The Public Relations Strategist

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Boardroom… How Humor Can Make You a Better Leader

January 15, 2013

Did you know a recent USA Today poll reported that 79 percent of CEOs think a sense of humor is important in the workplace? Did you also know the happiest employees take 66 percent less sick leave? Or that happy employees devote 80 percent of their efforts to work-related tasks (as opposed to their miserable peers who devote only 40 percent to what the organization wants done)?

While I’ve always enjoyed working with client organizations that embrace comedy, it wasn’t until I started performing stand-up that I realized the powerful implications of humor (and its offspring, happiness) on my own abilities and my firm’s culture — or that humor might one day become a Peppercomm service offering.

My personal comedy journey began as part of a midlife crisis (which, as I like to say, began around the time I reached puberty).

One night about eight years ago, I attended a deadly dull business affair, and was seated next to an even more deadly dull Fortune 500 chief information officer. To keep myself awake, I asked the CIO about his hobbies. “I perform stand-up comedy,” he replied, generating his first smile of that long evening.

I was floored. The executive proceeded to tell me where he had studied, the Manhattan comedy club at which he’d made his debut and the fact that he now performed stand-up comedy wherever his global business travel took him.

I was intrigued to say the least. Having always harbored a desire to unleash my inner Johnny Carson, I decided to give it a go.

I enrolled in a five-night course. I sat alongside cab drivers, dog walkers, retired cops and high school students while learning the art and science of comedy. I pulled together a five-minute routine and, on March 3, 2006, I made my debut at Stand-Up New York.

I survived and figured I’d scratch off “performed stand-up comedy” from my personal bucket list.

But then Clayton Fletcher, the show’s master of ceremonies, sidled up to me after the event and said, “Hey, kid [note: I’m 20 years older], I think you have talent. Care to try it again next week?”

Performing trial and error

I was hooked. Thanks to Clayton, I began performing two or three times a month at either the New York Comedy Club or Broadway Comedy Club. I flopped in front of audiences as small as three and as large as 250.

I also branched out to do a few ill-conceived gigs at an industry trade show; I followed an all-day workshop on measurement and was the only thing standing between attendees and their first glass of wine. I also began performing at college and university alumni events.

I noticed that stand-up comedy was making me a better business executive. It was sharpening my presentation skills, to be sure. But I also found myself becoming a far better listener. And, critically, I learned how to fill those awkward silences that occur so often in client or new business meetings by enduring countless periods of dead air during my shows and improvising in the moment.

Importing comedy to Peppercomm

One day, I pulled Clayton aside and told him the effect comedy was having on my business life. Clayton, you see, had become my personal comedy coach.

Just like an NFL coach would do with his team on the Monday morning after a game, Clayton would sit down with me and review my previous night’s videotaped performance. “See how fast you’re speaking, Steve?” he’d ask. Then, he’d point at my pacing back and forth onstage. “You look like a caged lion! Stay put. It’s distracting the audience.” And so on. Reviewing “game film” with Clayton was akin to taking graduate classes in public speaking.

Since I was making so much progress, I decided my management team had to experience the very same thing. I had Clayton show up unannounced at an off-site retreat.

At first, my management team wanted nothing to do with stand-up comedy training. But, one by one, they performed their three-minute bits. And, wonder of wonders, they all killed (as we comedians like to say). And, wonder of wonders, they really bonded over the experience. And, wonder of wonders, they cried out, “We must roll this out to the entire agency.”

So we did. And we continue to do so: Stand-up comedy training is now part of our agency-wide Peppercomm State University curriculum.

It’s also become part of our charitable initiatives. We’ve held countless Peppercomm-sponsored charity comedy fundraisers for Autism Speaks, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the Young Survival Coalition. Our own employees perform stand-up at these events — and they kill. Their peers love it. The whole thing has helped take our edgy, irreverent culture to a higher plane.

Refining the routine

As we refined our stand-up training within our agency, the media took notice and clients began asking us if we could replicate the model for them.

So we created a separate offering titled “Peppercomm’s Comedy Experience Featuring Clayton Fletcher” (or PCEFCF, as we prefer to call it).

PCEFCF has been a big hit. We’ve trained lab technicians, lawyers, scientists, pharmaceutical sales executives and lots of PR and marketing communications types.

We’ve conducted these comedy experiences in any number of very serious businesses. Comedy works in just about any type of workplace because:

  • It’s based on storytelling (and not joke-telling).
  • It bonds people like no other team-building exercise I’ve ever witnessed.
  • It can transform an entire employee communications program, teach sales forces to differentiate themselves and drive a culture change or brand repositioning.

What started as a midlife crisis has now become a revenue stream that is helping all sorts of individuals in a range of industries to improve their presentation skills, learn how to read an audience and turn around a negative meeting. From a big-picture standpoint, it has helped client organizations bind together disparate groups, enhance morale and reverse a toxic culture.

So, have you heard the one about the middle-aged PR guy who was sitting at a deadly dull business dinner one night?

Steve Cody
Steve Cody is managing partner and co-founder of Peppercomm, a New York-based strategic communications firm with offices in San Francisco and London.


Marie Overfors says:

Steve, thank you for this article. I am a huge fan of humor, and I'm delighted that CEOs are, too. Indeed, I'm sure it's a secret to success at work and home. Pop over to my blog post to learn more about more: ( I'd love to hear what you think!

Jan. 29, 2013

JR Hipple says:

What a surprise, Steve. And I always thought you were a comedian trying to learn to be PR person. Good stuff, Cody!

June 16, 2015

Virgil Scudder says:

I'm glad you pointed out the difference between joke-telling and story telling, Steve. Often, when I try to get a client to work in some humor, I hear: "I'm not a comedian; I don't tell jokes." My response is always: "I'm not looking for jokes; I'm looking for a humorous story from your experience that illustrates a point." Success rate? About 80 percent, at least initially. Long term, I believe it's higher. But, it's always worth going for. There is no better tool for humanizing a speaker and drawing attention to the message.

April 18, 2016

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