Before she landed at the top of our TikTok and Twitter feeds in 2020, prolific comedian and writer Sarah Cooper had a long career as a user interface designer for the likes of Google and Yahoo. And with her upcoming Netflix special, Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine, she knows a thing or two about getting work done.
As a keynote speaker during our virtual Slack Frontiers 2020 conference, Cooper sat down with Slack chief marketing officer Julie Liegl on Zoom to chat about being creative and collaborative in the workplace—both now and in a post-pandemic world. Here are our top six moments from our Q&A discussion with Cooper.
1. Give your mind (and your team) freedom to explore and be creative
Slack: We think it’s safe to say that just about everyone is navigating some pretty extreme ups and downs in 2020. So we’ll go out on a limb and include you in that group. How do you manage to keep your creative juices flowing during this crazy time?
SC: Before the pandemic hit, I was going to open mics, hosting open mics and working on my next book. Shelter-in-place forced me to stay in my living room every day and forced me to try new things. That led to the TikToks. And so, for me, being creative just happens when I’m trying to do other things or not trying to do anything at all.
“Instead of trying to be creative, it’s more about having the freedom to explore and see where your mind goes. Give your employees a way to discover the things they’re passionate about on their own.”
This is also how I came up with 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings for the Cooper Review. In meetings, I’d let my mind wander and I’d pay attention to where my mind was wandering to. And those things were observations about what people were doing during meetings.
And so, instead of trying to be creative, it’s more about having the freedom to explore and see where your mind goes. Give your employees a way to discover the things they’re passionate about on their own. And when they do discover those things, give them a way to turn those ideas into products that the company can build and release.
2. Zoom fatigue is real: stick to small meetings to avoid burnout
Slack: You wrote a delightful book called 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. Now that many people are working remotely, will there be a sequel about Zoom meetings? And on a more serious note, how can we make meetings work better for everyone, including introverts?
SC: Meetings are the worst, and I think Zoom meetings are even tougher because we’re forced to look at ourselves. I think having smaller meetings is important. I was in a Zoom call with 80 people and it was just completely unmanageable; nobody wanted to talk and then somebody wanted to talk and then 10 people wanted to talk over each other. So I think getting comfortable with smaller groups will help a lot.
I don’t know if I could write an entire book about it, but I think that some of the tricks that I write about in my book are still applicable for Zoom. Translating percentages into fractions will always make you look like you know math, so you can always do that on a Zoom call.
I think it’s also important to create spaces and forums for people to share ideas when they’re not naturally inclined to share their ideas in groups. Introverts often have really good ideas, they’re just not as open or as forthright with them.
A lot of times, the quietest person in the room has the best ideas or the smartest things to say. So when that person speaks, definitely repeat what they just said. Because that’ll make you look smart as well.
3. Don’t use jargon to communicate, say what you mean
Slack: What do you think are some of the most overused phrases people say in the workplace? And are there any that you wish we’d say more frequently?
SC: The funny thing about the corporate world is that we have all of these passive aggressive ways of communicating with each other. I think the interesting thing is that a lot of these workplace phrases do mean something, they just don’t mean what you said. Like, “Let’s circle back on that” usually means, “I don’t want to talk about that right now,” or, “That’s not a very good idea.” I think it does help to just say what you mean and just get away from a lot of those phrases.
“I think it’s also important to create spaces and forums for people to share ideas when they’re not naturally inclined to share their ideas in groups.”
I also think that we can be more direct in our email communication. If you have to say no, just say no. A lot of times we spend a paragraph saying no, instead of just saying no. And it’s a bit of a time-waster. So I think with written communication, it’s good to just be as direct as possible, which is difficult. It’s more difficult for women, because sometimes if we’re too short, then we’re seen as having an attitude. But hopefully that’ll change.
4. Building a diverse workforce begins with leadership
Slack: There’s a lot of talk about diversity in the workplace and, unfortunately, a lot of lip service about it. What are some concrete actions organizations can take to foster inclusive workplaces that reflect the true diversity of their communities?
SC: It’s really important to create a forum for people to talk about what they’re experiencing, and that starts at the top. Being able to see a leader who genuinely cares about gender and racial diversity—and doesn’t just talk about it to the press—goes a long way.
I think you have to find new ways to show that you care too, because the second you do something that’s exactly like what another company is doing, it looks like you’re just copying them. But if inclusion is something that you value, and feel in your heart, your workforce will reflect those values too.
5. Hone those listening skills
Slack: A couple of years ago, you made a satirical video about what it means to be a thought leader that feels just as relevant today. What do you think are the qualities of a true leader and which qualities do you think more people should cultivate in the workplace?
SC: I think a true leader is very good at listening and doesn’t try to impose their thoughts or ideas on people. One of the best things about improv is the whole idea of, “Yes, and … .” It basically means when someone shares an idea, you don’t say, “No, but … ,” you say, “Yes, and … ,” and you’re open to where that idea can take you.
I make fun of the whole pacing around the room, but really that was what one of the best leaders at Google did. I used to sit there thinking, “Oh, my God, he looks so smart pacing around the room.” But he was actually just listening. And then when he spoke, you could tell that he heard what everyone said.
“If inclusion is something that you value, and feel in your heart, your workforce will reflect those values too.”
6. Don’t be afraid to tell your teammates how you’re holding up
Slack: Now that the pandemic has forced many of us to work remotely, we’ve become even more reliant on technology to do our jobs. In this brave new digital-first world, how do we stay human and real with one another?
SC: I think it’s important to talk about what’s going on. A lot of times we try to go through the motions like, “Oh, this is normal.” But we should just call it out and say, “This is strange. This is weird. It’s weird that we can’t be together.” Honesty can help us all feel more connected.