Injecting a Performer’s Spirit Into Business

On February 28, 2011, I performed standup as part of a comedy class to a sold out crowd of 281 people at the Punchline in Atlanta. (See my routine here.) Not only was it a wonderful personal growth moment but the experience also taught me some unusual principles that I’ve since applied to the world of business. Many people are unnecessarily uncomfortable in the business world, all of the time. At the office or out networking, they are mostly worried about knowing their subject matter and “getting it right.” While a well-scripted phone call or no-nonsense networking conversation may give the impression that they did their homework, that approach often does not come across as particularly charismatic, likeable, or relaxing to team members, clients, or potential prospects. That is why entertainers are great to study. A few of my favorite entertainers illustrate several important communication lessons that can be applied to the business world.

Treat Every Moment Like It’s Your Last Gig (Henry Rollins)

As a former punk rocker and current spoken word artist and actor, Henry Rollins always puts every ounce of energy he has into his work. Watch any live musical performance, and he is sweating, swaying, and yelling with abandon. Watch even his spoken word performances (see above for example) where he brings unusual energy to his stories. While relying on a rough road map, he never gives the same rote talk twice. He allows room for both structure and creative improvisation, and his performance demonstrates that he’s fully engaged in the moment.

In the business world, people often hop on a phone call or go to a networking event and bring…no…energy. No laughter. No questions. No intellectual curiosity. Something else is on their mind. They don’t look you in the eye. Their voice has no energy, no charisma. They don’t speak up. Their voice trails off.

Others, though, seem to want to be there. They’re excited about the challenges set before them. And this energy can also be the difference between a client feeling you truly care about their business or just collecting a paycheck. From my experience, those who bring energy to every moment tend to be those who are remembered after networking events, asked to speak on panels, and sought after to participate on boards. These people even help increase company morale by energizing others.

Challenge: Watch Henry Rollins doing part of a spoken word performance. Do you bring that much energy to your work? To a meeting? To a networking event?

Show People You’re Genuinely Interested and Curious (Howard Stern)

Howard Stern is not to everyone’s taste – including mine. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining and honest interviewer in 2012. Over the last five years, his interviews with Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, and other entertainers have been remarkable for their depth and fresh insights. In studying how Howard Stern keeps an interview interesting, insightful, and entertaining, I discovered it’s not the sex jokes or bathroom humor. It’s his honesty and genuine curiosity about his interviewees, along with a free-wheeling, impulsive, instinctual approach to conversation.

Early in my career, I used to be terrified when I spoke with someone on the phone. I used to rely on safe, pre-planned phone scripts to guide me along. I’d hang on to a PowerPoint deck like I was holding onto the edge of a cliff. Then, I began to eventually loosen up and become more conversational. I’d even crack a joke when appropriate. Instead of sounding like a robot, I began to sound human. People will forgive authenticity, but they’ll just forget you if you sound like everybody else.

But it’s not just about talking. Howard Stern keeps conversation rolling not by dominating the conversation, but by asking fun yet thoughtful, probing questions. He tries to draw out interesting assumptions, discussion points, and insights, while also keeping the interviewee interested and entertained. In business meetings or networking events today, I bring some pre-planned questions but I don’t stick to a script. I ask genuinely curious questions to both get to the objectives but also make the conversation intellectually compelling, relationship-building, and – yes – even fun.

Challenge: Listen to Howard Stern interview Paul McCartney. Are you that curious about other people during your business conversations? Do you project a loose feeling of fun to make other people comfortable?

Make the Other Person the Star (Johnny Carson)

While a very different entertainer than Howard Stern, Johnny Carson illustrates a complementary lesson. Johnny Carson was not always the best with comedic monologues but all of that was swept aside during his interviews. He was a master at listening, and he would talk in just the right places in order to elicit fascinating insights from his interviewees.

Partly, that was by creating a nest of sorts to make the other person feel comfortable. Comedians often used to parody his conversational style with its odd stops and starts, questions, and catchphrases. However, when he talked to a guest he expertly weaved in and around the guest’s conversation, prodding it along when needed, moving to another subject when necessary, and making sure any comedic moments were recognized and brought out. But ultimately, he made his guests feel welcome and comfortable. If he did that, the comedy and insights would inevitably follow.

While the goal in business is not to get the laughs, I’ve seen expert businesspeople similarly listen and ask questions during a meeting – barely saying anything – only to close the discussion with several brilliant insights at the end and be stunningly clear about next steps. I’ve also seen the reverse where a businessperson will dominate the conversation and talk the entire time. While those meetings can range from interesting to painful, they often end in confusion. The dominator runs out of fuel, people wonder what it all meant, and next steps are unclear.

Challenge: What percentage of time do you usually listen and talk in business conversations (networking, sales presentations, client meetings)? Do you listen like Johnny Carson?

Find Inspiration Through Your Favorite Entertainers

There is a point in our careers when we understand the fundamentals of how to give a presentation, how to run a meeting, and how to do our work. Past those fundamentals, it takes all of us a lifetime to master the soft skills of life and business. The best entertainers get to those soft skills faster and better than many of us. In the Darwinian world of entertainment, only the best survive. These are only three of my favorite entertainers, but I’m sure many more come to mind who inspire you. Study and emulate their best qualities, and you may be surprised how your communications skills improve.

Stay tuned for Part Two where I’ll discuss three entertainers who represent attitude applied to business.

Written by Kevin Howarth on March 2, 2012

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Great examples for bringing performance into the workplace to boost your quality of work. I know many people at my workplace who treat elements of our job like theatre and it definitely promotes a better morale.

The Rollins piece is just brill! Posting that (and your post) to my Facebook now.

Kevin, if I looked up "truth" in the dictionary I'd find "Righteous Man, Kevin Howarth." Great post. Anyone in management should be required to take a comedy class. No questions asked. How many lives could be saved? Countless!

I have a dear friend, and excellent improv actor, Allison Gilmore who has a company that teachers comedy skills in business environments. In her spare time. Which doesn't exist, last I checked. (More urban myths... that "spare time" thing.)

Allison's website (she's here in Atlanta) is: http://www.dumoreimprov.com/Welcome.html

Bring her in. Amazing lady. Amazing lessons to be learned. And the best part is... people have FUN, serious fun, learning to be.... better people. Winning.

Kevin, if I looked up "truth" in the dictionary I'd find "Righteous Man, Kevin Howarth." Great post. Anyone in management should be required to take a comedy class. No questions asked. How many lives could be saved? Countless!

I have a dear friend, and excellent improv actor, Allison Gilmore who has a company that teachers comedy skills in business environments. In her spare time. Which doesn't exist, last I checked. (More urban myths... that "spare time" thing.)

Allison's website (she's here in Atlanta) is: http://www.dumoreimprov.com/Welcome.html

Bring her in. Amazing lady. Amazing lessons to be learned. And the best part is... people have FUN, serious fun, learning to be.... better people. Winning.

Incredibly insightful. I've long suspected "business people" could gain much from learning the techniques we actors use, whether it is the deep-breathing and physical and vocal warm- ups to ride them of their "nerves" before a presentation, or learning "the Method" many of us use to become a character (for a business-person, it would be useful for developing empathy).
Thanks for this. I have been holding classes entitled "Acting for Non-
Actors" for a long time. Here's to performing!

Incredibly insightful. I've long suspected "business people" could gain much from learning the techniques we actors use, whether it is the deep-breathing and physical and vocal warm- ups to ride them of their "nerves" before a presentation, or learning "the Method" many of us use to become a character (for a business-person, it would be useful for developing empathy).
Thanks for this. I have been holding classes entitled "Acting for Non-
Actors" for a long time. Here's to performing!

Great post. I only worked in corporate offices twice, and the overall spirit was the reason one job was great and one was drudgery. Humor, energy, self-deprecation, being open to improvisation-- hugely important, both for office dynamics and to communicate your excitement to your customers.

Eric Van Fossen says:

I think this is really dynamite. Right on with great examples, too. I think one could definitely say the only business, these days, is show business. Everything is an experience and every one is looking for entertainment value. Heck, look at TED. The 'most serious' topics are events.

Excellent post Kevin. One thing I always tell my clients is that their content should educate, inspire, and entertain. No one does that better than a great performer.

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Kevin Howarth