Creativity in writing is about saying ‘yes' to the Muse, about leaning into what we think, rather than self-censoring. But this is one of the hardest things about being a writer. In today's interview, Andrea Vahl gives us some tips from improv and stand-up comedy.
In the introduction, I discuss the latest Author Earnings report and the focus on international markets, and refer to my self-publishing Salon with Orna Ross, where we discuss the dominance of Amazon and the changes in the publishing scene, including Bonnier's new platform, Type & Tell, as well as Hachette buying Bookouture, one of the UK's most successful digital-only publishers.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Andrea Vahl is a social media speaker and consultant who is passionate about helping businesses understand and leverage the power of social media to actually grow their business. She's the co-author of Facebook Marketing All-in-One for Dummies, and she's also been an improv, stand-up comedian for 10 years.
- How Andrea got into improv
- Tackling the fear of standing up in front of an audience
- How stand up comedy and improv have informed Andrea's professional speaking skills
- On letting go of self-censorship
- How Andrea captures good ideas for her stand-up comedy routines
- Managing a personal brand that has two distinctive halves
- Upcoming changes in the Facebook Ads landscape
- What to do if you're feeling overwhelmed by all the social media options
You can find Andrea at AndreaVahl.com and on Twitter @AndreaVahl
Transcript of Interview with Andrea Vahl
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today, I'm here with Andrea Vahl. Hi, Andrea.
Andrea: Hello. Great to be here.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Andrea is a social media speaker and consultant who is passionate about helping businesses understand and leverage the power of social media to actually grow their business. She's the co-author of the “Facebook Marketing All-in-One for Dummies,” and she's also been an improv, stand-up comedian for 10 years, which is so, so cool.
We're going to come back to Facebook Ads because, you know, that's not as interesting as the improv.
I wonder if you could start by just telling us about how you got into improv in the first place?
Andrea: I just actually was looking for something to do. I've always loved theater and performing and things like that since I was young, so I saw this class on improv comedy and I thought, “Hey, that'll be fun. Let's give it a go.” I took the class and had so much fun, I ended up joining the troupe that the teacher ran, and did that for eight years plus and joined another different troupe.
We performed in Denver and did a couple of shows a weekend in the one troupe. And then I had kids, so I was in another troupe that only performed once a month, which was a better schedule because it was crazy. But I still had to get out do a little fun activity, and I just love it as a creative outlet. It's so awesome.
I did improv comedy for a while, now I've actually been doing stand-up comedy which is totally different. Improv, you get to just make things up, stand-up you have to memorize your jokes word-for-word. So it's a little scarier, I think, because you're there by yourself, up there alone, doing your jokes. And then improv, you're doing little skits and just saying whatever you want.
Joanna: Yeah. And both of those things are like, “Oh, my goodness,” and I know people are listening are like, “Oh, my.” And the first thing you said was, “Well, I was looking for something to do,” and everyone's like, “Why would you choose to do something like this?” But I'm interested, what were you doing?
What was your job when you were looking for this?
Andrea: I was an engineer. That's my background, I did engineering. And you know, you're there, you're kinda technical all day long, it's serious, and it's just fun to have something really creative.
I find so many people that just really want a creative outlet because we need to feed that creative side of ourselves. The interesting thing about our group is that a lot of us were engineers, so I don't know what that says. You know, you have to break out of that totally technical piece of things. But we had a lot of fun, and had a lot of good times performing and we did corporate shows too, which was fun.
Joanna: One of the things…and a lot of the listeners are obviously authors, many of them fiction authors. So, often, we're not very funny, potentially. The standing up in front of people and performing aspect.
Did you ever feel this fear or do you still feel this fear? And how do you tackle the fear?
Andrea: I feel the fear every time. I'm always like, “Why am I doing this? Oh, I shouldn't be,” you know. People think that you have to get over your fear but, no, you really just have to manage your fear.
And I think the fear can really fuel you, and I think what is important about the improv comedy is just really to trust yourself and say the first thing that comes into your head. And what's amazing with that is, often, it's funny. So you think you're not funny, but I've seen people who are just totally, they think they're so serious and they say the funniest things, because it's just whatever pops in their head.
And you don't censor yourself, you don't try and think of something funny. You sit there and go, “Oh, wait, let me…hold on, hold that thought,” you just go with it and the scene builds. And the great thing about improv is that a lot of the games are designed to be funny anyway, even if they're terrible.
I've had some terrible scenes where you're like, “Oh, this is not going well. But luckily, it's over soon. You have about three minutes of each scene and then you're like, “Okay, let's move on and hopefully the next one will be better.”
Joanna: Just using that fear, I guess. We met at Digital Commerce Summit, and you were a speaker, and I was a speaker and we were on the stage separately.
But how does that professional speaking equate to the kind of stand-up? What is the difference?
Andrea: Right. I think that, for sure, the stand-up has helped me be a better speaker because I realize how important words are and how important that delivery is. I used to kind of wing it a little bit more. I used to be more, like, in the improv world and just kind of wing it.
But I realize now that if you want to get you points across, you really have to craft your points and deliver them word-for-word in a powerful way, so that your audience can receive that message. It's hard to memorize a whole one-hour speech so, definitely, that's kind of impossible and that's where the improv can come in handy. Where you're able to realize that you can just wing it and have a little bit of play in there.
But your important points you want to craft really well and realize that you're going to feel that fear, and it can come through as excitement, it can come through as energy and really get you amped up about helping your audience.
Joanna: That's really interesting. And you mentioned there the importance of words. I was reading a book about improv and it said that you have to say “Yes.” So when people feed you an idea, you can't go, “Oh, no. I can't think of anything,” you say, “Yes, and.”
What does that mean practically, when you are performing, that inner “yes?”
Andrea: I think it's been great for brainstorming and great for seeing where you can take it, because you just are building on that story.
That is a definite rule of improv, is that you say, “Yes, and,” you don't deny someone. And if someone comes in and says, “Hi, I'm your long lost uncle,” and you say, “No, you're not. You're Bob, my next-door neighbor,” it kind of stops the scene a little bit, and people are like, “Wait, who is he? I don't know.”
So you're saying, “Yes, and I can't believe you were stranded on that island for so long,” you know. And then the story gets furthered by each person. And its hard because sometimes you have an idea in your mind where the story might go, but the other person takes it somewhere else. And you have to let go of that idea that you had, and go with the new idea and just really commit to that idea. And then they might have the same thing happen, where you take it somewhere else, and you just have to keep building on it and it becomes beautiful. It's really fun.
Joanna: I've co-written a book with someone. You've co-authored. Yours was nonfiction, which is I think slightly different. But co-writing fiction is kind of crazy. But what you're saying there is a sort of co-creation, isn't it? You're co-creating this scene.
Did you learn things between that co-creation and also co-writing?
Andrea: Yeah. My co-writing was different because we really did divide the chapters up, “You take this chapter, I'll take…” I thought there would be a little more collaboration. But there actually was because we were bouncing ideas, “How do you think I should present this? Are you covering this piece here? Should I cover it there?”
There definitely was a little more co-creation, but I imagine improv would be much more like co-creating fiction, where you both have some ideas and you're brainstorming and you come up with a story that wasn't the original idea that you had, but turns out to be much richer and much more exciting. And I think that would be fun.
Joanna: Yeah. It's crazy. And the other thing that, as you were talking, I thought about, I have on my wall here, “Trust emergence,” which is like, “Lean in to the thing that comes into your head.” And I was gonna ask you about self-censorship because, what if the thing that comes into your head is something that is dark or, like, about your kids? I've heard you talk about your kids and things.
How do you just let go of that self-censorship?
Andrea: What I found was I was so scared, especially in stand-up, to say some of the things that were on my heart, and I was worried that people would judge me or worried that I would come across as really insensitive.
I think that, if you have a thought, what you find out is that so many other people might be struggling with that and are afraid to say it. So, sometimes, it can go wrong, especially now we're struggling with all this political issue, political humor, political strife here, as we're talking.
But you know, you don't want to be too dark, but definitely realize that if you have a thought, if something is weighing on you, then it's probably a problem for other people. And just bringing that out into the open can be such a relief for the audience, and can make the audience laugh so much because they're like, “Oh, my gosh, I can't believe she said that.”
I talk about being a terrible mom all the time, and I worry about what I'm doing to my kids and I talk about yelling at my kids and things like that that, I think, we're afraid to share. We all look like we have these perfect little lives, and when you share some of these things it can create such a connection with you and your audience because people say, “Oh, wow, I've been feeling that way too.”
Joanna: “I do that too,” yeah. Well, I'm interested then in what if it does fall flat?
What if you think that it's going to be funny and then it's not? How does that go?
Andrea: So true. There's a couple of things with that.
I just had a show recently where I totally bombed. It was just a total bomb. And part of the reason is I'm a middle-aged mom, and my audience that was all out there were 20-something guys. And I'm talking about, you know, middle-age and all this stuff, and they're like, “Mm,” not getting it.
There can be an issue with, “Are you delivering the right message to the right audience?” But also, I think, sometimes when it falls flat and you think it's going to be real good all the time. I think, “This is gonna be the best joke ever,” and it's crickets. Sometimes it takes the audience a little bit to catch up, so you have to give a good enough pause and beat, beat, and let people kind of, “Oh, okay,” let that sink in for people.
Other times, it never sinks in, and it's kind of quiet and you just have to move on and go with the next thing. So, don't worry that it's not being received exactly how you think, and you have to kind of let go of your attachments to how that's going to go.
Joanna: The other question I have is, and this is one that fiction authors, especially, get all the time, and it's kind of annoying but it's also interesting, is:
Where do you get your ideas for your shows?
Andrea: The key is just writing, writing, writing. That's the key: you have to write everyday. And fiction authors know that too.
You write and you don't edit right away. You just write everything down, write everything that's in your mind.
I took a stand-up class as well, and my stand-up teacher really talked about engaging the observer, and really just noticing things that are happening in your life. When you're noticing something, take a look at why you're noticing that. What is about that? What is ridiculous about that? What is memorable about that? Why are you thinking about that thing at the time?
And always carry around a journal or something, so you can get it down right away. Because you think you're going to remember later, and I know your authors probably struggle with that all the time. You've got a great idea and you think you're gonna remember it later, 10 minutes, when you get home, but you don't. So you have to capture that right away and just observe what's really going on. Observe human behavior, you know, take notice of that.
I think, too, is notice how you're reacting to that situation. What is that bringing up in you? And one of the things that I try and practice is very authentic comedy, not just observational comedy but what's happening about me? What are my feelings about it? So it's really a little more personal than just, “Hey, how about those lattes at Starbucks?” It's a little more about my life. And then it also turns into something that someone can't replicate. Someone can't steal that joke or talk about that same thing in the same way that you can.
Joanna: You talked there about being authentic and you mention your kids. We're going come back to Facebook and social media.
Do you draw a line between what you do share, what you keep private, and what you share in your comedy and on social media?
Andrea: I think I definitely have a line around what I share on social media, and it's things that I would be happy that anyone could see. You know, even if it's sharing with just a small group, I don't ever put anything that I woundn't want everyone to see because screenshots and all that kind of thing.
And then, with my kids, it's more my reaction to them rather than things they're doing. Although I do have a bit about my son not eating anything and then throwing up two bites of quinoa and I just about lose my mind. But I try not to do anything that, if their friends saw that clip, they would get made fun of at school or something like that.
My kids are in middle school and high school and now their friends are all on social media and I know they can find these things quite easily. So I never want to embarrass them. My comedy teacher always has a rule that, any joke about her son, she runs by her son. She has some really hilarious jokes about her son and her son's like, “Yeah, that's actually pretty funny.”
Joanna: Yeah, you're right. Kids probably actually have a better sense of humor as well, and we're probably overly sensitive. But I think that is interesting because, I also put out a lot on social media. I've had a line for years about my husband and I have a line about my family.
But my husband is working the business now, and so that line is starting to be removed and it's kind of weird. But I'm interested, just going back to the ideas. You've written down ideas, which I do too, and I write them down and I have an app and everything.
Then do you collect the ideas into a show theme? Or how do you discard things and choose things?
Andrea: Depending on how long the set is, I'll pick maybe three or four themes. So I might pick my kids, I might pick my anxiety over how I'm being charitable. Sometimes I struggle with that. So I might pick something about social media and Facebook or some things like that.
And then I'll group the jokes together so they kind of are a little bit of a story within each segment, and kind of build on each other a little bit. And then there's the segue into the new topic, or whatever, and hopefully it all flows together. I try not to leave any joke hanging, dangling out there on its own, but have little themes.
Joanna: It's like a journey that the audience goes through. Yeah. It's very similar to planning a book, really, isn't it?
Joanna: I mean, the process is quite similar. So, how long does it take you?
How long is a set and how long will it take you to prepare that set?
Andrea: A lot of times, I'm doing 10 minutes, maybe 15 minutes. I'm doing a show in a couple of weeks where I'm going to have 30 minutes, so that's a little bit longer than I've had before. Its really scary because you do have to memorize everything very, very carefully, and the only thing you can think of when you go up there is, “Did I remeber everything?” And the weirdest thing, right before you go on stage, your mind is blank.
Joanna: Yeah. You can't remember anything.
Andrea: You can't remember a single thing. I'm like, “I can't remember my opener. I can't remember. What? What?” It's like it's blank. And then you get up there, and that's why you have to practice so much. I practice, practice. So, yeah, that's really about how long I perform, and it's challenging.
Joanna: It's crazy. And I'm listening to you, and I have so much respect for this, I really do, because I have, a number of times, gone, “I must go on an improv course, I must,” because I think it's really good to learn this stuff. But what part does it now play? Like, obviously you're not making a living as a stand-up comedian. I mean, that's a very hard thing anyway but you have this other life, obviously.
What part does that play in your life now?
Andrea: Originally, I took the stand-up class because I thought, “Oh, good. This will help me insert a few jokes into my speaking material.” And it has in a way, but it's very different because the type of material I do for regular audiences isn't always relating to, you know, Facebook.
It does sometimes, but I think that how it helps is really kind of understanding how a joke works and how to craft a joke, and kind of the idea of a joke being kind of a surprise. And you know, people think you're going one way with it and you go somewhere totally different. And I think that can help in speaking and in kind of making your speeches humorous. And you know, what I like about that is, if you're speaking to a corporate audience, you don't have to be that funny to be considered…
Joanna: Really funny.
Andrea: …like, “Oh, that was really entertaining,” because most people aren't funny as they present. So, you just have to insert a few little things to help that out. And one of my speaker friends said that, once he added 5 minutes of comedy into his 45 minutes of content, he started getting booked more. So that was kind of an interesting little message there. I think we're all looking for some humor and some fun.
Joanna: I listened to your talk, but what I remember more is you making everyone laugh. And I'm sure I wrote really great notes too, but you made us laugh and a number of other speakers didn't, and that's what made you memorable.
Being memorable is half the battle, right?
Andrea: That's right.
Joanna: That's crazy. But I want to ask you now about your brand, because you have these two half-stills. So you have this character, grandma Mary. Now, I know you're transitioning with that. You've got the comedian half and the social media speaker sounds quite serious.
How are you managing your personal brand between these two sides?
Andrea: I think it's really helped my brand because it help me be a little more memorable. And I really think that grandma Mary was…for your listeners who don't know, I blogged as grandma Mary, social media entertainer, for a long time. Wore a wig while blogging. It was a lot of fun.
I always wanted to be Carol Burnett, so that was my way to give that an outlet. But I think that it is about being memorable, and I think that when you can tie you brand to your personality in any way, I think it really helps.
I know someone who really likes surfing and he talks about surfing a lot, but he does different stuff that's more business-oriented. So I think that, when you can and inject that…people get a little worried about saying, “Oh, people won't wanna hear about my hobbies,” but when you can be more of a person, people can relate to you.
I get a lot of people who are creative types who want to work with me because I have a little bit of understanding about that. And that's kind of fun too, is that you get to attract the people to your business that you have an affinity for. So I think it's win-win with everything, and I think that it's helped me be more memorable.
Joanna: Yeah. I think it definitely has. Talking about Facebook Ads, because I know people are interested in Facebook marketing. You do lots of different social media, obviously, and we'll direct people to your website at the end. But going back to what you said about the example of the audience, see, I think a lot of what you've said is relevant to Facebook Ads.
You've said you did this presentation, this comedy, and the audience was young men which was the wrong audience.
How does that relate to Facebook advertising? The right audience, how can that make all the difference?
Andrea: I think that's one of the biggest things you really need to get a handle on, is putting your ad in front of the right audience. And there are so many ways to target your ads these days. You can use keywords that appear as interests in people profiles. You can target by targeting the fans of another page. You can target your email subscribers with an ad, or your website visitors, and there are so many ways to target you ads.
You can target by job titles, home-owners, all kinds of amazing things that are available in Facebook to target by. So, when you get a handle on your perfect keywords, you can really bring your costs down quite a bit because those are the people who are going to be more interested in clicking over.
I'm often getting things like $0.11 website clicks because I'm showing my ad to the people who are so interested in my content that they may want to click over as soon as possible. I think that can really improve your results.
Keywords is the biggest place where you can focus your efforts in deciding which group is gonna connect with your ads more. And then, the second piece is in the language you use, and in your offer, and in the text of your ad, or image of your ad, where you're kind of presenting that. I think those two things are the biggest things you wanna watch for when you're testing Facebook Ads.
Joanna: A lot of the audience will have tried Facebook Ads for books, and I've struggled personally to get a positive ROI with the books because such a cheap product is very hard. I mean, you talk there about content.
Do you recommend using ads to get email sign-ups or to get people traffic, rather than try and direct sell?
Andrea: I've worked with a lot of authors, and it's the same thing. Positive ROI with a Facebook ad is challenging. We've gotten one of my authors down to more like a $5 per sale conversion. But still, I think we're working with playing with the price on Amazon right now to see if we can make that into positive ROI.
I think, really, for authors, what I would focus on is driving people to your website where you've got your Facebook pixel installed and you're capturing that traffic, in a way. Because now you can do retargeting to those people and, hopefully, get them to sign up for a free chapter or notifications when your book comes out, or maybe something special, like a “Meet the Author” kind of Q&A, or something like that that is enticing to people who are interested in reading your books.
And that way, you're building your own email list so that, anytime you have a book that comes out, you can send them over there. If you're sending traffic over to Amazon, you can't do any tracking on that, and you can't recapture that.
Although Facebook is coming out with this new engagement retargeting that's going to be a little bit of a game changer in being able to retarget people who've interacted with our ad. So I think that's a really great thing, so that we can still capture the people who are interested enough to click.
I think that's the big thing because that's just really on that top of the funnel where they're kind of interested. And maybe they don't buy yet but, you know, if we can connect with them multiple times, hopefully we can convert them to a sale or to a email subscriber.
Joanna: Exactly. And I'm interested, also, about the images because I've tried images. A lot of authors go with the book cover, and they've changed the rules on text, but they don't like text so they kind of dampen down text even though that's on a book cover.
Do you recommend images that are not the book cover, or what do you recommend for images?
Andrea: I think book covers are great. If you can also get something that kind of depicts a scene that is from the book, like, maybe some type of stock image that kind of really gives people the feeling of what the book is like in some scene.
Maybe it's on a beach, or maybe it's in a Old England or something like that, or Old West or whatever it might be, that can attract attention for people who are interested in that genre. But I do think the book cover is decent.
The text isn't supposed to count on the book cover. And what I've done sometimes is just put the book cover and a really short testimonial in the text, and that has also helped to get people to click over. But it's always good to experiment. And then, sometimes, your image. If you're well known as the author, if you really wanna brand yourself with your whole suite of books, then maybe it's a picture of you. A nice, professional picture of you.
Joanna: That's a good point. Because one of the debates on books covers is, for fiction, anyway…or for nonfiction, too. Should you use your own face? Not necessarily on a fiction book cover, but should you use the face of a character or…because then you immediately take away the imagination and you've put an image in someone's head.
Andrea: Yeah. Right.
Joanna: Yeah. But for nonfiction…
Do you work with nonfiction authors mainly?
Andrea: Both, actually. So I do work with both, and I think that fiction authors are a little bit less likely to put their own picture out there. But some are branding as themselves, and I think what is good about putting a picture or person is that images of people usually do best for click through rates on Facebook Ads. So If you can have a person, that can be really good.
Joanna: Yeah, I've noticed that. Even the back of somebody, like, just a person in a scene as opposed to just a scene. So, that's interesting.
You mentioned engagement retargeting. Are you seeing any other trends for 2017, as were talking? You know, what should people focus on this? Because there's always something new.
Are the fundamentals the same or should be people be doing anything different in 2017?
Andrea: When we're looking at engagement and visibility, organically, video is huge. If you have a live video, even if just an uploaded video, those are getting much more reach, organically, in the newsfeed. So, that's good. And even for ads, they can do really well.
You want to still keep your ad based around trying to drive traffic. Like, making the website clicks as the optimization you're working with, but the creative piece can be a video or a slideshow. And that's really nice because you can take 10 still images, put that into a video slideshow, and now it's got all the properties of video. And you can also do video retargeting. For all the people who've watched your video, you can target them in an ad.
Some of those techniques are popular but you'll always want to test what works best for you. Because I've seen that, sometimes, video ads don't get people to click through. Maybe they're just sitting, watching the video, I don't know. Like, “Oh, that was interesting,” and then move on. So, sometimes a still image still gets more people over to the website, which is what you ultimately want there.
Joanna: And again, we're not going too much into politics but the effect of politics. Like, I know peoples' book sales have been down…
Joanna: …because people have just been glued to specific sites, other sites, or they're arguing.
Have you noticed a dip in return over this sort of period?
Andrea: Yeah. I think, especially for us here in the U.S. in November, across the board with my clients I'm seeing big dips in engagement. I think people just couldn't think about business. And for the beginning of the year here, too.
Politics and what's happening out there in the world is always going to affect what we do to promote our businesses. And so, in some cases, if there is some big events happening, it might be good to just scale back your marketing a little bit, hold off, especially if you're spending money.
Your ads are gonna be a little bit less effective. Although I'm seeing things bounce back here on ads, too. I think, sometimes, people are like, “Oh, let's just get back to work,” you know. I think it is important to take the pulse of what's happening out there in the world. And I'm surprised book sales are down. I would think people would want a form of escape.
Joanna: Escape. I think they might be rebounding but everyone was so busy in November, watching the drama, that they didn't need any other drama.
Andrea: Right. True.
Joanna: Yeah, really interesting stuff there. And I just wanna ask one more question about, are there other platforms? For example, I've been on Twitter since, like, 2009. I love Twitter and it's kind of my platform. I'm on Facebook kind of reluctantly because you have to be. I do have Instagram but I haven't gone anywhere near Snapchat. And I know people are kind of tired with a lot of social media, and the younger people have different social media to the older crowd, and all this.
If people are looking at their social media, what do you recommend an author does to do the best job?
Andrea: Yeah. I think, really, just scale back. I think, as we're overwhelmed…I have not gotten into…I got a Snapchat account just to follow my son. And I think if you're feeling overwhelmed, don't jump into anything new, just focus on what's working for you.
Just pull back and say, “It's okay, I don't have to be on Instagram, Twitter, G+, LinkedIn, all these things and update all at once.” If you can come up with a system to push out a few updates, but you want to also be active there too. You want to be answering comments or whatever. I think if you're feeling overwhelmed, just one or two sites, and focus and do the best on those. And it's okay, give yourself permission to say, “I don't have to be everywhere.”
Joanna: Thank you for that. Everyone's breathing a sign of relief now, like, “Yay, I don't have to do Snapchat.” Maybe unless you're writing YA or something.
Andrea: Yeah, exactly.
Joanna: There's that kind of demographic. But tell people where they can find you, and all your products, and books and things online.
Andrea: Yeah. You can connect with me at andreavahl.com. And I have lots of free webinars, some free eBooks over there, and I have some stand-up comedy clips too. So, you can go check that out.
Joanna: Thanks so much for your time, Andrea. That was great.
Andrea: Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Joanna. It's great.