Funny business: how stand-up comedy can make you a better worker
We spoke to former stand-up comedian Andrew Whyatt-Sames about how performing prepared him for the business world. As a Principal Consultant he specialises in the human side of change, leadership, and high-performing teams and has worked extensively with IMI.
How did you get into stand-up comedy?
In 1997 I was sharing a flat with a guy who, unbeknownst to me, was fencing stolen goods. As the police burst in to raid the flat, I realised it was time to find a new place to live, and so I moved to Hemel Hempstead.
It was there that I started doing hospital radio as a way to meet people, and one day someone came in and said that they’d been to a stand-up workshop that was really good fun. Immediately I thought, I want a go at that!
What I discovered very quickly was that if you’re a little bit directionless, if you haven’t got that many qualifications, if you’re not experiencing that much joy in your life, standing in front of a room of 100 people who are all laughing and agreeing with you feels good.
Basically it was a combination of needing something to do, wanting a little bit of external validation, and a lot of chance.
What made you leave it behind?
As my stand up progressed, I gradually built my portfolio, performing in places like the Comedy Café, Jongleurs, and the Comedy Store. You start off doing five-minute spots so it’s ages before you’re finally asked to do a full show. It took me about two years to get to the point where I could go into Co-op and pay for groceries with money I had earned performing.
The problem was, it doesn’t really go well with breakfast radio, because at the same time as all this was going on, I’d started working at a radio station. If you have a show starting in Milton Keynes at 6am, and you finished a gig in Leeds at midnight, clearly that’s not a safe, healthy or sustainable lifestyle.
Beyond that though, two things convinced me to give it up.
Firstly, radio was a really nice creative outlet. I could produce and deliver content on a daily basis and I was working collaboratively with other writers and performers, so it just turned out that radio was more for me.
Secondly, professional stand-up comedy is lonely, soulless and can even be quite toxic. I was on the try-out circuit at the same time as Jimmy Carr, but where I was doing one or two gigs a week, he was doing seven or eight.
I realised it came down to talent and tenacity. You can get away with loads of talent and not much tenacity, or loads of tenacity and not so much talent, but if you’ve got no talent and no tenacity you’re not going anywhere. Jimmy had both! For the record, I was all talent.
What insights did you gain from your experience working in comedy and radio?
I think that my time as a performer and presenter taught me four main things that have been invaluable to my subsequent business career:
What I learned as a broadcaster is that the number one skill you need is listening, not speaking.
Speaking is important of course, but ultimately you are responsible for the quality of everything that comes out of the radio, and therefore you need to be listening very carefully to who is contributing to the output. If you are interviewing somebody, you need to be tapping into “What is the most interesting thing about this person?”
In business, this means being able to bite your tongue sometimes, and not approaching meetings as simply an opportunity to spread your opinions. It’s also important to be capable of reading a room to pick up on those energy changes and attentional shifts and manage them appropriately.
Focus on relationships
My improvised comedy teacher says that if you’re performing a scene, talk about the relationship, not the details. Looking for relationships and what they mean to the characters you’re playing is how you get good quality content.
And that’s my job! I look for meaning and I look for relationships in the work that I do with leaders. If you can’t connect with the people around you, or at least empathise with them, everything you try and do at work will be a whole lot harder.
Speak the truth
I think that if you have the comedic chops, another thing that you’re probably quite good at is being able to say the truth with a smile on your face, or start to chip away at the difficulties the team you’re working with are having by just mentioning what no one else wants to mention.
That’s what comedians do: we develop our thinking and we say the stuff that other people aren’t saying. Humour helps to bridge the gap between the hard facts of life and our perception of those facts. When used appropriately in the workplace, it can help spread a shared understanding.
High performance requires self-care
This is particularly true in an intense environment like the Edinburgh Fringe, where bad diet and little sleep can have seriously detrimental effects on performers.
It might seem obvious that how you treat your body is important, but you’d be surprised how many people, when faced with a tough period at work or onstage, think that living off ready meals and energy drinks will allow them to maintain high quality output!
And finally, any tips for performers at the Edinburgh Fringe?
Don’t tell jokes about Edinburgh. Talk about what you truly believe in and find funny because that’s the voice that will make people want to listen to you.
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