Engagement and Connection in a Virtual World Bob Kulhan

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Bob Kulhan is an elite improviser, an adjunct professor at Duke Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School and the Founder & CEO of Business Improv®.

Kulhan has tailored On-Site, Virtual, Online, Blended and Open Enrollment Business Improv programs around the globe for a number of blue chip companies and organizations including the Department of Defense, US Naval Academy, Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Sears, Mazda, CISCO, Cushman & Wakefield, Pepsi, Ford Motors, Glaxo Smith Kline, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Capital One, Neutrogena, New York Red Bulls, and Procter & Gamble R&D University.

Kulhan is a master improviser who has spent the last 26 years studying, teaching and performing improv (21 running Business Improv®), and the author of ‘GETTING TO YES AND: The Art of Business Improv’, Stanford University Press.


Show Notes

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Josh: What is up everybody, Josh Tapp here again and welcome back to the lucky Titan podcast and today we’re here with Bob I got to pronounce this right Kulhan, I really struggle with that name beforehand, everybody.

Bob: Perfect. You nailed it

Josh: good and we have a lot of people who bring on their names I just butcher so it’s it’s fun to get it right sometimes. Right? So anyway, so Bob is the founder and CEO of business improv. And I’m really excited to have him here today because this guy is all about basically taking his comedy career and turning it towards business, helping people with that improvisation improv, as we call it and honestly, I think the communication aspect is one for almost all of us we struggle with isolate, I struggle with it, right and I do this for hours a day. So there’s, there’s a lot of there’s a lot to learn here so I’m excited to have you here say, what’s up to everybody, and we’ll hop in.

Bob: I’m so glad to be here, Josh. Thanks for having me. Hello, everyone. Let’s roll up our sleeves. Let’s get into this. 

Josh: Yeah, let’s do it. So I’m going to ask you, this is a little bit of an unorthodox question for you but I want to ask you this, if you had to start over because you have built successful companies so if you had to start completely from scratch, and you only had 90 days to build a business of providing for your family, what would you build? It’s my very first question.

Bob: Can I build a COVID vaccine business?

Josh: genius?

Bob: inoculation like airborne, the spray it over 

Josh: and get it over with and we can all move on?

Bob: You know, I think, I think a strong business that’s really rooted in people just to connecting people so like a networking type of business, you know, be I’m a natural bridge builder anyway, I like making connections, I like introducing people to each other and so just having a more formal aspect of getting people together, networking, sharing ideas, best practices in a really safe environment that’s I think that’s the path that I would take.

Josh: You know, it’s really hilarious is almost everybody interview says something like that it’s really all about, it’s connecting people, I just had to ask you, because I thought you’d have a fun take on it but it’s really funny how it’s like, it’s all about the people it’s always a high ticket service. So it’s something you can make quite a bit of money doing that and it has everything to do with like connection. Right? So I love that.

Bob:  Yeah, you did. So I have to take care of my family. So I’d rather not do it on a check by check basis wanted to be large way I didn’t tell you is that everybody has to get through a ring of fire before you get there yeah, man and there’s some lions on the other side say

Josh: there’s there’s a fight fight with a bear before you get to meet anybody see it and I love that, especially with business because there’s so there’s such kind of like a paradigm that we have to start by selling something small, to like, it’s either like a T shirt, or I’m going to launch this course but it’s only going to be $37. Because I don’t know if I could sell it for anything more but what I’ve loved about even our conversation before this is that you really built a business, your current business around helping people to connect, but on a much more profound level and you when you sent me your bio, you know, engagement and connection in a virtual world, I love that that will be the title of the podcast, because that is what we’re struggling with right now before this year, I’ve always been in the virtual world so I guess it really wasn’t a big change. If If I didn’t ever see the news, I probably wouldn’t know covered, it happens and the thing that’s really intriguing, though, is that most companies are like a year later still scrambling trying to figure out how do we like build engagement with people. So I want to ask you this, what would be kind of your framework or your methodology around helping people to communicate better with their, with their audiences and with their teams.

Bob: First, remember, it’s about people. I think one of the challenges, Josh, that a lot of people really embraced was technology and that’s where we went right away in this world that we’re in right now and I think to a degree, there’s accuracy there, it has to be accurate, like, how are we using this technology? Which technology? Are we going to use? Does it have to be flashy? Can it just be something of substance? For me, though, it’s all about people, people, people, people, if we’re not connecting with people, if we’re not communicating with people, then it’s all gonna fall apart anyway, because that’s just a two dimensional stuff that’s that’s smoke and mirrors, the Smoke will dissipate, the mirrors will come very clear and we’ll find out whether or not if we were able to actually reach out to each other effectively so for me remembering that human element, that human connection element is pivotal to making those connections.

Josh: Yeah, and I love that because there’s, it’s kind of hard to do that behind the screen. Right? And you and I were even talking about this beforehand a podcast is a prime example of this so people have like their little different ways to make it happen but for us, we found that we need to have a conversation before this because we’ve got to get the momentum you’ve got to get that flow and it brings me back to thinking about can’t remember who it was Stephen King, somebody like a real Really great author and so what they would do before they would ever start writing is they would just write nonsense like whatever was on the top of their head for 20 minutes, because it got the brain going in the right direction got that, in my opinion, like the the flow the energy state into the right place, so that they could be ready and that’s kind of a, you’re talking about right 

Bob:  to a degree, because what you’ve just actually done for me or to me, is trigger something else, which is this energy aspect of it so great improvisers warm up before they get up on stage and that’s that same aspect of let’s loosen up, let’s shut our inhibitions let’s get out of our head from whatever else is going on in the world, let alone on our laundry list that happens every single day, let’s be focused, let’s be present in the moment, and let’s connect with each other whereas the majority of improvisation is a team event anyway so let’s get connected with each other right there in that moment, and if we can do that, as people before engagements, and by engagements, I mean, internal stakeholders, as well as external stakeholders, our team, as well as our clients that we’re facing that we increase the probability of making this connection through this specific medium, because that’s the other thing, Josh, that a lot of people don’t look at it, this is a unique medium and a lot of people are still plug and play, like what worked for me on site is going to work the same here and it doesn’t, because this is a different medium than a face to face engagement so some simple things like and I’ll take what you just said, First, Stephen King or whoever, warming up a little bit, get your heart pumping a little bit, get mentally and physically ready to perform at the top of your intelligence to the best of your ability that will increase the probability of pulling people in whether you are face to face, whether on an old school phone call, or whether you’re using one of these social platforms to increase engagement.

Josh: Yeah, I love that. So I want to ask you this because I feel like you’ve probably got a really good flow for this. How do you do that warm up? Because I know some people feel really dumb I personally, I’m in my office by myself and it’s very easy to do these things but I’m like if somebody else was in here, I’d feel like a complete idiot because I kind of do Tony Robbins type warm up things. I’m curious what your thought is on on those like what do you

Bob:  anything from just putting the Beats by Dre on you know, some headphones on and just listen to the music that kind of gets me in the zone I will take it I’ll start on sort of like the what can normal people do not improv with goofballs Muppets like me shower a nice long shower will you know where I’m just letting them waters kitchen, just kind of get in the right headspace for it, walk around my house, I do like to hug and chase my kids around that and then I like that’s why I’m doing this and I come in and get really focused, sit ups, push ups, jumping jacks, do your power poses if you want to know anything that puts you in that right headspace so here’s the thing for me beyond what I do, because I’ll walk around in front of people and looking like a muppe or I’ll do it by myself and look like a muppet is whatever it takes for me to get mentally and physically ready that’s what I’m going to do on any given day what I would say though, is each person has to find the thing that works for them, it’s got to be authentic to that individual so your, your yelling or whatever it might be that really puts you in that right position might not be the same thing that works for me and it shouldn’t be because we’re very different people now as long as we both get to that same spot, that’s what we’re talking about and one person can bring that other person to the spot like if you’re really pumped up and I came in unfocused, there’s a high probability that I’m gonna be pulled in by you engaged by you and that’s going to put me in that right headspace so there’s a level of ownership that we should all have around our own energy, our own attitude that we bring to any engagement, regardless of the medium or proximity.

Josh: Yeah, and I love that because I even found for me, I’m a very introverted person and so like, when we get around groups of people, I am the person who’s kind of off by myself, or like, off of the I always play with the kids when I’m around them right and, and it’s really interesting, because most entrepreneurs, we feel that same way, right? We can do these one to one interactions, because we care about you, we’re willing to do that but as an introvert, it’s kind of scary to do that. I know for me, I have to do it multiple times throughout the day almost before every single call I have to like, I don’t do like power poses or anything I found I have to really change my physiology because I’ll end up punching or I’m like texting or something. Right? And like, okay, I can’t do that before a call I’ve got to sit back and open up and be present. Otherwise, I’m, I’m slogging right and so for you, your your methodology is all about finding what’s right for you in that moment, and then leveraging that over and over again is that correct?

Bob:  Yes. And it’s not just that moment because sometimes it needs to change so before an improv show, for example, I performed with a group called baby once Canyon, we do our long completely improvised musicals with a full band, and they’re improvising all the music on the fly, I listened to so many musicals in their entirety before I would even get to the theater so I blacked out. Like an hour and a half, two hours, in my early days of doing this, my first 500 of them, let’s say and then after a while I was like, I’ve listened to a lot of musicals and kind of burn out of that, I need to switch this up and so I would go to the gym right before, and then I’d come in with that kind of energy and focus now I’m not doing either one of those two things and so what I do on a day to day basis, quite often is pretty simple. It’s just like, I’ll bounce around a little bit, I’ll just kind of get my arms moving back and forth, you know, like, Michael Phelps, you know, swimming style, and really think about the audience that I want to reach the people I want to reach and the message that I want to deliver to them, because especially through this medium, you have to put that little extra effort into it and there’s where I see it working for me so for me, it’s not a cookie cutter situation of what works on any given day, I’ll end up mixing it up based on how I’m feeling what my headspace is like, what the heck is happening in the world that might pull me out of my focus, and do whatever I can to make sure that I’m here and present on any given day.

Josh: Yeah, and I love that and I want to kind of turn the conversation a little bit towards that improve you kind of hinted at it with the, the play, right, like pulling up the musical. So I can remember those called, like, from the musical so for you, I’m in the business scenario, right? A lot of us, right, oh, I don’t want to be an actor, right? And an improv seems like this. You just have to be really good at being creative and flamboyant but in a business setting. So if you’re trying to increase sales, what is that? What’s kind of the improv that you’re teaching and showing people how to do?

Bob: Sure so the common association with improvisation is pretty much what you said, right? It’s related to creativity is related to comedy that’s where most people will associate it, whether it’s whose lines in any way or any of those great improv houses around the globe, there’s so many fantastic ones and of course, Chicago is the nucleus for all this and that is a specific type of improvisation that’s a specific outcome of improvisation. However, a lot of people think the Special Forces, they improvise on missions, and no one associates what they do with comedy if you watch any cooking shows, and cooking competitions, to be specific, you know, what’s in the basket, I don’t know, pull it out, put it together, make it work against your competitors, or in the bigger team environments, the same type of thing no one associates that with comedy whatsoever so this is a challenge that a lot of business people have that right away, we just kind of diminish this or dismiss this, as opposed to really understanding what improvisation is. And so the way that we define improv in business improv is on three core competencies and that’s reacting, adapting and communicating, reacting, adapting, communicating, reacting is focused, its concentration, its presence in real time, at a high level, adapting is if you’re reacting within parameters, trying to achieve, achieve an outcome, like in a strategy to this crazy environment, for example, or a sales conversation, or collaboration, you’re reacting and adapting and then subject to both of these is communication we’re not in space, right? in a vacuum, there’s always someone with whom we can react and adapt or something to which we must react and adapt and so that could be applied to the outcome of comedy definitely could be applied to food, and it definitely should be applied to entrepreneurs, solopreneurs business owners. 

Josh: Yeah and so when, when we’re trying to leverage the approach, let me just give you a scenario with this, right? You and I both we go on podcasts all the time. So when you go on to a podcast, there is a level of improv and it’s guided by somebody, but you have to be prepared. In a sense, I’ve found that the best conversations come when I’m not overly prepared, though, is that kind of your methodology is like, over prep or under but what where do you sit?

Bob:  I, I, it’s all about preparation. It’s all about planning. You know, great improvisation thrives at this pivotal moment when planning and strategy meets execution right there it’s not to dismiss planning and strategy as well what happens when you’re executing, right at that moment, that’s where improvisation will either sink or it’s gonna fly and it’s really for me based in the training so I do like over preparing, and then before the gig, backing up, just like I’ll show up to a on side gig, I’ll show up early, check the audience out, watch the speakers before me whatever it might be so I can gauge the situation and that way, in that moment, it relates to what you said, there’s a lot of rawness that is there and that’s really what I like as well because the unpredictability of just people, let alone situations it for an improviser, that’s where you thrive, you thrive in change, you thrive in driving change and being part of change, you thrive in just this give and take of the unknown that exists and that’s, that’s something that all of us can learn, which does not relate to being introverted or extroverted in any way it’s how you do it that would relate to probably that behavior choice. Otherwise, we all have to do it anyway right? So it’s just like Alright, well, what we do to keep that freshness and at the same time, be on point pivoting inside of a strategy, for example.

Josh: Yeah, that’s awesome. So, you know, and I love that methodology, I kind of want to relate it back to your story, you know about the musicals because you watched a bunch of musicals before you went and did that, right and we think about comedians, as like, oh, they’re just really good off the cuff people, because we all know that person who is they’re really good at just throwing random crap out there and it’s hilarious, right? But I have a sister in law that’s how she is right? She’s known for that, because she’s just witty but even if you put them in an environment, they would probably crash and burn because they hadn’t done the preparation, like you’re talking about they wouldn’t do it any better than any of us so you’re saying it’s all about understanding what works and then adapting and applying it right? Is that kind of where you’re sitting out?

Bob:  As improvisation relates to business? Definitely, You have to have that knowledge. You have to have that awareness as well, right? Because without awareness, then how in the world are you going to improvise? improvise out of ignorance, you’re going to improvise out of just random luck? Is that what it is? No, you have to have a high level of awareness in order to achieve any specific outcome, let alone do whatever it takes to achieve that outcome.

Josh: Yeah, and so yeah, I love that great answer so when it comes to improv, in a business setting, let’s say I’m coming to you, because a lot of people here like personal brands, they have, you know, consulting, or they’re a podcast or what have you, what would be the first area you would target for somebody who’s trying to build a personal brand when it comes to improv?

Bob:  With it, it would start with awareness. It really was like, Where are you right now? Let’s talk about your base. Let’s talk about your background. Let’s let me get it you know, do my due diligence, of course, get a firm understanding of where you are, because then you create a path for growth from there and so from that, the next thing probably is agility you know, how good are you which is different than adaptability. You need agility to be adaptable. You don’t have to be adaptable to be agile. Oh, you know, if you need proof on that, throw something at a cat. Watch how fast they jump they don’t have a

Josh: No joke there 

Bob: They’re like, yeah, throw your slipper near cat, the cat’s gonna jump up they’re very agile animals. They’re not necessarily driving to catch up there do something. Alright, so now it’s if you’re agile, though, then it’s okay now, how are you? How are you going to put this awareness and this agility together to operate inside your strategy, your outcomes? What is your goal with all of this, because not everybody’s goal is to get outside and live and not everybody’s goal is to be a master chef and not everybody’s goal is to be a warrior so how are you going to use this? And then it’s a matter of crafting that game plan in place to succeed using this because I said it before, it’s worth repeating it’s got to be authentic it’s got to be meaningful, intentional, purposeful, to the individual who’s doing it because if it’s not, then it’s disingenuous and that’s dangerous.

Josh: Yeah, and I love that because I mean, what you’re really hitting on is like, how the vehicle in which you’re getting across to the people that you want to connect with and I know for us like, for when I when I wanted to start the podcast, I knew I wanted an audience I knew I wanted to start connecting with entrepreneurs I love working with entrepreneurs but I was terrified of getting on camera and I knew if I started doing a YouTube channel, I’d fail. I would just fail at it because at the time, I wasn’t good at it. But I knew I could get good at it. Eventually. I had a mentor. He’s like, well, am I you just do a podcast? Like are you confident talking to people and recording the audio? I was like, Yes, I can do that. I can absolutely do that I know for me, that was like say kind of that adaptability because saying okay, what were you comfortable what way can you leverage this and through doing it like, like for me, right? Being on the podcast all the time it’s gotten me to where I am comfortable on camera now and so on does that does that make sense? kind of fits in your model there.

Bob:  Absolutely. And I think there’s just this is where a lot of people actually hit walls, right hit walls, starting out hit walls with growth, that we just keep trying to do the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result which is the definition of what is insanity right? So what you did was say look, I’m not good at being on camera, I can recognize that that’s not my comfort zone it’s not my strength right now. Let’s back up away from this What am I good at? You found somebody who is a mentor who’s can give you some outside perspective, you then became a student of your own behavior, learning from somebody else, you found something that you have a basin that which is just talking to people a podcast, and then from there, that natural growth in that that mindset of growth and evolution takes place where now you’re like, yeah, and I’m on camera as well and if you asked me when I started all this, I would have said never, never would I be on camera now. No, I’m super comfortable. This, because you went back, you found your base and you started going off of your base, you weren’t limited by your base, which is, I guess another way to look at what, what I was saying at the top of this, that if we focus on what we’re limited by, and only what we’re limited by, we’re probably not going to leave that, because that’s where all of our time all of our energy is, as opposed to saying, alright, I’m limited by this. So what? Okay, then why am I spending so much time on this thing that I’m limited? What about this other stuff? That doesn’t limit me, even within the confines of this, this mess that we’re in right now? It’s, there’s so much possibility, there is so much potential, it’s a matter of recognizing it and doing something with it.

Josh: Yeah, I love that and honestly, like, as a good, almost final note, we’re not done here but we’re getting close to the, as almost a final note, I think that really is kind of the big message here is it’s all about understanding who you are, how you fit into it, and leveraging what you have there’s, I think the number one thing that stops most people is they’re just scared to death, that of what they don’t know but the reality is, what you don’t know really is never that hard it’s very, very simple and it’s just getting past the fear barrier most of the time, especially in the personal branding space and so I want to ask you this question. Just because it’s a little bit is a little bit off topic, but kind of fits into the context. So for a lot of our listeners, they are at a stage where they’re not sure they want to continue with their business, right? You know, I’ve hit a million dollars or six figures, and I’m just not loving it, not loving where I’m at but what you’re talking about, like that adaptability, you can pivot and and that’s kind of what you’re helping people with, right is saying, hey, pivot, adjust your messaging, you know, focus heavily on bettering yourself so that that communication increases and allows you to connect with your customers. So wait, does that make sense?

Bob:  Oh, yeah, a lot of people just get caught in their head, right? Whether it is focusing on the the negative or the restrictions, the reasons why we can’t succeed, or we shouldn’t succeed as well, going back to that sort of, you know, fear based type of thought, which exists in everybody, I, on some level, and, and at certain times in anybody’s life, it could be pretty heavy. It’s taking that and saying, okay, it exists, that’s fine and maybe we don’t need to break this, maybe we don’t need to change this, let’s look more holistically because that level of awareness that I mentioned a couple of times, that’s an imperative and sometimes you need outside perspective, you need people to come around you and say, like, look at all this other great stuff you’re doing, you’re so passionate about this and that actually aligns with what you’re doing here. It’s actually an extension of your brain with very little tweaking very little effort and that allows you to expand your market that allows you to bring a new message to the market that you already have, that allows you to further define your personal brand, what you bring to the table and so there’s, there’s a lot of what, what I do for people and for organizations is teach them how to react, adapt, communicate, you know, that pivot that pivot becomes super important and sometimes we just get stuck and we don’t even know how to do it.

Josh: Yeah, and I love that. So I’m just gonna repeat that for everybody. If you missed that, I know, I know. We’ve brought it up already. But like react adapts communicate, that’s, I think that’s a core issue that we’re struggling with right now as a society, just because people are, they’re stuck in the React phase, that they’re not adapting, because they’re just panicking saying, Oh, I can’t wait till it gets back to the way it was it could be five more years before we aren’t wearing masks you know, who knows? It may be never. Yeah, it may all be working virtually for the rest of forever.

Bob:  thing, though, I mean, even when we get this miracle cure that’s in herd immunity, and we all come back together again, this virtual aspect is not going to leave us permanently, we will never as a society goes 100% back to the way it was this has to be part of it so at what point if we’re not reacting and adapting really to this taking advantage of the, the strengths of this specific medium, this situation through the computer? I mean, specifically, then at what point will we because competitors are people are beginning to find best practices inside of this. And so if we’re married into this idea that I’m just gonna wait it out, or this scramble style of leadership slash strategy that existed over the last 10 months? Is that sustainable for the future and at what point will that bulking come into play of like, I have to train in this I have to get better at this I have to be more knowledgeable at this and more comfortable with this because even once we get back to on site engagements, which I hope is very, very, very soon, we’re still gonna have to communicate, collaborate, build teams, cohesion, trust, bring our messages out, build relationships with people through distance mediums, whether it’s the phone or the computer.

Josh: Yeah, and I, I love that. I would hope everybody would listen to this interview and think about that in your own company you kind of threw it in there, but I think coaching and finding somebody to help you pull you out of it, you’re not, you’re not going to get over these things by yourself you’re kidding yourself if you think that you can overcome personal interpersonal barriers, fears or whatever in your life, it really comes from finding somebody who can validate what’s right, help you acknowledge What’s wrong, and change it and then you can move forward and that’s why Bob like with what you’re doing, I love that because your entire business is built around helping people to pull that out of them I can get rid of those fears, react, adapt, communicate, right so I want to ask you this where can people connect with you and get access to what you’re doing?

Bob:  Thank you very much connect to business improv, find business improv, reach out to us, we will get back to you we have an online program, if you’re interested in just personal professional development. It’s called improvisational communication and that’s normal, you buy it, you own it, you go at your own pace, download the worksheets, you’ll have an action plan when that’s done and also we have open enrollment programs improvisational communication live and that’s more of a consortium style for you to practice off of other people, create a network with people as well share challenges and struggles and get feedback from people in a very noncompetitive way so it’s a way to find peer groups that can help with that type of development as well and I’ll come start starts and stops with business improv.

Josh:  Right, we came full circle clear from, from at the beginning, when your business your ability connecting people well, look at that you do that now mind blowing, right?

Bob:  No, it’s true. It’s such a huge part of that open enrollment program that that I’m so excited about that we are forming that network I never thought about it that way. Like we will have a dedicated space, we do have a dedicated space on LinkedIn where alumni are getting together, we’re me and my team, get together and run masterclasses with them as well so yeah, I didn’t really think about what I want to do. 

Josh: Yeah, there. There it is. Well, everybody, make sure you go check that out since business improv, you can pretty much find that everywhere great guys, great companyBob, I really appreciate you coming on but before we sign off, I have one final question for you. So we’ve covered a lot of topics. So what is the one thing you would like to leave with our audience if they remember nothing else from the interview, but this would you like them to remember?

Bob:  Try, never give up keep trying keep trying create a safe space to try it doesn’t always have to be front and center in front of other people and the, the failure that will inevitably inevitably come with trying does not necessarily have to be a public event you can create safe spots to try spaces to try and put yourself out there in a very strategic way for strategic failure. You know, just create that environment to try and never give up.

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