Why Learning to Tell Jokes Is Good for Business
In her previous career, Alison Meyerstein was a lawyer. So as she steps onto the stage for her first comedy act, there is one small detail she knows she must clarify. "I feel obliged to give a legal disclaimer," she says."Lawyers aren't funny."
Meyerstein gets a laugh. She and her colleagues at Peppercom, a New York City-based PR agency, are, in fact, all getting pretty good at delivering one-liners. That's no accident. Three years ago, Steve Cody, Peppercom's co-founder and managing partner, hired a professional comic to train his staff in the art of standup. Clayton Fletcher, who regularly performs at the New York Comedy Club, comes in three or four times a year to meet with new employees and verse them in proper comedic technique, from setting up a punch line to timing its delivery. The training isn't just for fun. Many of the skills used in crafting a standup routine, Cody says, are essential for winning over prospective clients. "If you're a good comedian, you're probably a good presenter," says Cody.
For the company's latest workshop, held last June, about a dozen employees gather in a room at the New York Comedy Club, eating pizza while Fletcher presents a 40-minute rundown of what goes into a successful standup act. Like all performers, he says, comedians strive to establish an emotional connection with their audience. "Lewis Black, he's always miserable," he says, "but he gets some release from sharing." Fletcher runs through a list of rhetorical devices commonly used in standup routines. He explains how to establish a roll structure, or a succession of punch lines, and how to set up a reference to a previous joke, known as a callback. He gives the participants 10 minutes to sketch out ideas for jokes. Then, one after another, each employee climbs the stage and delivers a three-minute act.
Most of the participants mine personal anecdotes for humor. Self-deprecating humor proves to be a successful tactic. "When I was 8, I was in my aunt's wedding," Laura Bedrossian tells the group. "My sister's very cute, so she got to be a flower girl. What do I get to be? Yes, a ring bearer." Account executive Jason Green isn't afraid to take aim at the instructor—or his boss. "I want to thank Clayton for the comedy training, and for proving to all of us that four-button sport coats do in fact exist," he jokes. "Steve may have lent it to him."
Throughout the afternoon, Fletcher dispenses advice that applies as readily to a sales pitch as to the stage. At the beginning of the workshop, he reassures the group that nerves, channeled correctly, can enhance a presentation. "Things that make you nervous are generally things you care about," he says. He advises the participants that body movements such as crossing one's arms and turning to the side create a barrier between the performer and the audience. Fletcher emphasizes the importance of responding to cues from the audience. After one employee finishes her act, he points out that she failed to pause to recognize the group's laughter. "We call that stepping on your laughs," he says. "Standup is a dialogue. That 'ha' means something."
Is This Funny?
"My stepdad, he's a Secret Service agent...I mean, you get weird things. You bring a guy home, and there's a gun on the table."
—Cortney Cleveland, junior account manager, in her standup debut
Cody originally sought out comedy training as a personal pursuit. While taking a comedy course in New York, he met Fletcher, who was then a trainer at the school. After completing the program, Cody continued to train under Fletcher and began performing at small gigs around New York; Cody now appears several times a month at the New York Comedy Club. As he learned to perfect his timing and adjust to his audience's reactions, Cody realized that his newfound comedic chops were applicable to his day-to-day work in PR. Once, after he watched his comedy tapes, it dawned on him that his habit of constant pacing signaled a lack of confidence rather than an abundance of energy. "I must have been doing it wrong at client meetings," he says. "I was bouncing off the walls."
Although Peppercom's employees often approach the stage hesitantly, just about everyone walks away with at least a few laughs and a heightened sense of self-confidence. Their performances are taped during the workshop so they can review them later, with Cody as well as one of their peers. Afterward, employees continue to refine their delivery in pitch meetings. A few employees have even ventured onto a professional comedy stage, performing alongside Cody.
Clients have taken notice. Soon after Cody began his comedy training, Peppercom produced an irreverent podcast about reputation management. That sense of play helped the company land a key account with Whirlpool, says Audrey Reed-Granger, who was one of the appliance maker's PR directors at the time. While reviewing Peppercom's proposal for the job, Whirlpool's PR team listened to the podcast and loved the wacky approach. "We found it endearing and attractive," Reed-Granger says.
The workshops have also enabled Cody to identify star presenters among his staff. Those who demonstrate exceptional poise onstage are often tapped for key client meetings. Peppercom's employees are often surprised by who the stars turn out to be. Indeed, in the latest workshop, Cortney Cleveland, an account manager, stands out from her peers, thanks to a routine about the trials of growing up as the stepdaughter of a Secret Service agent. She's so polished that Fletcher struggles to give her a critique. "You have such an economy of language," he says. "After five words, there's a laugh. Six words, there's a laugh. Three words, there's a laugh."
Then Fletcher turns to the rest of the group. "Is she known for being funny?" he asks. "No? Well, now she is."
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