Updated: Apr 16
Cut the BS
We recently visited with Bob Kulhan, Founder & CEO of Business Improv and Adjunct Professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. Our talk ranged from his roots in improv comedy in Chicago to his experience with foreign colloquialisms while teaching business people around the world how to make their organizations better. To use a BS term Bob introduced us to, we “Frankenbited” his conversation to give you the following Q&A on some of the issues surrounding business speak.
Q: How were you introduced to the world of business speak (BS)?
My undergrad degree was in business from the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was focused on marketing and advertising. While attending classes in the early 1990s, I also started taking improv comedy courses at The Player’s Workshop of The Second City with [famed comedy teacher] Martin de Maat. After graduating, I spent the next 5 years trying to make it as a comedian and never work in business.
Cut to 1999, I’m broke as a joke. I had one investment in a condo directly east of Wrigley Field and I was struggling to maintain the mortgage on that. I could barely keep afloat. That’s when I had the opportunity to create the first program at any business school in the world that focused solely on improvisation and that was at the Duke Fuqua School of Business. 21 years later, we’re still going strong.
Q: How would you describe your daily work activities?
I pretty much wear every hat that an entrepreneur has in the consultancy field. I facilitate programs. I do key notes. I talk with clients. I develop material. Our work at Business Improv is about developing relationships with clients and working with them to integrate the tenets of improv into their organizations.
Q: How much of your work is with business students in college?
I’m definitely grounded in academia. I’m an adjunct professor at Duke and I’m an adjunct at Columbia Business School. I also have relationships at The University of Florida Warrington College of Business, Wharton [at Penn], Harvard, Yale, lots of business schools. It’s hard to put a percentage on it because the work fluctuates on any given year but it’s probably something like 20% of our work at Business Improv is with business school students.
Q: Are those students as knowledgeable about the BS terms they’ll need to know on the job as you think they should be?
That depends on their level of experience from undergrad to grad. It used to be, back in the early 2000s, that most MBA students had a good 5 to 7 years of experience between their undergrad and their MBA, so their business acumen was pretty strong. Now, the mean age of the MBA student has decreased, their experience between undergrad to MBA has decreased, so part of their education in a grad program is getting up-to-speed on the lexicon they’ll need out of school.
Q: What’s your advice to those students about the possibility of getting on a job and not knowing some key term or phrase that their colleagues are talking about in a meeting?
There’s an improv principle that comes into play there. It’s to perform at the top of your intelligence. Meaning: be as smart as you can be at all times. What I suggest is they pause, look for context clues that provide clarity and, if all else fails, ask for a quick clarification of the term or word then move on. The reality is every business has its own [BS] acronyms it seems. It’s ridiculous how many acronyms are out there. You can’t memorize or know all of them at once. That’s crazy. The same letters or words can have different meanings in different industries (pharma versus tech, for example). So, do the best you can to quickly learn the ones most important in your world.
Q: Should you be concerned about your credibility by asking for the definition of KPI, for example?
If you’re supposed to know KPI and you don’t, that’s one thing. If you’re new to the organization and you’re still getting acclimated to the whole process, that’s something else. Either way, I would say, if you have to ask for clarity on commonly-used terms consistently, then your credibility is probably shot. But if you only do it a couple of times and you’re on point with your terms moving forward, I would think you’ve recovered.
Q: Do you think today’s college students have to be better adept at BS simply because of how quickly new business terms (e.g “deepfake”) trend these days?
Yes, I would think the turn-around [on BS terms] is faster these days because the lines of communication with social media are stronger. Information is much more accessible than it has been before.
Q: How do you keep track of all the different BS acronyms you have to deal with at the places you consult?
I try to get them in advance. I have them send me their glossary of acronyms and then I study them. Sometimes they’ll send me 50 acronyms and I’m like, “There’s no way I’m going to need to know all 50 of these. What are the 5 I need to know? Help me out here.”
Q: Are there any unique BS terms you use in your line of work?
It’s funny. I did a fake cooking show on YouTube called “The Bon Vivant Gourmet” and I learned about the process of “Frankenbiting” on it. Frankenbiting is when you edit together different soundbites to change the reality of what you actually shot. They use it a lot in reality television to manufacture feuds between characters. For the cooking show, it meant we would shoot for a couple of hours and reduce it down to about 3 minutes in the edit for comedic effect.
Q: Have you had to explain some American BS when working with foreign business people?
Yes, definitely. One time, I wanted to say “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” [in a workshop] but I changed it to “there’s more than one way to hit a pinata,” hoping my audience would understand the reference. It turns out they didn’t and I was like, “Wait. Um...oh...uh.” It’s gotten to a point now when we travel internationally to work, we ask, “How are they with American colloquialisms?” If the response is “Yeah, our Dutch audience is not really going to get them,” then we try to stay away from them altogether.
Q: Has it worked the other way where someone in one of your workshops has used a BS term from another part of the world that you didn’t understand?
Oh yeah! In Germany, it was something like “bee’s nectar” and I was like “What? What are you talking about? Bee’s nectar?” Afterward, he explained that it meant what you’re saying is sweet to hear, and I was like, “Oh, OK, so it’s like honey!” There was one recently as well that was referencing a flower and I was like “I don’t even know what flower you’re talking about. This whole thing is lost on me.” Another time, someone was talking about how the concept of “yes and” in the program was a “scarlet thread” (instead of a “red thread”). I liked that. Scarlet thread sounds a bit more romantic than red thread, so that has become part of my lexicon now.
Q: What does that mean? How do you define scarlet thread?
Scarlet thread is like the red thread through a program, the continuous line that carries over from one thing to the next thing to the next thing. Improvisationally, we could call it “the spine.”
Q: Do you have a BS term that you say a lot on the job?
I say “when the excrement hits the oscillator” fairly often. That seems to come out probably once a program now that I’m thinking about it. What I like about that is the pause. You have to think for a second, like, “Oh! When the s--- hits the fan!”
Q: What BS term do you dislike hearing?
Bandwidth. “Oh, I don’t have the bandwidth.” My response to that in my head is pretty much, “Whatever.” If it was something fun like going to Disneyworld, I bet you’d have the bandwidth. That word has even come out of my mouth a few times and I’m like “What am I saying?!” “I don’t have enough time to do this,” that’s what I’m really saying. A lot of people use it flippantly and that makes me dislike it. “Synergy” is also a word I’ve heard over and over again. People roll their eyes when they hear it. They’ll make fun of it. Synergy is the 20-thousand dollar BS buzzword.
Q: You have a book that covers what you do for a living. Can you tell us about it?
“Getting to “Yes And”: The Art of Business Improv” is how to apply improv principles to your organization. It’s got exercises. It’s got things to look for: pushback or pitfalls. It’s rooted in the behavioral sciences, academic approaches, and improv comedy.
Q: How do you define the concept of “yes and”?
In the improv world, “yes and” is sacred. [Famed improv teacher] Viola Spolin is the person who gets the most credit for creating it in the 1930s. The way to define it in improv is “yes” is unconditional acceptance of an initiated premise, and “and” is building directly upon that premise. The way we define it in business is a little different. In business, “yes” is understanding. It’s not acceptance of bad ideas. It’s “I’m open to hearing what you have to say on your terms. I’m trying to understand it.” “And” is the bridge to how you understand it. It’s your voice, your background, your intelligence getting you to that understanding. In improv, “yes and” is a communication and collaboration tool. It’s the same in business.
Q: Where can people get your book and learn more about the work you do?
Q: Anything else you want to say you feel is important?
Yeah, I love your book! I think it’s a lot of fun. I found myself spending significant time in it. I was like, “Oh, wow. Look at this.” I’m an etymology guy in the first place and a history guy. This book really spoke to me so I thought it was great.
Thank you, Bob. We at The BS Dictionary think you’re great too!
Q: Why do you think people are getting their MBAs at a younger age?
That’s a great question. When my parents were going through the system, it was a necessity that you have a college degree. Now everybody gets a college degree and the necessity is an MBA or post-grad degree. So I think more students are thinking, “Well, you gotta get it so let’s just get it out of the way quickly and move on.” It’s [an evolution that has] probably watered-down the value of an undergrad degree actually. That degree by itself is not enough anymore.
Q: What advice would you give to a business school grad trying to keep pace with the ever-changing world of BS?
I would say talk to your peers, to your mentors, your superiors, on a regular basis and just be agile, be super flexible.