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Be Serious & Have Fun

by Dan Coughlin, author of ACCELERATE:
20 Practical Lessons to Boost Business Momentum

Be Serious

Truth be told, it’s very difficult for me to conduct a seminar when the attendees refuse to get serious. My approach is to create an environment where people can pause, reflect, develop an idea, share the idea with another person, hear that person’s ideas, and together create even more powerful ideas. However, when people can’t stop joking and giggling the whole time it’s very difficult to get much done. Fortunately for me I haven’t been with a group like that for a very long time.

Recently, I’ve noticed a phenomenon that I’ll call the “Life-Long Learner.” At almost every keynote and seminar I’ve presented over the past six months, I’ve noticed one person in the room leaning forward with greater intensity than anyone else and taking notes more voraciously than anyone else. This person was always older than I am. He or she engaged with other people with greater focus than anyone else in the room.

After my presentation or during a break I invariably found out that this person was by far one of the most successful people in the room and was far more successful than I am. Four of these people were named Bob, Eric, Deb, and Jim. When I got a chance to talk with each of them in a one-on-one conversation, I asked what they were hoping to get out of the meeting. Each person essentially said, “I’m always looking for another idea. I want to get better at what I do. My organization still has a long way to go and I want to help it get better.” Each time I walked away with a greater appreciation for the art of active learning. These great performers were serious about learning. The art of learning is a craft we can continue to master for our entire lifetimes.

Have Fun

On the other hand, it’s hard for me to be in a situation where people can’t lighten up and have fun. When everyone has to act prim and proper every second and watch every syllable they state, I tend to back away. Funny stuff just happens every day. Look for the humor and enjoy it.

Several weeks ago I gave a keynote at 9 AM at a conference in Newport, Rhode Island. That night I was having dinner with several of the attendees at the big banquet. The speech went over well and I was feeling pretty good about myself. The waiter brought a great looking salad and a small white container that I thought contained a hot Thousand Island dressing. So with a real flourish I poured it over my entire salad.

The woman sitting next to me fell on the ground laughing. When she picked herself up and sat back down, I said, “What ‘s so funny?” With tears rolling down her cheeks, she said, “You just poured your tomato soup all over your salad.” Then I started laughing. She said, “Don’t say anything. No one will notice. Just knock over the soup bowl and I’ll tell the waiter you accidently spilled it, and ask him to bring you another one.” When the waiter brought a new salad and new soup, he leaned over and said, “Don’t worry. A lot of people thought that was the salad dressing.” Then I really laughed.

While I’m on the topic of embarrassing meals, here’s one more. When my book first came out, a friend of mine helped to organize a book signing at The Book Stall in Winnetka, IL. After the signing she organized a private dinner for me with eight really high-level executives. As I was trying to make conversation with the CEO of a national company, I bit into my salad and found that I had a big piece of plastic in my mouth. I had never had a salad with a plastic holder in it. I tried to act as though nothing happened. When he took a bite of his meal, I quickly snatched the plastic piece out of my mouth and put it on my plate. Then about ten minutes later I was talking to another high-level executive when I accidently reinserted the plastic back into my mouth. Only I can eat plastic at a high-level meeting, not once, but twice. I laughed all the way home that night.

One of the funniest moments in my seminars for me is when I ask the audience to take three minutes to write down six things they need to stop doing so they have the time and the energy to do the few things that will matter the most in improving their results. Usually this sparks some good conversations.

However, almost every time something happens that makes me smile. Invariably one person won’t write down anything to stop doing, but will check his or her BlackBerry or cell phone for messages during those three minutes. Then he or she says to the group, “I can’t think of anything that I should stop doing.” These folks couldn’t stop doing things long enough to identify what to stop doing. Usually I very politely and with a pretty straight face say, “How about adding, ‘Don’t check for messages during a meeting.’?”

Two Powerful Books and a Powerful Album

Two books that come to mind on this topic of being serious and having fun are Big Russ & Me by Tim Russert and The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. One man, Pausch, knew he was dying, and the other, Russert, did not know he was going to die so young. These two men personify what I’m trying to get across in this issue. These are two of my favorite books and ironically I received each of them from my family on two different Father’s Days.

Tim Russert was the most prepared interviewer I ever watched. His grasp of details led to some extraordinary and serious questions. However, he loved life and never took it too seriously. He was forever talking about his beloved Buffalo Bills and his family.

Randy Pausch did some extraordinary and serious work in the field of computer science for both Carnegie Mellon University and The Disney Company. Yet he talks a lot about Tigger and Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh fame. One time he poured a can of soda on the seat of his brand new convertible to keep people from being nervous about spilling anything.

I encourage you to read both of those books. They are great reminders that life is short, but everyday can be filled with seriousness and fun.

Neil Diamond has a new album out called, Home Before Dark. He has this wonderful song called Slow it Down. It’s funny but powerful. He says if we take the time to slow down we’ll find our time has more meaning. I just love that.

Be serious about your work, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Life’s a hoot, but we have to slow down to see the funny stuff.

About Dan Coughlin

Visit Dan at www.thecoughlincompany.com. Dan Coughlin works with mid-size companies, and mid-size business units in large companies, to improve their business momentum. He is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, and author of Accelerate: 20 Practical Lessons to Boost Business Momentum. He has been quoted in USA Today, the New York Times, and Investor’s Business Daily. Dan’s clients include Coca-Cola, Toyota, Boeing, Marriott, McDonald’s, AT&T, American Bar Association, and the St. Louis Cardinals. He speaks on leadership, branding, sales, and innovation.


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