Lessons From: A Stand-Up Comic
What do you call a man with no shins?
That’s why I’m not a professional stand-up comic. Fortunately, with regular slots on BBC’s Radio 4 shows, sell-out tours across the UK to critical acclaim and a veritable treasure chest of TV appearances to force upon her grandchildren one day – we can safely assume that Shappi Khorsandi is.
But the Edinburgh-based comic does more than stand on a stage and make people laugh – as tough a job as that already is. A sought after cultural commentator for British TV and radio, she’s penned columns for national newspapers and magazines, and has most recently donned the proverbial writers hat once more for her first book, A Beginners Guide To Acting English.
Talking with Shappi about her life as a comic lasted a whole five minutes before the unannounced slamming of her front door shocked her into protector mode. A shriek down the phone later – and the realisation from the pair of us that she probably wouldn’t succeed in the security business – Shappi apologised to her cleaner who had let herself in with her spare pair of keys.
Moving along the conversation burglar-free, it became obvious in talking with the Iranian-born, London bred comedian that the soft skills needed to succeed as a comic aren’t a million miles away from those prevalent in the corporate world. Trusting? Tick. Good presentation skills? Tick. An ability to think on your feet? Indeed. The only difference: If you walk out of a meeting and everyone’s laughing at you…don’t consider that a success.
So what can the comedy world teach the corporate business sphere? Here’s this week’s lesson:
“I got booed once in Belfast,” explains Shappi. “You could call that one big heckle. But I think you’re nothing until you’ve been booed off. The loss of confidence comes when the audience feels indifferent.
“If you get booed off, it can actually be quite exhilarating; it was so bad that you couldn’t feel bad. It was like jumping into freezing cold water. It’s like a badge of honour being booed off. It’s much worse when they’re indifferent as then you’ve got a real struggle.”
The same is true from the executive perspective. Far worse is it to leave the taste of indifference in the mouths of those critiquing you than it is to fail and learn from it. We’ve all heard, ‘fail fast, fix faster’, right? Well, you can’t fix something when you don’t know what’s wrong. Welcome to the curse of indifference.
#2: Be True To Yourself
It’s hold your hands up time: We’ve all tried to emulate someone at some point in our careers. Whether wanting to mix things up, chase a new goal or think that person has a secret weapon in their armoury – we’ve all done it. It’s human nature.
The trick, however, is to step away from pointless comparisons. Become comfortable in your own skin. Find out (within reason) what makes you tick and where your unique abilities lie. Get used to them. Hone them. Wear them with pride. Unless, as Shappi puts it, “…you want to do something out of the ordinary – then it’s probably best to keep it to yourself.”
Admittedly tongue in cheek, the advice does carry some resonance. If what you’re trying to do it likely to be laughed at during its discovery phase, then keep schtum. The proof is in the pudding and you’ll only de-motivate yourself by parading it around in its embryonic stages. But whatever you do – do a Sinatra and do it your way.
“I stumble around like a chicken with a bag over its head,” admits Shappi when asked about how she juggles such a diverse portfolio of work. “I just run around and try and get as much done as possible – and try not to get any counter court judgements against me and open my post. I have a lot of help. I’ve got a mum and I’ve also got a kid. I live in a really nice street where the mums help me out. Not with my kid. Just with the shows.”
The point? Whatever works for you, works. Shappi is a self-proclaimed night-owl when it comes to working. Others will tell you that the ‘early bird catches the worm’. None of it matters. The sun goes down and the moon comes up. The rest is entirely up to you – as long as it’s getting you to where you need to be.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but we’ve all been in a meeting watching someone squirm as their nerves take over. Keeping nerves at bay is nigh on impossible, so you might as well get used to them if you’re a sufferer of the red-face.
However, seeing the signs that your nerves are sailing you into an awkward situation is certainly a trait that you should be rectifying. “If you’re nervous, the audience is terrified of you,” explains Shappi. “And if they’re terrified, they can’t laugh.
“No one can laugh when they feel nervous for someone. You’re feeling awkward – and awkwardness is the worst thing. Hatred I can handle. Awkwardness is the hardest thing to handle; mercifully, it happens less as you get more experience.”
Replace laughing for ‘taking seriously’ and exactly the same is true in the corporate sphere. Anyone with compassion will let initial nerves slide – but let them take over and navigate the rest of your conversation, and you’ll soon see the awkward police knocking at your door.
“All audiences are the same,” continues Shappi. “You just have to be the best ‘you’ as possible. You’ve got to be confident and let them come to you – be yourself and know that people are people. They’re really no different.”
Take a page out of Shappi’s book and investigate yourself. Leave your comfort zone and feel naked for a minute. Because when you do, you’ll find something that you never knew existed. And as long as that’s not you becoming the office joke, that can only be a good thing, right?
Author: Nick Pryke
Adam has interviewed over 450 chief executives from Adidas to Zappos. He has spoken on communication, leadership, and innovation at several major conferences, for organisations as diverse as CA and CeBIT, and is Master of Ceremonies for a number of brilliant business events.