Shane Snow is an award-winning journalist, entrepreneur, and the author of three books—including the #1 business bestseller Dream Teams. He speaks about innovation and teamwork, has performed comedy on Broadway, and has been published in GQ, Fast Company, Wired, and The New Yorker.
Listen to Episode #89 here
Thinking Scientifically with Shane Snow
My guest is Shane Snow. He is an award-winning journalist, entrepreneur and the author of three books, including the number one business bestseller, Dream Teams. He speaks about innovation and teamwork has performed comedy on Broadway and has been published in GQ, Fast Company, Wired and The New Yorker. Welcome, Shane.
Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Thanks for fitting me in during your trip to LA.
I come here all the time and it seems every time it’s a two-day whirlwind of meetings and I should spend a month here or something. You’re on a sabbatical here.
Yes, and it’s going well. The thing about LA that’s different than New York is you can do six meetings in a day in New York and you could do three meetings a day in LA.
Seven hours of driving.
Shane, if you weren’t working as a writer, performer or entrepreneur, what would you be doing with your life?
I like cars and aerospace stuff. My dad was an auto mechanic and then became an aerospace engineer. Now, he’s a nuclear engineer. I grew up with this fascination for engineering and I love my dad and respect what he does. If I wasn’t doing this, I would be doing something in that.
Are you a math guy?
[bctt tweet=”If you know what you want to say, you know what you want to write down.” via=”no”]
I was. I like to think of myself as a writer who uses science and math thinking to put together ideas in different ways. When I was in middle school, I was on the math team for Math Counts. I went to nationals and got my ass kicked. I represented Idaho and I got last place. We were second to last. My mom has a photo on the wall of her house of me on the US Capitol steps with the Senator from Idaho with his arm around my shoulder and I’m an eighth grade and with the math trophy or whatever. It turns out that that the one Idaho Senator is the guy that was arrested for soliciting prostitutes in a bathroom at the airport. That’s the guy with his arm around me.
What a strange place to look for a prostitute.
I don’t even know the whole of that story, but all I know is that my mom’s very proud of me for that photo. She doesn’t quite realize that it’s that guy on the wall with me. The most important is that she’s very proud of her kids. She’s the reason why we were ambitious.
Let’s step back. You used science and math to put together a story.
I think of my process that I’ve developed over my journalism career as the process of taking apart a car engine or some other thing, looking at all the pieces and then reassembling it. When I’m working on a story, that’s what I like to do. I like to go all the way back to the first principles. A lot of journalists will do this where they’ll make the spider diagram of, “Here’s the person I’m writing about, here’s all of their connections.”
It’s like in the movies or TV, the cork board with the person and then the thumbtacks and the string.
They went to the yarn store and got yarn so they can chart out this thing on their wall.
Do you literally do that?
My house right now, one of the walls is all windows. There are all sticky notes for a very big story project that I’m working on. It’s usually sticky notes, but I like to think of it as a scientific process of breaking things down and going through the scientific method. The reason I’m writing about this is because of an observation that I’ve had and now I have a question about it. I’m going to run through some hypotheses. I do all of the research and connect all the dots in order to disprove that hypothesis and doing that over and over again. That’s where the science and math component of it.
You probably don’t want to talk about this story, but can we look back at a previous story where you did this process? Can you take the readers through it?
My most book is about teamwork and it was a bit of chipping away at the marble until it became the book about teamwork. I was interested in a whole bunch of different threads that I was pulling on different mini investigations, different questions that I had that eventually I wrote a bunch of stuff in. It coalesced around this idea of teamwork. One of them was I came across this research about police officers and police partnerships that shoot people and make mistakes and police officers that don’t. I came across this statistic that women cops shoot fewer people. If you’re a male cop partnered with a woman, you will shoot fewer people. You’ll be more confident in your decisions. You’ll make fewer mistakes. I came across that study and the question was why.
You can make two errors. One is too much force and the other one’s too little.
That’s part of it. You’re getting at the hypothesis stage of that. The observation is there’s this interesting set of statistics. The question is why? What is it about gender that might lead to this? Is it gender that would lead to this?
Gender is a proxy for something else of course and so on.
There are all sorts of hypotheses that came out of that. The winning hypothesis or the hypothesis that is the umbrella to the answer is that when you have two people in law enforcement working together, if they don’t or can’t assume that they think the same, they will be more cautious in their decision making. If you have two male cops that assume that we’re going to kick down the door because that’s how I think and you think how I think, they’ll kick down the door, versus trying to compromise the person who has the key or some other way. When women started becoming law enforcement officers and detectives, you couldn’t be an FBI agent if you were a female until after Hoover died, but when that started happening, all these interesting things started happening.
There are two effects really. One is that if you’re working with someone who isn’t like you, you will tend to think differently by nature of that. You can’t make assumptions like you could otherwise. The second is that other person is bringing a different point of view to the table. When together, you’re negotiating, “How do we solve this problem?” Police work especially turns out it’s mostly social work. You’re dealing with people who are having problems with each other. When there are two of you that are bringing a different perspective to that on the job problem solving, you will do a better job and you’ll be more confident in your decision making afterwards.
Some of it come down to this use of force is a default tool that a lot of men who become police officers have because there’s a bias towards that in the process. I interviewed a lot of women in law enforcement like in ATF and some of these big government agencies. They said that because they knew at a young age that they couldn’t win against boys in the arm wrestling in middle school or whatever it was, they got to the academy. They knew that they weren’t going to be able to knock down the door as well as the men in the group, generally speaking. They developed other heuristics for negotiating and those end up being very valuable in a partnership.
Especially because the average cop does very little knocking down doors.
[bctt tweet=”Listen to someone’s viewpoint before you decide whether it’s bad or not.” via=”no”]
Sometimes you need to, once in a while. That’s one of many tools you have in your toolkit. You alluded to something as well. It turns out that two female cops are going to be at a disadvantage from a problem-solving standpoint as well because, speaking in generalities and statistics, it’s more likely that they will think similarly on certain things.
It’s not a female effect. It’s a diversity effect. I’m going to guess that you came across some of Anita Woolley’s work on this. Anita Woolley is a professor at Carnegie Mellon who does work on what she calls collective intelligence rather than general intelligence. As you know, I’m working on a book. It’s coming out soon.
Are you revealing any of the secrets yet?
A little bit here and there. I’m sprinkling them in. One of the chapters is called Cooperate to Innovate and it’s about the value of teamwork in terms of making something. A single person can have a great idea, but if you want to make something, you need other people. The book is using comedy as the genesis, as the examples for these ideas and then I’m applying them in business. The idea of complementation in comedy is important. Part of the reason why Chappelle’s show was so good was that the co-creator was a white guy. A black and white co-creator or co-writers have a much stronger repertoire and a better overall perspective.
They’re bringing more to the pool that you draw from for comedy because they’ve lived lives with different perspectives. They’ve navigated the world differently.
Some overlapping and some different and so on. Anita’s work is cool because she talks about adding women to a group increases the collective intelligence. It’s not because they’re women per se, but because women tend to possess this ability to be more socially tuned in and thus flexible. What she shows is that adding women increases the overall team’s performance, but a team of all women shows a decrease for these same reasons. Gender is a proxy for other traits.
It’s the way that you see the world, the heuristics you’ve developed to navigate the world. Everything is a spectrum. There are some things that are built in biologically, but a lot of stuff has to do with how the world has treated you because of who you are and what you look like and how you’ve learned to compensate or navigate.
“To develop, this works for me.”
The phrase that I always use with my conclusion that came from this and the other studies that had to do with it is that, “Two heads are only better than one if they see things differently.” It doesn’t matter what the group is composed of or what their demographics are. If they think similarly, they’re not going to be better than the smartest one of those thinkers. If they think differently, they can be. What’s cool, coming back to the math, mathematicians have actually borne this out. They’ve developed mathematical models for how a group of diverse thinkers can become smarter than the smartest person. That stuff gets nerdy and fascinating, but it can be summed up as the smartest or most powerful person will be the constraining factor, unless everyone thinks a little bit differently.
Anita’s work is incredibly thorough. The work they’ve put into it is fascinating and strong. You have this process. Have you written out the process or is this something that you intuit and know well-enough that you can execute it project and project? You know where I’m going with this.
I’ve arrived at this. I’ve started writing about my process. Each book that I’ve written, I’ve written a behind the scenes where I’ve documented my process and I share the link with other writer friends. Each one has gotten better. I’ve refined this process. I have this kooky thing that I do with sticky notes during the research phase of something. I’m taking all sorts of notes and I’m organizing them and reorganizing them. I will transfer the sticky note diagram to pen and pad. I’ll transfer that to more sticky notes in a different order and a different medium. It’s this changing of media that helps me to think through and reorganize my thoughts. It’s a weird process but that’s how I’ve developed it. The underlying framework is the scientific method.
I want to talk about your books, not mine, but one of the chapters is about writing. I like the idea that you’re taking things that are on the wall and you’re writing it down. My argument is there’s a benefit to putting pen to paper in terms of clarifying ideas, remembering them and so on.
I’m interested in what you see the benefit as because I have my theory.
First of all, I’d say that some of this is not well-researched. This is more of what I see in the world of comedy. I see it in my world. To be honest, the average person abhors writing and they avoid it at all costs. My argument is that we think about writing in the wrong way. We think about writing as a means to communicate ideas, but that’s only one of the three values of writing. One of the values is recording ideas and the research does bear this out. There’s something special about writing an idea down versus typing it or reading what someone else has written.
I have a buddy. He’s a columnist for WIRED Magazine, Clive Thompson. He has a couple of books, Smarter Than You Think is the first one and Coders. He’s great. He’s one of my mentors. I aspire to be as good a writer as him. He wrote this wonderful piece on Medium about why he takes notes by hand and he composes by typing. The conclusion is if you’re taking notes by typing, you will do a lot more transcribing of what the speaker is saying. If you take notes by hand, you can’t keep up. You have to synthesize. In that synthetization process, you remember more but you also make connections a little bit better because the shorthand that you have to use forces you to be a little creative. A lot of the creative process is about combining different things. That’s part of my excuse why I have handwriting as part of my process. I’m taking my notes. If I’m writing them down, then there is some synthesis that increases my chance of having some creative moments. The typing for composition is about your brain is faster than you can write by hand. If you are a fast typer, you can keep up. This is part of my process too. I do all the research, all of the thinking and all the outlining. When I sit down to write, I do it in these manic bursts. I’ll go to Mexico City for two months and I will drink coffee and write for twelve hours a day because I’m not thinking about what I need to write at that point. I’m just getting it out. That’s where the flying fingers thing is more helpful than composing.
That assumes you have clarity on the ideas. To me, the second thing is that the actual writing clarifies ideas. We can be a little fast and loose with ideas because we’re talking about them right now because they’re not being checked. When you have to put them into words and sentences, it leads to, “Those two things don’t go together.”
My little brother is a creative fiction writer and he’s a much more brilliant writer than I am. It’s easier to get paid if you’re writing about business and science, mostly if you’re writing about business, than if you’re writing a fiction. He’s so brilliant and he does his first draft by hand because his first draft is part of his thinking process. When he types up his final drafts, it’s typing.
Let’s get back to Dream Teams a bit. Let’s compare some notes. The other idea in that chapter, I talk about listening and the value of listening. Do dream teams have special listening skills?
[bctt tweet=”It’s not useful to just come up with a billion ideas that doesn’t work. You have to then decide which are the best ideas.” via=”no”]
There’s a particular component of the formula that a special listening is effective and important. The formula essentially that underlies teams that make breakthroughs together is cognitive diversity. We’ve talked about that. You need that cognitive diversity to mash together what I call cognitive friction. You have to combine ideas. You have to smash them together. There are lots of cool fun research about that, but you need to have the debate essentially. The third component is intellectual humility, which is you need to be willing to revise your viewpoint or change. I use this analogy, not in the book, but I use the analogy of baking a cake. You’re not going to get cake out of eight different types of flour. You need different ingredients to make something different. You need to mix the ingredients into batter before you actually get cake.
If you have the different people or the different ideas, we don’t let them combine and have a little discomfort. As a result, you’re not going to get something new, but then you also need to bake the cake. It needs to be a chemical transformation where it becomes something new. This intellectual humility thing is an interesting vein of psychology and it’s the last couple of chapters of the book. I talk about why is it so hard for us to change our minds, to revise our viewpoints to get better? Especially ironically, why is it hard for smart people and successful people to change? When you break intellectual humility down, the first component of it is respect for other viewpoints. That is defined not just as not hating people who think different than you, but it’s hearing out and listening to other viewpoints. Even if you initially disagree with them or you’re initially offended by them, but hearing them out all the way through before you cast a judgment.
The extreme version of this is having a general respect for all viewpoints means that if Hitler is telling you his point of view, you’ll listen first before you decide whether it’s bad or not. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with him, but it means that you will explore the points of view and then combine that with what you think to make a decision whether you should change. That’s where teams that can do this can have the debates and be more productive because they’re exploring intellectual territory rather than shutting down, “I’m not going to listen because what you say sounds crazy or it’s too far out or we don’t think this way.” If you listened to it and then you say, “Thank you.” It’s the “Yes, and what can we pull from this that is helpful and what are we going to leave behind that’s effective?”
I love that because I spent a lot of time talking about this thing. I use improv as the key context for that. For example, as a standup, you need to be listening. What are people laughing at? What are they not laughing at? Are you going to deviate from your set list? How are you going to make changes? Are you going to riff more with the audience? Even standups who look they’re doing theater have to demonstrate a lot of listening skills.
I wrote about this in my first book. I spent some time with Second City, how you build up your material by testing. You know what’s going to hit and what people will laugh at. You test something and then you listen to see how they react to it. You revise it and iterate it. It either goes into your permanent repertoire or you throw it out. I did the same thing with public speaking. It’s not just laughs. When I talk to business crowds about some of my writing, often I will work in humor because it helps people remember things better. If I notice that people are taking pictures of the screen at any point in my talk, that’s a cue for me that I need to double down on that or I need to zero in on that more the next time. That’s a different kind of listen. It’s more of an observation.
This is a form of listening. I pushed the metaphor pretty far. One of my takes in this is we want to look beyond yes-and. Yes-and is useful when it comes to teams, but in improv also they edit. Someone decides when a scene’s over. That’s not a yes-and situation. You need both yes-and and, “We are done.”
I like that. Stop it before they go off the cliff.
You want someone who comes off the back wall and goes, “We had our big laugh. We’re at the peak. This is done.” That’s not a yes-and. What’s happened is improv has gotten to be this yes-and thing. That’s a very small part of teamwork. At some point, someone’s got to make a decision. At some point, someone’s got a disagree or whatever it is. It’s a process where you start with that and then at some point, it stops.
It’s interesting because I’ve been thinking about this thing. I started to write a little bit in some of my posts. I’m fascinated by debate and by brainstorming and how debate is better than brainstorming. How do you have a debate that works well? I have been looking a lot of this brainstorming research. A lot of people have written about brainstorming and studies say that groups of people, when they brainstorm ideas together are usually stupid or they do it on their own. What’s better is those same people are preparing and having debate about those ideas. When you break that down, what debate leads to new ideas rather than calling bad ideas? There’s this two-step process. One is this idea of spidering out ideas.
You start with one thing and then it becomes two things. You start with those and they become four things. It’s this yes-and process. You’re spreading the range of possibilities. There’s this process of going back and poking holes in those ideas and finding what works. If you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s not that useful to just come up with a billion ideas. You have to then decide which are the best ideas. This comes back to the scientific method of trying to disprove hypothesis and making that the game. I’ve been thinking about that idea of this two-step and it works as well in comedy. Potentially, if you’re trying to write a sketch or trying to write a movie, it’s not just about this in the moment improv thing. You’re going to explore a lot of things, but then you’re going to narrow it down to the thing that gets the best response. That’s going to go into the movie or the sketch. I wish I could bring to mind that term, but those two parts of the process are interesting way to look at it.
The fascinating thing is when you’re doing any of this stuff on your own, it’s already complex and then you add other human beings and it gets really complex. The issue is the group of genius. Anytime you point to someone as a solo genius, there are exceptions of course, but most of the time you start digging, there is someone else there, especially if that person is doing more than making an idea.
You often see these people who are the genius. Steve Jobs is the one that everyone always uses. He had Jony Ive and he had a lot of people working for him. You even noticed then that he had so much power and he was so brilliant that when he passed away, the organization had to figure out how to be as smart as he was. That’s a weird position to be in. It’s interesting for the leader to see their job as making the organization smarter than them, rather than them being the one. That’s what was afoot with Steve Jobs, but so much of that mythology resided in him and the organization was used to having this leader that could conduct the orchestra as he did. That’s a paradigm shift in general with the way we should think about leadership. It used to be in the caveman days, the leader we picked was the one who was strong and gave us confidence that they could solve the problems with the saber-toothed tiger. After a while, the leader that we would pick in society was the one that made us confident that they had all the answers, the smart ones. Often the ones that don’t back down on what they think. In the future, the leaders that we need are the ones that can unlock the brilliance of the group underneath them rather than being the one to have all the answers.
I make this argument and it’s a counterfactual, which is what could have Steve Jobs done if he wasn’t such a dick? We say, “Look what he accomplished, iPhone, iPad, iPod.” Those are the big three. You go, “Could there have been three others?” That’s the counterfactual. We have a tendency to be like, “This was the pinnacle.” I’m like, “Maybe.”
Are we conflating his abrasiveness with his success? There are a lot of entrepreneurs that say they take the wrong things from what he did and so much of it is what you’re saying. You don’t see who behind the scenes are helping push things forward. Even with Elon Musk. Everyone talks about him as this great genius, which he is but you read the biography of him and his brother, Kimbal, is a huge part of why he has been successful and hasn’t gone too far and hasn’t imploded and many more people. His genius has been being able to inspire brilliant people to work for him and pursue the mission that he has, not to solve all of the problems himself.
The other one is when we look back at Bill Gates’ legacy, we get to thank Melinda. I think that guy was not built to be a great humanitarian. He needed a partner who helped guide that genius and those things. As a team, those two are much better than they would be individually.
The Gates Foundation is more important than Microsoft. A hundred years from now, that will be the thing that has made the most impact on the world.
The same way the Ford Foundation or Getty or whatever it is tends to be. I want to jump back to Smartcuts. That’s your first book. That’s how we met.
My freshman effort.
[bctt tweet=”It’s really interesting for the leader to see their job as making the organization smarter than them rather than them being the smart one.” via=”no”]
It seems to me that Smartcuts feels a little bit of a pu-pu platter of ideas. Then now what you’re doing is you’re taking one idea and you’re diving more deeply into it. What’s your favorite smartcut that we haven’t talked about?
I explored this principle of radical simplicity. Right now, people are talking about radical everything, radical candor or radical whatever. Radical simplicity is this design principle that things tend to get more complex over time, feature creep. A lot of great innovation ask the question what’s the one essential component of this thing? It strips the product down to that one essential component and then tries to make that better. I go through Picasso. He had a period at a time when art was great if it was realistic. He would draw a realistic thing like a bowl and then he would break it down into the fewest number of lines possible. You can see these great progressions of complicated bowl to a bowl drawn from eight lines. It looks awesome. It pissed people off in the art world but he saw the beauty and the innovation potential in simplicity if you look at it.
My opinion is good art is all about innovation. It’s doing something that no one else has done before. That’s what makes art interesting.
I tell this story of one of my favorite people in the world. Her name is Jane Chen. She decided to start working on helping save premature babies who are born in countries where there’s not very good healthcare. If you’re born in a village in Pakistan and you’re born two and a half months early, you’re probably going to die. If you’re born in Southern California, you’re probably going to live. It’s because we have these incubators in hospitals that costs $20,000 that they don’t have access to in Pakistan. She tried to solve this problem, how do you make the baby incubator 100 times cheaper? In doing so, at first they tried to make a cheaper incubator, a cheaper glass box and try to make it more efficient design-wise and cut costs, cut corners. They couldn’t do it 100 times cheaper. It’s just way too much. That forced them to step back and ask a different question, which is how do you keep a baby warm? Because it turns out that the number one thing that a baby needs if it’s born premature is heat. 90% of cases, that’s all it is. It’s just being the right temperature for the last two months. The question was how do you keep a baby the right temperature for 100 times cheaper?
You don’t need an incubator for that.
You need a sleeping bag. They invented this sleeping bag for babies that has the little heating pad and it’s so simple, you don’t need to know how to read in order to figure out how to use it. They’re able to make them for way more than 100 times cheaper than an incubator. They’ve saved millions of babies’ lives. That principle or the smartcut is this question of what if we had to make this so much simpler that we can’t just cut costs or cut the design down? We have to think outside the box because that’s the only way to solve the problem. That forces you to narrow down to what’s the essential problem at hand.
I don’t know if you know this, but I’m going to risk making an obvious observation, which is I can see why you like that so much. It’s because it mirrors your scientific process which is, what is the problem? What is the solution? There are multiple solutions to this problem. Let’s not focus on the existing solution.
Smartcuts was a bit of a potpourri. It was nine chapters of different ways to kick yourself out of the box and approach problems differently in the effort of speeding up success or innovation. I call it a freshman effort because I look back on it now and it’s not as cohesive as I would write it now. It was also way too ambitious for someone in their twenties to write a first book. I’m glad to have done it because it has been the kickoff point for a lot of my work and I still get a lot of readers writing in and saying, “I’ve made this incredible thing and Smartcuts was a book that inspired me.” It’s pretty awesome.
It’s a fun book. I’d read it back then. My sophomore book writing effort is like your freshman book writing. These books are fueling some speaking. You’re in LA. Did you give a talk? For the reader who doesn’t know, The Roosevelt is a classic Hollywood hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, right across from the Chinese theater, the Mann Theater there.
It’s where Audrey Hepburn got her Oscar. I just learned from a holiday.
It’s got a great pool. It’s got a great vibe. It’s got these great bars. There’s a little bowling alley in there. It’s surprisingly affordable. The only problem is you have to deal with Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a total shit show. That’s the one downside of it all. You were asking about my speaking. My speaking is starting to ramp up a bit because now I have a keynote. I have work that is directly applicable to business. I’ve given a lot of public talks and I speak often, but in terms of doing it as a professional, that’s getting rolling for me. You have your feet under you with this. I want to use you for a little while. I’ve seen you talk. You gave a talk at Salon.
That was a rather improvised one. I was more nervous than usual.
You did fine. You talked about this idea of intellectual humility. That’s part of it. I remember one thing about it. I wrote in my notes here, “Shane’s a good storyteller.” You’re a natural storyteller or you’re a honed storyteller. The thing is I know you’re a good storyteller, but I can’t remember the story you told.
Is it about Malcolm X?
That’s exactly right. Which I was familiar with Malcolm X and recognize his importance in terms of the civil rights movement, but I didn’t know the specifics of that story. I like when I read something or see a speaker tell me something that feels familiar and thus it’s fluent, but gives me something new. One of the nice things about it, I’ll let you tell the quick 50-word version of this, is it allows me to like Malcolm X a lot more than I felt I was allowed to like him.
That was exactly what happened to me. The short version of the story is Malcolm X had a very hard life and he changed his mind in a very dramatic way a couple of times. He did something that’s very hard for most of us to do. He switched religions and he was in prison at a young age. He had a very hard upbringing. He went to prison for theft. While he was in prison, he went from being the guy that they all called Satan with a super foul mouth, to being this very kind person. He got out of prison and he helped build up this fledgling new religion. He was their main star preacher. He realized that he didn’t believe in it and that he believed some other things too.
He had been preaching against the civil rights movement. This is a part that a lot of people don’t know about his story. Dr. King and Bayard Rustin and all of the people pushing the civil rights movement forward were very worried about Malcolm X. They disavowed him. They said he didn’t represent their views because he hated the idea of peace. He wanted segregation. He started brokering a deal with the American Nazi party who he had no reason to like, but they had the same goal, which was keep the races apart. He did some other things that were pretty unpleasant. He went to Mecca and converted to Sunni Islam. He changed his mind on a bunch of things. He made an about face and became this very key voice in the civil rights movement that helped get a lot of disenfranchised people on board with Dr. King and helped push Dr. King’s thinking. He did that knowing that it would get him killed. It did. That’s the short version of the story.
The irony is he became more threatening the more peaceful he became.
[bctt tweet=”Intellectual humility is respect for other viewpoints.” via=”no”]
Even in his last few weeks of life, he said some things and some of his sermons that were way ahead of his time. He talked about how you should be able to love whoever you wanted to and that shouldn’t be anyone else’s business. He talked about how men were equal to women and how women should hold positions of authority. These were things that he had preached against before that also were not very socially acceptable in the ‘60s ironically. We’ve come a long way. He started preaching the opposite. That message of peace was what got him killed.
For me, I don’t want to call it a great keynote, but it’s the best one I’ve developed in terms of it’s got the nice one-two punch of education and entertainment and so on. What advice do you give to the person who’s thinking about trying to have a hustle in this world?
I did not envision myself becoming a public speaker as my main source of income but as you know, writing doesn’t pay the bills quite the same as being paid to speak. It’s ironic but I think of the writing process as a step.
It’s the clarifying step and then it’s a communication step. People are like, “I’ve got an idea.”
As a writer, I’m doing it because I want people to hear these ideas and I want to teach. What’s a better way to do that than to get up in front of people? If you get paid a lot of money to speak, it feels a little weird at first, but then you think about the thousands of hours you spent writing the thing that you’re speaking about, it feels a little less weird.
Most people don’t read, which is unfortunate but they’re happy to listen.
It’s a very powerful thing. Over the years, I’ve given a lot of speeches now. I’ve gotten, I’d say not great, but I’ve gotten quite good. I have ways to go, but I think about the process as a little bit what we were talking about before, as a constant iteration and refining process, much a standup comic would do. At this point, I know I have my three main topics, one for each book and then there are a few ways that I can go with each of those keynotes, but I have stuff that I know hits every time. I will usually do that and then I will have some amount of customization for the client. I was at a travel conference, business travelers. There were a couple of things that I put in specifically for that. I’ll often put in 10% to 20% new material, new stories or new things to see how it goes. If it goes well, then I will incorporate that into the main talk. I tried to do what I do with my writing, which is what you said, a mix of education and entertainment. I like to use stories as a way to get people hooked and paying attention and not wanting to be on their phone or use the bathroom or whatever. I want them to hold it until I get to the end of the story. I will start with a story and on a cliff hanger, talk about the principles and whatever it is that’s like the medicine. I will end this story and hopefully with a bit of a surprise. That’s the format I like to do.
If it’s a longer talk, I’ll do that three times or I’ll wrap it in one big story. Often, I’ll start with the cliffhanger thing, and then go through three mini-principles. By the end, I’ll come back to that thing that was a cliffhanger and surprise, just in comedy, there are callbacks from the middle of the talk that ended up having to do with that first story. I like to do that process. I have noticed that a lot of these, especially corporate speaking clients, they want you to inform people, inspire people, but they want you to entertain people. If you’re not doing that, then it’s not a success. If all you do is entertain people and no one learns anything, they still go away happy.
On a previous episode, I had a professional speaker. He does it full-time. His name is Mark Sanborn. He’s a very bright guy and an incredibly accomplished hall of fame speaker. He talked about the idea of Big E and Little E. Big E to the power of Little E where the Big E is education, something that teach and tell people. The Little E is the entertainment part of it, but it’s not plus. It’s to the exponent. That fits the model that you described, which is you can be light on the entertainment, but if you have a big Little E, you get this exponential effect. If you have both, then you’re through the roof.
If people don’t laugh or if it’s a dead crowd, it’s okay because you’re there ultimately to teach something. If the laugh is really small, it’s okay. I’ve found that versus purely standing up and doing comedy, it’s less terrifying to give a business talk with comedy than to just be up there and people are like, “Make me laugh.” There’s more pressure that way. When I have done more pure comedy, I’ve tried to do it in a similar way where you’re learning a story or you’re learning something from it. There’s something to talk about even if you didn’t laugh. That’s a little bit of me hedging because it’s nerve wracking to do. That’s a theme in a lot of my work. I like anything where I can kill two birds with one stone, but it also is a hedge.
What I hear you saying is you build the story into this using the cliffhanger as my co-author from The Humor Code, Joel Warner would say, “You hang the baby over the cliff and they’re like, ‘I’ve got to stick around and find out what happens to that baby.’” The other thing is this iterative process of paying attention to what’s happening, safely testing out 10% to 20% of your new material. I gave a talk in Indianapolis at this advertising conference. It was a 25-minute talk. We’re eight speakers. We did a little Q&A and then I found a quiet space and I’d made revisions right then while it was super fresh. Even if some were little tweaks like the order of the slides should be flipped.
The questions I get after talks are often fuel for the next post I’m going to investigate it in. Dream Teams actually came out of questions from my other books. The new stuff that I’m working on now is coming out of the questions I’m getting from Dream Teams. That’s part of the process too. There’s something else that I wanted to ask you about with the Benign Violation Theory. Is it now a law? Is it still a theory?
We call it the Benign Violation Theory, but when we write about it for a serious journal, we call it the Benign Violation Hypothesis. I wish it was a law. That’s very nice of you to say. For the reader, there’s a difference between a theory and a law. A law is considered truth. It’s been proven.
There’s a twist on it that I do a lot in my writing and I’ll do in my speaking often where I will start telling the story and then I will reveal the character in the story is someone that you know or is not who you thought it was. I’ll zoom out and there’s a twist like the senator was Abraham Lincoln. This kid that we’re telling this story about is Skrillex. I do that a lot and I’ve done it more and more as I’ve gotten feedback on it. It usually doesn’t get a laugh when I do that thing in a crowd, but it gets this, “Ah.” I don’t know what to call that and it’s a violation. I’m wondering if that fits it all into the Benign Violation Theory.
The answer is no, it doesn’t but I have an answer for you. I’ve tussled with this idea a lot. What I’d to say is the Benign Violation Theory is the theory of ha-ha. It’s a theory of humor that is the things that we laugh at or amused by and judge as funny. It’s not a theory of a-ha. What is often the case is that the best comedy combines ha-ha and a-ha. Ha-ha might be a dick joke. Ha-ha plus a-ha is the dick joke that makes you think differently about dicks. What’s fascinating is in the same way that ha-has aren’t a-has, not all a-has are ha-has. Your Skrillex’s a-ha, it’s a moment of insight. I’ll post the paper on the exhibits and I’ll email you the paper. There’s this paper in psychological science about a-ha experience. It is that a-ha experience is whether they are related to comedy or related to solving a mathematical puzzle or inventing something, whatever it might be, has these two elements to it. One is it feels like a flash. It feels sudden. The second is it feels pleasurable. Essentially, it’s solving a problem suddenly. What you’re doing when you say, “This is Skrillex,” is you’re giving or handing the audience this a-ha. Assuming they know who Skrillex is or they know it’s Abraham Lincoln and then they go, “Ah.” They feel the pleasure of it being bestowed on them almost in the same way that they would get the pleasure if they’re like, “This sounds Abraham Lincoln,” and then they write about it.
It’s not a violation because it’s a reveal.
It’s not a form of play. It’s a form of problem solving. I like it a lot and I think it has this other benefit that the audience gets to feel smart. I’d say keep on doing it because it’s pleasurable. Oftentimes, applause breaks in a comedy set is not because of the funniest thing that has been said. It’s an a-ha where people go, “Yes.” This is their way to say, “You nailed it. I got it. I appreciate it. I like it. This makes sense to me. It’s fluent,” and so on. I’ll get you that paper. It’s a neat little paper. You said good story cliffhanger, revise. You’ve got to give me three. You can’t leave two. Three is the magic number.
That’s cliffhanger, revise and I guess it would be a-ha.
[bctt tweet=”Humor makes people remember things better.” via=”no”]
Seek out the a-ha moment to get the audience to feel smart. I like that. I do this thing where I started doing it. Sometimes it’s about when you do a reveal. I talk about how strong brands don’t try to be something for everyone. Knowing who your target customer is, knowing your limitations, knowing what you’re good at, knowing what you’re bad at is important. I use this example of like California has something for everyone. It’s got cities, deserts, beaches and mountains. Imagine you’re in Nebraska. You don’t have big cities, you don’t have beaches. You don’t have something for everyone, but you have something. I say, “When Nebraska recognized this, they had changed their state motto,” and then I show the picture of the state motto and the new state motto is, “Nebraska. Honestly, we’re not for everyone.” It has both the ha-ha because it’s self-deprecating and then it has the a-ha like, “I see what you did there.” That’s a fun little thing.
Is that really their motto?
Yes, I give them a lot of credit. Let’s end with a question I always ask everyone. We’ve been talking a lot about creating. You’re a master creator. I’m blown away by how much you produce. We haven’t even talked about your performance on Broadway. Maybe you can tell me quickly about that. You’re also a serial entrepreneur. Do you sleep at night? These are my questions.
I’m trying to get more sleep.
Do two things for me. One, tell me a little bit about your comedy performance on Broadway. I think that the average person over consumes and under-creates. For such a creator though, I have to imagine you consume. Tell me something that you’re reading, watching or listening to that stands out, that inspires you or you can’t put down or can’t stop consuming.
The first one is my birthday was coming up. My personal trainer is a standup comedian and I’ve been working out with him for years. It’s the perfect side thing because he practices jokes on his training clients. I’ll be doing the bench presses to say, “I was walking through Central Park the other day,” and I’ll be like, “I know this is a joke. You’re testing on me, Andrew.” He’s great.
What’s his name?
Andrew Ginsburg. He’s fantastic. He’s been performing on Broadway for a long time. My sister-in-law is a standup comedian here in Los Angeles. Her name’s Stephanie Brindis. She’s great. They have very different styles of comedy. She talks about doing meth. He’s more a Seinfeld type and she’s more of a shocking type. They’re great. I love them both. I found out that the drummer in my band in college is one of the top comedians in Albuquerque and he’s amazing. All these weird people in my life are comedians. For my birthday, I decided I wanted to put together a show with all of these people in my life. Stephanie flew out to New York. Jesse flew out from Albuquerque to New York. I have a buddy who does stand up in Boston. He came to New York. I put together this show and I was the host. As the host, extensively, I’m going to tell stories about how I knew these people, but I used it as an excuse to practice a bunch of standup comedy.
I ended up doing about twenty minutes with the world’s most favorable audience. To do that, I had to do some practice. I had to go and do some mics. Since then I’ve been getting a little more out of my shell and doing that. On a feedback note, because I was the host and because of the audience, because I was telling the stories of how I knew these people, there was some forgiveness on the stuff that didn’t hit, but there were a couple of bits that hit well that now are part of my repertoire. It was a lot of fun and we filmed it. That particular show we’re putting on the web.
Will you send me the link?
Yes. It’s taken forever to get the footage, but that was a lot of fun. I did a bit about how T-Pain is one of the world’s greatest writers and as a writer, I appreciate it. I’ll send it to you. You can decide what you think. That’s a comedy thing, but it was easier than I thought it would be to start getting into that because of the public speaking already.
You have complementary skills. What’s this one thing that stands out to you?
I have been reading a couple of history books or biographies that have been delightful. One is called Cleopatra: A Life. It’s the great biography about her and deconstructing the mythology around Cleopatra and how much of an effect she had on Rome and on modern society. She’s fascinating. That’s one that I’m reading. That got me reading. I’m halfway through both of these, Genghis Khan and The Making of the Modern World. It’s a similar theme. A character in history that’s been mythologized that when you learn the real story, you see how much now was impacted by this one person in history. Genghis Khan is the more exciting one because it’s about conquering and stuff. The innovations that he did make me happy because he tore apart the way that his society worked. He rebuilt it in a way that was much more interesting and innovative. When he took over the world, we think of him as this brutal guy. He gets conflated with Attila the Hun a lot.
He did fight a lot of battles, but towards the end of his conquering, he fought almost no battles because he was an incredible marketer. He would go and show up to a city and he’d say, “If you join me, then you’ll have my protection and there will be no taxes. You just got to be part of my trade route. If you don’t join me, I will kill all of you. I’ll put each of those guys on a horse to go to the next town in every direction to tell them what happened.” After you massacre a couple of cities this way and you have a couple of cities that spread the news that are like, “Life under this guy is great because we have no more taxes.” Suddenly everyone gives up when you show up. He had a lot of stuff like that. It was interesting.
Why aren’t you and I getting together and why has there not been a good film about Genghis Khan?
I have no idea. The best Genghis Khan thing in film I can think of is Bill and Ted when he shows up. I don’t know that there has been a great one. I’m sure there’s been stuff, but it hasn’t been good enough. Especially the real story of him being more of this master thinker. We just thought he was brutal, but that was what he was wanted to portray.
He fits the anti-hero script much better than the villain script. Shane, thanks so much for doing this. I appreciate it. It’s great to get reconnected. I appreciate your time.
- Shane Snow
- Dream Teams
- Anita Woolley
- Smarter Than You Think
- I’m Not Joking episode with Mark Sanborn
- The Humor Code
- Cleopatra: A Life
- Genghis Khan and The Making of the Modern World
About Shane Snow
Shane Snow is an award-winning journalist, entrepreneur, and the author of three books—including the #1 business bestseller Dream Teams. He speaks about innovation and teamwork, has performed comedy on Broadway, and has been published in GQ, Fast Company, Wired, and The New Yorker.
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