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An interview with Kathy Klotz-Guest, author of "Stop Boring Me! How to Create Kick-Ass Marketing Content through the Power of Improv."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On this week's WriterAccess Podcast, Byron talks to Kathy Klotz-Guest, author of the upcoming book "Stop Boring Me! How to Create Kick-Ass Marketing Content through the Power of Improv." Kathy explains the elements of storytelling, and why framing your lens is imperative to the art.

Byron White:         Welcome back everyone to the WriterAccess podcast. I’m here with Kathy. Kathy, welcome.

Kathy Klotz:            Thanks. Happy to be here.

Byron White:         Right on. You are one of my favorite funny people, Kathy, and that is genuine when I say that. But you’re not only funny, but you teach people how to be less boring and more funny. Thanks for all you do there.

Kathy Klotz:            Well, thank you. No, it is work and it is fun work. It’s good work when you can get it.

Byron White:         Fair enough. You have a new book coming out and I’m excited to talk with you about that. It’s called,” Stop Boring Me! Improv power techniques to create kick ass engaging marketing content.” Tell us a little about the amount of time, and energy, and effort you might have put into this new masterpiece which is due out in a few weeks.

Kathy Klotz:            You know what, it’s really interesting because for the last six, seven years I have been using all of the things that I learned both in branding in the corporate world and also in all the years that I did comedy, in improv and standup comedy. I did it at such a subconscious level and then somebody asked me one time, and I went, “You know, I should step back and look at all these lessons learned,” and I felt like storytelling is about the truth. Comedy is about the truth. They have so many parallels. I was subconsciously infusing my work with everything that I had learned and I thought, “Wow! I think there’s a book here.” When I sat down and looked at all the lessons, I thought, “How do I make this easy, fun, digestible for people so that they don’t think of improv as performance but having fun in a way to entertain their audience, be less boring, and really connect,” and that was really the goal to write this book from a fun perspective, not bore people. But also I think a lot of books out there sometimes, especially when it comes to humor and being non-boring, they make it a little bit more complicated and I thought, “No, everybody is capable of telling a great story.” We’re all great storytellers. We already know how to do that. It’s business that sometimes takes that out of us. I wanted it to be just really easy, chapter-by-chapter there’s tips, and there’s a whole bunch of improv exercises in the book that are going to help people generate ideas for really fun content. I’m really excited about the book.

Byron White:         Terrific. Let me back up to some of the fundamentals here and that is namely; why are we so boring particularly in the business-written world that we have to play in? Are we trained to be boring? Are there some protocols or some master business formula that somehow mesmerized us all that we didn’t recognize? What is going on with that?

Kathy Klotz:            Right. It was we joined the cyborg and we had to assimilate, right? We must assimilate. I think it’s really interesting. I’ve said this before, and I really in the bottom of my soul believe this, which is everybody knows how to tell a story. Because if you’re out with your friends and you’re at a bar, or you’re at a barbecue, or you’re somewhere casual with your friends, you’re entertaining. We all are. We’re all telling stories. Then something happens to us when all of a sudden when get into a business setting or a business context. We get a terminal case of seriousness and all of a sudden, all that humanity just goes out the window, and I think a lot of it is because we’re trained to believe that anything that isn’t serious, we should be suspicious of in business, and that could not be further from the truth because humor is human, and levity is human, and we’re just unfortunately… if you’re fortunate enough to work for a company that values that… and a lot of millennials are choosing to work in environments that foster that. But for a lot of Gen-X'ers, Boomers, we kind of were raised in this environment where, “You got to be serious in business.” I think that that has been such a colossal mistake because… in fact, I just read a statistic today, Byron, that you’ll probably resonate with and it came from Forester, and it said that, “62% of content right off the bat just isn’t even looked at. It’s just awash because we’re awash, and really too much content, and too much really, really bad content.”

Byron White:         With over four billion assets produced and published every day, it’s no surprise. I thought that’s actually seems low to me.

Kathy Klotz:            It does seem low. I thought it would be like 95%. This 62 seems… that seems [0:04:57 hopeful].

Byron White:         Yeah, exactly. Thirty-eight percent, I’m going strong here. All right.

Kathy Klotz:            Exactly.

Byron White:         Maybe we should cut our copy and content down by two-thirds then, as perhaps the rule there.

Kathy Klotz:            I think it is.

Byron White:         Tell us about --

Kathy Klotz:            [0:05:11 inaudible] on having fun.

Byron White:         Tell us about the challenge of learning to write and/or tell stories with wit and humor. Is it hard to do that? Can people really learn to do that, Kathy?

Kathy Klotz:            I think they can. I think there’s two buckets, I think, that people kind of generally speaking, in my experience, fall into. There’s the bucket that people have a proclivity for it, but maybe they don’t have the training. Then there’s the people who think that they don’t have the natural inclination for it and don’t have the training. It’s always easier to work with the people who go, “You know, I’m really interested in, I just don’t know how.” But that other bucket, I think, has been sold a bag of goods because even if you cannot wright funny, everybody can be a little bit witty, everybody can be more clever, and sometimes just something slightly fun. It doesn’t have to be laugh-out-loud funny to make a difference. You and I joke all the time about cats and bacon, anything that will increase the engagement ratio of our content; but it really does. When people are used to bad content, it takes very little to move the needle. Even just a little bit of levity and wit will make people smile. Now, if you’re fortunate enough to be a great writer and you can really do the humor stuff really well, well then that’s great but that’s extra. That’s on the other part of the spectrum.

Byron White:         I want to read you an example of something that I just happened to have written this morning and I stumbled on it without even realizing that it was going to be kind of interesting. There’s a big awards show tonight. It’s called the [0:07:02 inaudible] Awards in Boston, here. I was a judge on the content marketing review panel. I have a funny story about [0:07:11 Larry Kim] as well that we can share later. I get a free ticket, but one of my colleagues wanted to go. I happened to know that they’re sold out. There’s a fun pre-party, and with [0:07:25 inaudible] and cocktails, and then there’s an event afterwards. I wrote a nice note to somebody I’ve never met in [0:07:31 inaudible] before and it said, “Hi [0:07:33 Andy, Dan Mackey] would like to attend with me tonight. He’s very small, does not eat or drink much, and he can share my seat if you were tight on space.” He wrote me back and said, “Ha? This might be my favorite plea for a free ticket email so far. Just added him to the special guest list, but no eating then. We’re a non-profit. See you tonight.” Don’t you think --

Kathy Klotz:            It worked.

Byron White:         It worked right there, right? Obviously, I’m a judge. I’m in the committee. I’m not just somebody pitching a free ticket, right? But I have confidence in my writing ability and not [0:08:19 come as] being funny, just perk it up. Sure, I could write a boring “Hey, Andy. Is there any chance that one of my colleagues could squeeze in?” That’s the normal protocol, right? Why is that our normal protocol? Why aren’t people willing to take risks?

Kathy Klotz:            It’s a couple of reasons and the sad part is, is that it’s lazy, it’s easy, it’s the fallback, it’s the easiest thing to do. When you want to flip that model, flip that script, it takes a little bit of thinking and effort, and we all can do it. We’re just in a hurry. I think we think that I’m just going to write, “Hey, how are you? How are things,” and then go for the ask. But in a world where everybody’s being hit up and asked, and they’re inundated - we’re all inundated, right - you’re going to stand out if you put a little thought into it and somebody… I got approached by… and it’s very akin to what you did and I think it’s brilliant. Just a little bit of effort will stand out. We’re all getting hit up day-after-day, “Please look at this,” “Please look at that,” blah, blah. “Can I get ten minutes of your time?” Well, I get approached by a University of British Columbia student. He was in international business and he wanted to interview me. He sent me a picture of him all sad face. I think he sent a picture of him and me that he had photoshopped together all buddies and we were holding hands, we’re like walking on the beach, and he said, “This is before when I haven’t been able to interview Kathy and this is me afterwards, and I’m happy because I got to interview Kathy for my paper,” and it was really funny. It was super funny and it just grabbed my attention that I couldn’t help but call the kid back, college student. But I couldn’t help because I thought, “You know what, that kind of cleverness deserves my attention,” and it got my attention so he got the interview. Of all the requests that I get, “Hey, can I pick your brain? Can I do this? Can I do that,” he’s made me laugh out loud. That little difference in a sea of saneness and boring stuff will stand out, and people don’t realize that. Take five-ten minutes to just craft something if that’s important, add a little humor, and I promise you if you make somebody laugh or smile, they’re not going to forget you. You’ve made an impression.

Byron White:         There is risk and there is danger. HubSpot published a really interesting, witty approach that I have now seen sweep around the web with a cold-calling email that is unsolicited and not personalized to me in any way, shape and form. But it said something like, “Hey, Byron. Jeez, you haven’t responded to my first email so you either (A) must be dead, or (b) way too busy, or (C)...” they were forcing humor with literally spam, okay? The only thing that varied was my first name. Now, this is where you have to draw the line, right? Humor has to be one-on-one. Kathy, can you talk with us about how critical that is if you truly want to touch the soul and touch the heart?

Kathy Klotz:            I think that’s it. The spam letters that everybody’s getting the same one, everybody knows it. Everybody knows that your humor only goes so far because everybody’s getting the same thing. This is where people get frustrated and they don’t use humor because it doesn’t scale. That’s the problem. They want to be able to… you can’t scale except for LinkedIn. I think you can scale a campaign. But if you’re going to do something like LinkedIn and you want to really make an impression, you’re going to have to remember that that humor has to be individual. It has to be. It’s not a campaign for Facebook. It’s not a tweet that’s going to everybody. It’s a LinkedIn email. If you’re trying to get somebody to respond, you’ve got to spend a little time looking at that profile; knowing what they like, what they don’t like; read something that they’ve written; and then make a graphic out of it and have fun with it. But that’s where I think people think they can do the bare amount of work and just carbon copy it to everybody, and there you go.

Byron White:         I remember doing some recruiting on LinkedIn and I’ve… shall we say been around the block. I’m 54 years old. I’ve traveled around the world. I went to the London School of Economics, blah, blah, yippity yap. But it’s very rare for me to read someone’s resume and not have some connecting point with that person. When I find really great resumes, I actually read them all and I want to learn about their background. When I find somebody that I start to get excited about, I absolutely write them a personal email back and it typically has something witty or funny into it which makes them smile. I find that my success rate in doing that is like 80%-90%. An example of that is I’ll say, “Oh, I see, you went to LSE. I attended there as well. We both know that LSE stands for let’s ski or let’s see Europe.” They’ll be, “Oh, my god. You’re so funny.” You immediately lifted off my pile of people that sent me the, “We’re interested in interviewing you. Please respond if you…” blah, that is just garbage, and these are high profile people perhaps or high demand people that have really good skills, how do you stand out? All right. All of this takes time. Kathy, how can your book help us cut to the chase and get the answers we need to stop being boring?

Kathy Klotz:            Well, the book aims to do a couple of things and I couldn’t do it all in one book. Hence, there’s going to be - I’m already thinking about them - the sequels to the book and that’s crazy, right? The book's not even out yet, but the book will be out this summer. This is really meant to do two things because I figured if I can just do two things well, that will be better than trying to promise a hundred: One, it’s going to make you a better storyteller and I think everybody already knows how to tell a story. It’s going to get people out of their business brain and into their human storytelling brain. It’s going to put them back in touch with all the ways that make a really great story. Then what happened and then what happened and end up… it’s going to bring people into the story and it’s going to make your storytelling that much better. The second thing it’s going to do, it’s going to give you amazing exercises that come from the world of improv that are going to help you create fun content, just really fun, super content like I’m a big Key and Peele fan so I studied sketch. I’ve done improv. I wrote up a post on contagious content lessons from Key and Peele. It’s one of the most popular pieces of content right now that I have because people are hungry for something fun and refreshing. There’s exercises you can do in the book to do mashups. To take two different objects, and mash them together, and create something really fun like what if you’re Lyft or Uber, and you’re a ridesharing service, and you actually created a piece of content around what if Uber or Lyft created a service for dogs? We just do ridesharing for pets. What if that were a thing or what if we actually did poetry slams, mobile poetry slams, and we actually videoed it and we actually put that video out there into the world as a piece of marketing? How powerful would that be? There’s all kinds of tips and tricks that will get you out of the way that you normally think about content and that’s the problem. Improv is going to allow you to just think a little bit different, turn your brain just a little bit at an angle and flip things upside down so you see things in different ways. I think people are going to get some fun exercises and ideas out of the book. If it does that, then I feel like it’s done what I hoped it would do.

Byron White:         With regards to tactics, do you dive deeply into tactics and techniques that will help us get better at what we’re doing, Kath?

Kathy Klotz:            Yes. I dive into how to for idea generation and comping up with new content. I dive deep into the storytelling arena. The one thing that this book does not cover, but that’s in my next book which I’ve already started, and the reason being is I didn’t need a 400-page book. I figured I’d keep it at 200 pages, that’s reasonable. This is story and content. The next book is going to be all about my humor techniques and everything that I not only learned on an improv stage but in standup comedy, and I’ve been doing standup comedy for many years. Here’s the tools and techniques in that second book which are going to be, I think, demystify it for people, but you’ll get a little taste in this first book. You’re going to get some of the fish-out-of-water techniques that comedians use. How do we mash things up to create something new? How do we take something and put it in a completely different context and completely change the conversation for our product? If I took my product, and I put it into the future, and say it was being discussed in Mystery Science Theater 3000, what would the aliens say about my product? There’s all these techniques that anthropomorphize, flip the script, put your product in different situations that allow you to see the humor in these different situations. Those are techniques that I do talk about in this book and they’re ones that I’ve used throughout my comedy and content career. Then the second book, I think it’s going to go much more deeply into that stuff.

Byron White:         How do you find your comedic voice, if there is such a thing? Trial and error? Professional help? Close friends to tell you that that sucks, but that’s really good?

Kathy Klotz:            Actually, none of the above. What’s really interesting is I think the best thing that can happen to a comedian is life experience, because I think one of the things that happens to people is when we’re trying to find what’s funny out there and just replicate what we think is funny without it being funny to us, it comes across a little bit disingenuous. The biggest thing, I think, and the best thing to happen to a comedian is life experience and when you find your voice, it comes from a center of truth. Comedy like great storytelling in business is about the truth. If I say a joke that makes you laugh, well, why does it make you laugh? Because it’s the truth. I opened my standup recently and I said, “So, I’m married and I have kids, and you know what, I highly recommend neither,” and everybody laughed because if you’re married, you recognize the truth in that, right? “Yeah, do I love my family? You bet. But are there days I want to like smother them with a pillow, you bet,” and I think there’s the truth. The best thing you can do if you want to find your comedic voice is what’s the truth for you? It’s always about this. I’m not pondering. I’m a business owner mom. I’m a funny mom. I’m a mom that has not enough time and too many demands, and I don’t have time to worry about gluten-free baked goods at my son’s school and the party police that want to check me at the door for every kind of gluten that I try to sneak into the school. I have very funny things, but these are actual things that happen in my day-to-day life and it’s real. It comes from a place of just, “Oh, you know that Kathy’s been through that because she’s talking it.” The best thing I can really just advice, I can give to anybody, what is your truth? Who are you? What’s the lens? The more you can frame your comedy through a lens, a specific narrow lens, whether you’re a snarky mom, or maybe you’re, a business owner, or maybe you’re an older guy, you’re a grandpa, whatever that is, the more specific, the better, because now, you are framing your lens so people go, “That’s my story too.”

Byron White:         Do you feel that the voice has to be developed though? There’s a critical voice, a cynical voice, an ignorant voice like, “Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe that the world works that way,” right? Do you have to pick a flavor if you will and kind of develop your tone, and your style, and your content around that flavor and stick to it so you’re not all over the place?

Kathy Klotz:            Well, when you’re developing obviously content in business, that’s a little bit different. Think of it this way, if I’m doing comedy on a stage, this is about my personal lens. If I’m doing lighthearted, humorous kind of content, it’s really through the personality of the brand. The difference is that instead of it being Kathy the brand or Byron, maybe it’s the WriterAccess brand or maybe it’s a little bit of both, because you probably are very similar to the WriterAccess brand.

Byron White:         Sadly, that’s true.

Kathy Klotz:            It is, because you're part of the brand… you are the brand. I am my brand. But for a bigger company, it’s not going to be the content team’s personal thing. It’s going to be what’s the brand personality and that becomes very, very important because your content, your tone of voice is what differentiates your content, your tone. I think it’s your secret sauce and I think it’s the thing that sets you apart. The biggest thing you can ask yourself is, “Look, as a content team, who are we? What’s our personality?” There are some brand personalities that are fun, some that are lighthearted, some that are serious but good research or of high utility, and some that are personable, some that are friendly, some that are whatever. But the biggest thing you have to is make sure that when somebody sees your content, they go, “Ah,” that’s whatever, that’s Aflac, that’s this, that’s that because it’s consistently reflective of your brand personality. I think that’s where there's a disconnect, there's a lot of content out there that is not reflective of the brand personality.

Byron White:         Where can people go terribly wrong when it comes to trying to make things not boring or funny? What are examples you’ve seen that are disastrous and to run for the hills if you attempt to do anything like that?

Kathy Klotz:            I think scare tactics can work sometimes in some contexts. But in a lot of contexts, I’ve seen these kinds of scare tactics backfire. One thing that comes to mind as we’re talking is, I don’t know if you remember, the Super Bowl last year - not this year but last year- where it was an insurance company and they talked about these kids, and we found out that at the end of the commercial, they were all dead. They had died. It was the guilt trip of are your underinsured. It was like I’m watching Super Bowl with my kids and now, you’re talking to me about perished children and that’s horrible and now, I’m like… and that backfired big time. I think sometimes in our attempts to grab people, we can use tactics that don’t work. Be careful going negative. You’re much more likely to get shared and to resonate with people if you give them a feeling of hope, optimism; make them laugh, but make sure that the humor doesn’t overpower the message. But if you stick to the positive emotions or if you give them utility, you can have a piece of content like an infographic that’s a how to and that will get heavily shared if it’s good. Inform, educate, entertain: These are things that are positive emotions. I think the risky thing is you can shake people up, you can scare people, you can make them angry, you can make them upset, you can surprise people. But generally speaking, when you leave people with a positive emotion, that’s when you get the big benefits. There’s always risk in doing something different because you don’t know how it’s going to work out. If you’re being edgy and you’re taking risks or really don’t believe you have to take big risks to do things differently. Sometimes just the small things that people don’t expect that make them smile, as I said before. Those can move the needle for you in really surprising ways.

Byron White:         Surprise is important to all of this recipe, right?

Kathy Klotz:            Mm-hmm.

Byron White:         What’s your take on self-critical approach, and using yourself, and not being afraid, and being bold enough to admit mistakes, and to use those mistakes as either lessons learned, or stories to tell, or humor sources? Before you answer that, I have one interesting observation and that is my father who’s a professor of philosophy taught me many years ago and that’s stuck in my head for reasons I couldn’t understand because he told me when I was a pretty at a young age. He said, “Byron, as you journey through life, never be afraid of your ignorance; but always try to hide your stupidity.” Wonderful words of wisdom. But how do you cast it on that? Kathy, what are your thoughts on that?

Kathy Klotz:            Yeah, that’s pretty darn funny. Well, I would say your dad is a very smart man. I think it’s true. I think the only shame in stupidity is repeating mistakes. That’s where we don’t learn. I wish more brands would admit their mistakes because there is nothing wrong with admitting mistakes and failures. Somehow, again, we come this place where we all think from a storytelling perspective that admitting a failure is a weakness. It isn’t. Every brand has missteps. Every brand makes mistakes. Every brand pivots, that’s the new term now for not making a mistake. We never say a brand failed or made a mistake. We say pivot, which is kind of weaselly. But the reality is it’s okay to talk about what didn’t work. In fact, it increases trust with your audience and I think brands don’t do it enough. The thing is don’t stay in the failure. But like here’s what we learned, here’s what we are taking actions on to do differently next time. I know this brand got bandied about at CMC, at the Content Marketing Conference. I think everybody talked about Chipotle and how if Chipotle had done something different, and I agree. Had Chipotle just come out, owned its mistakes, I think, maybe been… handled it differently, I think the trust factor would not have been adversely affected. But it was quick to blame the FDA, all these other things, rather than, “All right. Here’s what happened: We did a complete investigation. Here’s what we discovered. Here’s what we’re going to do different and rest assured, these will not happen again because we’ve implemented these new things.” That would be an honest story, but I think Chipotle has never really done that.

Byron White:         If there’s one remarkable take away from your book that you can’t wait to get it out in the world, what might it be, Kathy? What can we get super excited about, maybe a chapter or some new counterintuitive insight that you could offer us, tease us with a little bit.? Give us a tease here.

Kathy Klotz:            Tease us with it. Well, I’m going to say there’s two big things. One is really the exercises that are going to strengthen your creativity muscle. Here’s the thing, comedy is circuit training for your brain and there’s a whole bunch of activities that’re going to make you better at spotting content opportunity and that’s the beauty. The second part, I would say, is that one of the big things that stays with me years and years later, the biggest thing that I learned in comedy was this: Was that seeing a character chase a want, because everybody has a human want, everybody wants something, seeing a character chase that want creates story. Seeing a character chase a want and get blocked, and keep getting backed up again and getting blocked, and keep getting backed up again, that’s comedy. When you get back down to the essence of great storytelling, it is always, always about the human want and need. Most business stories are sterile because they never get to the heart of the real human want, and this book’s going to help you do that.

Byron White:         It’s just been a real pleasure talking with you Kathy. It always is, frankly. But really, you’re so talented and we’re so supportive and excited for your new book. Thanks for being with us today.

Kathy Klotz:            My pleasure. Thank you for having me, Byron. I really appreciate it.

Byron White:         It’s been great and I can tell you with certainty, I can’t wait for the next.

Kathy Klotz:            Well, thank you so much.

Byron White:         Thanks for tuning in everyone for the WriterAccess podcast. We’ll see you next week.