Stand up comedy: the gift that keeps on giving in my corporate job

Using the stand-up approach when drafting a business case at work

I used to do stand up comedy. It started with an evening class in 2014 and ended in a dizzying year of gigs and showcases on London’s amateur comedy circuit. I was lucky enough to perform alongside some really talented people and made some great friends. 

It was fun, exhilarating and exhausting. Eventually stand up and I parted ways. Writing and refining my set was the part of the process I enjoyed the most so it felt natural to stop performing and move on to something that focussed more on writing. The experience was hugely helpful as I embarked on a new interest in sitcom scripts.  

My experience in comedy has proven invaluable in most areas of my life, especially professionally

What came as a surprise was how much stand up would help me in my day job. I have a science background and during the day you can find me working in an operations role in the scholarly and academic sector. I use the skills I learned on (and off) stage to this very day. From public speaking and giving presentations to nurturing creativity and the importance of failure. My experience in comedy has proven invaluable in most areas of my life, especially professionally. 

Most recently I noticed my experience from stand up came in handy as I was drafting a business case with colleagues. How we approached it reminded me of writing my first set with my classmates. 

I’ve summarised the five main steps below.

The steps

  • Step 1: The Brain dump
  • Step 2: Edit, structure, rinse & repeat
    • Step 2 a): Know your audience
    • Step 2 b): Bring the context
  • Step 3: Feedback
  • Step 4: Confidence
  • Step 5: Feedback (again)

In detail

Step 1: The brain dump

“You can’t write a good joke without writing (at least) 9 bad ones first” 

[I’ve heard various versions of this and struggled to track down a single source. This particular version came from my stand-up course teacher, Kate Smurthwaite ]. 

It’s the same for all types of writing. When drafting a business case, start by writing down all the points you want to cover, the arguments you want to make, the evidence you want to cite etc. Don’t worry about it being good, or about structure or polish at this stage, just get it all documented. 

Step 2: Edit, structure, rinse & repeat

Come back and look at your ideas and start culling. It’s all in the edit and polish. Keep doing this until you’re happy you have enough strong content for the time you need to fill. Now you can structure it. 

  • Look at what you’ve got – how can you order your points to make the most sense for the audience?
  • Keep it tight, no filler. 
  • Consider what supporting evidence will you need to bolster your case? Do you have it yet? If not -> that’s another action point for you. 
  • Choose the right format – in general I’d lean towards keeping it concise and having supplementary material for more detail. Think a short presentation (2-3 slides) or a 1 page document linking out to additional reading, analysis or resources. 

Step 2 a): Know your audience

It’s easier to make someone laugh if you try to understand them first.

Taking a similar approach to presenting your case at work can be really impactful. Think about who will be reading your business case?

  • What’s important to them?
  • What perspective are they likely to have on this? 
  • What evidence will they need to see?
  • What are their priorities and constraints?
  • Make sure to explain some helpful background needed before presenting your argument like key industry trends (and cite your sources).
  • Make sure to flag upfront if you’ve done some cost-benefit analysis, workload analysis or similar

Step 2 b): Bring the context

Everyone’s funny when they’re with their friends. So why doesn’t that easily transfer to stage? Context. Your friends know you, they know your character and all the in jokes and shared memories you have. 

Your standup audience won’t have that context (usually). They won’t know you. So it’s important to make sure for every joke in your set you’re bringing the context with you and sharing it with them before you get to the funny bit. 

Context is vital for your business case too. You’re the expert here, your audience may not be. Will they have access to all the context you do when they’re evaluating your argument? Are they experts in this product or business area? Do they remember last year’s numbers/current projections/the latest business intelligence report?

If the answer is “no”, “not sure”, or “yes but they won’t know where to find it” then you need to include it in your business case. 

Start with pulling out key context points in a background/intro section. Everything else can probably go in an appendix/ref section

Step 3: Feedback

Standup: 

Get feedback from as many peers as you can. Ideally as wide a group of people as possible and including a few who don’t always share your sense of humour. Listen to what they have to say. Thank them for their time (and reciprocate when they have work they want previewed). Review your work based on their feedback and decide if you want to put the changes through. 

Business case: 

Have some peers review your business case before finalising and sending off (if possible). It could be your manager or someone on your team. 

Their comments will be valuable to sense-check your arguments, the robustness of the evidence you’ve cited and troubleshoot likely questions from the decision makers. 

Step 4: Confidence

You’ve got the microphone, you’re the only one in the room allowed to talk.

^ paraphrased quote about stand up from Katherine Ryan:

That sentiment can be helpful for building confidence to share and present your business case:

  • You’re the expert
  • You prepared
  • You got feedback
  • You iterated on your work
  • Now it’s ready
  • Send it/submit it

You put the work in, you’re the one people will want to speak to about your ideas. You’re the one allowed to talk in the meeting about your ideas (but remember: this is a conversation, it won’t be as one-way as most stand up, let people ask questions)

Step 5: Feedback (again)

What was the feedback on your business case? What questions did you get?

  • Loads? Did the audience understand what you were proposing? Was your case clear and simple enough?
  • None/very few? Perhaps you’ve been super clear and convincing – great! If you think that’s not what’s happened – would it be appropriate to prompt and ask for feedback?
  • When you were answering the questions at any point did you think “damn, I should have included that point in the business case”? If so note that down and do it next time

_________________________________________________

I hope you found this helpful – good luck putting your business case (or stand up set!) together.