Why stand-up comedy is good for your business

How one PR firm changed its culture through comedy and improv. Now, it offers comedy training to clients.

As Jerry Seinfeld might ask: What is the deal with using comedy as a communications tool?

This month, Peppercomm, a New York-based strategic communications firm, announced it was offering a new training program called “The Comedy Experience with Clayton Fletcher,” which ties stand-up and improv skills to business.

“When you kind of dissect it, comedy skills are very similar to what you need in terms of business skills,” says Deb Brown, partner and managing director of strategic development for Peppercomm.

The aim of the program isn’t to turn everybody in the office into a Carrot Top or a Larry the Cable Guy, she says. It’s meant to build supportive environments where people can be open and honest with each other.

Over the past few years, Peppercomm’s culture has changed substantially as comedy skills have become a larger part of the company. The firm aims to bring that change to its clients.

Standing the stand

About six years ago, Steve Cody, one of Peppercomm’s founders and a managing partner, started taking stand-up classes for fun. He worked with Fletcher, a touring stand-up comedian, to build his chops.

“As he started doing more and more stand-up, he started to recognize that, although he was very good at client meetings and presentations, he was getting a lot better,” says Brown.

It wasn’t long before the entire management committee at Peppercomm was taking comedy training, she says. Soon after that, everyone in the company was involved, all the way down to interns.

“For the past five years, it’s become part of our culture,” Brown says.

In fact, comedy training is now mandatory at Peppercomm.

Along with the announcement of the Comedy Experience, Brown launched a blog, The Stand-Up Executive, which aims to explain how business and comedy go hand-in-hand.

Why it works

As the culture of comedy has become increasingly prevalent at Peppercomm, the firm has occasionally reached out to clients to provide them with some comedy training. The first thing Peppercomm always addresses, Brown says, is how in the world comedy and business can go together.

How can comedy be professional? It isn’t about gags, she says. It’s about starting with “the core principle of truth.”

“Comedy is not about joke telling,” Brown says.

“It’s all about storytelling.“Learning storytelling skills builds other skills, she says, such as reading an audience’s nonverbal cues, filling awkward pauses and finding ways to get people who seem uninterested to perk up. But more than anything, it creates connections and chemistry.

“People like to do business with people they like,” Brown says.That’s why the skills people get from stand-up are especially important for top-level executives.

“It starts from the top,” she says. “

That’s where it’s going to make the most impact for companies.”

Another area where the impact is huge is in mergers and acquisitions, where “two completely different cultures are coming together.”

The training

For those clients who have already started comedy training, there has been some initial pushback, especially in companies where it was clear people didn’t know each other very well across departments.

“They were very skeptical of why we were there,” Brown says. “When you mention stand-up comedy, there tends to be a resistance of, ‘I can’t possibly go up there.’

“But once someone does go up and tell a story-and that’s all the trainers ask-that feeling fades. The most skeptical people often end up being the next ones to get up and tell their own stories, as they start to experience the welcoming atmosphere, Brown says. By the end of the first two-and-a-half-hour session, everyone in the room is often laughing together.

Trying stand-up makes the speaker vulnerable, but that’s a good thing, because it rallies the audience around him or her.In that first session, Fletcher, Cody and other instructors discuss four types of comedy: storytelling, observational, acting out and improv. Improv and team-building skills become a part of later sessions, but it always starts with storytelling, Brown says, because it helps build individual confidence.

Instructors give instant feedback on each person’s performance, but they also take video of everyone so that they can do one-on-one sessions to help improve the speaker’s presence.

“It’s always a very constructive approach,” she says.