3 Comedy Techniques That Can Improve Your Leadership Skills

After one year of doing stand-up, I noticed I was a better presenter and much more engaging in client and prospect meetings. It dawned on me that the comedy skills I was learning for fun were actually helping me be a more effective CEO.

May 23 2014 by Steve Cody


You may be surprised to hear that comedy skills are the same skills needed in business. The reason: Learning comedy skills can help create an authentic, transparent culture and improve morale. How is this possible? Because comedy and great workplaces are founded on the same core principle: truth.

About eight years ago, as I was going through one of my many mid-life crises, I thought I’d try stand-up comedy and cross it off my bucket list. Little did I know that, today, I would still be performing on weekends. After one year of doing stand-up, I noticed I was a better presenter and much more engaging in client and prospect meetings. It dawned on me that the comedy skills I was learning for fun were actually helping me be a more effective CEO!

I felt I had to share the lessons I had learned doing stand-up comedy with my agency. I asked my comedy coach, professional comedian Clayton Fletcher, to join me in teaching my management team certain skills that all good comedians know—such as storytelling, reading nonverbal cues, engaging an audience, dealing with hostility and silence, and more. Today, everyone at Peppercomm—from partners to interns—goes through formalized stand-up comedy training, which we now call the “Comedy Experience.”

Comedy has become part of our DNA and helped us create an exceptional culture. Employees have become more confident at presenting and know how to tell a story as opposed to reading slides. We’ve identified “stars,” who have been given more opportunities. And our turnover has been reduced.

Other companies have been hearing about our method and have asked us to conduct comedy sessions for them. One in particular is a leading oral care company, which had a serious cultural issue. There were three distinct silos in their business that refused to even talk with one another, let alone work together! When we explained our plans to do comedy with them, let’s just say they were beyond skeptical.

We immediately started loosening up the room by making the audience laugh as we discussed why and how comedy skills are transferable to business, the different types of comedy, why storytelling is not joke telling, how to read an audience’s nonverbal cues and more. They laughed not because the content was humorous, but because of the way we delivered it and how Clayton and I fed off one another.

Once they seemed happier to see us, we moved into the improv exercise called “Yes, And.” We start with Clayton making a statement. The next person follows with, “Yes, And” and then builds on one of the words stated. Through this exercise, the participants learn to work together and build upon their ideas rather than shut them down. This exercise also allows them to uncover new things about one another.

Next, the audience members were given 15 minutes to think of a story they would want to tell in front of the room about something that annoys them. Once they were ready, we asked for volunteers. We have been conducting sessions for years, and it’s amazing how we never have a shortage of volunteers. We had time for 10 people to get up in front of the room and tell their story. Every person, none of whom ever did stand-up before, was very funny. Clayton and I gave constructive criticism after each attendee performed, plus we videotaped them. At a later date, we reviewed the videotapes individually to provide additional instruction.

By the end of that session, the attendees, who were mostly serious-minded engineers, researchers and scientists, were laughing and talking with one another, and learning new things about one another. Finally, the silos in which they had worked for so long were beginning to break down through laughter.

Comedy may seem counterintuitive to your company, but comedy is a serious business that can impact your bottom line, and that is no laughing matter.

Steve Cody is co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, an integrated strategic communications and marketing firm headquartered in New York with offices in San Francisco and London. He authors a daily blog about reputation management called RepMan. Steve can be reached at scody@peppercomm.com.