Consulting and the Art of Self-deprecation

According to Wikipedia, comedians use self-deprecating humor “to avoid seeming arrogant or pompous and to help the audience identify with them.” Sounds like a good strategy for anyone looking to build trust and rapport with another human being. Sounds like an especially good strategy for anyone in the consulting profession.

Ask any client who has worked with consultants over the years – they’ll have at least a few horror stories to tell about the Big Important Expert they hired. That creates messes we are all left to clean up.

Self-deprecation is an art that should be routinely practiced by anyone who claims the title “consultant.”

Here’s some material for your toolkit (original author unknown):

Top Ten Things You’ll Never Hear from a Consultant

1. You’re right; we’re billing way too much for this

2. Bet you I can go a week without saying “synergy” or “value-added”

3. How about paying us based on the success of the project?

4. This whole strategy is based on a Harvard business case I read

5. Actually, the only difference is that we charge more than they do

6. I don’t know enough to speak intelligently about that

7. Implementation? I only care about writing long reports

8. I can’t take the credit. It was Ed in your marketing department

9. The problem is, you have too much work for too few people

10. Everything looks okay to me

Share this with your clients. They’ll enjoy laughing at your expense. And they’ll appreciate your ability to laugh at yourself!

Why Laughter Might Win the Proposal

Quick: in your sales and internal presentations, do you use too much humor? Or not enough?

Your first reaction may be, “probably not enough. Then again,” you might think, “ I’m not too great at jokes—and the last thing I want is to have some lame attempt at humor fall flat. My clients are serious about their business, and I wouldn’t want them thinking I was being cavalier about it.”

That reaction puts you square in the middle of most presenters I’ve seen. The claim that “business is serious” masks a deeper truth—what if I fail? And heaven forbid we fail.

So we take the low-risk route.

Result: pandemic boredom.

Enter author Adrian Gostick and humorist Scott Christopher, in their new book The Levity Effect  They argue that:

Some salespeople mistakenly worry…that humor dilutes their message, makes it less urgent and torpedoes credibility. Nothing could be further than the truth. Sending a message with levity demonstrates a clear understanding of the principles of effective communication. It also shows the audience you value their time enough to want to entertain and connect with them and make it worth their while.

They give the delightful counter-example of Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO Kaplan Thaler agency, who was pitching Panasonic about a shaving product.

As the business meeting began, Kaplan Thaler and her team sat around a conference table with the executives… The Panasonic brass was expecting a formal presentation, but instead Kaplan Thaler smiled and said, “Pretend I’m one of the guys.” Then she proceeded to sing, “Shaving sucks, shaving sucks, like a Band-Aid getting stuck, why does half the human race tear the hair out of their face …”

After sitting through days of drab pitches, the executives were very quickly snorting and hooting in appreciation of the zany song.

“They loved it, and we got the business. They said, ‘You didn’t have the best strategy, but you had the most entertaining way to do it. So we figured you guys are going to be a lot of fun and more entertaining to work with.’”

Next time your firm does a win-loss analysis, include three variables on the survey:

a. Did the winner, whomever it was, have the lowest bid?
b. Did the winners rate higher on relationship, or on value?
c. Did the winner seem more fun to work with?

(Probable answers:  a. no;  b. relationship;   c. yes)

Larry David, Seinfeld and Social Networking

The technology of social networking is overrated. You still have to be able to communicate. Cartoons notwithstanding, in social networks everyone does know you’re a dog—and it doesn’t take long to learn it.

Might there be learning in studying those who are not good at networking with others?

A recent New Yorker item describes how workers with the mentally ill have discovered a powerful tool: the comedic stylings of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, by Larry David (co-creator, with Jerry Seinfeld, of the hit TV show Seinfeld).

Those being studied represented several forms of alienation from society at large (they were schizophrenics, if memory serves me). The researchers discovered that the patients responded to situation comedies portraying social ineptitude. They could relate, it turns out.

The logical endpoint of that insight was Curb Your Enthusiasm. For those who don’t know Larry David’s brilliant show, picture Seinfeld if HBO did it, and every episode had George at its center.

Jason Alexander (Seinfeld’s George) describes an early-season reading where he questioned George’s motivation for something: “I don’t know anyone who would do that.” Larry David responded brightly, “I would.” And Alexander says, “suddenly I understood the George character. It was all Larry.”

Larry David (he plays himself on Curb) is cheerfully, honestly, forthrightly neurotic and self-centered to the nth degree. It’s not that he’s proud of it; he’s just saying that’s what he is.

The fun, of course, is that David is merely more honest than the rest of us. We can laugh at him without directly facing the social pain that his behaviors cause us when we commit them—which we do, all the time. He is our public court jester. He speaks the truth in a socially acceptable manner—as comedy, with a subtext we needn’t publicly acknowledge. But we know it. He’s doing public self-psycho-analysis, and we’re along for the ride.

That’s why he’s a hit with mental patients—and with the rest of us too. We’re not qualitatively different—it’s just a matter of degree. “Sanity” is a wispy line; it’s hard to say where the hill ends and the mountain begins.

It’s an old sitcom formula. Nearly every I Love Lucy episode begins with a prank gone wrong, spiralling out of control. The comedy consists in watching Lucy lie about what’s happening, until the lie is unsustainable, and she must surrender to reality. We relate to her frantic mania, knowing that Ricky will forgive her in the end. On TV, that is. In real life, Ricky rarely forgives—or so we fear.

Every single Seinfeld episode with George is about the inability to maintain a neurotic fiction he has created in the face of a reality-based onslaught. He is owned by his fibs about Vandalay industries and his casual claims about Hamptons real estate. His only success in life comes when he resolves to do everything the opposite of his instincts.

George, Lucy, Larry—they cannot tell the truth in a socially acceptable manner. We learn by watching their comic misery, because we too suffer from that inability, and are alienated from others because of it.

A lot of coming to trust others is learning how to speak the truth in a socially acceptable manner; to marry radical truth-telling with our conventions of propriety.
We learn much of it not by learning lines, or by watching others do it well, or by learning the principles of effective communication. We also learn by watching social train wrecks, made palatable by humor.

We learn many things—like truth-telling—more by seeing negative examples than by seeing positive ones by themselves. Much corporate training is afflicted by an abundance of softened edges, watered-down empathy and general happy-talk. But truth isn’t truth if it has to be constantly watered down. You can’t enable people into overcoming their addictions to neuroticism.

To get along in the social networking world of the future (or of today), don’t just bone up on good behaviors. Make it a point to study disasters too.

Just make sure you’re laughing most of the time.