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Laughing All the Way to the Bank

Performing stand-up comedy made me a better presenter, and a better leader. But would it work for my team?
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Did you know that 81 percent of respondents in a poll of Fortune's "most admired" companies said they worked in a fun environment? What about that 75 percent of respondents to a Society of Human Resource Management poll believe companies that promote fun at work are more effective than those who don't? What about—hold onto your hats—that nearly two-thirds of workers polled by Robert Half said it's very important for managers to possess a sense of humor?

I literally stumbled across the benefits of comedy and humor in business. One night, while sitting alongside a dreadfully dull technology manager at a dreadfully dull rubber-chicken dinner, I asked the guy about his hobbies. "Stand-up comedy," he replied. I very nearly fell off my seat. He said he'd trained at something called the American Comedy Institute, had fallen in love with comedy, and had now built stand-up gigs into his global travel schedule.

I was intrigued to say the least and, following the lead of my boring dinner companion, enrolled in the course. It was love at first joke.

But, it took several years of performing stand-up comedy at various Manhattan venues before I noticed a sudden, but definite, sharpening of my presentation skills. I was becoming far more adept at building rapport, filling awkward silences with witty banter (at least, I found the banter to be witty), and turning negative or passive audiences into welcoming ones.

I reasoned that, if comedy could make me a better businessperson, it could do the same for my senior management team. So I invited my personal comedy coach, Clayton Fletcher to "ambush" my executives at an off-site. I told them we'd be devoting the final two hours of what had been a rather contentious retreat, to learning the nuances of stand-up comedy. If looks could kill, I'd be authoring this column from the great beyond.

But after listening to Clayton explain the four different types of comedy, as well as humor's direct link to business (i.e. customers want to work with people they like), my management team gave it a shot. And, while no one would confuse Ed with Lewis Black or Deb with Sarah Silverman, each employee did very well. So well in fact that, at the end of the session, they all insisted we roll out stand-up comedy training to the entire organization.

And, so we have. Almost all of our employees in New York, San Francisco, and London have been trained in stand-up comedy. Many have gone on to perform professionally at comedy clubs. We've not only improved morale and presentation skills as a direct result; we've also won major new business and created a new source of revenue. And, that's no joke.

Stand-up comedy training:

  • Fosters team-building in a way I've never seen, because the participants actively root for one another to succeed.
  • Enables employees to learn brand new things about the co-worker they've sat next to for years (note: in their comedy routines, we encourage employees to relate events from their personal lives).
  • Empowers our employees to joke around with senior management and understand the parameters of what is, and isn't, acceptable humor in the workplace.
  • Encourages authenticity, because we insist all comedy routines be based on truth.
  • Inspires us to hold company-only, stand-up comedy events that have raised tens of thousands of dollars for our firm's charity of choice (how's that for a morale-builder?).

Stand-up comedy has also infused my blogs and podcasts, and resulted in our winning Peppercom's largest client, Whirlpool. Here's how: the client's husband had become a devoted fan of my podcast called Repchatter. Knowing his wife was about to issue an RFP, he suggested she include Peppercom since we seemed irreverent, and he knew she was looking for fresh thinking. That was five years and millions of dollars ago.

Want more proof that comedy is a critical business weapon? We're now being paid by some of the country's fastest-growing and largest companies to teach their executives how to improve their presentation skills through what we're calling our Comedy Experience. And, lest you think this makes sense only for marketing and communications types, ponder this fact: we've trained lab coat technicians, executive education students, lawyers, scientists and human resource managers. I think if given the opportunity, we could even make members of Occupy Wall Street seem humorous (talk about a bunch of people who need to lighten up. Geez, Louise).

Comedy is not for every organization. It must be true to the company culture and driven by senior management. But, when fully embraced, it will enhance morale, presentation skills and team building. And, when deployed in business development settings in just the right way, it can make the difference when everything else is equal.

So, have you heard the story about the Inc. editor who bumped into this entrepreneur who also performs stand-up comedy?

IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: Dec 13, 2011

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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