Stand-Up Comedy 101: A Lesson In Doing Great Business


I have always had a passion to do stand-up comedy because I love to connect with people through laughter.

In spite of my desire, however, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I actually got the courage to take a class and get out there on stage. Since then, I’ve learned some very valuable lessons as a hobbyist stand-up comic. While these lessons are necessary to hold your own in stand-up comedy, I believe them to be invaluable in business.

For anyone who has watched stand-up, you will recognize the need for the basics:

  • First, you have to know the material you are going to say (the ‘What’)
  • Second, you have to know how you are going to deliver it (the ‘How’)

As I started out, I worked very hard on these two things. I rehearsed the material to where I was a walking Memorex of it. I also practiced the delivery over and over to where I had just the right incantations, inflections and timing. I did this rehearsing right up to the point where I got up on stage. My mental measuring stick for how well I was going to do on stage was, of course the obvious, how much I made the audience laugh?

The big night finally came. The last thought I had before grabbing the microphone was something like “Dear God, please don’t let me forget this material. Please don’t let anyone I know be in the audience and, if they are, please have them struck on the head with a medium-sized object, you know, like maybe a waffle iron. Something to where it won’t do any permanent damage but will make them forget this night…quickly.”

I got up on stage, I presented the material just as I practiced and in return got the wonderful sound of…silence. I went back and looked at the recording. Hmmm…I said all of my material and had all of the rehearsed timing. It was funny in rehearsal, so what happened?

After some time and silent audiences later, my instructor Kurtis Matthews, asked me this simple question, “Chris, why are you on stage in the first place?” While, albeit, not a confidence booster, it was thought-provoking. I responded, “I want to have fun and connect with people through laughter.” His response, “Then do it! If you can have fun and connect with people on stage, everything else follows.”

Sounded crazy but I tried it. I even adjusted my evaluation criteria. If I get up on stage and have fun, then I was successful. The big night came. My name was called. The last thought I had before grabbing the microphone was this, “Dear God, I just want to have fun. P.S. I may need you later.”

I got on stage. I had fun. I laughed. I presented some funny material and they laughed. I forgot a punch line and I acknowledged it, they laughed even more. I was having fun. I was connected with them and it was amazing!

Why did this work?

I learned that in stand-up comedy, if you focus on the material (‘what’) or the delivery (‘how’), you are cementing your feet together and throwing yourself in the river hoping that someone will see you and come to your rescue…or just laugh. Either way, you have no way to react and no way to adjust because you’re not really there. You’re inside of your head with one clear goal in mind…deliver this material (‘what’) in a very prescribed way (‘how’) and then get off stage—quickly.

However, if you focus on your main goal of connecting with people and having fun, (the ‘why’), it will be alive and well in your approach. After all, the audience is not there to ‘listen to material’ or ‘observe perfect timing’; they could get that from Netflix! They are there to have fun as well through connecting with a live comedian. Therefore, when you are having fun, you are immediately connected and already successful because you both share the same ‘why’. Sure you need to have a plan but if your plan is not working, you will adjust because you’re focused on the right ‘why’.

OK, But How Does This Apply In Business Again?

Too many times, I’ve seen individuals and teams focus on ‘What’ they are delivering and ‘How’ they are delivering it, when they’re not even clear on the ‘Why’. “We need to implement by region!” OK great, what’s the ‘Why’? Is it to make salespeople more productive or is it to connect sales to marketing or connect service to sales or…? Whatever it is, articulate that ‘Why’ to everyone and make it abundantly clear for them. The ‘why’ will impact the day to day approach as well as the overall success of the program. Also, if the ‘why’ is articulated, people can immediately and constantly add value in that domain. Why does value need to be postponed until go-live?! For example, if the ‘why’ was to make salespeople’s lives more productive, information gathered to date, suggestions for process improvement and workarounds for pain points can all help in the interim (as can shortening that 2 hour meeting). Best of all, by articulating the ‘why’, you get people to start thinking on how they can deliver the value of the objective instead of being stuck in the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ which is a recipe for disaster…and crickets.

A vision is nothing more than stating your ‘why’ and then specifying what success looks like within that ‘why’. In stand-up as well as business, articulating that vision puts you on a path towards your objective using every subsequent ‘what’ and ‘how’.

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