How to step up your management performance
by Andrew Tarvin
July 8, 2019

Stand-up comedy can make you a better presenter. After all, it’s one of the hardest forms of public speaking you’ll ever try. So it’s likely that if you do even remotely well at stand-up, all other types of business presentations will seem easier. But, stand-up comedy can also make you a better leader.

During my time as an information technology (IT) project manager at Procter & Gamble (P&G), I led multimillion-dollar projects for a $350-million business. This involved coordinating resources from multiple companies, delivering requirements for stakeholders from around the world and attending what seemed like 8,000 meetings each day.

The only way I could influence up, across and down was by leveraging what I had learned from the internal leadership development program at P&G—and stand-up comedy. 

The first source of leadership training is expected. After all, P&G is a promote-from-within company, so it has to be good at developing leaders. The second is surprising but has been just as valuable in my career development. Being able to communicate clearly, deliver with confidence, and add a little, were vital to my corporate success. 

The following are five tips I’ve determined any business leader can take from stand-up comedians.

1. Start Strong

The most important part of any stand-up set is the first 30 seconds. It is in that small time frame that an audience decides if you are worth their attention. Those first 30 seconds are just like the first of any recommendation or proposal you give. 

My first manager at P&G explained that if you get people in agreement with you early on, they are much more likely to agree with you later. If you are proposing a solution to a problem or, better put, an opportunity, confirm with the audience that you all agree that there is, in fact, a problem and that you agree on what it is. Then, once they’ve settled in and have already been nodding along (not nodding off), you can transition into the meat of the meeting.

In standup, a good introduction relates to something the entire audience can be part of, (such as a joke about the city, something a previous comic said or the ridiculousness of your own voice). In the business world, that may mean starting off a presentation by establishing that you are all on common ground in some way. 

2. Deliver with Confidence

Comedy is a mixture of both content and delivery. Yes, the material itself has to be good, but so does the delivery. In fact, good delivery can often make up for weak material. Just look at Dane Cook’s early career—the jokes weren’t mind-blowingly funny, but his delivery was.

The same is true for leading others. Early on in my career at P&G, I had the opportunity to deliver a 7-minute presentation to the chief executive officer. Normally, I would have been out-of-my-mind nervous about the situation, but 3 nights prior, I had done a stand-up set in front of 300 people. A short presentation supported by slides with no expectation of being funny suddenly seemed a lot easier.

If you’re not confident in what you’re doing, it will be much harder for people to follow you. As Adlai Stevenson said, “It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.” The keys to improving your confidence as a leader are the same as developing confidence as a comedian—practice and repetition. The more often you do something, the easier it tends to become and the more comfortable you get.

3. Seek Feedback

Comedy, in a way, is simple. How do you know something is funny? It makes people laugh. The only way for a comedian to know if people will laugh at a joke is to try it out and see what happens. The immediate feedback the comic receives on stage is invaluable as a performer.

Similarly, feedback is crucial for leaders. P&G does an annual employee survey to see how they are doing as an organization across key metrics. One of the most empowering leadership programs at the company requires leaders receive 360-degree feedback from direct reports, managers and project stakeholders.

Why? Because stopping to ask for ways to better connect with each of your direct reports, or improve a presentation or particular meeting, can guide you in finding what works and what doesn’t. Then you can start working on the right things—working smarter, not harder.

One key thing to note is that feedback doesn’t just have to come from other people. Comedians record their performances so they can watch playback to evaluate the audience’s response. Checking in with yourself periodically or tracking your daily progress can help you find what is and isn’t working for you.

4. Give Credit Where Credit is Due

The cardinal sin of stand-up comedy (just after murder) is stealing material. Taking someone else’s jokes and pretending they are your own is like buying a Coca-Cola, putting your own label on it and selling it as “Joe’s Soda.” After all, jokes are the primary product that comedians “sell.” 

In management, taking credit for what other people have done is not only dishonest; it’s limiting for both you and your team because your team doesn’t get the proper recognition they deserve. And you don’t showcase your ability to inspire your team to great results. \

In fact, at P&G, upper levels of management are rewarded based on how their old team does after they move to a new assignment. They understand it’s more valuable to have someone who can create an entire high-performing team than just have one high-performing employee.

Taking credit and stealing material may help you get ahead in the short term, but in today’s world, frauds and thieves tend to get found out and left behind.

5. Respect Others’ Time

The second biggest sin in comedy is going over your allotted time (called “blowing the light”). Nearly every comedian imagines they could entertain the crowd for hours upon hours, but shows typically limit the amount of time each comic has, often based on their skill level or connection to the show. To perform past the amount of time allotted is to tell the show producer and all of the other comedians, “I think I’m more important than you,” and “I don’t respect you.”

When you, as a leader, hold people longer than the time scheduled, or consistently show up late to meetings, you’re sending the same message.

To ensure that I respected the time of the people on my team, I gave people a notification when their time was almost up and then “cut the mic” (or politely interrupted them) if they went on too long. For some, this was jarring at first. But, over time, it established a culture of starting and ending on time. Respect people’s time and they’ll respect yours (and you) for it.

Becoming a stand-up leader isn’t easy, but following some of these principles from stand-up comedians can make it easier. By starting meetings strong and delivering with confidence, you’ll be more likely to influence people to take action. Seeking feedback will help you grow. Giving credit where it’s due will build your team and your reputation. And respecting people’s time will show that you mean what you say and say what you mean. 

Whether you’re leading million-dollar projects or a small team of volunteers, you can work to become a stand-up leader. Plus, this is the perfect excuse to finally give stand-up comedy a try, or at least watch some of your favorite comedians online. You won’t just be having a laugh; you’ll be on your way to becoming a better leader as well.