Corporate Defector Drops Out To Follow Her Dreams
Sarah Cooper is a former Google employee turned comedienne and author. She writes hilarious business satire on her website The Cooper Review online and has recently published her first book, 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. Steve asks Sarah to talk about her decision to leave Google to pursue an uncertain dream of becoming a comic writer. She remembers a quote that affected her which said that if you haven’t done something you want to do by the time you’re 40, you probably won’t do it. As someone approaching her 40s, this “scared the hell out of her,” crystallizing the idea that she shouldn’t put her dreams off indefinitely, even as everyone around her thought she was throwing away a golden opportunity to work at one of the best companies in the world. The decision was hard because she liked her job and appreciated the benefits and safety that went along with it and also because she couldn’t convince her husband, family, and friends that it was a good, and on some level, a necessary move. In the end, she decided it would be riskier to her happiness and future to stick with her cozy Google career than it would be to start over as an unknown writer.
10 Tricks To Appear Smart At Meetings
Knowing this little bit of background, it’s clear from even a passing glance at The Cooper Review that Sarah has mined a lot of source material on the modern workplace from her time at Google and other jobs. The motto of The Cooper Review is “funny because it’s true.” Her work skewers—in a light-hearted way— corporate cultures based on endless meetings and reliance on jargon and a certain amount of posturing and bluffing to impress one’s peers and bosses. Her piece entitled “10 Tricks to Appear Smart at Meetings” is a good and very funny example of her style and target selection. The inspiration for this post comes from her observations of the absurd things people in meetings say and do to make it seem like they know what they are talking about even though they’ve barely been paying attention at all. The first item in this list is drawing a Venn Diagram. Seemingly out of nowhere, someone volunteers to make a quick presentation of an idea using a Venn Diagram. What Sarah noticed was a Venn Diagram Effect where other meeting attendees suddenly came to life and started making suggestions about the size of the circles, colors and labels used any time a Venn Diagram was thrown up on a whiteboard, even when it made little sense or added nothing to the conversation. Her advice: draw some kind of Venn Diagram, note a burst of chiming in from colleagues, then “slink back to your chair and continue playing Candy Crush”. This one came from a personal experience where a colleague drew a blatantly terrible Venn Diagram and instead of getting clowned by others in the meeting, everyone reacted as if he had done something very smart.
The second tongue-in-cheek recommendation is to fool people into thinking you’re a quick study by pointlessly converting percentages into fractions. When someone mentions a statistic (“33% of users liked feature X”) retort with a deadpan “so you’re saying that 1 in 3 users likes the feature.” Apparently, this passes for a display of sharp math skills in certain interactions. Of course, it’s just another kind of smokescreen for the would-be sneaky converter’s lack of engagement and inability to add anything of value.
Suggestion #3 is to encourage everyone to “take a step back.” This one comes in handy when you realize your co-workers are throwing out ideas and comments and you don’t have any of your own to contribute. Stopping the meeting with this invitation to “take a step back”, followed up with a pseudo-profound question like “what problem are we really trying to solve here” is a great way to buy yourself some time and possibly make yourself look like a deep thinker.
The fourth item concerns the art of nodding, a subject also covered elsewhere on The Cooper Review. Her example here is the guy who nods continually while appearing to take studious notes on the meeting dialogue going on around him. Sarah cracks that the nodding note taker will have no idea what his notes mean a few hours later, again, because the effort was to look engaged while zoning out. A bit later in the show, Steve and Sarah discuss the various types and finer points of other meeting nods. It’s important not to come out and nod the same way you’ve nodded in previous meetings because people will start to assume you are nodding robotically without any real purpose. A better approach would be a slow nod indicating “I’m really taking in what you just said” or the single “that’s a good point” nod followed by a quick flourish of pretending to write it down. Then there are the unaffected “I-am-literally-falling-asleep” nods which are generally not a good look. Nod variety is important to keep your co-workers guessing, Sarah notes, and, therefore, it’s a good idea to mix up your nodding game.
Steve and Sarah cover several more of the items in her “10 Tricks” article, including the advantage of writing on a pad of paper rather than your phone (it seems more serious, as if you’re really taking a lot of information in), the use of the generally incomprehensible, unanswerable question “Will this scale?” to confuse any issue, ducking out of a meeting to pretend to take an important call, and pacing furiously around the room. A lot of these depend on getting people to wonder what you’re thinking about, which often leads to an assumption—based on fiction—that it must be something important and smart. From the perpetrator’s vantage point, it’s all about disguising the fact that you aren’t paying attention, you don’t really care about the meeting, and that you’re something of an idiot, or, at any rate, useless, in this situation, and replacing this with the appearance that you’re actually the opposite of these things, an alpha player.
The last trick in the list is one that rightly evades everyone’s BS meters because it’s actually genuine, potentially funny, and puts people at ease, and that is making fun of yourself. Self-deprecating remarks to the effect that you haven’t heard a word anyone has said in the last hour can elicit some sympathetic chuckles as well as points for honesty, for example. Sarah drily adds that this doesn’t mean people won’t tell HR about your comments.
Steve brings up another post he got a kick out of, “9 Tricks to Make You Look Like You’re the Creative Force on Your Team,” a close cousin of the tricks for meetings listicle. A simple one of these is to ask the team whether anyone wants water and excuse yourself to go get water. Not only does this get you out of the group session for 10 minutes, but when you bring back water and snacks and people inevitably start eating them, you’ve cast yourself as both a caretaker of your co-worker’s needs and a predictor of the future.
Another example is to grab sticky notes and start drawing on them. This builds some anticipation that you’re churning out relevant ideas even before the question or problem has been posed. Regardless of whether you’re drawing pointless flowcharts, you’ll enjoy at least a momentary halo of productivity. Another item from this list is to make an analogy so simple that it seems deep. Sarah’s example turns on the question, “We have the cake, but the cake needs sprinkles.” What are the sprinkles?” On first glance, this might seem like a valid and useful analogy, but in the end, it doesn’t show the way forward or hold up to much scrutiny. Sarah humorously points out that people are usually so polite in meetings that they won’t come right out and say “what a ridiculous analogy,” instead opting for a “go along to get along” approach, agreeing that “actually, we do need sprinkles” and assuming that you are a pretty deep thinker for bringing it up.
The last examples from The Cooper Review that Steve brings up have to do with jargony phrases that get bandied about in corporate meetings and email. One is the use of the word ask as a noun, as in: “shouldn’t we be asking if this ask if the right ask?” According to Sarah, using ask as a noun in this way always scores points. She goes further by suggesting that questioning the questions—responding to “what are the right questions?” by rebutting “you just asked one”— can provide a tactical victory, like a reprieve from having to continue to participate in a meeting. Sarah calls out some other trendy phrases of dubious value which crop up a lot in corporate America: “But how is this disruptive?” or “Is this 10X?” “Is this the future?” or “I thought that was dead.” The final one is “But isn’t Apple doing that?” That shuts down all conversations because, of course, if Apple’s doing it, there’s no point in going after that.
In addition to reading all the terrific and amusing content on The Cooper Review website, you can buy Sarah’s illustrated and “funny because it’s true” book 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings by clicking here.
Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital. Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions. Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances. The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest is Sarah Cooper. She is a writer, a comedian, and creator of a satirical blog, TheCooperReview.com, which attracts over 100,000 readers per month. As a break from all the serious stuff we discuss here, I thought Sarah’s take on office life and things, in general. Could be a lot of fun.
Hey, Sarah. Welcome to the show.
Sarah Cooper: Thank you for having me.
Steve Pomeranz: You’re writing now. You’ve got your first book. You’re a comedian, and, yet, before all this, you worked for Google which was a pretty special job. How did you decide to walk away from a job like that to become a writer?
Sarah Cooper: Yeah, it was pretty hard. Everybody thought I was crazy because it’s one of the best places to work in the world, so if you’re not happy there, then pretty much, you have no chance of ever being happy is kind of what everyone thought, including my parents and my husband and my therapist. Everybody, but I figured it was more a risk to not try. I was a few years away from turning 40 which is kind of a big age milestone. Sometimes, you feel like you got to give it a shot. I figured if it didn’t work out, I could always maybe go back to Google, but if I didn’t try, I’d never know. That’s kind of how I decided.
Steve Pomeranz: Is 40 an age milestone at Google, too?
Sarah Cooper: It is. I think that it’s kind of, especially in a tech world, where everyone is just out of college, and everybody seems to be 22 years old, I think reaching 40 is a bit scary.
Steve Pomeranz: Do you think that might’ve had a little bit of the … been some of the reason that you decided to go a different direction as well?
Sarah Cooper: Yeah. I think that … I read some quote that said if there’s something that you want to do, and you don’t do it by 40, there’s a good chance you’ll never do it, and that scared the hell out of me, so I figured if I wanted to write a book, I better get on that.
Steve Pomeranz: That’s great. I’m looking at your blog. One of the things that I really laughed over was “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings.” Everyone in this world goes to meetings, whether you work for a non-profit or you work for a business or a corporation or whatever it is, and you put together “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings.” Tell us about those.
Sarah Cooper: I was in a lot of meetings, and I would notice these little things that people would do to appear as if they knew what they were talking about when really they hadn’t been paying attention at all. The first one is draw a Venn diagram. I remember when someone got up and just drew this ridiculous Venn diagram, I thought everyone was going to make fun of him, but, instead, everyone started helping him draw it and telling him how big the circle should be and what the label should be, and then he just sat back down and went back to looking at Facebook or whatever he was doing. I thought, “Wow. That just made him look really, really smart.” That was the first one that I noticed.
Another one, which I haven’t been able to try yet, but I think is brilliant, is translate percentages into fractions. If someone says, “25% of people clicked on this button,” say, “Oh, about 1 in 4,” and then make a note of it. It just makes you look like you have really sharp math skills, even though you haven’t added anything to the conversation whatsoever.
Steve Pomeranz: Exactly. Right.
Sarah Cooper: It’s a great one.
Steve Pomeranz: I like this one here: Encourage everybody to take a step back. Let’s just take a step back here and review what we’ve just talked about. Tell me about that.
Sarah Cooper: Exactly. A lot of times, people are chiming in with their ideas, and, obviously, you’re not paying attention, so you don’t have any ideas, so you could just stop everyone, and say, “Guys, guys, guys. Let’s take a step back here.” Then, when you have everyone’s attention, ask a vague question like, “What problem are we really trying to solve?” People will be like, “Oh, wow. That’s so deep. You really took control of this meeting, and you helped us get back on track,” even though you haven’t actually contributed anything.
Steve Pomeranz: We’re talking about “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings.” The fourth trick is to nod continuously while pretending to take notes.
Sarah Cooper: Yes, I saw somebody do this. He was in a meeting, and he seemed to be writing down every other word that people were saying. I know that when he looked at those notes a few hours later, they didn’t make any sense to him whatsoever, but if you looked at him during the meeting, he was nodding, and he was writing, and so it looked like he was really engaged, even though I think his mind was definitely somewhere else.
Steve Pomeranz: I bet you there’s also something if you have like a pad and paper versus an iPad or a laptop. The pad and paper seems much more serious.
Sarah Cooper: It does. It makes it seem like you are really taking in the information a lot more than if you’re on your phone or on your laptop, it looks like you might be on Instagram or something.
Steve Pomeranz: Another favorite one of mine: If you’re in business these days—especially, I guess, if you’re in the technology business—one big question that’s always asked is “Will this scale?” No matter what it is, ask the question, “Will this scale?” What does that actually mean? Does anybody know?
Sarah Cooper: Nobody knows. Nobody knows what that means, but it’s a great question that will make everybody stop and think, and it drives engineers … It drives people who know what that means nuts, so that’s good, too, so it’s definitely a good question to ask. Just ask if it’s going to scale.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, the idea, basically, is if you have an idea, can you repeat it in an infinite way? That’s really how these big technology companies make their billions. Facebook is completely scalable from one user to 100 million users. There’s no more incremental technology you really, really need or infrastructure, so it’s scalable.
Sarah Cooper: You sound so smart right now. I’m really impressed. I’m really impressed.
Steve Pomeranz: Oh, thank you very much. Thank you. Well, I don’t know. Let’s just take a moment to step back.
Sarah Cooper: Yeah, good idea.
Steve Pomeranz: Pace around the room is also another technique that you recommended if you want to appear smart in meetings. Why is that?
Sarah Cooper: I was in a meeting once, and a VP just got up and started walking back and forth. I didn’t know what he was thinking. I thought is he pissed off? Is he going to cancel this project? Is he going to walk out? I had no idea, but I knew that my respect for him went through the roof. Pacing around the room just makes it look like you’re really contemplating everything. You can walk over to the window, take a sigh, nod, cross your arms. It kind of makes people wonder what you’re thinking, which always makes you look smart.
Steve Pomeranz: I suppose if you would, then, take a moment to step out for a very important phone call, that might even add more to the respect that you would get.
Sarah Cooper: Definitely because people are very aware of the fact that this meeting is important, but if you have a phone call that’s even more important than the important meeting that you’re in, that means you’re really important, so go ahead. Say that you have to take this and step out for a little bit.
Steve Pomeranz: Number eight is ask the presenter to go back a slide. “Would you go back a slide, please? I want to kind of revisit that statement that you just made.” How does that separate you from the meeting?
Sarah Cooper: Your co-workers will immediately think that there’s something on that slide that they missed that you’re going to brilliantly point out. You don’t actually have to point anything out. You can just say, “What do these numbers mean?” or you could just look at it and go, “Okay. Yeah. We can move on now.” It doesn’t matter what you say. It just makes people think that there’s something that you’re going to say that’s really interesting even though you haven’t been paying attention at all. The only caveat with this one is don’t say, “Can you go back a slide?” if the presenter’s on the first slide because that will make people realize you aren’t paying attention.
Steve Pomeranz: You’re just an idiot, basically.
Sarah Cooper: Yeah.
Steve Pomeranz: That’s really what you’re trying to avoid at all costs is this idea that you’re really not paying attention, you really don’t care what’s going on in the meeting, you are kind of like an idiot in this situation, and yet you’re really trying to appear as if you are an alpha person. You’re on top of your game.
Sarah Cooper: Exactly.
Steve Pomeranz: Then, finally, make fun of yourself. Why is making fun of yourself a good tactic?
Sarah Cooper: It just shows that you’re really comfortable with not taking yourself too seriously. I always am super-impressed when somebody gets asked a question and their response is, “You know what? I haven’t heard anything anyone said for the past hour.” Everyone laughs, and they’re like, “Oh my goodness. He’s so honest. He’s being so jovial. It’s so funny.” That’s something that you can always do to make yourself seem smart is just not take yourself too seriously.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest is Sarah Cooper, a writer, a comedian, and creator of the satirical blog, TheCooperReview.com. I really recommend you go and check it out. It’s pretty funny. A couple of videos on how to nod correctly. There’s different kinds of nodding, right? Showing that you’re listening in a certain way, and then … Tell us about how to nod properly.
Sarah Cooper: It’s really important that you’re nodding in the right way during a meeting because you could nod the same way you’ve nodded before, but then people are going to notice that you’re just sort of robotically nodding. A lot of good nods are like the slow “Yeah, I’m really taking that in” nod or you could do the “Oh, that’s a good point. I’m going to write that down” nod, and then you could just pretend to write it down. Then, of course, there’s the “nodding off” nod where you’re sort of falling asleep, which is a lot of people. There’s just a bunch of different nods that you could do.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I guess if you do the same one, then everybody goes, “Oh, that’s the Sarah nod. She’s not really listening.”
Sarah Cooper: Exactly.
Steve Pomeranz: “She’s just placating me, so forget it.” Right?
Sarah Cooper: Right. Yeah, so try to mix up your nodding game when you’re in meetings.
Steve Pomeranz: You also have “9 Tricks to Make You Look Like You’re the Creative Force on Your Team.” I like these very much. The first one is leave to get water and ask if anyone needs anything.
Sarah Cooper: Yes. This one’s brilliant actually because, first of all, it gets you out of the first 10 minutes of the meeting. You can just kind of not be there which is always a bonus. Even if no one says that they want anything, just bring back stuff. Bring back some water. Bring back some snacks. People will automatically start eating and drinking the snacks, and then it’ll look like you really can predict the future because you were able to predict that they wanted snacks. Yeah.
Steve Pomeranz: Anticipate. Yeah, you anticipated their needs, and you also gave them something, so you’re now kind of more special than everybody else.
Sarah Cooper: Yes.
Steve Pomeranz: Grab a pad of sticky notes and start drawing.
Sarah Cooper: Yes. This is a great one because, even before you even know what the problem is or what the question is, people will think, “Wow. He already is coming up with all of these great ideas.” You can just draw like meaningless flowcharts or standard graphs or anything you want to draw, and it’ll look like you’re coming up with something.
Steve Pomeranz: The thing is if you’re using sticky notes that means that you’re giving the impression that those notes are going to end up on a board or on the wall somewhere.
Sarah Cooper: Exactly. Even if they just end up in the trash.
Steve Pomeranz: Make an analogy that’s so simple, it sounds deep. You have one here. By the way, this comes with drawings as well. “We have the cake, but the cake needs sprinkles. What are the sprinkles?” Good example of the question you ask that sounds so deep but actually … No, not so much.
Sarah Cooper: Yeah. Exactly, but the funny thing is that people are so polite in these meetings that no one’s going to be like, “That’s ridiculous.” They’re going to go, “Oh, the sprinkles. Yeah, that’s true. We do need sprinkles.” You’ll automatically make people think that you’re pretty deep.
Steve Pomeranz: We only have time for one more. Ask if we’re asking the right question. “You know, shouldn’t we asking if this ask if the right ask? If this the question we should be asking?”
Sarah Cooper: Yes, and using “ask” as a noun like that always makes you look like you’re in tune with the meeting but always question the questions. If someone says, “Well, what are the right questions?” Just say, “You just asked one.” That’ll get you out of having to say anything else for the rest of the meeting.
Steve Pomeranz: Some other phrases, “But how is this disruptive?” or “Is this 10X?” “Is this the future?” or “I thought that was dead.” The final one is “But isn’t Apple doing that?” That shuts down all conversations, right, because if Apple’s doing it, there’s no point in going after that. They’re too big.
Sarah Cooper: Exactly. Exactly.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest, Sarah Cooper, writer, comedian, creator of the satirical blog, TheCooperReview.com. Go check it out. It’s pretty funny. She’s also got a book. What’s your book?
Sarah Cooper: My book is 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings which we just went through a few of them. It’s on sale now on Amazon. It’s under $10, so you could go get it for yourself or one of your co-workers or your boss maybe.
Steve Pomeranz: You can hear this conversation, read all about it if you go to the website, stevepomeranz.com. Thank you so much for joining us, Sarah.
Sarah Cooper: Thank you.