FunnyBizz Conference Brings Serious Fun to the World of Business

09/14/2015 03:35 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2016

Imagine a conference where "serious" businesspeople spend an entire day laughing -- or considering how humor, comedy and laughter could enhance their business. This past June, about 250 business people of all ages, shapes and enterprises gathered in a San Francisco church-turned-performance space to do just that.

David Nihill, an Irish-born funny person and entrepreneur has now hosted three such conferences, one in New York and two in San Francisco, and judging from the participant feedback, he may be on to something:

  • As a consultant who helps people in organizations to find joy in their work and to have FUN while learning new skills and getting to know each other better, I'm so happy to find a community of like-minded people!

  • A very satisfying mix of entertaining and informative. Did not feel like a "normal" conference atmosphere. I left inspired to share my experience with coworkers.
  • Found this conference to be immensely useful. Loved the info about B2B and the fact that the speakers were generally encouraging marketers to be bold and unafraid of pushing boundaries.
  • The conference was awesome! Great line-up of speakers made us laugh and got us thinking. I came away with several ideas I can put to use immediately, including a new tag line.
  • I didn't leave the conference feeling like I was funnier, but I left feeling like I could strategize ways to incorporate humor into my work.
  • And so on.

    So, what is the FunnyBizz conference? How does it work? Where and how did it start?

    I'm glad I asked that question!

    FunnyBizz founder David Nihill -- who has had a varied career as a business, financial and marketing consultant, and has lived and worked in 12 countries -- used to be terrified of public speaking. Two years ago, David faced this fear head-on by agreeing to host a benefit comedy show for a friend. Recognizing that preparation is a time-tested tool for dealing with performance anxiety, he spent seven weeks studying the structure of humor and storytelling. He developed a routine, and began audience-testing it at various open-mike comedy venues in the Bay Area. On the evening of the event, David was, as his friend Arash Bayatmakou put it, "the funniest person of the evening. Which is impressive, considering he wasn't even one of the comedians."

    At that point, David realized he had learned something in the process that could be valuable to other businesspeople -- most people, with the right kind of practice, could learn to be funny, AND learning how to structure a comedy routine involves the exact same skills as making a successful presentation. He kept his own comedy experiment going for one full year, as a comedian performing under the name "Irish Dave" (who got booked because he perpetuated the myth he was "big in Ireland"). He ended up taking what he learned and writing a popular e-book (also available in print and audio versions), Do You Talk Funny? 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (and Funnier) Public Speaker.

    He began coaching clients one-on-one to help them use humor to draw upon their own personal stories and use techniques from the world of stand-up comedy to become more effective presenters. From there, he put together a consortium of people who are both business-savvy and funny, and began consulting with businesses on how to create a more compelling and audience-friendly message through humor. The FunnyBizz conference brings together the best comic and business minds to help folks add humor and storytelling principles to their business content. (And, of course, to have fun doing it.)

    The 2015 conference was held at the Chapel, a mortuary-turned-performance space, restaurant, and neighborhood bar in San Francisco's Mission District. The dark red walls in the large room made the space seem more like a nightspot than a "day spot" -- certainly not the kind of business conference space participants were used to. Lunch and snacks were included in the cost for the event, which ranged from $179 (early bird) to $299 (late bird).

    The dark room lit up as David Nihill introduced the event, and the first speaker, Jonah Sachs of Free Range Studios. Sachs, who created the viral videos the Meatrix and the Story of Stuff and whose brand is "winning the story wars", set the stage and tone for the event. He distinguished between the old-style commercial story where the product is the hero that solves a problem (like "halitosis", a condition invented to sell Listerine, Sachs reports) to the product as an ally and "mentor" to the real hero -- the consumer who wants to do something of value and enhance the quality of their lives, and the lives of others.

    Sachs cited Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" and reminded the audience that George Lucas used Campbell's book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, when he was stuck on the first Star Wars script. The right story, says Sachs, allows your business to make a personal connection with the audience. Humor provides a way to "safely" break the rules we all long to break, to provide novelty and surprise -- and yes, to counter authority.

    The next speaker, Andrew Tarvin, is an actual comedian, and to prove it he made two totally funny remarks: "I feel 'efficient' should be a one syllable word," he said, and he reported using "unable to connect with server" when he was being ignored by a waitress at a restaurant. Tarvin presented humor as a way to get people to pay closer attention, because once it has been established that a speaker is funny, the audience is listening for the next opportunity to be surprised and delighted. The purpose of humor in business, he told the group, is to gain attention and cultivate relationship. Humor, he said, has been upgraded from a "nice to have" to "a must have".

    Then Sarah Cooper, author of the highly-popular Cooper Review offered a simple (if not easy) formula for humor:

    1. It must be the truth
    2. Mash it up ... bring in unrelated ideas, and see how they relate
    3. Make fun of yourself
    4. Compare two things

    Using these four guidelines, she encouraged the audience to "pay a new kind of attention". "Comedy doesn't look for what's right," she said, "It looks for what's 'off'." She quotes Rita Rudner: "There is nothing funny about confident people doing well."

    Then D. J. O'Neill, CEO and Creative Director of Hub Strategy & Communication posed a simple challenging question in relation to marketing to gain attention: "What would Branson do?"

    Referring to the innovative and unpredictable founder of Virgin Airlines, O'Neill pointed to Richard Branson's "cheekiness" that defines the Virgin brand. In contrast to this cheeky humor, O'Neill pointed out, "there's nothing more serious than air travel."

    Effective humor lowers our guard, O'Neill said, and:

    1. Must be central to the product or service
    2. Must get the audience's attention, because nowadays ads are not competing with other ads, they're competing with entertainment
    3. Must be shareable

    Next on the program was Kathy Klotz-Guest, a marketing consultant who has had a parallel career in comedy performance and improv. "Safe is the new risky," she proclaimed, as she invited the audience to be more playful in their businesses and messaging. Her website and brand, "Keeping it human", echoes the idea that humor and playfulness are excellent ways to enhance the quality of life, and the quality of communicating with clients and customers. Extolling the value of blue sky brainstorming, she said, "You don't have to marry an idea, just take it out on a few dates."

    After lunch, one of the most unusual and intriguing speakers, Dan Ilic, offered his edgy, outside-just-about-every-box perspective on his specialty, the "info bomb". The Australian-born Ilic, who calls himself "an investigative humorist", most recently had a show with the Al Jazeera network in San Francisco. In addition to hosting The Beast on Australia's ABC TV network, Ilic produced Beaconsfield: The Musical, a dark parody of an Australian mining collapse. (The original title, Beaconsfield: A Musical in A Flat Minor, was "strongly criticized" so Ilic changed it, probably reluctantly.)

    Ilic offered his philosophy and approach for using in-your-face humor to turn heads and change minds: Tell them something they don't know. Make them say, "That's amazing ... I never thought of that." Move the needle on an issue. Make the campaign about "comedy, courage, and cause".

    Another highlight of the afternoon program was Annie Sloan, a branding maven who cautioned that ads need to be not just funny, but the "right kind of funny". She cited the viral "ship your pants" TV ad that now has over 20 million You Tube views, and then challenged the audience to remember which company the ad was for. While everyone was familiar with the ad, only a minority remembered it was for K-Mart.

    Her point?

    Don't get so lost in the ad that you forget its purpose -- not to mention the product, or rather TO mention the product!

    She offered three key steps for an effective funny ad:

    1. Make it strategic -- not just a funny idea, but one that is consistent with the product and the audience. "Get professional help!" she said.

  • Check yourself -- meaning, don't just go with impulse, but check it out with associates and marketing professionals. Humor is a powerful weapon, so make sure it doesn't backfire!
  • Balance -- don't make the humor so much about the product, as about a situation the customer might find themselves in. Volkswagen ads of the early 1960s notwithstanding, don't make the product the butt of the joke.
  • Another highlight of the afternoon program was Dan Klein, an expert on improvisational comedy and a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. Dan touted improv as a way to become more flexible, more creative, to rekindle magic -- and even reduce blood pressure. One of his more intriguing ideas is that improv is a way to shift "status" -- the roles we habitually, and often unconsciously, play. "The invitation to play that improv provides," said Klein, "is a way to cultivate novelty and expand your ordinary way of being."

    Since creativity often involves collaboration, the rules of improv are the rules of collaborative brainstorming and idea-gathering. The practice of improv is to "serve the scene" and say YES to ideas. "Yes, but" is replaced by "yes, and."

    Following up on the improv theme, the conference ended by calling back to the stage three of the presenters and asking to them to give a 5-minute presentation on a topic chosen by the audience, where they had to incorporate a random set of slides and images they had never seen before. It was a hilarious ending to an entertaining and informative day.

    A few days later, I asked a woman I met at the conference who's involved with a business-to-business enterprise to offer her take on the day. She wrote:

    I wasn't sure what to expect at the Funny Bizz conference, to be honest. But it definitely exceeded my expectations. My main takeaway was about "guts" - having the guts to be "unprofessional" and have fun with business! So many speakers gave great examples of how humor and "unprofessionalism" helped them reach more people and connect with customers in a more "human" and meaningful way.

    So ... if as Kathy Klotz-Guest tells us, "safe is the new risky", maybe "unprofessional" is the "new professional". In any case, an entire room full of people now recognize how the right kind of humor helps us "keep it human", and how funny business is most definitely serious business.

    To find out more about Funny Bizz and their next conference, please go to: http://funnybizz.co/funnybizz-conference/

    Wise Words From Wiseguys (and Gals) at the 2015 FunnyBizz Conference

    "Start with a story."
    -- Jonah Sachs, Free Range Studios

    "Humor helps you do your job better, and enjoy it more."
    -- Andrew Tarvin, Humor That Works

    "Don't try to be funny. Be honest."
    -- Sarah Cooper, Cooper Review

    "It's worse to be ignored than to offend."
    -- D. J. O'Neill, Hub Strategy & Communication

    "Comedy is the truth on steroids."
    -- Kathy Klotz-Guest, Keeping It Human

    "Everything is funny. Some things are serious."
    -- Dan Ilic, Investigative Humorist

    "Instead of hilarious, be likeable."
    -- Jason Miller, B to B Humor

    "Find the rules, and break them."
    -- Jack Smith, Hustling

    "No one gives you the script for the day."
    -- Dan Klein, on the Magic of Improv

    Steve Bhaerman is a freelance writer, author and comedian who has spent the past 29 years writing and performing as Swami Beyondananda, the Cosmic Comic. He can be found online at http://www.wakeuplaughing.com/