What strategists could learn from standup comedy

A while ago 4 of the best comedians of all time met and talked about their profession, sharing a whole bunch of insites that are valuable for all of us. It’s impressive to see and hear how much preparation goes into a good standup comedy show and that it’s not because they make it look like they’re inventing the jokes on stage that they haven’t prepared it in the tiniest detail. Here’s what I believe strategists could learn from Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.

Find the unique human insights. Those things that we all recognise but that are often remain unsaid. When talking about how all 4 comedians find their jokes, they all make a reference to 2 very interesting things. First of all they don’t like ‘easy’ jokes. If you or I could have come up with the joke as well it’s probably not good enough. I like that. Secondly, while searching for their unique form of comedy they often get to human behavior that most of us recognize but don’t often talk about. At Duval Guillaume we search for what we call the ‘provocative insight’, those insights that are recognizable but often left unsaid. It’s there that we find a territory that will help us search for those creative ideas that will get people to talk about brands.

Keep a notebook with you all time, write down every little idea or piece of information, quote, … that you think has something of interest even if you don’t know what exactly what that something is when you write it down. Most comedians also develop their shows based on things they’ve read, heard, got annoyed by, … which eventually mixes up into a gread night out for all of us. Often in developing a good creative strategy it is about connecting the dots, it’s about making the connection between a piece of research, an article you’ve read somewhere, a drawing on the white board from another meeting, … Whether it’s a paper notebook or something else (I almost religiously chose for Evernote) write down everything that you thing sounds interesting when you hear it. You’ll find out later whether there is a use for it or not.

Talk about your ideas frequently with other people, also outside of the strategic department, also outside of the agency. By telling the idea you’ll find thing that don’t really sound right or still aren’t perfect match with your idea. And by the feedback, questions you’ll get you will refine your thoughts. Comedians will often try out their jokes (or partial jokes) on their friends, not only to see if they respond but ultimately to help develop the jokes. Jokes become better by sharing. It’s not that people will have to say whether they like the joke or not, it’s to see how they react so you can use that learning finetuning the joke. Same goes for strategy.

Deconstruct things / issues to the smallest little detail. While listening to Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld & Chris Rock I learned that they go to extreme lengths to tweak each joke in their show to the finest details. They say that it’s often the little things that make the greatest differences. The specific choice of words, the facial expressions, the posture on stage, … every little thing is tweaked to make sure it works perfectly. A strategy should be developed in the same way. It’s important the general vision of direction is the right one, but it are the little details that make it really come to life. Very often those little things are even more inspiring to creatives than the overarching thinking.

Know who you’re talking to and tweak your idea along the way. Even when you’ve done everything to prepare yourself, made sure that it will work every show is different, every audience is different. It’s a different city, another vibe, … but it’s important for comedians to ‘feel’ the room they’re performing in and add little tweaks to the show while they’re doing it. So apart from the obvious ‘hello city x’ which is different every time there will be more things that will need to be different every show. Of course when you’re a skilled comedian, it’s still you on stage so you can be agile throughout the show. Strategists need to apply that same agility. The strategy might look good on paper, allow it to evolve throughout the process. Maybe it’s the client that added a thought worth including or the creatives find ideas that will influence the strategy. None of that is bad as long as you focus on what the end result is so let it happen, tweak along the way.

Put the hours in. But that’s what you have to do in any job that you want to be successful in. Put the hours in, there’s no such thing as a free ride. I’ve blogged about this before and when you watch the video you’ll see that it’s a common element of success for all 4 comedians, they are all – still today – working very hard.

Watch the full ‘Talking Funny’ video to see for yourself how those 4 talented comedians look at their work: