How to Gain Trust and Form a Real Connection with Your Audience: An Interview With Tim Washer

Author: Jeff Coon

At Experience Inbound 2022, we're excited to welcome keynote speaker Tim Washer! Tim has acted/written for Saturday Night Live, The Late Show, James Corden and John Oliver. He served as global head of social content for the Smarter Planet IOT campaign at IBM, where he used humor to capture attention and earn trust with audiences.

Jeff Coon, Partner at Stream Creative, recently sat down with Tim to talk about building a real, lasting connection with your audience and what attendees of Experience Inbound can take away from his session, How to Earn Attention and Trust When No One’s Listening.

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Before we dive in, would you tell us a bit about your background?

I started in sales at Xerox and then went and got an MBA at The University of Texas in Austin, then moved up and became a market analyst in New York City. At that point, I realized that my calling was comedy. So as we were talking about earlier, I basically wasted all this money on education. And I said, "I should have just been taking improv classes!" So I started asking friends how do you start in comedy? And I found myself at the Upright Citizens Brigade where Amy Poehler was teaching before she went on SNL.

So I studied with her for a couple of years and then got to work with her writing for The Weekend Update, Conan on the Late Show, and some other shows like that, and I really enjoyed it. I tried to make a living as a comedian and learned pretty quickly I couldn't do that; it's pretty tough.

When my daughter was born, I went to work at IBM in their communications group thinking, "All right, well, I could probably write some jokes for speeches, maybe MC some events, and some of those doors will open for me."

I was a speechwriter there, and what happened is like I was sitting down with the guy who runs global sales for the mainframe business about the problems that we needed to solve and our communication agenda for the year. And he said, "Look, our salespeople are not connecting with the clients. They're talking about IBM. They spend all their time talking about IBM. They haven't understood the customer's business. They have these long, you know, these PowerPoint presentations like 22, 84 slides long. Nope. And that's not an exaggeration. And I said, "Okay, we should do a comedy video."

He said he was like, dude, this is IBM. We don't do humor here. I wrote a script and pitched it again to my vice president, who liked it. It was a home run, it changed everything.

It just grew into this career of using humor in corporate comms and marketing. It was such a powerful way to connect and get people to change behavior because the salespeople, instead of preaching to them and saying, "You're doing this wrong and this wrong and this wrong." We took the problems that they had and just exaggerated them. And these guys loved it. They thought it was hysterical and they were laughing at the things that they do. And they also realized, you know what, we probably shouldn't go in there with these huge decks of, you know, 300 slides long and that kind of thing.

I'll be talking about these kinds of ideas in June. How does that work and how do you connect with audiences?

It's just like in our personal lives, the people you have the strongest relationships with, you laugh with probably the most. When building a new business relationship people are skeptical, but if you get them laughing it's hard to be happy and skeptical at the same time. So I love the idea of bringing that skill set to the corporate world.

That's a great way of looking at it! If you can make somebody laugh in a business context, that's probably the most intimate connection you can make. A lot of comedy comes from pain, and if you start with a customer's pain point, you can build comedy from there. You're showing your customer not only do you understand their pain, but you're willing to have a little fun.

Working in sales and marketing, we spend so much time trying to pitch this great product or service. A lot of that can feel like pretense. I'm just trying to tell you what's great about me without stating my flaws. There's not a real connection in that. You won't feel a real connection if I just tell you what's so awesome about my company or me. You won't feel a connection and there's no way you'll feel trust.

But if I come to you being a little silly, then it comes off more as "Okay, here's a guy who's willing to show his flaws and is not always pushing me on something. I can see myself trusting this guy."

I understand not everybody can write comedy. But we all have ways we can show humility, which will help us connect with other people.

What’s one key takeaway you’d like attendees from Experience Inbound to walk away with from your keynote session?

I'd like to leave them with a set of tools that they can go back to the office the next day and say, "All right, here's how I'm going to bring this idea to my communications. And here's how I can frame my pitch to show some humility or create some genuine human connection with my prospects."

So we're going to talk a little bit about improv rules and how improv troupes do that. We'll also talk about some practices that TV comedy writers use to connect with an audience because when I was doing standup in New York, I learned you needed to get your first laugh in 10 seconds.

Now, listen, you talk to a marketer and say, "When is it that your first point lands with your audience?" First of all, most marketers don't know; they have no idea. They'll say, "Let me take you through my presentation." But you can't tell when that first point lands. With standup comedy, you know for sure because they either laugh or it's silent. You get that honest feedback, which really changes your perspective as a writer and communicator. You change from thinking, "Here's what I want to say," and switch to "Here's what my audience will hear."

That's when you start evaluating what goes in your deck and what doesn't and how you reach out to people. That's what I'd love for people to leave with. A couple of guidelines, things that they take back to the office the next day and apply. Maybe look at things and say, "How can I reframe these things? How I present myself and my company in a simple way will actually connect. Maybe get a laugh, maybe not, but at least it's going to connect with someone."

What advice do you have for those folks who would not consider themselves funny or think humor may not work for their boss or audience?

I certainly get that, and I know there are places where humor won't work. This framework that we're talking about is more about creating a connection. And some of it may go to laughter, and we'll look at that as kind of a case to follow, but we'll also talk about other ways you can create a connection.

The key thing about laughter is that it shows that I know you. If I can get you to laugh, I need to know a little bit about you first. It really gets down to empathy, empathy and compassion.

So even if we don't get to laughter, we will get everybody to a point where they can start thinking more about how to see things with an empathetic standpoint.

Even if you can't be silly with external communication, think about how much internal communication happens in your business. Consider your onboarding or training process. This seems like a good framework for communications, both internal and external.

Let me share an example real quick. I was watching the news, and a commercial came on. I'm sure it wasn't a nationally televised commercial, but it was for this local meat company. It's a 30-second commercial and it's all outtakes of the CEO, Charlie, and a butcher talking and looking silly.

At the end of the commercial, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I want to be part of this company." I just felt like I trusted him.

So I started looking into the company and I reached out to the CEO to interview him. He was like, sure. They had found out that a lot of their farmers and ranchers couldn't get loans through COVID. So Charlie decided to create a bank and raised a million dollars in two weeks.

This relates to an improv principle we're going to talk about called Support Your Partner. And it's this idea that when you and I get out on stage and improv. I'm not trying to look funny. My goal is to support you and make you look funny.

The thing is, it frees me up because I don't have this pressure on myself anymore. I'm not worried about myself. When you're not concerned with yourself, you're kind of in a happy state of mind and according to a Harvard study, you perform 31% more effectively when you're in a positive frame of mind.

This is a simple tactic and we'll share how that works in marketing to free people up and let them become more creative. It makes the world a better place when you start saying, "Hey, let me make you look good. Let me make my customer look good."

I know you speak at conferences all over the world. What are some other messages you see that you think businesses should note?

I was talking to a buddy of mine, Mark Schaefer, during Social Media Marketing World about the importance of vulnerability. As a comedian, you can't get up on stage and really connect with the audience without being vulnerable. I share stuff that I'm afraid to tell my counselor on stage, and often someone will come up and talk to me after the show like they have known me my whole life.

That's going to be big, helping people understand how to genuinely open up as a marketer.

During the pandemic and all these zoom calls, I realized that while we didn't have the personal connection of sitting next to someone, we did get to know our clients on a more personal level. It would be like, "Hold on, the dog is barking. The kids just got home from school." And it's opened the door to share our personal lives, and I feel that it was strengthening our relationships in a meaningful way.

That’s right, we invited people into our homes. That’s a really good point. The last two years, as an extrovert, have been really hard for me. San Diego was my first live conference to attend and I missed the handshakes and the hugs. And I’m really looking forward to this one too! Even with the social distance, it’s gonna be so nice to be in person.

And we appreciate you saying yes to the invite, we're excited to have you at the conference!

For those that are interested in learning more about the conference, you can visit It's one conference, two different days. The first one's in Milwaukee, and then we will do it again in Green Bay.

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