A recent article in Entrepreneur extolled the virtues of improvisational comedy to build business. I agree with the author's premise, but think it falls short in arming the small business owner with the full range of comedic weapons.
Improv is only one type of comedy. There's also sketch, parody, absurdism, theatrical, surrealism, political, narrative, scripted, and my personal favorite, stand-up. At my company, Peppercomm, we train our employees in many different comedy styles, and offer total comedy experiences to clients. Among those with whom we've worked are Colgate, Bristol Myers Squibb, and the Bank of America.
Stand-up, though, is the most relevant of all the comedy disciplines for business.
I sat down with Peppercomm's chief comedy officer, Clayton Fletcher (@claytoncomic), who is also a professional comedian, to discuss why comedy works so well in business.
Why is stand-up more effective as a business and culture catalyst than other types of humor?
Clayton Fletcher: The best companies strive to be authentic in their storytelling. No one is more intimately familiar with the power of these two concepts than a modern-day stand-up comedian. Unlike our sketch and improv brethren who work to create funny characters and situations, today's stand-ups draw upon their own experiences and viewpoints to create material that is honest and authentic. The truth is always funnier (and stranger) than fiction anyway.
Business is serious stuff. Why in God's name would a leader want to tell jokes in a business setting?
CF: He wouldn't. A good leader knows that most jokes are formulaic by nature, and in many cases annoying. That's why my Uncle Louie could never be a good leader. Every time I see him, he asks me whether I've "heard the one about...", and I usually have. I believe a leader should learn about her own unique, personal sense of humor and apply it where appropriate as a sort of signature. If she does that, the laughs are genuine and the results are measurable.
Is comedy the right catalyst for every type of business or culture?
CF: No. In order for a company to benefit from learning comedy techniques, its culture must be one of openness and trust. Companies where individual self-expression is not valued are poor candidates.
Is stand-up training a one-off? Do business people who've been trained automatically become the Louis CK's of their industry?
CF: Learning any art form takes more than one class, obviously. However, companies do report results from certain takeaways even after just one introductory session. But for any company that is working towards a major cultural change, there is no quick fix.
You talk a lot about the importance of vulnerability when performing stand-up. Why would an entrepreneur want to display vulnerability?
CF: Research shows that charisma is the perfect combination of credibility, passion, and vulnerability. In other words, if you want people to listen and respect you, you've got to give them the power to hurt you.
How does stand-up enhance one's presentation skills?
CF: Like a great comedy performance, a great presentation is all about communication. A comedian knows how to deliver a message in a clear, entertaining, and unforgettable way. Unlike many executives who never seem to get to the point, comedians have to get to the point quickly or else we lose the crowd! There are things comedians know that all presenters should learn.
Why do so many organizations use comedy in their advertising, but refuse to embrace it in their own management training?
CF: I think this happens because companies outsource their advertising efforts to agencies that don't know or care about what really goes on behind closed doors. It doesn't surprise me when a company's image doesn't match its culture.
Share an anecdote with readers about a very serious business that embraced our comedy experience.
CF: We worked extensively with a group of OB/GYNs who sought to become better communicators. These doctors were much more comfortable delivering babies than bad news. Of course, we don't recommend making jokes while informing a woman she has cancer, but these doctors reported that learning elements of stand-up comedy (sharing personal experience, summarizing and consolidating, listening and engaging, connecting through vulnerability) enabled them to improve bedside manner and confidence in dealing with those delicate situations. When we started this, I certainly never expected that outcome, but in retrospect I'm not surprised.
How does one quantify the success of comedy training, regardless of the form?
CF: A healthy workplace culture features TOAST: Trust, Openness, Authenticity, Storytelling, and Teamwork. We start by having the group evaluate itself in these areas through a series of survey questions. After six to 12 months of working together, we ask them to take the survey again. Invariably, all five areas show marked improvement because when people laugh together, wonderful things happen.