04/02/2011

By Mike Southon, FT columnist

Amusing people are generally popular at work, especially at an after-hours get-together. They can also be involved in client presentations to show that the company is fun to deal with as well as having excellent products.

So long as they do not have the social and political awareness of David Brent from The Office, this can work very well, although we have all been at events where someone has tried to be funny, to complete silence from the audience.

This is because comedy is a craft like any other, and has a series of simple rules, which must be studied carefully and practiced often. The learning process never ends, as I have experienced in my own career as a professional speaker.

The first and most obvious type of comedy is joke telling, or ‘gag comedy’ as it is known in the trade. These are the one-liners and other witty quips espoused by comedy legends Bob Hope and Bob Monkhouse and today demonstrated by Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais.

Good jokes are all about content and timing. If you are confident and deliver well, you should be able to repeat a good joke later to your friends. But telling jokes is not for the faint-hearted and should only be attempted at a customer event if you are totally confident in your ability to deliver, and that the material will not offend anyone.

A more common and less dangerous type of comedy is story telling, as performed by great observational comedians such as Billy Connolly and Jerry Seinfeld. These are typically stories from their own experience, with their own take on what transpired.

In a business context, this could be a customer story, often exaggerated for comic value to make a particular point. The structure is simple: a ‘beginning’ (the challenge the customer faced), a ‘middle’ (what you did to solve that problem), and an ‘end’ (the resolution of the problem, where everyone lived happily ever after).

The most advanced and difficult comedy to replicate is improvisation, as performed by the Comedy Store Players in London. They arrive with no prepared material, but work on ideas given by the audience, to comic effect.

Neil Mullarkey is a co-founder of the group, and when not performing live delivers improvisational workshops to people in large organisations, where the ability to think on one’s feet is important, but often suppressed.

Start-ups do not have this problem, as they are constantly bombarded with the unexpected. But large organisations, with their inevitable processes, can develop a type of business paralysis, where every new idea is confronted with the comment “yes, but……”

Mullarkey shows how to turn this into “yes, and…..”, the central premise of improvisation comedy. If the comedian opposite you suddenly decides to go to Mars, you should go with them, and build on the situation.

The most important lesson managers learn from his workshops is that it is acceptable for them not to know everything, to be in charge rather than in control. They then learn how to allow their people to improvise around a problem and solve it together.

Mullarkey explains that creativity is rarely about one ‘eureka’ moment; it is usually a long process, involving several iterations. The improvisation process teaches people to listen more and accept offers from others. People communicate better and explore ideas together, but always in a organised format.

Once the delegates appreciate that this structured randomness can be fun and useful, the results are immediate and long lasting. Not only are problems solved in a more practical way, but also everyone is having much more fun at work.

Neil Mullarkey can be found at www.improvyourbiz.com

Originally published in The Financial Times: http://www.ft.com
Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be
reproduced without permission in writing.

Mike Southon - Co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur & Business Speaker - http://www.mikesouthon.com

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