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5 Ways to Help You Stop Taking Yourself So Seriously

Stand-up comedy may not seem like ideal training for leading a company, but several of the discipline's techniques will help you loosen up, connect with employees, and make a bigger impact on your clients.
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New research shows Oreo cookies are as addictive as cocaine.

I'm not surprised. Oreos were my gateway drug. A first-grade classmate turned me on.

But it wasn't long before I was mainlining Oreo's evil cousin, the Twinkie. Even those hellacious yellow cakes of sugar didn't cut it, though.

Tonight, I stand before you a broken man, feeding a three-carton-a-day Devil Dog habit.

I am a DevilDog-aholic. #SugarJunkie.

That's one of many lame stories I tell as a part-time stand-up comedian plying my trade at various Manhattan comedy clubs. And while comedy began as part of a midlife crisis, I'm here to tell you it's become a serious full-time strategy for me, my firm, and increasingly, my clients.

Comedy works

Check out these statistics:

I insist that every one of my employees be trained in stand-up comedy. I'm not a frustrated talent agent searching for America's funniest new PR person--I'm trying to improve employees' presentations and listening skills, their ability to build rapport with any audience, and handle objections on the fly.

I'm also building rapport within my organization. Crain's New York Business cited comedy as the reason it named Peppercomm NYC's top workplace. My stand-up comedy tips will enhance your leadership skills, and differentiate you from the pack. If they don't, you can heckle me at my next show.

1. Be self-deprecating.

Self-deprecating humor is especially powerful. I use it whenever something goes dramatically wrong in a meeting. Typically, the glitch is a technological one that sidelines my entire pitch. Instead of sweating, freaking out, or clamming up, I chuckle and say, "When it comes to technology, our motto is 'Expect less.' And, as you can see, we deliver on that promise." It immediately defuses any tension in the room, displays my humanity, and gives us valuable time to fix the glitch.

Joel Citron, CEO and managing director of Tenth Avenue Holdings, a holding company that specializes in making private equity investments in small businesses, says, "People won't take you seriously if you can't laugh at yourself. You have to be as good a catcher as a pitcher when it comes to jokes."

2. Be in-the-room.

How many times has one of your presentations been sidetracked by a late-arriving prospect or a multitasking decision-maker?

I always welcome a tardy audience member by asking, "Did you decide to do the food shopping before work?"

And I positively salivate when a multitasking executive starts making love to his mobile device. I'll elevate my voice and say, "I appreciate how much my last point meant to you, and I'm honored to know you're sharing it right now with your direct reports." All eyes will turn on the multitasker who will grin sheepishly, set down the iPhone, and sit up straight.

By being in-the-room and acknowledging what the audience sees and hears, a smart executive can use distractions to her advantage. Remember, people partner with people, not robots. As Tenth Avenue's Citron says, "Who can relate to a superhero?"

3. Fill the void.

Negative reactions don't kill new business presentations. Silence does. In fact, reacting to a deafening silence from a room full of stone-faced, lifeless stiffs is what makes people fear public speaking more than death.

When my recommendations are met with either a yawn, a glassy-eyed stare, or snoring. I zero in on the perpetrator, and begin a one-on-one conversation. "What was it about today's presentation that's curing your insomnia? Whatever it was, let's pitch it to CVS as an OTC remedy and partner on the patent rights, OK?" Bingo. The silence will invariably turn to chuckles, and possibly, just possibly, I'll have saved a terminally ill pitch.

4. Display vulnerability.

The V-word is becoming an increasingly important tactic in every leader's crisis plan. Whether it's Barack Obama, Chris Christie, or Paula Deen, more and more politicians and executives are displaying vulnerability. "The One" shouldered blame for ObamaGate. Christie said he was personally hurt by the BridgeGate betrayals. And little ol' Paula Deen cried her ever-loving heart out on the Today Show. But all three seemed a tad contrived.

People are simply too savvy and cynical nowadays to buy into a quick apology. Vulnerability is not a trait that a leader suddenly dons like a wool cap in a snowstorm. It's a quality that you demonstrate each and every day.

"The best leaders are the ones who openly discuss their frailties, explain how they've overcome them, and teach a serious business lesson in the process," says Citron. "Omnipotence rings hollow in business."

5. Be emotionally full.

When I media-train executives, I always counsel them to display more emotion. After all, if you're not passionate about your product, service, or organization, why should your audience care?

Emotional fullness demands that you tell the truth. All great comedians begin a bit by telling a true story, and then exaggerating it. Citron says he'll only deal with honest leaders. "If an entrepreneur won't tell the truth about himself, that tells me he won't tell the truth about something negative in his business either," he says.

In business, emotional fullness separates the wheat from the chaff. I'll support an executive who's fully invested emotionally--especially in times of crisis.

A few years back, we lost our largest account. It hurt, and it meant we'd need to lay off some key staffers. It was critical to convey confidence and business continuity, but I also needed to let my staff know that I, too, was mourning the loss. And so I quoted Abraham Lincoln, who after a setback early in the Civil War said, "I'm too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh."

Now, can anyone spare some change for a carton of Devil Dogs?

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Feb 19, 2014

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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