Humor as a Competitive Communication Weapon

This may sound crazy, but stand-up comedy has helped improve morale within my firm and win more clients in a very competitive environment.

Humor is a powerful differentiator in life. Think about it. You choose your friends, business buddies and significant other based upon how much you like them. So, it should come as no surprise that humor, when properly leveraged, can provide a communications firm with a distinct competitive advantage and boost in workplace morale.

I stumbled across this revelation five years ago while suffering through an endless PR industry awards dinner. I started a conversation with the guy next to me and, when the chatter turned to hobbies, was stunned to hear he performed stand-up comedy. How cool, I thought.

He provided me with the details and, within a short period of time, I was enrolled in an intense five-day training course at the New York-based American Comedy Institute. The course ended with a live performance at Manhattan’s Stand Up NY.

I became addicted to stand-up comedy and began to perform regularly. I even created a persona, the midlife crisis comic. As my performing matured, I noticed my business presentation techniques were subtly improving. I was becoming more attuned to reading nonverbal clues, filling uncomfortable conversation gaps and, critically, using comedy to create a more immediate rapport with clients and prospects.

Comedy and PR

The proverbial lightbulb went on and I realized the implications for my business. So, about two years ago we began incorporating stand-up comedy training as part of our Peppercom State management development program.

Our employees are trained level by level (all of our account executives are trained on one day, account supervisors on another, etc.). We provide an overview on the connections between humor and business, the four different types of comedy and examples of each (observational, anecdotal, improvisational and storytelling). We ask the employees to collect their thoughts and write down a few things from their personal or professional lives that bug them. We then ask each to perform a few minutes of stand up in front of the group. We videotape each performance and later review the good, bad and ugly with the employees.

The results have been nothing short of amazing. Everyone succeeds. And everyone is funny to one degree or another. Each group bonds in amazing ways. They pull for one another, laugh at one another’s jokes and, most importantly, learn new things about the person they’ve been sitting next to for the past several years. Later in the one-on-one reviews, the employees are able to see how their enunciation, pacing, eye contact and other important presentation techniques might be improved.

Comedy’s hip, irreverent nature plays well within our culture and has helped us maintain morale during a difficult economic period. Clients and prospects alike have warmed to it. Some, including our largest client, have even said it factored into their decision to retain Peppercom.

Here are “bits” of advice for incorporating humor into your organization:

1. Be sure humor fits your organization’s culture. Far too many PR agencies and PR departments believe they’re ending world hunger. They’re not. Make sure your organization has a sense of humor and that employees don’t take themselves too seriously before attempting to inject humor.

2. Get senior management’s buy-in. Any attempt at lightening the culture will fall flat if the men and women in the corner office are soulless, humorless automatons. They have to buy into the importance of humor.

3. Link the benefits of humor to business. While it may not be immediately apparent, humor makes perfect sense in business. It can improve teamwork and presentation skills, not to mention be an important aid in defusing otherwise tense situations.

4. Understand that humor isn’t about cracking jokes or performing stand-up comedy. It is all about reading an audience, understanding nonverbal cues and making better eye contact. In short, it’s all about becoming a better communicator.

Stand-up comedy isn’t appropriate for every organization. But it works well for us because, as we like to say: “We take our client’s business and our business very seriously. But, we don’t take ourselves seriously at all.”

Steve Cody is cofounder of Peppercom and has performed at the New York Comedy Club