What companies can learn from comedians

THE SECOND CITY is the La Scala of laughs. In its 60-year history the vast comedy club on Chicago’s North Side has, by night, hosted acts by Joan Rivers, John Candy, Bill Murray and other giants of the genre. By day it offers wannabe funny folk workshops on how to make others giggle. Contemporary greats like Steve Carrell and Tina Fey are alumni. So, increasingly, are managers, marketers and a host of other corporate types.

Firms have used comedy as a way to hone their employees’ soft skills for some time. Their number is growing, reports Kelly Leonard, the club’s boss of “applied improvisation”. Its comics have worked with Twitter, Google and Facebook to find ways for brainy but tongue-tied software engineers to interact more easily with less tech-minded colleagues in sales or strategy. Companies from Motorola and McDonald’s to Nike and Nissan believe that sending executives to comedy classes can help them get better at their day jobs. In response to clients’ complaints about its able but arrogant employees, one management consultancy asked comedians to teach its clever clogs how to be less obnoxious (or at least come across as such).

Hundreds of corporate customers think jokery can encourage serious lateral thinking among workers, and get them into the habit of welcoming others’ ideas. An improv exercise called “Yes, and” obliges participants to accept—and develop—any suggestion from a colleague, however bizarre. Improv classes are supposed to be safe spaces for frank, even awkward conversations, where people feel fewer inhibitions to say stupid things that may just yield something useful.

Marketers and advertisers, for their part, are tapping comics for fresh ideas. The Second City’s corporate arm worked on a marketing campaign with Legget & Pratt, a Missouri-based maker of mattress springs. Farmers Insurance, a big underwriter, enlisted the club’s comedians to help produce a training video that staff would willingly watch. At one afternoon workshop various Chicago-based firms met at the club for a sample improv workshop in what amounted to a focus group, where members of the public discussed their brands and products. Not all of this was funny. But frequent laughter helped to loosen tongues.

Other comedy clubs across America, such as IO in Chicago and the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre in New York, also offer professional services. The Second City says that its corporate activities already make up nearly a third of its revenues, which total over $50m a year. No laughing matter, in other words.

This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/08/24/what-companies-can-learn-from-comedians.

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