4 Lessons I Learned As A Stand-Up Comedian That Made Me Successful Off-Stage, Too

Photo: Oleksandr Nagaiets / shutterstock 
man on a stage doing comedy, backlit by spotlight

I’ve had a lot of careers, side hustles, and compelling hobbies that gave me experience and skills, but I often felt like I didn't know what career suited me best. I had a lot of things I wanted to try, but I didn't know how to discover what I was really meant to do.

Working with a career coach helped me to see the common threads that ran through my interests. Writing, broadcasting, and even coaching would be impossible without the subtle art of communication. It turns out, I was (and hopefully still am) a good communicator, eager to learn how to be even better at it.

Stand-up comedy, a career I tried and ultimately decided wasn't quite right for me, taught me some of the most important lessons about how to talk well and listen even better.

How i became a stand-up comedian 

Seeing that I'd never been on stage before, I was surprised when, in my early twenties, I was presented with an opportunity to try my hand at professional comedy. 

A tall and wiry comedian and his promoter walked into the studio to be interviewed on my radio show. They started a new comedy club and were working to build an audience. Off-air, I mentioned I had thought about giving stand-up a try. 

“You’re in luck,” said Rob, the promoter. “We need an emcee.” I gulped. I had no experience and wasn’t sure I was ready. 

Nevertheless, they reassured me that all I had to do was introduce the opening, middle and main acts, and have 5-10 minutes of fresh and funny material each week. I committed to five shows a week at $25 per show. How hard could it be? I wrote and cracked jokes on my daily radio show to an audience I couldn’t see. Now I had the opportunity to see their reactions.  

From this experience, I learned some nuggets of communication wisdom, and I want to share them so you can apply them to your own workplace and careers.

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Four lessons stand-up comedy taught me how to communicate better at work

1. Humility

My answer to the question of how hard it could be arrived a few minutes into my premiere. I hadn’t memorized the routine and sadly believed no one would notice my cue cards. That works great for radio but not so much live. The cringe-worthy lesson I learned is to respect the audience by taking the time to properly prepare.

Similar to thinking you can wing it through a presentation with little to no preparation, it sends a bad signal to the audience about what you think of them, and ultimately, your career.

2. Emotional intelligence

This is the ability to understand, manage, and express one's own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. Reading the audience and seeing their reactions was something I’d asked for. Now, I wasn’t so sure. 

The silence. The awkward, forced chuckles. The looks of pity. When I knew my jokes were bombing, I acknowledged it. Using emotional intelligence, I quickly pivoted to self-deprecating quips. My acknowledgment that things weren’t going so well seemed to bring some relief to the poor audience. Imagine you’re leading a meeting at work and it’s clearly not going well. Chances are that your audience knows you’re not on your game. 

The communication wisdom I gained was to use emotional intelligence to acknowledge your distraction. Then, either asking someone else to lead or rescheduling the meeting is important. In fact, it shows you’re authentic and know how to adequately acknowledge and control your emotions.

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3. Social connection

The thought of having to perform made me nervous. I made a habit of arriving early to the club to meet as many members of the audience as I could. It helped me realize that they didn’t want me to bomb– that they were on my side. It took away the jitters.

I remind my coaching clients, who are nervous about presenting, that the audience is on their side, too. If you’re already prepared and still feel nervous, reach out in advance to a few supports you know will be there. It's good communication to let them know you’re experiencing the jitters. They will probably be happy to show their support for you at your presentation. You could even ask them to pose a question at the end, to reduce any awkward silences. 

Making that social connection a part of your preparation can go a long way toward increasing your confidence on presentation day. 

4. Adaptability

Adaptability is another nugget of communication that I learned on the stage. It's the capacity to quickly and effectively respond to change, uncertainty, and ambiguity. The best comedians prepare for the worst audience members. 

Hecklers are the jerks that interrupt shows with their loud and aggressive comments. Comics have what are known as “stock lines” or heckler put downs meant to shut up the obnoxious audience member and regain control of the act. For example, "I remember my first drink as well", "It's a shame when cousins marry" or "Looks like there's a village missing its idiot."

I only had to use a heckler put down once in my eight-week comedy stint. When I did, it brought the house down and the heckler remained quiet for the rest of the night. The audience loves it, because as long as the comedian respects the audience, they are on the side of the performer. They welcome the idea of the crude heckler being put in his place.

RELATED: How To Put Disrespectful People In Their Place (Forever)

In summary, clear communication is the key to the best relationships at work.

Even though my comedy career was short lived, I and a friend spent all day Saturday re-writing my content. He let me practice it until I was comfortable. My performances went much better from that point on. 

Despite the initial embarrassment, the humbling lessons I learned in my very short career as a standup comedian have served me well in the decades that followed. In the same way, these lessons can benefit you in work settings whether you're leading meetings or presenting to an audience.

Remembering to prepare well, stay humble, and be authentic with your emotions will serve you well in the workplace. At the same time, adapting quickly to your audience and remembering to stay connected with them socially is a reminder that they are on your side.

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Brent Roy, PCC, CPLC, CMC, is a certified executive, career and personal development coach, and mentor coach. He works with men and women who want to increase their confidence and boost their executive presence to prepare them for promotion or a new career.