Funny Business: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Improv Comedy

Back in 1954, Ethel Merman famously sang “there’s no business like show business”. Sorry, Ethel, but I tend to disagree.

You see, when you’re standing before an audience, ready to pitch whatever you have to sell – whether it be a new product or the first joke of the night – you face the same uncertainty. The same doubt. The same fear that all the hard work, which has finally culminated into this brilliant moment of opportunity, may have been all for nought.

The difference between the response you hope for and the one you dread can come down to the tiniest detail: the way you enter the room, an inflection in your voice on just the right word, or a perfectly executed pause to let a statement sink in. Of course, even getting to that point relies on you being articulate, prepared, and on point in the first place.

In that sense, show business is no different from any other business. However, those who enter the craft do so with the gleeful expectation that they will face these challenges. Entrepreneurs are more likely to see them as some kind of necessary evil.

That mentality is likely to leave them walking out the door of a pitch meeting, searching on their phone for the nearest bar where they can drown their sorrows and complain that the client just didn’t get it!

To be successful at the pitch, you must learn how to love the pitch, and make it work for you. Here’s how those in show business do just that:

Root Out the Core Ideas:

In the latest issue of Fast Company, Jennifer Braunschweiger talked to performers Robyn Scott and Meagan O’Brien of revered improv theatre group Second City. The pair run workshops for major companies like Google, Facebook, and Cisco, in order to teach conversational skills to employees.

The most important of the lessons involves finding the ‘hero’ of the story: the product, person, or process around which the conversation revolves. Those involved are asked to pick a well known story, a fairytale, for instance, and then condense it down into 60 second, 30 second, and 10 second versions.

“In the debrief, people admitted that they would (go back and) tell the 60-second version differently, now they understand the key points better,” said O’Brien.

This is, in essence, an elevator pitch. The elevator pitch isn’t unique to show business, but it’s a fundamental tool used by writers or producers to sell their visions. In your own pitch meeting, you may feel the need to describe your entire process, but it’s simply not necessary. The other people in the room only want to understand an overview of what you’re offering, and the quicker you can provide that, the more time you’ll have before their attention starts to wain.

A potent way of practicing this is entering competitions which asks for answers of 25 words or less. If you’ve got time to spare, browse the web and enter as many as you can. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to think of short, precise responses.

Work on Delivery:

As I said earlier, delivery can make all the difference when it comes to receiving a yes or a no, and passion is only one element in optimal delivery.

Consider your favourite film scene. Notice the pauses, the hesitations, the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, the power, the certainty. These aren’t written into the script. Words themselves can only do so much. It’s the performers who add the touches that make these scenes memorable and, of course, they’re not playing themselves.

Nor should you. Now, I’m not suggesting you pretend to be anything you’re not, but this isn’t about you. It’s about what you’re pitching, and in that situation you need to be able to sell. That means taking on a role. It means having people listen to you practicing your pitch and offering feedback so that you get it right when you have no other option.

Acting classes are a great way to master this talent, as are business and networking events where you can interact with people who have experience in the situations you are facing.

Know Your Audience:

It’s not the audience. It’s you.

That’s a difficult notion for both creatives and entrepreneurs to get their heads around. By nature, we are committed and keen. We have a vision, and if someone doesn’t quite grasp that, we put the blame on them.

Such ignorance is the bane of the mediocre. The truly successful learn to be empathetic to their market – to their audience – because they are the ones who will ultimately define your success. Understanding how to talk to people, to communicate with them in language they will connect with, is a selfless skill that even the most intelligent must value, for it lays the foundation for another important attribute: charisma.

Take a look at Apple. Without Steve Wozniak, there is no computer for Steve Jobs to promote, but it was Jobs’ charisma and ability to connect with the market that got the company to where they are today.

Prepare for Anything:

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. While you’re unlikely to be heckled during your pitch, there are plenty of other things that could go wrong, and if you can’t roll with the punches, you’re in serious trouble.

As comedian Erica Rhodes explained to Paste magazine: “You have two choices with a heckler. You can ignore it or you can use it. If you use it, make sure it’s funny. Don’t just be mean. And remember you’re entertaining an entire audience so don’t let the heckler take up all of your attention”.

That same way of thinking can be applied in any situation when things aren’t going to plan. Acknowledge the problem and move past it. Don’t apologise unless it’s necessary, and don’t constantly refer to it (“well, you’d be seeing it now if my presentation was working, ha ha”). You are where you are because you see a challenge and tackle it, rather than getting hung up on it.

Improv comedy is at its best when situations take unexpected twists and turns. You’ll experience these too in your business, and when these moments occur, you’ll need to draw on all your resources to take control, and keep the momentum going.

Ultimately, remember this: sometimes you’ll be a hit, sometimes you won’t. It’s the willingness to keep going when things don’t work out the way you wanted them to that makes the real difference.

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