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4 clever strategies from master comedians to help you succeed during COVID-19

Author Peter McGraw says, “Watching a Netflix stand-up special to unwind after a long day is fine, but what if you were to learn from comedians instead of just laughing at their jokes?”

4 clever strategies from master comedians to help you succeed during COVID-19
[Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images]

As millions of Americans adapt to working from home and being cut off from friends and loved ones, there’s one force capable of uniting us during these trying times: stand-up specials on Netflix.

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I’m only half-joking. It is helpful to blow off steam at the end of the day. In times of mass uncertainty and anxiety, comedy provides a crucial relief valve.

The masters of comedy, however, can do more than provide relief. They can also help business leaders learn how to cope—even thrive—in the midst of this worldwide pandemic.

And before you ask: No, this has nothing to do with being funny at work. It’s about learning from the practices comedians use to meet the challenge of creating laughs on command, and from the people who turn tragedy into comedy.

We can learn lessons from how comedians create, not necessarily what they create. My new book, Shtick to Business, contains lessons from the genius and madness of comedians in order to help you build a serious career. These are some of my favorite takeaways that you can begin using today to skillfully navigate through these turbulent times.

Comedians think in reverse

There’s no denying that the masters of comedy are creative thinkers. They have to be in order to keep their career going. After all, you can’t tell the same joke to the same audience twice.

One of the first tricks a comedian learns is called the reversal, which involves flipping what is expected in the mind of the audience. We’ve all seen the reversal in action, either as a movie premise (Trading Places is a great example) or as part of a punchline. Stand-up comedians will often set up an expectation at the beginning of a joke, only to reverse course at the end.
Here’s an example from one of the masters, Henny “The King of the One-Liner” Youngman:

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“When I read about the dangers of drinking . . .”

Youngman starts with a phrase, knowing it will take the audience’s mind in a certain direction. The creativity comes when he employs the switcheroo, going in the opposite direction.

“When I read about the dangers of drinking, I gave up reading.”

Classic, right? Thinking in reverse is a great practice for business leaders, too.

During my workshops, I walk corporate teams through an exercise I call sh*tstorming (or the HR-friendly term, shtickstorming) where we brainstorm truly terrible solutions for a problem. These are ideas that would normally get you laughed out of the room—and that’s the point.

This exercise removes the self-critique so many of us go through during brainstorming sessions. We hold back our ideas for fear of judgment, rejection, or ridicule. But by starting with the worst ideas first, that fear is gone. And better yet, you open yourself up to the possibility that your “terrible” idea—one that normally would’ve been left unsaid—might actually work.

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Patagonia employed the reversal brilliantly when it took out a full-page ad on Black Friday in The New York Times that told customers, “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET.” Patagonia was going against expectations on a day that’s all about consumerism. It worked: During the time the campaign was running, the company saw sales increase nearly 34%.

I encourage you to look at problems in reverse. Stuck at home? “Finally time to clean out the garage.” Job at risk? “Time to plan that entrepreneurial venture I have been thinking about.” Losing customers? “Let’s focus on our most loyal customers for long-run relationships.”

Comedians see the world differently

Comedians are often misfits, outcasts, and class clowns. They don’t fit in with the rest of society, in part because they see the world so much more differently than the rest of us. Like an annoying six-year-old, they’ll ask “why” to get to the beliefs at the roof of our basic assumptions, which is fertile ground for comedy. They also make light of the most mundane aspects of human life.

Jerry Seinfeld is the master of observational comedy. He says that comedians are humanoids: not aliens, but not humans either. One of his famous bits involved aliens coming to Earth. As Seinfeld hilariously (and correctly) pointed out, alien visitors would assume that dogs are the ones in charge because we walk them, feed them, and pick up their poop.

Comedians know that when you drill down past our assumptions and move away from the status quo, the world really is quite crazy, which makes for great bits. As a business leader, there are two ways you can apply the method of thinking that comedians employ.

First, turn off the TV, put away the phone, and do some writing. Comedians always have their notebooks with them. (Mitch Hedberg’s wife only saw him cry once–when he lost his notebook.) Comedians observe the world and use those notes to craft the beginning of their jokes.

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Since writing requires a level of precision that speaking does not, writing about the world around them helps comedians slow down their thinking and clarify their thoughts. Once they record and clarify, they’re ready to communicate their thoughts in the form of jokes.

Business books don’t talk about the practice of daily writing, but during these turbulent times, writing can be an immensely helpful tool for more effective communication.

Second, don’t be afraid of your crazy ideas. Most early innovation seems crazy at first. We were taught as children not to talk to people on the internet or get in the car with strangers. Now, thanks to Uber, we use the internet to contact a stranger and then get in their car.

Allow yourself to have crazy thoughts. When you do, write them down. You’re not guaranteed to think up the next Uber, but thinking differently will help you generate new ideas.

Comedians are master improvisers

If you’re ever been to an improv performance, it might seem like the performers are acting without constraint as they go wherever the scene takes them. In fact, improv follows a set of rules. Two of my favorites are listening and striving to be a supporting actor.

Solving problems on the fly and coming up with “good enough” solutions are possible when you operate according to the rules of improv. Since business schools rarely teach improv, you’ll need to take your cues from the world of comedy.

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First, listen before you speak, and listen for its own sake, not for the sake of responding. Here’s a great example: When you call a Zoom meeting with your executive team to discuss a problem, don’t start by laying out your proposed solution. If you do that, you’ll constrain the thinking of your team. Instead, open it up to the floor by asking, “What do you all think?”

At the end, after you’ve listened to all the ideas, you can share your decision with the group. Chances are that decision will be better than it would’ve been otherwise because you made room for everyone’s ideas, not just ones that were similar to your own.

Second, remember that improv sizzles if each actor supports the other actors, going where they lead, building on their ideas, and giving them what they need in a scene. As a leader, this idea simultaneously eases the pressure (I don’t have to figure this whole thing out myself) and increases the pressure (I’ve got to show up with my best for others every time).

More than ever, it’s vital for leaders to set those around them up for success. As another famous business saying goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Comedians stay true to themselves

In his 2018 Netflix special, Chris Rock opened up about cheating on his wife. He was real and raw with the audience, exposing the many ways he screwed up. This is another skill comedians have: They will explore the bad things that happen to them not only for the sake of laughs, but for the sake of being authentic.

Comedians are adored by fans for being their genuine selves. Does everyone appreciate the raunchy humor of Bob Saget or Sarah Silverman? No, but their fans love them for that exact reason: they speak their mind and own who they are 100%. They’re not trying to be someone else. They’re comfortable in their own skin, warts and all.

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As a leader, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. These are confusing times. We’re all trying to figure out what the right move is as we adjust to this new normal. In times like these, the best leaders are willing to say, “I don’t know.” You might think you’ll be judged negatively for taking this position, but people will appreciate the honesty and transparency.

I’ve watched it play out with Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, who’s been sharing on Twitter updates on the effects of COVID-19 on business operations and the adjustments made to sustain operations in the wake of a global pandemic. If you haven’t already, check out this thread from March 25, where Stewart walks through his decisions step-by-step. He is real, honest, vulnerable, and totally transparent. As Business Insider reported, “Stewart’s thread earned praise from some founders, venture capitalists, and tech workers.”

The American public needs to be able to trust its leaders, whether it’s in government or private industry. Anyone who works for Slack or uses their products knows they can trust Stewart because he’s willing to admit what he knows and what he doesn’t know. He’s not trying to conceal or obfuscate the truth. He’s authentic, and that’s a valuable trait right now.

Take a page from the masters of comedy

None of us have any idea how long our new normal will remain in place. What we can know for certain is that things will look different on the other side of all this. The COVID-19 pandemic is going to create and destroy so many businesses. The implications will go far beyond these next few weeks, stretching into the coming months and even years.

If you’re not reevaluating how you do business in light of these facts, now is the time. Watching a Netflix stand-up special to unwind after a long day is fine, but what if you were to learn from comedians instead of just laughing at their jokes? What if you took the practices that make them creative and innovative geniuses, and applied those to the way you operate as a leader?

You could more effectively steady the ship until we’re through this storm, or even radically transform the way you do business. The best part is: You’ll never have to tell a joke.

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