How stand-up comedians can teach us priceless skills for life and work
Stand-up comedians demonstrate a truly amazing skill-set. They are courageous, inventive, engaging, and daring. They live life on the edge. They expose themselves and their vulnerability, and the source of their comedy is themselves and their lives. They are incredible communicators. They can turn disaster into triumph. Sometimes they fail, and die on stage – but they’ll be up there for the next show, when they may well be ‘storming it’.
Positive Comedy analyses what comedians do – and the techniques they use – drawing out lessons for us to use in us in our own personal and professional development, applying this learning in many important departments of everyday life:
- Building relationships and making connections with people
- Gaining confidence and self-esteem, overcoming fears and achieving success
- Being persuasive and winning people over
- Developing creativity and imagination
- Gaining appeal and popularity
- Increasing self-awareness, being yourself and handling emotion
- Coming to terms with life and enjoying it, living in the present moment
- Dealing with life’s challenges, disasters and causes of suffering
Fear, courage and confidence
Stand-up comedians demonstrate the ability to handle fear and work with risk, every time they go on stage – and probably when they are thinking about going on stage, too. How do they do this? What can they teach us about managing emotion, handling fear, working with risk and danger, coping with being disliked – and more broadly, developing confidence, self-expression and self-esteem. Can we put this into practice in our own everyday circumstances?
Coping with disaster
As well as dealing with the potential disaster that could face them in the course of performance, comedians are specialists in thinking about disaster because it’s a staple of the comedy world. What can we learn from them then, about processing and coming to terms with challenging circumstances and horrible stuff that happens to us – remaining optimistic and holding pessimism at bay? And how does this relate to the common idea that that all comedians are depressed or dysfunctional?
Comedians have incredibly creative minds, for they are constantly using their mental resources in a very active way – looking at things very differently from the rest of us, exercising enormous imagination, challenging convention and adopting highly unusual perspectives. We can practice these approaches too, to great effect.
Comedians are consummate communicators, highly skilled at making a strong bond of connection between themselves and an audience, and very quickly building a relationship with individuals within that audience. So they have a great deal to teach us about communication skills and being an energized, charismatic communicator, about engaging with people individually and collectively, being responsive to people and to circumstances – and about being instinctively sensitive to the responses of others around us – including specialized lessons such as the legendary phenomenon of comic timing.
We can learn a great deal from comedians about being spontaneous and instinctive, living in the present moment, being improvisational, being able to think on our feet, and how to turn an unexpected and quite possibly unwelcome turn of events into an opportunity to create value or advantage, for ourselves and others. Even if they are not being spontaneous all the time when they are performing because they have a familiar, body of material, comedians still have to deal with whatever may come up in every moment of a performance – and every piece of their material was initially created in a moment of spontaneity. How do they manage to keep doing this, and how can we apply the same principles to apply to our own lives?
Making sense of life
One of the great and most valuable things we can learn from ‘observational’ comedians lies in their habit of using their art to study life itself, and the human condition in particular, using themselves and their own experiences to demonstrate with. Inspired by their methods and their approaches, we can follow their example and become more observational, think about things more deeply, detect patterns in life and in our own experiences, make sense of them, and then cope with life better as a result
Likewise, comedians need to be very aware of themselves and their individuality, their peculiarities, their quirks – this becomes the essence of their comedy material and for the development of their individual comedy ‘persona’ – especially their shortcomings, because these are what offers the greatest potential for comedy. So there is a lot for us to emulate and adapt here, about the processes of self-discovery, knowing ourselves, and being our own unique selves – including our imperfections – having our own unique take on life and using that in our self-expression and the way we live.
Humour, of course is central to comedy. How do comedians go about being successfully and reliably funny? What are the tricks of the trade that they use, and how can we apply these to ourselves, even if we don’t want to become a professional comedian? From this we can learn how to approach life with humour, not always take things too seriously, be entertaining, develop a sense of humour, be able to generate and enjoy laughter, and use humour as a tool for personal development – and laugh at ourselves.
Finally, professional comedians develop their material and their style of comedy continuously over their whole career – non-stop CPD – always evolving their material and their stage persona, adding new bits and leaving out bits that don’t seem to be working so well, constantly growing and responding to changing circumstances, trends and fashions. This can be a model and inspiration to the rest of us, encouraging us – like them – to have life-long curiosity and inquisitiveness, to constantly learn and evolve, and to develop our own personal repertoire of thoughts, ideas, observations – our own style of expression and our own individual contribution to our setting.
About the Author: Gerry Thompson is a trainer, comedian and best-selling author whose books have sold approaching half a million copies in fourteen languages. He is co-author of the forthcoming FT book, Gamechangers: Critical decisions by inspirational business leaders, and what we can all learn from them.
Gerry is founder and MD of Positive Comedy Learning and Development, drawing on learning methods from stand-up comedy and improvisation to support clients in developing crucial skills for life and work. Gerry’s training and coaching clients include staff of companies such as American Express, Brandwatch, UK NHS, ACCA, Roffey Park Leadership Institute, and many others.
Positive Comedy’s website is www.positivecomedy.com.
Gerry can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0)7986 561 860
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