By David Glickman
Recently, I had the pleasure of delivering the closing keynote speech for the Michigan HomeCare and Hospice Association. In addition to the keynote, I also presented a breakout session on how to develop improvisational skills. Usually when I present a breakout at a conference, it is scheduled after the keynote. But in this case, the breakout was scheduled for the afternoon before the keynote. With the breakout being before the keynote, it gave me the opportunity to enlist the attendees in the breakout session to help me deliver a joke during the keynote.
I told them that I would be opening the keynote with what appeared to be some housekeeping business. I would pretend to read from a note that had just been handed to me and would say, “Quick announcement before we get started. Apparently, there is a green 1995 Dodge Neon parked in front of the hotel. (pause) There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s making the place look like hell. So if you could move it, they’d appreciate it.”
I’ve told this joke hundreds of times—and it always gets a laugh. (Point of clarification: If the audience is from a very conservative organization, I won’t use the joke and risk the word “hell” offending the group.) But here was the twist this time: I told the breakout session attendees that when I hit the last line—“So if you could move it, they’d appreciate it.”—they should immediately stand up and pretend like it’s their car and start walking, as though they need to move it. The premise was that to see a dozen people leap to their feet—in a room of several hundred—and pretend it was their car would be very funny.
Fast forward to the next morning. I began my keynote. I said the joke. When I delivered the last line, “So if you could move it, they would appreciate it”--the entire audience stood up and started to walk out. It turns out that some of the attendees in the breakout session came up with a way to make the joke even funnier, and, more importantly, to surprise me. They spent that evening after the breakout, and the next morning at breakfast, spreading the word to everyone.
Think about the dynamics of this. The more people who were now in on the surprise, the larger the investment in its outcome. Everyone was making sure everyone else knew and the anticipation kept growing. By the time I walked onto the stage that morning, they were all on the edge of their chairs—waiting for the joke—and knowing that their participation in the surprise was going to be a crucial part of its success.
And it played out exactly as they intended. I hit the line—they all stood up and pretended to walk to the parking lot—and the laughter was enormous. (Both from them and me.) As they returned to their seats, they were all high-fiving each other, and it was obvious that everyone was happy with their execution of the joke.
The beauty of orchestrating a surprise like this is the joy is shared equally between the recipient of the surprise and the perpetrators of the surprise. As a matter of fact, the participants in the surprise may actually derive more joy than the recipient. That’s because the participants have had the luxury of being in on the planning and have enjoyed the mounting anticipation as the moment of surprise grows closer.
I recently threw a surprise party to honor my wife, Susan, on completing her 25th consecutive Disney World Marathon. We had about 50 of her close friends and family join us for a surprise luncheon at the hotel In Orlando where we staying. And while Susan was absolutely and totally surprised and thrilled when she walked into the room, I would argue that the 50 of us—who had been in on the surprise for months—were even more happy. The reason is simple: We got to experience both the joy of the months-long anticipation and the joy of the actual event.
Think of times when you’ve been surprised in your life. The people who orchestrated the surprise shared the same joy in planning it as you did in experiencing it. I remember once seeing Celine Dion in concert—and she surprised the audience by bringing out the Bee Gees to sing a song with her. The crowd went wild—but I know that the performers and their teams were just as excited at knowing that they were about to totally surprise the audience.
When people say, “I don’t like surprises,” what they mean is, “I don’t like bad surprises.” They’re typically referring to the kind of surprise that brings bad news or an “uh oh” response—something that’s going to require an immediate change of plans or an instant shift in priorities.
However, people love “good” surprises—something they never saw coming, but is designed to immediately bring joy to the recipient. Surprises don’t have to be elaborate or extravagant. They can be as simple as the joke my audience pulled on me. Don’t get me wrong—the elaborate ones are awesome! But they also can be as simple as you bringing home a take-out meal from a loved one’s favorite restaurant, so that it’s waiting for them when they get home from work. Surprise!
The key is to always have the mind-set of looking for opportunities for surprises:
“How could I surprise my co-workers? Or my boss?”
“How could I surprise my family members?”
“How could I surprise an old friend?”
“How could I surprise our customers? Our clients?”
Don’t be surprised if you get hooked on surprises. They are truly the gift that is as much fun to give as it is to receive.
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