Workplace success: Improv humorist teaches lessons with laughs


Improvisational humorist and professional speaker Joel Zeff doesn’t waste any time getting his audience into the act.

Near the start of a recent 90-minute presentation, Zeff asked the roughly 200 rental housing professionals in the room to utter something rarely if ever heard in the leasing office.

“Bunny, bunny, bunny.”

As they did, raucous laughter began, as did one of Zeff’s key lessons.

“Look around. Everybody’s got a smile on their face — even the grumpy people. That’s the spirit of the bunny, bunny, bunny,” he said. “Because everybody looked foolish, and they did it together, it wasn’t a big deal.”

Joel Zeff

Joel Zeff

Zeff noted that, during a moment of silliness, the audience members supported each other and didn’t judge, making it easier to perform outside their comfort zones.

During his rip-roaring presentation in Newport Beach, he put his comedy skills to work, peppering his presentation with jokes and frequently provoking the audience to clap, crack up or both.

Zeff’s business tips, improv games and stand-up comedy came together during the California Apartment Association’s Professional Property Manager’s Forum in February.

“I speak to all different industries,” said Zeff, a former newspaper reporter who found his niche by pairing improv comedy with corporate speaking. “Property management is absolutely my favorite industry — right under the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.”

He went on to have audience volunteers perform a series of improv games — each with business lessons in mind.

In one, CAA Orange County participants made believe they were on a road trip to Las Vegas, including hitchhikers and each person exhibiting an emotion, from fear to depression to happiness. Another improv game called on participants to portray bakers making cupcakes, while another had volunteers convey riding a roller coaster, using body language and voice-generated sound effects.

Zeff noted that the more laughter and applause the crowd offered, the more the volunteers embraced their chance to act — and the more creative they became.

“That’s what we all want out of our jobs — opportunity and positive support,” Zeff said. “And when you put those two things together, it’s amazing what people can accomplish. Here’s the deal, though: Those are the two things we don’t get enough of, even though that’s what we all want.”

Just as support and appreciation helped the improv actors, it helps in the workplace. So Zeff reminded audience members to show appreciation when they returned to their day jobs.

“There’s no expiration date on it thank you. That’s the cool part,” Zeff said. “You can say thank you anytime you want. You know, sometimes I get a post to my Facebook page, I get an email, months after I speak. It means just as much to me. It’s gold.”

Zeff also emphasized the importance of staying passionate about work — and that can require identifying and pursuing opportunities. He urged audience members to reflect on what they want out of their jobs beyond money. By identifying and pursuing opportunities for more fulfilling work, employees are happier, and employers see more passion and energy in the office.

“And for the leaders, the managers in the room, you’ve got to reach out to your team and ask them what they need to be happy, what they want, what they’re looking for,” Zeff said. “You’re going to be surprised by the answer and how easy it is to give them that opportunity. And when you put those two things together, which take very little time, very little money, just a little bit of an effort, it’s going to be amazing what you can get back in return.”

The speaker also urged audience members to ask themselves how they can help their colleagues excel.

“That’s all I need to tell you about teamwork and leadership,” Zeff said. “How do I help the people around me be successful? Anybody can ask that question. That’s easy. You should answer it.”

Too often, though, people focus more on their own successes than helping others make progress. They want to know what others can do for them.

“That’s not great teamwork,” he said. “That’s not great leadership.”

Zeff also leveraged the improv games to demonstrate the importance of focusing on the job at hand. Improv requires concentration on the here and now, he said, and that translates to work life, too.

“We spend the least amount of our time being present and in the moment,” Zeff said, “but that’s when were at our best as leaders, as communicators, as innovators.”

Besides encouraging more mindfulness at work, Zeff reminded the audience of the importance of perseverance.

“The best message I ever learned in improvisation is you have to stay in the game,” he said. “And if you stay in the game, good things happen.”

Tagged: Orange County