“Even if you don’t have an interest in comedy it’s a good experience to take a stand-up class or an improv class. It’s amazing what it will teach you about the world.”
Tim Washer describes himself as a host, comedian, writer and Presbyterian. He has appeared on Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and that is all the more interesting to me because he is also the social media communications manager at IBM. What first attracted my attention to Tim was an article in TEXAS magazine, followed by a blog post about this viral video he helped produce for IBM.
I spoke with him about the role of humor in the corporate world, social media, and stretching the boundaries of comfort when talking Big Business. Tim tells me there are 50,000 IBM employees on Facebook, and in that environment the corporate voice begins to merge with the community voice. In 2005, IBMers used a wiki to create the IBM Social Computing Guidelines, which has been updated to include blogging. The goal is to help individual employees understand how to speak for themselves, while still being good corporate citizens.
Tim is a Texas MBA graduate and he credits professor Stephen Magee (a humorous guy in his own right) with encouraging him to dream of his ideal profession. The answer, bringing comedy to the corporate environment seems the ideal fit for this social media guru.
My interview with TimWasher.mp3.
Edited Version of Our Conversation
David Wenger: Tim, I wanted to talk with you after I saw a very amusing video that you helped produce for IBM that turned viral and garnered a ton of publicity for the company while seeming to say all the wrong things. What was the genesis of that?
Tim Washer: I love that question because it’s a funny story. I think as with most writers that genesis is just an idea that flashes in your mind, and in this case I started at IBM working as a speech writer for the General Manager of the Mainframe Business. Most of these systems can be $1 million or even more. And I just thought how silly that would be if you had somebody trying to cold-call for mainframe business, just randomly going through a phone book trying to call somebody at home during the dinner hour, “May I speak with the decision maker of the household?”
I just built the script around that. We were working on the communications plan for the mainframe and we came up with a new value proposition for the mainframe, and there were three points, it has better economics in the right case, it’s more energy efficient, and has better security. What I ended up doing is writing a short video that very carefully mentioned each one of those propositions in the story. But you’ll notice the product name, which is System Z, is not in there and we don’t even say IBM in the stories.
DW: I’m just trying to imagine how you make this sell in a corporate environment. “Here’s what we want to do.”
TW: I had written and produced a few comedy videos here at IBM before I presented this one. And I think that’s important to any kind of social media or video strategy, just experimenting and starting off small and getting people comfortable with the approach and letting them know it can be a success. That’s what I did with these. I had been there for three months and sat down with the head of sales for the mainframe and asked him what his objectives were and when he gave me the objectives it just seemed clear that we should do a comedy video to communicate what we need to do. Now, of course, being a comedian I’m a little biased that way and I see the world that way. And everybody thought, well, we don’t know if that’s a good idea. Actually quite a few people said no up front, and I didn’t want to push things being the new guy here. So I was quiet and a couple of weeks later I pitched it in a little different way, and people warmed up to it and they said let’s try it.
I hired a friend to come in and do it for me for dirt cheap and we made the risk very low. We made it really easy, where there wasn’t much cost involved and it was internal only, and we got a great response. We showed it at the Global Sales Conference in San Diego and they loved it, and then we showed it in Barcelona. And then, of course, there was this demand, okay we’ve got to do another one. So that’s how you sell almost anything in life. Start off slow where the risks are low and get people excited about what could be done and let people know the success, and then grow it.
DW: I’m interested in this whole point of how you stretched the boundaries of what is comfortable in a corporate environment. I was speaking with Erik Qualman, the author of Socialnomics, and one of the points he makes is social media often stretches the boundaries of comfort. How do you deal with that?
TW: It fits into the previous question, that you start off small. You know, when somebody’s uncomfortable about something new you try to take it in small chunks, and sell it that way. Ease people into it, that’s important with comedy especially. What was most uncomfortable about this is just how strongly self-deprecating it was. We got some feedback like, “Why in the world would you guys do this?” Again, the key point is starting off small and keeping your risks low and getting people comfortable with something and then moving along and going bigger.
DW: You’re a professional comedian, you’ve stood on a stage and told jokes and have been successful at it. Most of us aren’t in that league. Is this something that should be left to professionals…don’t try this at home?
TW: [Laughing] That’s right, listen unless you’ve been heckled off a stage in New York City, you know, or hit in the head with a beer bottle a couple of times…actually it’s never been that bad. Yeah, it takes a certain skill to do this. If you’re a person who can make people laugh and you’ve had friends confirm that and they say you’re funny then you should definitely try it. If you just have an interest in it and maybe haven’t — you don’t think you have the guts, you know, there are ways to develop it.
Writing and stand-up are similar but they are two different things. You can write and not be a stand-up and then also try stand-up stuff. I’d encourage anybody who has an interest in comedy to experiment. Even if you don’t have an interest in comedy it’s a good experience to take a stand-up class or an improv class. It’s amazing what it will teach you about the world. I was able to get a job here as a speech writer with no professional experience as a speech writer. As a stand-up comedian you really learn — I think they are the best communicators because you have seconds to get your point across and you have to use the exact word to get the point across. You cannot use synonyms. I’ve used synonyms before and found they don’t get a good laugh, and then once I discover the exact word then there’s the big laugh. So you get immediate feedback on when somebody understands exactly what you’re saying. It’s a great way to experiment.
DW: Obviously not all social media is funny but it does all require some pretty nimble handling. What are the connections between what you’ve done in the world of comedy and how that translates into social media?
TW: Well, you know, what’s key in marketing is engaging an audience, telling a story, and telling that story well. We have a few other folks on the social media team at corporate along with me who don’t have a comedy background and who tell stories a different way. One of my colleagues, George Faulkner, is a musician and he’s a wonderful story teller. He produces podcasts and also videos, and really knows how to engage an audience not using comedy at all. He knows how to pull people in because he’s an artist.
We have a Smarter Planet Campaign that are humorous animations that tell a story about a problem such as some of the healthcare issues we have today. And it uses humor to pull people into a story and get them laughing and we kind of touch on the big picture and try to do that in 90 seconds. We did a story on food traceability and why we need to build a smarter food system, and we did that by telling the story from the perspective of a frozen chicken who’s in the back of a truck having a call with OnStar. And so it’s just bizarre but it stands out, and you’ve got to stand out. There are so many videos being published on YouTube and podcasts and blog posts and you have to find some way to cut through the clutter, and I lean on humor to do that.
You know there are other ways you can do it. You can lean on a story with strong knowledge and actually the example I just shared about the chicken video had some good knowledge in there too. Having good knowledge and good factoids, that’s viral and people will share that. I love to try to catch people’s attention with a good laugh and pull them into the story that way, and at the end of that little 90 seconds of entertainment send them on to a blog post. Hopefully you’ve earned enough of their attention to say okay I’ll follow this link and learn more.
DW: Many corporations are letting those who blog or tweet about the company have a bit more visibility as people. How do you define the boundaries of how much you can be you and yet still represent the company?
TW: I think a lot of organizations don’t think about the question you just asked. They don’t even think about it. And we did something here at IBM about 5 years ago. We got our bloggers together, the people who were blogging both internally and externally, and we set up some blogging guidelines. Last year we updated those, adding podcasts, social media and social networks. We call them social computing guidelines, and that’s where the bloggers in our community agreed on what we would do.
I think it’s critical that the individuals in organizations are themselves completely. But we know there are a few things to avoid, like religion, politics, you know, just good etiquette at a party. Those are topics you might not want to bring up because they’re so emotional they can separate people pretty quickly.
As most companies, we have business conduct guidelines and we follow those, of course. And then some obvious things, like not sharing confidential information. But it’s worked well. I mean we have over 50,000 IBMers on Facebook. And LinkedIn, there’s an IBM and IBM alumni community that I believe the number’s over 200,000, which is crazy. But when you give people license to go out there and be themselves then that really helps things grow. And you have to be careful for this not to become a channel for the company, because once it does it wouldn’t be a unique channel anymore.
So now I can help the company by reaching a completely new audience, folks who follow my passion in comedy. And occasionally if there’s something that’s going on with the company that I find of interest I’ll put up on my Facebook page or I’ll tweet about it, and it reaches an audience that the company would not otherwise reach.
DW: Those numbers that you’re talking about are amazing, 50,000 on Facebook. It really changes the game doesn’t it?
TW: It does and IBM is a big company. Not everybody has 400,000 employees worldwide, so we have a big base to draw from. And also being a technology company you have people who’ve been very comfortable with bulletin boards, exchanging information for years before the social networks came around.
DW: Within IBM is social media a part of marketing or is it a different function completely?
TW: Well, it is part of marketing but not exclusively. So I’m in corporate communications and in the past we’ve been separate from marketing, but we just brought the two groups together about a year ago.
DW: Do you think that’s because communications has become more like marketing or actually marketing is becoming more like communications due to social media?
TW: I think it’s more of the later. Now, of course, I’m a communications guy, I’m sure the marketing folks would say the opposite just because that’s the background they come from. But the fact is we’re learning you really have to be engaged, and you can’t put a brochure in front of somebody’s face and talk about me, you know, and say look. You have got to tell an interesting story or you have to create a dialogue with somebody versus just a one way push.
There’s an author on this topic, a guy who has a best-selling book named David Meerman Scott. His latest book is called World Wide Rave and he has a couple of rules in there. One of them is, nobody cares about their product except for you. And you have to remember that when you start blogging, you can’t get up there and post a press release. Traditionally marketing and communications have been all about telling the story of the brand, and saying this is the message and holding that precious. You can’t do that in social media, because as Scott says, nobody cares. You have to get out there and be part of a community, contribute to that community and tell engaging stories that will pull people into something you want to know about your initiative.
DW: I’ve got one final question for you. You got your undergraduate degree in marketing from Texas A&M, and then an MBA from the McCombs School here at UT Austin, and I’m trying to imagine you in a typical business school class. Were you the lone cutup?
TW: [Laughing] For some reason the class of ’96 had a bunch of cutups. We had quite a few particularly in my Cohort. We had a lot of fun. And I think my Cohort made the point one time in class that we probably had more fun than the other Cohorts. And then my roommate Tom Falk pointed out, “Yeah but we also have the lowest grade point average.” But you know what, that doesn’t really matter does it Dave? Not anymore.
DW: It’s all about career satisfaction.
TW: Exactly. We had a lot of funny people in the whole class. I took a class from Dr. Stephen Magee who teaches micro economics, and you have to spend part of your time investigating and researching what your dream job would be. If money didn’t matter, if the MBA didn’t matter, status didn’t matter, what would you want to do? I started doing research and I found out about corporate events and this company called Jack Morton. For the first time I thought maybe I could actually make a living as a comedian. I quickly forgot about that and went off and interned with Accenture, and it took seven or eight years until I realized the call to comedy. But if there are any current students listening to this I sure hope they take that class seriously, because it’s really amazing if you just say here’s what I want to do and make that commitment. The doors that open will surprise you, and that’s what happened with me.