Ellen DeGeneres’ Favorite Scientist: Steve Spangler
Steve Spangler, teacher-turned-scientist-turned-experience maker (and Ellen DeGeneres’ favorite scientist) discusses the importance of being in the right place at the right time and feeling like a kid again.
Dan: Steve, you are one of the country’s best-known scientists. How you got into science and when did you become interested?
Steve: It started as a family thing. I grew up in a family of professional magicians. My dad was an engineer chemist by degree and worked in information technology. But my earliest recollection of my dad was eating fire. My mom and dad had an evening show that they did. As a kid, my first memory is standing backstage in the wings with the emcee, looking at my dad eat fire and cut my mom in half. I learned the value of presentation and engagement. I watched how a magician engages and disengages an audience. As a magician, I’m sworn to secrecy. But as a scientist or science teacher, I found that engagement pulled people in and then had them say, tell me more about that.
Dan: You have taken something that for a lot of kids growing up, is a subject they might be intimidated by or may not like. And you’ve turned it into something that is fun by creating a classroom experience. What have you done in classrooms to change the learning experience?
Steve: I started as a classroom teacher. I spent 11 years in the classroom. I had this wonderful principal, this great leader who didn’t give me a classroom. Imagine this: you get hired as a teacher; twenty-four years old at the time. And she says you don’t get a classroom. We don’t have one. Little did I know, I would never get one. She put me on an AV cart, and I had to roll room to room and learn the entire curriculum. When I interacted with kids, as my principal would say, I was of service to others.
Eleven years later when at her retirement party, I said, “Dina I never got a classroom.” She said to me, “You never were going to get one. Why in the world would I ever give you a classroom?” But every year she strung me along. I learned a curriculum and how to engage with 580 kids. I learned all the things needed to be of service to the school, to the community, and to the staff. Engagement is created through experiences and you build these amazing connections.
Dan: That’s awesome. And it does change everything. I had a professor in business school who taught statistics, and for marketing people, statistics is that class that everybody’s afraid of – they don’t want to do math, they don’t like quantitative. And this professor made statistics so much fun. He started by being a hilarious guy and had people rolling in the aisles laughing in the middle of class. And he turned a lecture hall full of people into statistics lovers, just by making it an enjoyable place to be.
Steve: Especially when you talk to educators, they say, “Oh, you’re lucky you teach science because that’s so much fun.” And “You’re lucky you teach STEM. I teach English or I teach math.” The most important thing that we come away with is it’s not the content; it truly is the person. And that’s not what businesses want to hear. It’s so important that your personality comes out, and if we’re lucky enough, we get to be one of those teachers that kids and people, in general, want to be around because they’re so excited to be there. Wouldn’t it be great if that happened in business?
Dan: Tell me how you went from the classroom to be this guy with some pretty famous friends. I know you were on The Ellen Show several times. You’re this guy that’s on TV all the time doing science. How did you make that transition?
Steve: My grandfather was a teacher and he told me sometimes teachers make so much money, we get a second job – he owned an antique store. I think this entrepreneurial thing was kind of there. My dad had a real daytime job in information technology, but he ran a magic school, the largest one in the west of the Mississippi. I watched him come home from his corporate job and tell my mom one night, “I’m just not having fun anymore. I don’t enjoy what I’m doing anymore.” As kids, we sat there and listened. My mom said, “So why don’t you quit? And we’ll figure out something else to do.” He quit the next day.
Here was this magic school and this whole line of products that started because we needed money. He had to be creative and come up with something. And I just watched him invent these products. We were doing mail order from our little home in Denver, Colorado.
Dan: That’s so cool. And I can relate to that. I said goodbye to corporate America and said, “I want to go work for myself.” I like working for Dan a lot better than I liked working for The Man.
Steve: If you’re an entrepreneur, you wake up thinking about it. It consumes everything, and you have to learn how to disconnect from that because you’re constantly engaged. But if anybody asks, what do you enjoy doing? This is it. This is exactly what I love. Take these things away from me, and I’d be a miserable person.
Dan: Exactly. You then expanded from the retail products, and you started getting into educating the educators. Can you talk about that and how you now teach other people to create these similar experiences?
Steve: I was teaching with a program called News for Kids. As a result, I was getting invited to speak. One thing led to another, and that teaching position morphed a bit. I was doing student assemblies at the same time. I logged about 4,500 student presentations from 1990 to 2003. The ones where you show up in a gym in the morning and go, “Hello, kids!”
The long and short of it is, I realized I needed to teach teachers how to do the same thing. I had a teacher who came up at the end of the program after the kids all jumped up and clapped, and they were nice. She looks at me, and she says “So just so that we’re clear, I’ve been teaching for 22 years and kids don’t stand up and clap for me. And you bring in your little clown show, and you think that you’re a real teacher.” And it hit me hard. All I could do is smile and say, thank you.
I remember going home to my wife almost like that defining moment with my dad, I said to my wife, “Maybe I should be teaching teachers what I’ve learned in 45-minute presentations and some stuff in the classroom.” In 2003, I stopped doing student programs and changed my focus for the business. Now we do professional development for educators all over the globe. People who want to engage more and create these experiences in the classroom will change the way kids see, think, feel and behave.
Dan: It just reminds me of these train the trainer programs at contact centers. We’ve got to get the front line to really buy in to the mission and vision of the company, the personality and the brand voice. So that when they’re talking to our customers, they’re exuding that. And no matter who you talk to in an organization, from a customer point of view, you’re getting the same treatment, you’re getting the same language. Steve, you mentioned also being a professional speaker. Now that you are not speaking in elementary school gyms anymore. Tell me, where are you speaking and what you speak about?
Steve: There’s a thing among professional speakers. I spent the first 11 years speaking to kids. People assume I’m a youth speaker. Corporate speakers have got it cushy. They roll into a nice hotel. You roll into a gym and have a principal introduce you like this, “Alright kids sit down, shut up and be good. Or I swear to God, I’ll cut this thing off.” And then he turns to me and goes, “Hope you’re better than the last guy.” And then hands me the microphone.
Today, I get the great fortune to speak to these amazing audiences. I’m branded as a science guy or as Ellen’s nice enough to say, “America’s science teacher.” It’s been amazing from an engagement standpoint to have corporations reach out and say, talk to us about the science of engagement. We just sold two of the three businesses. Clients ask, how did you build these businesses? How did you work it on YouTube? And these viral videos seem not formulaic, but just organic. So, I became an engagement speaker. You’re the customer engagement expert, but here I am toying with it from 25 years of experience. When I get to speak in a corporate environment, it’s fun to share these strategies for engagement with them. It’s not their typical ordinary speaker. Of course, you’ve got to blow up something along the way.
Dan: I was going to say, do you show up with your Mentos and Diet Coke?
Steve: We don’t say what we show up with, but they want to be engaged as well. We hear meeting planners saying content, content, content. Ask the audience. They’re seeing engagement. Tell me something that I can’t see. People are watching us right now, and we’re kind enough to have somebody say, “Let’s see who the Spangler guy is.” And you Google Spangler, you’re going to fall into this abyss. You’re going to go down this rabbit hole of all these videos and all these products.
Dan: I want to follow up with you on something you said about how the content appears organic. That was interesting because I think one of the things that makes you so approachable is you look like a guy that’s having fun doing science experiments. And I think people can relate to that. How does that then translate to a business that maybe isn’t as fun as something that you’re doing?
Steve: At a certain point, a business is a business. I think that organically people start to ask, “what is this business about?” And how do people interact with this business? And they see this spokesperson. I happen to be that guy. People are looking at this saying, “I want to do that.” I learned from experience that once I started presenting things that were over the top.
The Ellen Show has been so kind over the last 11 years, and the last episode was my twenty-second appearance on The Ellen Show. How wonderful to have her say, “Do whatever you want. The biggest mess you want to, go nuts.” And it’s been hard to tell her producers sometimes that the tabletop things we do, the soda can, and a little bowl of water, the food coloring, that’s what goes viral. When you look at those videos, the explosion goes viral, but the silly thing gets 4 million views on Facebook. It’s just oil, water, food coloring, and an Alka-Seltzer tablet. I mean, how crazy is that?
There’s going to be some people who ask, did he come up with Mentos and Diet Coke? We had all played with dropping things into soda and trying to get the soda to come out. I happened to be at the perfect place at the perfect time. YouTube was three months old and I happened to take what was on regular television, scrape it and put it on this little website called YouTube in 2005. And it exploded. We just went through an entire generation of telling kids, “don’t try this at home.” Everything was “don’t try this at home.” And here’s this man-child blowing up bottles of soda. Not only was I trying it, I was posting to this weird website called YouTube and it took off. I was in the perfect place at the perfect time, but I think the piece that I did have some control over is that I presented it differently than anything we had seen in academia.
When you get perfect connection, experience and engagement, those three come together like a Venn diagram, the very center is what I call “best day ever”. And a “best day ever” is when a kid comes up to you and puts their arms around you and goes “Today was the best day ever.” That’s the thing they’re going to talk about forever. And that comes together in business. What does the “best day ever” look like for your customers?
When somebody says, “best day ever”, it’s not contrived. That’s a real genuine response from a kid. And my question to corporations as I get to talk to them is: how are we doing that for our customers? They’ll go out and promote the product, tell other people about it. That’s how I created 350 science products. The people who bought Steve Spangler Science said, we’re acquiring the brand, we want that name. It’s alive and well. It’s just being run by somebody else, which is kind of a strange thing.
Dan: I love the concept of the “best day ever”. In business it’s not just about delivering the product or service, today’s consumer wants that engagement and the relationship with the company. Social media plays such a big role in why we’re even talking about customer experience, because social media gave customers a public voice for the first time. And with that voice, they said, I want a better experience than I’m getting right now. And the companies that listen to them are the ones that are doing well today because they’re listening, they’re engaging, and they are giving back to what the customer wants in terms of a relationship today.
Steve: I think the reason this has become a science is because there’s no formula. There’s formulaic science, but the thing that we’re still discovering and still exploring is every customer resonates at a different frequency. Every brand puts out, let’s call it for sake of argument, an energy, so to speak, an energy in the form of vibration. Sometimes a blast that will resonate at the perfect frequency, it’ll crack. That’s exactly what we’re doing in business. There is no cut and dry solution for how we resonate with people and how we engage. Some people want a lot more engagement and some people want to build a different kind of connection. Some don’t even care about the experience as much as we would. It’s that fine tuning of those elements that are there that once you find that subset, you get some momentum and then you have to be okay as a business to move on and change the frequency to see if we can attract somebody else.
Dan: Did you purposely present the Mentos and Coke thing differently to make it catch fire? Or was it just you doing you and it went viral?
Steve: I wish I could tell you there’s something magic behind it. I had done it on television and got in trouble. I have a standing gig with the NBC affiliate in Denver called KUSA 9 News. This was in 2005. And I told the co-host that I was with “We’re going to do the thing with the soda where I take the carbon dioxide out of the soda.” I said, “We’ll be in the backyard. Just stand back.” Kim, the person I was with, dressed in this beautiful St. John’s outfit, lets go of the Diet Coke but kept her hand there a little too long and she didn’t back up. Her dress gets soaked. Every segment, she does the same thing, and by the end of the segment she’s drenched. The audience and producers loved it.
There is this little technique called blogging. Think about it, 2005, I simply posted in the blog “Science experiment goes awry. News anchor gets soaked.” The Associated Press picked it up and the traffic shut down the server. That’s when I got called to the VP’s office saying never post anything like this on our website again. I shutdown a server. And that’s when I scraped the video for YouTube.
It was purposeful from the standpoint of, I knew people wanted it. I didn’t realize that I was reaching out to an audience and inviting them to be the hero.
Dan: Exactly. That’s why I named my company The Experience Maker. Not because I believe I’m the experience maker, but because I want to teach other people to be that in their companies.
What do you think the difference would have been if you had access to live video like we have right now, and you did a livestream of the initial experiment?
Steve: I don’t know. We’ve done a livestream like when Facebook started its live streaming, we tried to do some experiments, it wasn’t Mentos and Diet Coke, but still really cool things that people are doing now. But I think we were at the right place at the right time. It was just so weird that so many people shared that original video and then came back to it. I thought the formula was me presenting a science experiment and everybody would love it. And we found the engagement was really low. A lot of people watched, but they didn’t engage. We didn’t see real success on YouTube until we created a series called Sic Science. These minute and a half videos where you can’t see me, you just see hands, you just see an experience happening there, an experiment. No focus on the person.
Dan: I think you do an amazing job of explaining to people the why behind what’s going on. It’s not just a cool explosion, but you walk away understanding why it happened. And that’s the whole concept of making learning an experience and making it fun. Kids can walk away and tell their friends, look what I learned about what happened to carbon dioxide. Everybody loves a good explosion, but I think understanding what’s behind it was cool. Steve, I love talking to you, and it makes me feel like a kid again.
Steve: Fantastic. Thank you.
Watch the full interview on YouTube.