Drawing on Experience

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Sarah Cooper ’98 has been spying on your office’s most tedious and pointless meetings.

Either that, or the comedian, writer and former Google and Yahoo executive has mined her own experiences to skewer the inanities of business culture in her debut book, “100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings,” out Oct. 4 from Andrews McMeel Publishing.

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In it, she tackles such worrisome, timeless concerns as what to do with your face in a meeting, how to convince your co-workers you care and how to nail the big pitch by not saying much of anything.

“People have very strong feelings about meetings,” she says from her home in San Francisco. “Mostly negative.”

Cooper grew up in Rockville, Md., and came to the University of Maryland on a theater scholarship. But her parents pressed her to get a business degree, so she switched to economics. (She says now, “Their advice seemed very prudent, though a theater degree would have been just as useful.”)

She studied hard, even getting locked in McKeldin Library late one night and requiring a call to police to escape, and finished in 3.5 years. A multimedia design course in her final semester, however, was all it took to convince her to take a receptionist job at a D.C. graphic design firm after graduation.

“I had this idea that I could start at the bottom and they would give me a shot,” she says. “It turned out they really like to hire people with degrees in design.” After three months of answering phones and ordering office supplies, she left for a master’s program in digital design at Georgia Tech.

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With that degree in hand, she got a bona fide gig in the field, acted in commercials and TV roles on the side, then took a design job at Yahoo in San Francisco. She bounced back to Atlanta a few years later to return to acting, mostly in commercials and small TV roles, then to New York City, where in six months she racked up $20,000 in debt, and learned she liked doing standup comedy as herself rather than playing other people.

An offer from Google as a design manager saved her finances—and got her thinking about some of the absurdities of the business world. She slowly turned a few observations about co-workers trying to impress each other into a list of things like “Nod while pretending to take notes” and “Repeat the last thing the engineer said but very, very slowly,” and posted it on her social media channels.

Its popularity prompted her to create illustrations—she traces the “cheesiest” office-interaction stock photos she can find—and “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings” racked up more than 5 million hits.

Cooper launched a satirical blog, “The Cooper Review,” where she’s posted gems such as “6 Tips on How to Be a Thought Leader,” “Meeting Speak Cheat Sheet” and “9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women”: (“Pepper your emails with exclamation marks and emojis so you don’t come across as too clear or direct”).

She left Google in October 2014 to write the book, and the irony of someone without a day job providing workplace tips isn’t lost on her. Hopes for its success are high—the book is already the No. 1 new release in Amazon’s communications skills category—yet Cooper continues to do standup and public speaking, particularly on how to “find the funny” in boring topics. Like meetings.

“People are scared of offending others,” she says. “I always just say tell the truth. It’s hard to argue with reality.”
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Book

Cooper will launch her book with a standup comedy performance and book signing from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at WeWork Manhattan Laundry, 1328-1348 Florida Ave. NW in D.C. Free tickets include access to a cocktail reception with appetizers. Register here.

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