A Laughing Matter


I had my stand-up comedic debut last Saturday night. No, it wasn’t at Carolines on Broadway, one of New York’s more well-known comedy clubs. That’s where I spent the Friday night prior studying the competition. Ha! It was in a variety show at Peninsula Metamorphic Arts & Learning in Blue Hill, Maine, in front of a full house of family, friends and neighbors. I’m not sure which is harder—to stand up before an anonymous and potentially aloof audience I will never see again, or in front of my own warm people who I will have to face for the rest of my life. The performance went surprisingly well, due in large part to the expert guidance of our comedy teacher, Shelley Latham of Beeswax Productions. Shelley coached her nervous students over six weeks in the nuance and discipline of crafting a five-minute shtick. Don’t be fooled by the casual and easy delivery of professional stand-ups. They have spent hours relentlessly testing and refining their material.

Get a Personality

Part of our homework was to develop a “comedic persona”. This is a look, a demeanor, an attitude that you create the moment you step on stage. It’s the context for your particular style of humor. Finding this persona is an emergent process for an amateur comic. It was especially challenging for someone who has never tried to be funny, never thought of herself as funny, nor had anyone else ever think she was funny. You may recall that I signed up for this class as professional development in public speaking. What I finally landed on was this: a buttoned-up consultant who thinks she’s edgy, but isn’t. I even consulted with my teenage daughter on what I should wear for the show to reinforce the image of a business-minded librarian in high heels.

Another Kind of Persona

As I dug deep into my soul and wardrobe to find my inner comic, I got to thinking about the process of developing an “executive presence”. This is considered a necessary competency for moving up the leadership ladder. Really it’s a whole suite of competencies: composure, command skills, political savvy, integrity, trust, and so forth.

While a Comic and a CEO may appear to be at opposite ends of the leadership spectrum, I would venture to say they share more similarities than differences.

Both have to be authentic to be credible. The audience needs to believe in the person in front of them to sign on for the ride. Both are acting in service of others: a comedian to gift people the joy of laughter; an executive to safeguard the financial security of their employees. Both need to take risks. Humor is about pushing the edges of what is comfortable and familiar, for yourself and your audience. Leadership is about being decisive even when you have incomplete data.

Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Taken

Developing an executive presence is a career-long evolution. There is no perfect formula that works every time. Again, as a talented comedian listens to the crowd and modulates their line of humor accordingly, so an effective executive reads the environment and flexes their leadership style to meet the needs of the situation.

Warren Bennis, a pioneer in the field of leadership studies, once observed, “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it’s also that difficult.”

Our journey as comics, leaders and fully present human beings is to understand our own core so that we are able to connect with the core of the people and world around us.

UPDATE: You can see my act right here.


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