Note: This is the transcription of an interview with Steve Cody and Clayton Fletcher from Peppercomm. The interview has been edited for clarity and ease of reading. For the audio of the interview, check out The Comedy Experience, An Interview with Peppercomm.
What does Peppercomm do?
Steve: We do everything but windows. By that I mean we are a fully integrated, strategic and marketing communications firm. We are heavily into public relations, but we also do web design and crisis work for a lot of Fortune 500 companies that you’d recognize.
One of the services you offer is called “The Comedy Experience.” How does Peppercomm and the work you are doing relate to stand-up comedy?
Clayton: My name is Clayton Fletcher and I am the Chief Comedy Officer at Peppercomm. I’m in charge of something called Peppercomm’s Comedy Experience Featuring Clayton Fletcher. Or as we like to call it PCEFCF.
It’s an opportunity for companies to learn things that stand-up comedians know with the goal of applying those bits of information to their day-to-day work. This could be using stand-up comedy skills in your business presentations, as a culture shift agent, or for internal communication.
We found that a lot of things that you learn from doing stand-up comedy would help you in the workplace so as part of our culture here at Peppercomm, Steve Cody and I train employees on how to do stand-up comedy, improv comedy, sketch comedy, and script writing, with the intention out informing our culture with stand-up comedy and the joy of laughter.
It’s actually gotten us recent accolades. Crain’s New York named us the best place to work in New York City.
How does an idea like training employees on stand-up comedy come about?
Steve: I decided to do stand-up seven or eight years ago as a one-off bucket list type of experience. I just happened to go through a program that Clayton was running as a professional comedian.
Clayton made the mistake of telling me after my debut that I wasn’t bad and that I should try it again. So I got hooked and after a couple of years of doing it on a regular basis, I started noticing that I had become more adept in the business world in terms of both verbal and and non-verbal skills.
I decided that my management committee could benefit from this, so I had Clayton train them during an offsite. Once they experienced it, they said we have to do this as part of our regular management training program.
What was the initial response from employees when you let them know they were going to be doing stand-up comedy?
Steve: It doesn’t matter whether it’s Peppercomm, a Fortune 500 company, or a group of doctors and nurses, the initial reaction is somewhere between skepticism and outright hostility.
But by the time they go through the experience, there’s so much love and warmth and “Boy you’ve got to come back and do this again.” It’s the single best transformational experience and team building experience that i’ve ever seen or participated in.
To specifically answer your question, it it goes from negativity to empathy, sympathy, support, and wanting more.
What are the benefits of a group going through a program like this?
Steve: It’s akin to a platoon fighting in Vietnam. It is an intense, raw experience in which each one of the group members knows she will be trained, but each will be going in front of his or her peers to tell three or four minutes of real things that bug them, offend them, or upset them. Anything from a spouse who snores to a commute that never ends to a sports team that never wins.
It’s really fascinating to see when Clayton says “Who wants to go first,” there are no hands. Then finally someone says “Fine, I’ll do it.” There’s tremendous warmth around that individual. After she is done, you’ll see 2 more hands pop up. Then by half way through you see 8,10,12 people saying “I want to go next, I want to go next.’
The other interesting side effect or phenomenon is that after they’ve done the workshop, making a business presentation seems like a walk in the park.
It gives participants a quiet confidence and bragging rights. Many participants have gone on to perform in clubs at shows. Quite a few people don’t just do it in the workplace, they’ll go on to actual venues.
Clayton: I make a differentiation between comedy and humor. Humor is anything that makes you smile. Comedy is anything that makes you laugh.
The physiological effects of laughter are very real. Endorphins are released in the brain, convincing the person who’s laughing that he or she is falling in love. It’s the same release of chemicals as falling in love, exercising, or eating chocolate. So we always joke that if you really want someone to fall in love with you, feed them chocolate, while their on a treadmill and tell them a joke at the same time.
What we’ve found is the bonding that takes place through that laughter is exteremely powerful and it’s a much more effective team-building exercise than anything else that that we’ve seen in the market.
What are the transferable skills that you see people learning from stand-up comedy that they can then apply in the workplace?
Steve: One of the fundamental challenges the average business executive faces, whether talking one-to-one or making some kind of presentation, is dealing with a distracted or neutral audience.
The people who go through this training are given a whole new set of skills to turn that passive or negative reaction into a more positive one that can turn around a meeting on a dime. That’s absolutely invaluable whether you’re trying to sell a program within the organization, differentiate yourself and get on the fast track, or in a sales situation to build better rapport with the prospect.
What does the Comedy Experience program look like?
Clayton: We tailor PCEFCF to the company’s needs. If a company is looking for a one-day team-building exercise, we can do that, but where we think it’s true power is unleashed is when it’s used as an ongoing culture agent.
It’s similar to what I’ve done here at Peppercomm over the last 7 years. It started with “Why don’t you teach my management team?” then it’s “Why don’t we do it with the whole company” and then it transforms into the way that we email each other, to the way we communicate with our business partners, clients, and potential clients, to even the way we do charity.
Steve: To elaborate, most of the clients are in some sort of transition. They’ve either downsized, merged, or have gone through some kind of seismic event, in which there are any number of silos or distinct groups, that for a variety of reasons need to come together, work together better, be more productive, and all of that will impact morale.
We’ve done a lot of work in very serious medical and pharmaceutical areas where empathy and listening skills are absolutely critical. We train several hundred doctors who deal with Stage 4 level cancer patients, and they told us that when went through medical school, no one taught us how to break the news and how to react. How do we use comedy to become more empathetic and somehow ease the pain to breaking that news.
Clayton: Which is not to imply that you would actually make a joke at that moment as you’re telling someone he has stage 4 cancer. But you do learn skills in comedy in terms of being authentic, being vulnerable, and being sympathetic to someone else and reading your audience–skills that comedians know are transferable to other areas as well.
What do the participants actually do?
Clayton: Let me walk you through a typical PCEFCF. Say you have a company and they had a restructuring, and now John who doesn’t even know Bob has to share a cubicle with him, so the company brings us in to break down silos and break the walls down.
The first thing we’ll do is introduce ourselves and explain what Peppercomm is and how I’m the Chief Comedy Officer and what that involves. Then we’ll talk about why we should use comedy in the workplace.
That’s the first question we ask is “why?” And I don’t do this part as a lecture. We talk to the employees. And very often we get surprising answers from the company. Things that are going on behind the scenes start to come out right away.
Once we get a feel for why we’re doing this in the first place, we talk about how we use comedy to solve whatever particular problems that have come up.
Then I start giving them nuts and bolts. I talk about different styles of comedy whether it be observational, anecdotal, or putdown humor. All the differnt kinds of comedy that are out there and what’s appropriate in the workplace.
Then we’ll talk about things like setup / punchlines, characteristics of a good punchline, characteristics of a good setup. And we’ll use examples from my own stand-up comedy, Steve Cody’s, or citing famous people such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld or Bill Cosby.
Then I give them specific techniques that comedians use, things like exaggeration, act-outs, and callbacks. All these words that comedians know, but that the businessperson doesn’t know.
Then I assist them with a brainstrom. We take 10-15 minutes of what you would talk about if you ever got up on stage. We make a point to let everyone know that no one will be forced to do it, but that we’re going to strongly encourage everyone to at least give it a try.
During the brainstorm, I try to get them to use the truth. You want to talk about something that happened to your life or that you saw and had a strong reaction to. The key to observational humor is that the comedian has to have an emotional response to it.
Often what we see is people just get up and tell stories, stories about the workplace, and often what lead us back to the initial issues that were addressed in the beginning of the session. Which can be fun because now we’re learning how to laugh at how life isn’t perfect or work isn’t perfect, or literally nothing is perfect. So if we can laugh at it, we can look at it more objetively and actually solve the problem.
Aftewards we’ll get up as many employees as we can depending on time, then there’s a lunch break, and then we’ll do more exercises, which could involve anything from improv training to making 1-2 minute funny videos for the workplace. The way we spend the rest of that day could be almost anything.
Then we go back to senior leadership of that company and say “what did we learn today? And what would you like to do going forward. And then we’ll help develop a program for them. So if there problem happens to be internal communication, we’ll work with them on ways to use comedy techniuqes. They bring us back every other week or once a month, on using these comedy techniques and these skills that comedians have, and develop those skills in the workplace, with the specific goal of solving whatever individual problems that have been pointed at to us by the company themself as being a particular need.
So it’s not just a fun day of doing comedy, but it ultimately because a solution to a real problem within the culture.
How do we get this into more companies? Is this something other organizations need and how do they get it?
Clayton: We’ve spent 7 years figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. We encourage companies to get in touch with Peppercomm. You can visit our website, peppercomm.com, and get in touch with us. And we can tailor this service offering to each individual company and what their needs are. For some companies it’s just a half day, for others it’s an ongoing program.
We work with the company to develop a tailor-made solution for them that involves “why we should mix business and comedy” as I’ve done in my own career. After I get off the phone with you, I’m going to an audition and then tonight have two shows at comedy clubs around Manhattan.
I certainly mix business and comedy in my life and think everyone should, and we’re ready to prove it.