Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work

An interview with Andrew Tarvin, about his book “Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work”.


What inspired you to write this book?

Yeah. I remember being in a meeting pretty early on in my career at P&G that was incredibly boring. It was like watch the paint dry-level boring. The biggest problem was that I was the one leading the meeting. So it’s like, “If I’m bored while talking, the audience has to be bored while listening.” So I wanted to find ways to kind of find more fun in my own particular work. As I started to incorporate some things that I had started to learn in improv and standup in university, I started to realize that the same skills that I needed to be as an effective improviser were actually some of the same skills I needed to be effective as a communicator, as a leader, for really kind of my own personal productivity as well. So I started to explore that intersection of humor in the workplace and improv in business.

That’s what I’ve been doing now for the last 10 years, is working with organizations on how to be more effective using humor. The reason for the book is to continue to kind of share that message. We do a lot of speaking and a lot of training, but we can’t impact as many people as we feel like can benefit from this message without something that we can share a little bit more broadly. That was partially the prompt for the book. I think the why now piece is it it’s taken a little while to learn how to effectively train people on how to use humor, what strategies do they actually need to implement. I think given the amount of stress that people are under, given the amount of challenges that we have day to day in the workplace, that now is just as important as any time to kind of learn how to not only enjoy our work but learn how to do it a little bit more effectively.

What are some tips to add more humor in the workplace?

Humor is more broad than comedy. When we think of humor, when we hear humor, often the first thing that we think is stand-up comedy. We think of laughter, we think of comedians, and telling jokes, and that’s one part of humor. But humor is also more broad than that. It’s a comic, absurd, or incongruence quality causing an amusement. So it’s not just making something funny. For example, when we talk about humor in the workplace, it’s not necessarily about making work funny but more about creating an environment, enjoying our work in a way that’s a little bit more fun.

I think the other thing that helps people is recognizing that we also don’t always have to be the creator of humor. You can be the shepherd of humor. You can be the kind of conduit of it where if you find a funny TEDx talk or an interesting meme or something like that online, you can share that out with your team. You didn’t have to be the one that created it but instead, you can kind of share it and then connect it to a larger image or a larger kind of message that you’re trying to share.

Then the final thing that I’ll say is that humor is a skill, and that means it can be learned. Part about what we talk about in the book is. “What are some of the things that we can do to actually incorporate humor, whether think you’re funny or not?” Again, going back to that idea that it is a little bit more broad. So with the book and what we do kind of with our programs, it’s not necessarily about teaching you how to be funnier, but it is about teaching you how to effectively use this tool of humor.

Any examples of using humor in a meeting?

One is starting with the story. You know, I think sometimes people hear the advice that they should start a meeting or a presentation with a joke and so they’ll find a joke that they found on the internet, share it. It’ll have nothing to do with the meeting, and then the entire remaining like 59 minutes and 30 seconds of the presentation will be incredibly boring and dry. That’s not effective humor. That’s not what we’re talking about. Instead, you might start with a story that is a little bit more personal to you, and that story somehow connects and leads into maybe the topic or the thesis of the day. So, for example, in my TEDx talk, I start with the story about my grandmother and her texting and her being confused as to what WTF means, right? She thinks that it means, wow, that’s fun. That leads into my thesis of like, “Oh well, actually if more people thought WTF in a sense of wow, that’s fun, they would actually get better results in that workplace.”

So it starts with the funny storage shares a little bit more about me and then gives me a theme and a thesis for the day that I can kind of connect back to. So I think that’s one thing is using stories that are relevant to the topic matter. Another easy way to incorporate it into meetings is to use more images and presentations. You know, rather than having a wall full of text, you can have an image that you found online that’s more interesting, that you can then speak to, that makes the point for you. I think a third kind of easy way to incorporate into meetings is to do more interactive things with people at the meeting. Rather than just you talking the whole time, maybe you can learn an improv exercise that it’s going to help you with brainstorming, something like, “Yes, and…” or maybe you do a listening exercise that’s just to help people practice their listening skills but also as kind of fun, right? These types of interactive active activities kind of help to build the relationships in the room while also training on a specific skill.

Is there a framework presented in the book?

No matter who you are, what you do, there are five basic skills of work. No matter your role, you’re going to do kind of five things. First, you have to be able to execute. You have to be able to complete a task. You have to be able to fry the French fries, or shave an alpaca, whatever your job happens to be, you have to actually be able to do those tasks. Second, you need to be able to think strategically [inaudible 00:05:38] solve critical problems, critical problem-solving, or think more creatively to plan down the road. Third, you need to be able to communicate, articulate the ideas that you actually have in a way that other people understand as well as be able to listen to ideas and understand what other people are saying. Four, you need to able to connect at an emotional level, understanding empathy, and emotional intelligence, and how humans actually work.

Then, five, you need to be able to lead. You need to be able to influence people to [inaudible 00:06:06]. No matter who you are, what you do, work is some subset of those five things. So what we say is, “Humor is the missing skill.” So the book, the starting point, is yeah, there’s case studies and research. This is all backed by research, case studies, real-world examples. It’s not the stuff that I’ve made up. There’s actual scientific proof of the benefits of using humor in different contexts. So the book kind of start with that, starts with what humor means and how we can understand humor and create humor a little bit better. And then the second half of the book is 10 humor strategies across those five skills of how to be more effective in the workplace.

What are some key takeaways from the book?

One thing is to try, it’s to go out there and give it a go. Don’t do anything too extreme, but start off small and see if you can start to do it. At least what I found at P&G was people wanted it. They welcomed it as soon as they kind of saw it as an option. And the second thing that I would say to that is even if you work in a place where you’ve tried humor and people are like, “No laughing whatsoever. You can’t have fun. Work has feel like work.” Which is a misnomer, a myth anyway. But if you work in that environment, to recognize that no one can control how you think. No one can prevent you from…

One of the things that I like to do is if I’m getting bored going through email, I’ll start to read each of the emails [inaudible 00:07:27] head. No one can stop me from reading emails in a different accent because that’s something mental that I do. Same thing of no one can prevent you from listening to a comedy podcast on your way home from work so that you relieve some stress and show up more present for your family when you get there. There’s certain things that you can do no matter the environment to kind of take more ownership and control of how you do your work. And that’s probably the bigger message that we want people to walk away with.

Andrew Tarvin

Andrew Tarvin

Book Author

Andrew Tarvin is obsessed with efficiency. In fact, that’s why he goes by Drew Tarvin, it’s more efficient. As the world’s first humor engineer, he teaches people how to get better results while having more fun. Combining his background as a project manager at Procter & Gamble with his experience as a stand-up comedian, he reverse-engineers the skill of humor in a way that is practical, actionable, and gets results in the workplace.
Through his company, Humor That Works, Dew has worked with more than 35,000 people at over 250 organizations, including Microsoft, the FBI, and the International Association of Canine Professionals. He is the bestselling author of three books, including Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work. He has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and FastCompany and his TEDx talk has been viewed more than four million times. He loves the color orange and is obsessed with chocholate.

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