what.

Mariah [00:09:02]

Peter [00:09:03]
You know, and being, and being, being cognizant. Now, to your point, I like those people. I like your court jester. I don't know this guy, but I know I like him. And I also know that I liked having folks like that on a team, because your ability to do that, not only is to speak truth to power, not is it only to hold my boss in check, but it also is those are people who are, which is the point of Shtick to Business, amongst the most creative people. Like I want that person solving lots and lots of problems, because if they can solve a problem where they can be cheeky with you, and, and tease you a little bit, and set some boundaries on the boss, I suspect they're going to be useful solving a bunch of other problems.

Kevin [00:09:46]
Oh, yeah, sure. And he is. And he's a great, great guy.

Peter [00:09:49]
Here's the other one. And this is something that I am awfully sensitive about, and that is that the asymmetry between how men and women are judged when they're funny. And I think that that's something that, you know, for a lot of years, comedy was just for the boys. And obviously that's, that has changed a lot in movie, film, TV and, you know, Stand-Up, sketch, improv and so on. But in the workplace, I just find, and there's some research suggesting that even when a woman is successful, so it's not a matter of on the failing side of things, but on the succeeding side of things, she doesn't tend to reap the benefits as much. And so that's, again, a little bit of my hesitancy to be too encouraging, because I think that, that women, even when skilled, highly skilled, aren't always looked as favourably as, as a guy is. And so, you know, this is, these are sort of cautionary tales, and I use it to set up the book, and I use it to pivot away from what people automatically assume when they read Shtick to Business.

Kevin [00:11:01]

Peter [00:11:02]
To be the message.

Kevin [00:11:03]
I need to be funny. Yeah, I, I get your sense of responsibility that this is, this is like a, so I'm holding up the book here, this is a potential weapon unleashing unexpecting company, that everyone who reads this is going to go out there and start trying to crack jokes. But I find humour to be, this is why I refer to the doggy play bow, I find humour to be not just about the actual joke, it is, when I say the doggy play bow, my, my dog, when I see him in a park and I only, I never had a dog as a child and it was fascinating to watch this, but do you know the dog does this thing, where it basically sees other dogs and, and it pushes it's, it's arms down and pushes it's head towards the floor, and sticks his bum up.

Kevin [00:11:58]
And what that says to every other dog is, I'm going to pretend to bite you in a second, but I don't mean it, and if you do the same to me, we don't mean this. And you're safe here, and you're safe to explore, and you're safe to play around and throw ideas, and we're all friends here. And I actually would extend that to the very British thing to keep saying sorry to people. Like, the Italians and the French and the Spanish, they kind of mock us for just saying sorry, sorry, sorry. And Mariah lives here now and you probably recognise this..

Mariah [00:12:32]
All the time...

Kevin [00:12:33]
Like someone could run over my foot with a shopping cart-.

Mariah [00:12:36]
You would apologise.

Kevin [00:12:38]
And I'd apologise, and actually Nish Kumar who used to work here, we don't talk about famous friends, but Nish Kumar who used to work here, he's got this funny little sketch thing about, and I won't try and redo his sketch, but it's essentially that he's sat on a bus, as there's this very racist guy in front of him, who turns around, he's ranting, you know, coming out with all these awful racist statements, and he turns around and he faces Nish and Nish goes, and obviously he's Asian, and he goes, 'sorry', like why would you apologise to the racist? And actually, that was the most British thing anyone could ever do. And he couldn't be more British than apologising to a racist for being Asian, you know. So... It's a really...

Kevin [00:13:20]
He obviously delivers it much better than me. But just this idea that there's little things we do either telling jokes, or the instinct to say sorry quickly, to say, hey, this is not an aggressive situation. You ran over my foot, but I am not about to punch you. And we're cool. We're cool. And so, I'm not saying to any of my staff 'oh you need to be, you need to be funny', but if we can immediately get to a point where it feels informal, and you're safe here, and I've done the doggy play bow, then we're free to.. you're cool here.

Peter [00:13:54]
Absolutely. I love, I love the idea. I've never thought of it in that way. I mean, the roots of comedy are in physical play, you know, so, so we're not the only mammals who, who laugh and play, you know, so one of the most striking visuals that I ever had, as I started studying comedy, was this professor at the, at Washington State University tickling rats. And so this idea that you can, so you basically put this, sort of, this detector that can, that can detect ultrasonic sound in their, in their cage. And then he sort of tussles with them, and he sort of flips them over and rubs their belly and and so on, and they make this sort of chirping sound. And, and their research shows that that chirping sound is associated with positive emotion.

Peter [00:14:45]
But the thing that's even more fascinating, now of course, these are rats that are familiar and comfortable with their captors. First of all. But what's fascinating is he will move his hand to the other side of the cage, and the rats will chase after the hand and sort of try to put themselves underneath it. And the idea is that this, this physical threat that's not harmful, you know, is a version of play fighting, tickling, that we see with, we see at the park with the dogs, we see it with... If you have children, where they sort of want to be tickled, but don't want to be tickled, it's sort of this back and forth, and so on. I call these benign violations. That's the research that we've done in the human research lab, shows that ,that regardless of the form of comedy, it has these two simultaneous elements wrong yet ok. Threatening yet safe. A violation yet benign.

Peter [00:15:38]
That's there. And so there's lots and lots of ways to create a violation, to create a threat, misuse of words, for example. Maybe it's, maybe it's insulting your boss, breaking a norm, and then there's lots and lots of ways to make it OK. To signal that it's a joke, with a wink, with a nod, with a sarcastic tone, whatever that may... Or just another play on words, right. Double entendre. There's two ways to interpret this world. One's naughty and one's nice. I think that you can facilitate that with context and managers can also facilitate that in terms of how do they react when they're teased? Do they laugh? Do they encourage it? Do they say they like it, but then they're non-verbal, suggests that they're unhappy with you, and as you know, the stakes can be high. This is the same person who's deciding on your compensation, your promotions, your tasks.

Kevin [00:16:36]
I should add actually, that he immediately contacted me afterwards, and went "are you alright, did I insult you?" And I was like no, no, it's fine, that's fine.

Peter [00:16:45]
Yes, that's right. So..

Kevin [00:16:47]
Anyway, he wasn't sure. He wasn't sure. He did take a big risk.

Peter [00:16:51]
It's also why, it's why managers think they're much funnier than they are. Because people will politely laugh at their jokes.

Mariah [00:16:58]

Peter [00:16:58]
Because that same person is doing their compensation.

Mariah [00:17:02]
So true. So true.

Kevin [00:17:05]
I am Ricky Gervais. What do you mean it's so true? Thanks Mariah.

Peter [00:17:11]
So I think it can be done. It takes an adept hand. It takes a thoughtful approach. It takes creating the right context, a safe space, and then sometimes some negotiations and some debriefing should things, you know, go, go awry. But I agree, if you can pull it off, boy, who doesn't... You know, what a great way to facilitate positive emotion which is connected to all these great benefits, especially creativity. What a great way to have people excited to come into work, once they can come back to work, and certainly what is a great way to be able to give feedback in a way that's not threatening. So I'm partial to it.

Kevin [00:17:53]
Have I won you, have I won you back round to-

Peter [00:17:53]
No, no, you haven't, no! Only because, only because you're checking a lot of boxes. And so what I would like to say is, yeah, if you could check those boxes, go for it. I just think the average manager can't do it. And they also have so many other bigger problems that, that if you ask their employees, you know, his sense of humour, the top of the list that you want fixed, I think they're going to say something like, "no, I want them to run an efficient meeting".

Mariah [00:18:26]
Yeah, definitely.

Kevin [00:18:27]
No, I get that, I guess I'm kind of blurring the lines between humour and, and just a sort of sense of informality.

Peter [00:18:35]
Yeah, play. I like play.

Peter [00:18:37]
Yeah, a play and play bow kind of thing. But I do, I do always group those things together. That's why I was talking about the sorry thing, because it's not about being funny, it's just a quick verbal tick to say-.

Peter [00:18:49]
Things are OK. Everything's OK.

Kevin [00:18:50]
Yeah. And I see that a lot with jokes. It's like yeah, this is OK, this is fine, carry on. You know. It's got that kind of feel to it. When I started my company up, I started it up with my uncle, and he's just such a sociable guy. He's like such a, such a connector. He's the person everyone goes to at a party, you know, the moment he's in a room, just people relax around him. And actually, I think my whole company is probably, was seeded at the moment that I used to go to meetings with him, in a hospital, and talk to them about software.

Kevin [00:19:22]
But he would come along with me, because we were running this company together, and he just disarmed them from the get go. And he built rapport between us and those initial customers. That's frustrating that I didn't convince you on that point.

Peter [00:19:38]
Yeah, think of it as a conditional.

Kevin [00:19:39]
Yeah. It is conditional. That, that's fine.

Peter [00:19:41]
So if you, if you want me to say that it's OK for you to do this, I will say that.

Kevin [00:19:48]

Peter [00:19:49]
So that's the...So I think clearly the fact that you've even thought about it as deeply as you have...

Mariah [00:19:55]

Peter [00:19:55]
Has suggested that you have the proper approach, that you have the right approach and, and to the degree that you could be intentional about developing it, encouraging it, rewarding it and and recognising your limits, then by all means, go for it, experiment with it. Be quick to say I'm sorry. Be quick to compliment and see how it goes.

Kevin [00:20:20]

Peter [00:20:20]
I just, I'm just not sure that I want others to follow.

Kevin [00:20:24]
Yeah. And the book, the book doesn't need to agree with me on that point because obviously there's a lot of, sort of, methodology. This is the thing, Peter. I really loved the book. It was only that one thing or...

Peter [00:20:40]
That's fine i'm not a...

Kevin [00:20:41]
Actually I would prefer people to go out and grab your book because it is fantastic. I do love the…

Peter [00:20:47]
What do you love about it, Kevin? Tell me, tell me what you loved?

Kevin [00:20:50]
Do you know why it resonated, one of the things that, that it reminded me of is Keith Johnston's improv book. It's quite a famousy...improvisation book. It's really quite old. It's like the 60s or 70s, I think. And it reminded me of that because it was writ- well, in that case, it was written as a book just on improvisation. And it seemed to get picked up by business leaders and managers to say, actually, there are things in here about machine building, about the, the yes and approach, so you know, never block what someone's doing, build on what they're doing, don't be obstructive, which actually remind me of things that are in 'How to win friends and influence people', you know, never criticise, condemn or complain. And those sort of mental models that you can take from those books, are also apparent in here. The reversal to the idea of flipping something completely on it's head. That's a Tim Ferriss thing, right? That's one of his mental models, that he often talks about, is what if I did the 180 degree opposite?

Peter [00:22:05]
I think I cut, I think I had that in the book and I took it out. So he did this way, what if I do the opposite? And so, he was, he was in one of these, sort of, just really tough, what you call ‘Smile and Dial’ sales call, sale call kind of jobs. And so, while everybody else was calling between nine and five, he would wait till after five o'clock and, and do his calls. And one of the things that he discovered is, these execs that he was trying to get a hold of, you know, there, they have no work-life balance-.

Mariah [00:22:37]

Peter [00:22:37]
So you call them at eight o'clock at night and the phone rings, they often pick it up. Their secretarie’s gone-.

Kevin [00:22:44]
Gone home, yeah.

Peter [00:22:45]
That's right. Yes. And so, so that ended up working for him. And I think that that, I think that's a very nice example of, of creativity and a particular sort of thinking in opposites or thinking in reverse. And I do agree with you. I think that these, first of all I don't think improv gets as much credit as it should as a form of comedy, because the people who are really good at improv make it look so easy, that you don't realise how incredibly difficult it is to do and to do well. And I also think that it is, I think the average sort of business person has sort of heard of ‘Yes and…’ and recognise, recognise, at least theoretically, the importance of being encouraging and building on ideas and and so on. And one of the things that I try to do in Shtick to Business is to highlight some of those other improvisational tools. Tactics.

Peter [00:23:42]
Because, businesses and training for business is so focussed on the systematic, so they're focussed on creating rules, and they're so focussed on models, and they're so focussed on planning. So I teach in an MBA programme and all of our courses are about, sort of, systematic thinking, planning, and so on. And yet business, is so often improvised. Improvisational. As demonstrated especially by this pandemic, where the existing rules and structures and regulations and processes no longer worked anymore, and so we, we hire people and we train people to be systematic thinkers. And then at least half the time, they're having to be improvisers. We're improvising right now.

Mariah [00:24:36]

Peter [00:24:38]
You know, I mean, we had some ideas that we wanted to talk about, but we're improvising right now. And so, why not learn from the ultimate improvisers, the people who can create one of the most difficult products in the world, comedy, out of nothingness, out of a kernel of an idea. And so... We have a tendency to celebrate these sort of lone geniuses, but really, lone geniuses might be good at creating ideas, but, but you need group genius in order to execute those ideas. And the execution rests on improvisation.

Mariah [00:25:14]
Mm hmm.

Peter [00:25:15]
And so I'll give you, I'll give you one of the examples that I really like. Is this notion that a team really benefits from diversity and inclusion. So obviously those are buzz words right now.

Mariah [00:25:34]

Peter [00:25:34]
And but there's, there's a lot of different versions of diversity, the obvious ones we talk about are gender, age, ethnicity, and so on. But it doesn't, but it doesn't have to just be that. It just has to be a diversity in perspective and opinion. And how is it that you can go about integrating that? And improvisors, so, so there's this guy Billy Merit and he co-wrote a book with, with another improviser at Upright Citizens Brigade named Will Hines, the title of the book is called Pirate Robot Ninja, and it's a taxonomy of improvisers. And essentially says it's like if you come to the world of improv, you're, you're likely from the get go to fit into one of two categories. You're either a pirate, you're the swashbuckling, you know, running out on stage, blowing things up, you know what I mean, this kind of big, big personality. And we can think of comedians who are sort of like that.

Peter [00:26:35]
Or, you're, you're a robot, you're much more analytical. You pause, you think a little bit before, before speaking and acting. And their argument is, if you have a stage full of pirates, it's like a whirlwind, nothing gets done. If you have a stage full of robots, the scene doesn't pop. You need both together, working together to make the perfect scene. And then the ninja idea is something to aspire to, which is a ninja can be a pirate when you need a pirate, can be a robot when you need a robot, can turn it on and turn it off. And is a, is a matter of sort of developing, almost no one is a ninja from the very, very beginning. And so, I really just like that idea a lot because it suggests there's not just one ideal type of employee, there are ideal employees, and it's a matter of putting them together and having them work with a shared set of rules, perspectives and belief that we're on a team. And that's where the inclusively come in. Your ideas are our value because it's, it's a process.

Mariah [00:27:48]
I love that. That's really good.

Kevin [00:27:50]
I love that too.

Peter [00:27:53]
She said it first.

Mariah [00:27:55]
Yeah, I win.

Kevin [00:27:56]
I love the idea of just kind of using extremes of personality in, in anything. Like, obviously it's fun to, kind of, have a mix of employees, but there's a quite famous, sort of, user capture book in tech, called ‘User Stories Applied', sounds dry, it's actually a great book, but one of the suggestions in there is that you imagine how your software is used by extreme characters. So what would Hitler look like using your software? What would Father Christmas look like? You know, would he start giving, keep trying to give everything away for free and you know, and it actually ended up stretching.. You consider all your normal users as well, like an administrator, and a super administrator, and, you know, the end user and in our case doctor or nurse, but how would, how would a psychopath use this, and actually could find, find holes in security and..

Peter [00:28:51]
Yeah, I love it.

Kevin [00:28:53]
Obviously that's a really extreme kind of concept. We did some Myers Briggs, you know, like the Jung types and Myers Briggs, and team, team building team roles stuff, to try and see what balance we had in the team. You know, people's different approaches, I know not everyone goes in for the sort of Myers Briggs and Jung types, because they consider it- what did my neighbour call it? - astrology for people who like to think they don't believe in astrology.

Peter [00:29:20]
I like your neighbour. I'll make a case for Myers Briggs, and it's very difficult for me to make the case, as someone who got his PhD in a programme that taught psychometrics, what I like about those tasks are they start a conversation about differences. And about complementation. So even though the Myers Briggs lacks what we call predictive of validity, that is you can't really use it to make predictions about how people will behave, it allows, it allows an organisation to have a conversation around 'we are different'. Our personalities and our values are different. But that is, that is seen as a strength, not a weakness. So I think that those are often very good conversations to have and to acknowledge, and for people to be aware of them.

Mariah [00:30:11]

Peter [00:30:11]
Can I, can I actually go back to your idea, this idea of this book about the sort of extreme users? I really like that idea. So, of course, what I would say is, you should have a bunch of comics use your product, and see if they can break it.

Kevin [00:30:25]
Well, we did. We've had, we've had a stream of comedians. In fact, we have two stand-up comedians in our company at the moment. And we've had, yeah, we've had a lot of stand-up comedians. I think we're on a count of about six stand-up comedians who've worked for us.

Peter [00:30:39]
Well, that, that's, that is good, because one is people who are who are comedians, at least successful ones are smarter than average. That's the one thing that we know is a predictor of sense of humour, is intelligence, because to create benign violations, you have to be quick witted. You have to be knowledgeable about the world.

Mariah [00:30:56]

Peter [00:30:56]
You actually have to have EQ to be able to then express them. The other one is that comics are naturally transgressive. They're rule breakers, you know, and they, they do it in writing, but they don't normally fit into a normal factory, corporate kind of structure, which, let's be honest, the bigger an organisation gets, the more structured it becomes. Because the only way that you can really manage a large group of people, is to be able to slot them into buckets, and to give them particular titles and roles and so on. And so the average funny person just really doesn't thrive in that kind of environment.

Kevin [00:31:39]
Is that the link to the Dunbar number, is that the correct term? Where you have like a hundred and fifty people, think Malcolm Gladwell talks about it in The Tipping Point about…

Peter [00:31:50]
Yeah, that, that it's-.

Kevin [00:31:54]
Coke manufacturer that they only build a hundred and fifty parking spaces in, in their buildings. And once they, once they fill up, then they go and build another building because you can't keep the social connections.

Peter [00:32:05]
Yes, that's right. So once you go above that. So, so I mean, you know, that has to do with, like there's an evolutionary element behind that, which is just, we weren't built to have these huge expansive networks. At least our sort of memory structure and our socialisation. It doesn't lend itself to that. Now, luckily, my phone can hold a lot of contacts. And so I can, I can still record keep my extensive network. But in terms of tracking that informally, it becomes very difficult above some number, who knows exactly what the number is and it probably depends a little bit on the person. But certainly one thing that we know about schools and organisations is they're designed to get people to behave in certain ways. To get people in lock step. And I think that's probably fine for your, you know, your accounting and IT folks, it's just not clear it's good for your creative teams. And my guess is that your stand-up comics, or your comedian types, at your organisations, are likely to be more on the creative side of things. At least that's probably where they thrive best. But I don't want to, I don't want to misspeak.

Kevin [00:33:16]
I mean, it's quite a small company and, being a geek, I'm kind of defensive of the idea that actually technology and software engineers are quite creative people.

Peter [00:33:28]
I think you're right. I think, I think any sort of engineer should think of him or herself as a, as a creative person. Because that's really what their job is. So my definition of creativity is an original, appropriate solution to a problem. Are you solving the problem or are you doing it in a way that others haven't before? And that's where an edge is. You know, this idea of, of formalising, though, isn't necessarily bad. So you had mentioned reverse the reversal so that, that's chapter one in the book. I'm quite keen on the reversal. So for, for the listener, reversal is just, is just producing an opposing perspective. And so, so I open that chapter with a story about Chris Rock. Chris Rock in his Netflix special, Tamborine talks about bringing his daughter to junior high and the vice principal on stage speaking to all the students and all the parents about the strict no bullying policy that the school has. And Chris Rock said, I immediately wanted to take my daughter out of the school. And he, he goes on, in Chris Rock's fashion, to talk about how we need bullies, how the world needs bullies, that bullies do half the work, teachers do half the work, and bullies do the other half of the work, which is to prepare young people for a world that's difficult.

Kevin [00:34:51]
I keep seeing Naseem Taleb shouting out about anti-fragility in these kids, they're not so fragile when they emerge out the other end.

Peter [00:35:02]
Indeed, yes. And so he gets an applause break and so on, so he takes the thing. We all know at first blush, we all agree bullies are bad. And he makes a case for why bullies are good. So he thinks in reverse. It's Comedy 101. Good, great comics naturally think in reverse. Now, how do you get, how do you get the average person to think in reverse? That's not easy to do. So one of the things that I've done, I have a workbook that you can download off of that has this exercise. You could do what I call shit storming, or the HR friendly term, Shtickstorming, where you do a reverse brainstorm, where you actually bring people together and purposely brainstorm truly terrible ideas.

Kevin [00:35:48]
Oh god that sounds fun.

Mariah [00:35:49]
I'm not going to lie. I want to get on that.

Peter [00:35:52]
It is incredibly fun. So it's incredibly fun, so it's a great warm up activity for any creative process. It removes the natural tendency to critique ideas, which is why the average person doesn't thrive in a brainstorming session, right, because they're afraid their ideas are not good enough. So they self-censor. But when you're, when you're shitstorming, what's going to happen, Mariah's going to say, 'that's not that bad an idea'.

Mariah [00:36:16]

Peter [00:36:17]
Like, that's not a really terrible critique, you know, that's there. And then the beautiful thing is sometimes, Mariah, you know, that idea is so crazy, it just might work.

Kevin [00:36:29]
It just might work.

Peter [00:36:30]
It just might work. And so I, so, so that is a formalised process that's fun, and that might uncover an idea, a powerful idea, that others aren't. So I use the example of, these two Brooklyn-based entrepreneurs who are, they're in the smartphone market. So how do you outsmart Apple and Samsung in the smartphone market? Like it just seems impossible to do. And well these guys don't try to do that, they think in reverse. They don't create a smartphone, they create a dumb phone.

Kevin [00:37:08]

Peter [00:37:10]
And the idea is that, you know, it seems like everybody in the world wants to be more connected, but there's a group of people, Peter McGraw included, who wants to be less connected. At least wants to be less connected at certain times. So I got one of the entrepreneurs on the phone, and what he said to me is, 'you don't need to bring a micro-computer to the farmer's market. That does not enhance the farmer's market experience'.

Kevin [00:37:37]
Zoom, that we're on now, has got what I would call an anti-feature when you pay more for it, and it struck me as quite a funny thing that they, when you pay more, you, it removes the 40 minute limit on meetings. And that's not, that's not a good thing.

Peter [00:37:54]
It's not a benefit.

Kevin [00:37:57]
And that's what you've just explained there, the kind of reverse-it approach, is just Chapter One of that book. And so it just gets better and better from there. If I haven't said it enough, I love this book. It was bought for me, for my birthday, by my little five year old daughter.

Peter [00:38:13]
You're kidding me, that's fantastic.

Mariah [00:38:14]
Wow she's good.

Kevin [00:38:15]
Well, actually, it was quite funny because I was, I was looking at Solo, your podcast, and I was, you know, kind of, what's in it for me, Mr SUV family man, I kind of see it as like people on motorbikes kind of weaving through the traffic around me, and here you are, kind of like singing the benefits of solo.

Peter [00:38:36]
So, yeah, so the, so for the listeners who don't know what the hell you're talking about, I, I've done, you know, I actually have to tell you, I probably wouldn't have done this new podcast if I hadn't written Shtick to Business. And so this is a podcast that I launched earlier this year, it's called Solo, The Single Person's Guide to a Remarkable Life. So, it's basically a celebratory approach to single living, whether it be for now or forever. And so, I'm actually, the week that we are taping this, my fiftieth episode is coming out.

Mariah [00:39:09]
Oh wow!

Peter [00:39:09]
So like a little mini celebration.

Mariah [00:39:11]

Peter [00:39:12]
Thank you. And this was, so, so obviously this is not normative, you know, so we live in a world that tolerates singles, may feel bad for them, but certainly is not interested in celebrating singlehood, especially for us middle age types. I have to tell you, I love the visual of the big SUV rumbling down the highway, and the motorbikes. I'm stealing this Kevin, i'm stealing...

Kevin [00:39:39]
Well that's kind of how I feel. You know, it's difficult, I listen to your podcast and I was a little bit hesitant to show my, my wife I was listening to a podcast called Solo...

Peter [00:39:52]
Singles porn, you were listening to singles porn.

Kevin [00:39:56]
Yeah. She's like 'what are you, what are you looking at'? Just looking at hot girls in my area. That's a more legitimate excuse for what I'm doing right now. But I, I did find it really interesting. You had two guests on there that were, it was, yeah, it was the last one, sorry I don't know their names, but they, they were living this wonderful sort of vagabonding-

Peter [00:40:19]
Oh, yes. Digital nomads. Yes.

Kevin [00:40:21]
Obviously as digital, I'm like, oh, that sounds so nice! But, I was making notes about things to talk to you about and I was writing down Solo and I was talking about that, and then my little five year old daughter come over, almost like a, kinda like, antibody turning up to a virus. She kind of came over and went- she picked up Shtick to Business, she went, 'who bought this for you, daddy'? She went, 'I did, didn't I?’ I was like, 'Yeah, and I love it. It's a great book'. So, she bought it for my birthday but it was almost like to reinforce the fact that, you know, you've got, you're a family man and you've got a lovely, lovely life.

Kevin [00:40:55]
I was going to say, I feel like I can be inspired by it, there's a BBC, I think it's BBC programme called Race Across the World, where these, these couples, you know, they zoom from the UK to Singapore, and my wife and I have been watching it, and we were like, 'that's inspired me. Let's go and do that'. Then you think, oh-.

Mariah [00:41:14]

Kevin [00:41:14]
Oh, the kids are in school, and then that's their year when they do their exams, and we can't really just take them out of school any sort of time, but we managed to work out that in three years time they'll be just in the right years to, to, to line up and actually we are planning on doing like a four month trip from the UK and to be inspired by these people who are like the motorbikes and zipping through and seem to be carefree, and don't, I dunno, they obviously don't have to hold down a job, whoever these people are? We were inspired by, so I was just wondering, you know, your Solo podcast, maybe it does have... I can still ride a motorbike occasionally, can't I?

Peter [00:41:54]
Indeed yeah of course! Actually, so, so I have so many ideas swirling through my head listening to you. First of all, thank you for the kind words and the encouragement. It's, I'll connect some of these ideas back to the book for a moment, if I may. So, regarding your, your Singapore idea, I still, Shtick to Business starts out being very focussed, sort of, on, on kind of marketing and product at the beginning and then it sort of transitions. It's almost two books in one, it transitions into this more of a professional development, career management side of things. And in it I have a section about taking a sabbatical. You know, as a, an academic, I have the great privilege of being able to, every seven years, take a sabbatical, to step away from the day to day, to get some perspective, to read books that I wouldn't normally read, to write and think about things and to sort of plan out the next seven years of research topics and so on.

Peter [00:42:48]
In both of my sabbaticals, I completed books in them. And I encouraged the average person to think about how they might be able to take a sabbatical. And I'm not willing to accept the fact that they say I can't do it, I just, I think that if you, it takes some planning, it takes some doing, it may take some sacrifice. But I think that it can be done. Now, I do agree with you that when you're solo, it's easier to do than when, when you have a family structure. But, but I do think that it can be done in terms of, it just may take you three years. To plan it.

Mariah [00:43:20]

Peter [00:43:20]
It just might take three years to plan it. And I think that having a sabbatical, you know, we think about, I talk, I'm really fascinated by rest and recovery. I think the average person, the average high achiever is worn out. They're not tired, they're worn out. And we don't do enough to allow ourselves to bounce back, to nourish ourselves with sleep, good food, fresh air, sand under our toes, sunlight to, to be good, a good parent, a good boss, a good creative type and so on. And so you can imagine you can do this within a day. You find time in the day to refresh yourself. So this is in the Work Hard or Hardly Work chapter. It's inspired by the fact that a lot of comedians and other creative types find downtime, release themselves from their obligations in order to regenerate, so to speak. We could do that within a day. We can do that within a year.

Peter [00:44:14]
You know, so you think about vacations and, and I'm, I'm jealous of the Europeans. I think Europeans do vacations, holiday..

Mariah [00:44:21]
So much better than Americans i'll be honest.

Peter [00:44:23]
Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. It's not even, it's not even close. But you can also do it in a decade. You know, in that, in that sense. Now, of course, like, it might be four weeks in a year, but in a decade, it might be a half a year. Or a year. You know, like that kind of thing, and I just think that that has, that could just have a profound effect on perspectives, on ideas, can shake you loose, it can allow you to create new habits, rituals, and so on. So, so that's the first thing that as I respond, the second one is, as I said earlier, I needed Shtick To Business in order to, to release Solo, in part because Solo's transgressive. It goes against the norm. And it was scary for me to do that. And so I have a mini lesson. So in between the chapters in the book, I have these little mini lessons.

Peter [00:45:13]
They weren't big enough ideas to be an entire chapter, but they weren't small enough that I felt like I could leave them on the cutting room floor. And one of the mini lessons that I talk about, is an audience of one. If you want to create something truly novel, you might need to create something that is the perfect thing for yourself. And the idea essentially is you have, you have unique perspectives, needs, wants, desires. And if you can create something that fixes that, you can then perhaps sell it, share it with other, you know in a world of nearly 8 billion people, there might be a lot of other people like you. And so what I did with Solo was I created the podcast that I wish I had twenty five years ago.

Peter [00:46:00]
As I was starting to get the inkling and certainly I wish I had twelve years ago, where I was having... Twenty five years ago, I had the inkling that this marriage, kid thing's probably not right for me. And twelve years ago I was certain that it wasn't right for me. And so then suddenly when, when you're in a world where everybody is following this path, and the world's sort of gently or not so gently pushing you along it, facilitating that, and you're going to break from it, where are the resources? Where the like-minded people? Where are the lessons? And so I set out to... To do that, and I had to then... Take my backstage life conversations that I would have had around the dinner table, or at a bar, you know, with, with friends and loved ones who, who I know and trust, and I had to be able to put them out in the world, and be authentic, and be my true self.

Mariah [00:46:57]

Peter [00:46:57]
And be unapologetic about this. And comics are so good at that. Right? They're so good at telling you the things that they're bad at, that they struggle with, that are embarrassing, that are non-normative, and they do it obviously for comedic effect. I'm just trying to do it to be able to speak to people who feel like no one's speaking to them.

Kevin [00:47:22]
That's, that's really interesting how it connects up Solo to Shtick to Business, and that concept of an audience of one. I love it. So benign violation theory, you cover it more kind of in The Humour Code, your first book, but essentially it's that there are rules in society that - sorry, you can probably explain it better than I can! But there are rules in society, and, and if you break them, and you break them in a benign way, then that is essentially what is funny. So someone falls over and they didn't hurt themselves, or they make a pun, so that it's a rule of language, and then they... have I got that right Professor?

Peter [00:48:05]
You did. You do have it right.

Mariah [00:48:07]

Kevin [00:48:08]
And so what got me introduced to you in our little Twitter discussion, was I saw somebody say, you know, what we laugh at, and what we tolerate in our own groups, reflects our politics. And what we, what we're intolerant of, in another group, and what we don't find funny, dictates our politics too. Because we're basically saying that's, that's the out group, that's the in group. I find politics generally toxic. So I don't tend to touch on it. But I find the concept in interesting in itself, especially if you have read Jonathan Haidt? The Righteous Mind. Where he talks about other people's different frameworks of ethics. And I was just wondering, is that a reciprocal thing? So what, what breaks the rules in a benign way is what's funny, but then what we're laughing at can reveal our politics.. And when I saw Dave Chappelle 'Sticks and Stones' and you saw that difference between the critics who are probably kind of more left leaning or have certain roles that they don't wish to have violated, and then you see a kind of audience that probably doesn't share the same set of politics, that they just found it funny because they, they weren't particularly almost, sort of, revered rules, things that can't be broken.

Peter [00:49:31]
The fun thing about Dave Chappelle is he's uncancellable. You know, he's one of the few Americans who, by virtue of his perspective, his charisma, what he's done, that he is, sort of, untouchable, at least at this moment. And I think that there's enough folks who are a little, they're starting to be concerned, they're concerned about the right and they're starting to be concerned about the left. And about the far ends of those, of those too. The critics are cancellable, and so, you know, to not pan this, this special puts them at risk, so to speak. But the audience and his audience in particular found it obviously refreshing. And you're speaking truth to a different type of power in that way.

Peter [00:50:21]
But I do think that it is impossible to think about comedy without thinking about the values and beliefs, and the lifestyle of the audience. So to move past what we call demographics and into our world, which is psychographics, what are the things, the ideas that you have two people, they're the same age, they're the same gender, they live in the same place, but one's, let's say right, and one's left. You know, or whatever it might, whatever that thing might, might be. It doesn't have to be politics, per say. But politics are so, so strikingly different at this point and that this very same joke makes one of them laugh and the other one completely outraged.

Mariah [00:51:02]

Peter [00:51:02]
And so that makes it very difficult to be broadly funny. It makes it nearly impossible to have a political podcast that is equal opportunity. Because what ends up happening is half of your jokes land-.

Mariah [00:51:16]

Peter [00:51:16]
With one group, and the other half lands with the other group. And so backing out this idea of benign violations, when you transgress, you have to be able to be adept at finding a way to transgress in a way that's appropriate. That's OK. And when you don't, you've just transgressed. It's why comedy is so targeted. It's why you can actually learn about positioning and it's a good reminder about the value of understanding your customers. Because comics are the, are the master, they're master marketers.

Mariah [00:51:50]

Peter [00:51:51]
In terms of finding a way to make their customers super, super happy and they don't care about their non-customers.

Kevin [00:51:57]
Yeah, I can well believe that. So the, sort of, market engagement, stakeholder engagement, these are the people it's going to resonate with. I don't know whether you saw Bill Burr on Saturday Night Live recently, that was doing the rounds, but I thought that was an interesting thing because he basically flipped that in a way that he had the kind of women's arms locked behind, because they couldn't be outraged by it, so he was appealing to a different demographic. But the very demographic that would normally be insulted by it, couldn't, because the whole joke was about the fact that they would be insulted.

Peter [00:52:31]
So in Shtick To Business, I call this create a chasm. You know, this idea that, that comics, they just know that if, in a world that.. In a world of people, some who like hot tea and some who like iced tea. So in the UK, folks love your hot tea, you know, but if I tried to make everyone happy by serving warm tea, no one's happy. And Bill Burr is not the ideal person to do a monologue on Saturday Night Live because he's one of the best people at creating a chasm. He's going to give you hot tea and he doesn't care if you don't want, don't want it. Because, you know, there's enough of his fans who want hot tea.

Mariah [00:53:09]

Peter [00:53:10]
That's there. And so it's a good reminder, I mean, I think that your listeners have an interesting puzzle, because if they run hospitals, that is as close to a world where everybody, they have to serve everyone.

Mariah [00:53:25]

Peter [00:53:25]
In some way. And so that, that I think is a true, is a true puzzle and a true challenge. Of course, what I, what I think needs to end up happening is to figure out within the hospital, where are the hot tea pockets, where are the cold tea pockets.

Mariah [00:53:41]
Thank you, Peter. Greatly appreciated though. Thank you so much.

Peter [00:53:44]
Yeah, it's really fun.

Kevin [00:53:46]
I love the book and people should go out and buy it. It's really good.

Mariah [00:53:50]
Thank you to all our listeners who tuned in to today's episode of SARDisms. We thoroughly enjoyed having you and hope you are able to take away Peter McGraw's practical advice on how to use the process of humour to propel you or your organisation into success. You can find out more about SARD by visiting SARDJV.CO.UK Or send us a tweet on Twitter @SARDJV and use #SARDisms. Until next time. Have a great week.