Lessons From Comedy For Professionals & Business People
If you’ve raided all the ideas from the top selling business books and you’re still hungry to get better at what you do, to where else can you turn? Don’t laugh, but have you ever thought that comedians could teach you a thing or two about how to be a more effective business person, or even a more effective person?
In 2000, I was a mild mannered call centre manager. A grown-up in a grown-up’s job. Very serious. I also had two young children. I was constantly inspired by their unquenchable desire to learn, so as one of a number of devices to rekindle that spirit within myself, I started a tradition. Each year I now try at least two new and scary things. For the year 2000, it was skiing and stand-up comedy. I’m still mild mannered but I’m sure I’m now a far more effective professional because of the things I have learned and continue to learn as a comedian. Don’t laugh, but I reckon many of the skills a good comedian needs are directly transferable to the workplace.
Writing, delivering, evaluating and rewriting comedy has made me incredibly efficient as a communicator with my colleagues and customers at work. Jerry Seinfeld (a pretty fair comedian himself, although never achieving his potential as a call centre manager) says that he will spend an hour trying to condense a nine word sentence into five words. A measure some comedians use is LPM (Laughs Per Minute.) The more time you spend setting up a gag, the better the gag has to be. A joke or story is always a work-in-progress. Every performance of it is assessed with modifications and variations stored for future use and reassessment. The same goes for my sales pitches and inspirational fables I treat my staff to. They get better every time because they get shorter.
An extension of this focus on time is the need to create rapport quickly. First impressions count in comedy, as they do in a sales interaction or presentation to a management team. In a presentation lasting an hour, you may spend ten minutes introducing yourself, back-grounding your topic and connecting with your audience. Rookie comedians get six minute spots so my rule of thumb is that you have twenty seconds to make that connection and create rapid rapport.
As I’ve already said, first impressions are profoundly important for business people. For a comedian, it can be the difference between ‘killing’ and ‘dying.’ I used to be a corporate trainer and I was taught that above all else, I had to convince my trainees that I was credible and approachable. My choice of words, the clothes I wore, my tone of voice, my body language should all reinforce those two key messages. Its a bit like brand value, in that all corporate communications should be assessed against your brand values so that they can be reinforced and the organisation can be seen to be consistent in the eyes of the customer. That is a powerful notion and it’s called congruence. If you look at old footage of the great and influential speakers of all time, you see that their choice of words, tone of voice, body language etc all totally and emotionally reinforced the focus of their message. Check out Ghandi, Mandela, Churchill, Kennedy and oddly enough, even Hitler. They were persuasive in a large part due to that total congruence. Check out the popular comedians and you’ll see the same reinforcement of their humour through every non-verbal method at their disposal. A joke about a man waving or fishing is better told by waving or fishing with an imaginary rod. The same applies to a speech, sales meeting or job interview. People will find you more convincing but they won’t consciously realise why.
A comedian adopts an attitude or set of characteristics and ensures their material is consistent with that attitude. Ewen the Westie for example. Mine is a devoted father and loving husband of two. My material is consistent with that and the audience has to believe me. I have a great two minute bit that is hilarious but it totally depends on the audience accepting that I am a serial killer. This is inconsistent and I can’t use it. Plus I am told I don’t look like a serial killer. Personally I would have thought that the point with serial killers is that you can’t tell what they look like otherwise we could deal with them before they did it but that’s kind of a side issue.
As a business person, you need to focus on one, or at most two, characteristics you want to impress upon the people you meet. You can’t be all things to all people. Your characteristics depend on what you sell. A comedian is different from an accountant, landscape architect or interior designer and for that we can all be eternally grateful. I’d like my accountant to impress me with honesty and attention to detail. You can’t be everything to everybody so pick the one or two absolutely critical characteristics and assess yourself and your materials against it. Ask your friends. Ask your existing clients. I’ve found clients want their comedians to be funny yet professional. This is a challenging and often inherently contradictory mix. Arriving to a gig late, drunk and accompanied by your parole officer might be funny but it isn’t professional. (Well, that’s what they told me anyway.)
Rapport comes about when people meet you and they feel a sense of familiarity, a matching physiology and a relaxed state. That’s what the psychologists will tell you and you’d get a lot of this from the books of Alan Pease, Anthony Robbins and all those highly published and highly paid personal development types. One of my comedy mentors drummed into me that I need to do two things quickly:
- connect with the audience, not just a generic audience, but this particular one
- connect with now
I might have funny material (and I assure you I do) just as you might have a great product or service (and I’m sure you do.) Why should the audience care about what I have to say and why should your prospect care about what you have to sell? On stage, I have twenty seconds to answer that question. Oddly enough, I’ve found a powerful technique to answer that question is to use questions. Next time you watch a stand-up comedian, check out how many of their early sentences are questions.
- “How is everyone tonight?”
- “What do you do sir?”
- “Is anyone from out of town?”
- “Are you two a couple?”
- “What about that big news story today?”
- “Who’s got kids?”
Often these are rhetorical questions. Getting an answer isn’t the objective of asking the question. Its about creating the perception in the audience’s mind that the content of the show tonight will be different and will be customised for their needs. My brother is a litigation lawyer and apparently one of the axioms of cross-examination is to never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer. The equivalent of that rule in comedy is to never ask a question when you haven’t prepared a response to any of the potential answers to that question. Most comedians have material in mind when they start a show just as you would have prepared a sales pitch. The winning comedians and the successful sellers are those that can quickly engage their audience.
Workplace Creativity and Innovation
All workplaces need to solve problems or think up new products or services or continuously improve processes. This is certainly true in my call centre. We used to run staff meetings where problems were identified, talked about and ideas for solutions talked about. We even used structured problem solving techniques. Wonderful stuff that my former management lecturers would have been proud of. Sometimes they worked. Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes there were long, quiet, unproductive spells. As a comedian, I need to come up with jokes. All too infrequently does the inspiration pixie hover above me and sprinkle inspiration dust on my head, despite my best efforts to encourage him to visit. Jokes, at least my jokes, are created via a number of structured methods designed by me or stolen by me to forcibly create a lot of material from which the gems can be sifted. Quality through quantity, that’s what I say. Very quickly I made the connection between day job and night job and I started applying the humour generating forms to workplace problems. I’ll share just one basic joke form with you now and how you can apply it as a brainstorming technique. If you don’t mention the word “joke”, then you should be able to convince your colleagues you learned it at the Knowledge Wave conference.
A common joke form is premis-setup-punch. A situation is presented. Extra information is given. It leads you in one direction. Then the punchline takes you somewhere completely different. When you hear the punchline and think backwards, it’s all so obvious.
premis – “My wife and her mum get on well these days.”
set-up – “There are a thousand reasons for that.”
punch – “And those reasons are called kilometres.”
Rather than concentrating right now on how funny that joke is, let’s examine how it was born. I had a topic on adults’ relationships with their parents. I wrote this on the top of a blank sheet of paper. I then wrote as many factual statements as I could about that topic – at least thirty. No humour at this stage is required. I set my page up as a table with the row headings being the factual statements and four columns with headings of exaggeration, reversal, question and comparison. Then I write an exaggeration, reversal, question and comparison for each factual statement. So, as you can imagine, the joke above came from a reversal of a factual statement. Applying this technique to a workplace brainstorming scenario is simple, whether by yourself or with a team. The only difference is the size of the paper. A serious business topic goes at the top of the page such as “cutting stationery costs” or “our relationship with the Marketing department” or whatever. Then away you go. It’s a simple, structured approach that forces different perspectives on issues.
The process of creative thought is important and valuable. It is learnable. Think of products like the Sony Walkman or 3M Post-it notes. The technology to invent those things existed long before someone came up with the idea. In hindsight, the need for them and the concept is blindingly obvious, just like the punchline of most jokes.
I market myself as a serious comedian. Given the value of humour to us socially and to our health, I’m often surprised and disappointed at how comedy seems to be the poor cousin to other art forms in this country. There are plenty of stories out there of people dealing with illness with humour as part of a balanced approach to their treatment. Even if there is no proven causative link between laughing and living, it seems to me to be one of those things that is true if you believe it is. Most of my call centre’s business dealt with complaints and it was an inherently stressful operation. My team’s use of humour in their workplace was a major contributor to our single digit staff turnover rate.
There are many other applications of comedy and comedic techniques to our workplaces. This article has briefly touched on efficient communication, first impressions, congruence, consistency, connecting, workplace creativity and innovation, and stress management. Give it a go in that special kiwi way. What’s the worst that can happen – people laugh at you? People laugh at me all the time and it hasn’t stopped me being a comedian.