No joke: Why the business world is embracing comedy

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An instructor putting two people through their pacesImage source, Ecole nationale de l'humour
Image caption,
The National Comedy School has been running training courses for firms since 2009

Did you hear the one about the boss who was asked how many people work in his company?

About half of them on a good day, he replied.

While the worlds of comedy and business may not initially appear to have much in common, a growing number of firms are in fact turning to comedians to help them boost staff communication, performance, and creativity. And to enable senior bosses to improve their public speaking and presentation skills.

For businesses who want their workers to be as happy and productive as possible, it is no laughing matter. Except when it is.

Companies that are now using comedians include internet giant Google; social media firm Twitter; soft drinks business Red Bull; and German engineering group Siemens. And if those four firms ever walked into a bar together, Red Bull would be the best mixer...

Image source, Ecole nationale de l'humour
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Participants at the National Comedy School's training days are asked to embrace their inner clowns

At Quebec's National Comedy School in Montreal, Canada, its team of comedians has been offering training courses to businesses since 2009. It currently has 30 clients on its books, including insurance group Sun Life and Siemens' Canadian division.

Rather that teaching people to tell jokes, the visiting workers are typically asked to put on red noses and behave like clowns.

They are asked to practise pratfalls, pretend to bump into things, and even mock-slap their colleagues in the face.

"These kind of games are childish and make people lose their grounding," says Louise Richer, the founder of the comedy school.

"They allow creating safety zones, where people can say whatever they want without the fear of being judged, and where they can interact with their colleagues differently."

Image source, Andreane Williams
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Louise Richer says she is evangelical about comedy being able to help the world of business

According to the 63-year-old, most people are unaware of their comedic potential, and have forgotten that they have imagination, two characteristics which can greatly benefit the typical workplace.

She adds: "What we do is take the same humour processes and tools that comedians use, to help businesses and employees increase their creativity, facilitate communication, think outside the box, and break some old habits."

While Ms Richer admits that she continues to face scepticism from some business quarters, a growing body of research is highlighting the importance of humour in the workplace, including reports from Harvard University in the US, and UK business psychology firm, Robertson Cooper.

Professor Eric Romero, a US-based leadership expert, says: "Humour is very useful to create group cohesiveness, and increase communication."

'Breaking barriers'

In the north-eastern US city of Boston, comedy group Improv Asylum uses similar techniques to Quebec's National Comedy School to help companies improve their productivity and creativity.

Its corporate training division, IA Innovation, advises Google, Twitter and Red Bull, to name but three household names.

Image source, Improv Asylum
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Improv Asylum has given workshops to hundreds of Google workers

Chet Harding, who founded Improv Asylum in 1998 after a decade working in advertising says: "The original idea [for the training courses] came from the communication problems I observed when I was working in advertising agencies.

"It was clear to me that the skill sets we use when we do improvisation on stage could be used by businesses to increase their communication and creativity."

The 45-year-old adds: "By using humour, we allow great ideas to come from anywhere. Humour breaks down barriers, and people end up having really creative ideas."

Image source, Improv Asylum
Image caption,
Improv Asylum also does more intimate training sessions

One business that recently used IA Innovation was Virgin Pulse, the maker of a health tracking mobile phone app.

John Sutliffe, vice president of sales at Virgin Pulse, says: "We were looking for something unique... a different twist on corporate training.

"It was the highlight of our sales kick off! Very different from your more traditional corporate training workshops... It was a rousing success."

Image source, Richie Moriarty
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Chet Harding says that humour increases creativity

However, before every company rushes to hire a comedian, the use of comedy in a corporate setting can easily backfire.

Back in 2014, research showed - perhaps unsurprisingly - that if a manager tells bad jokes all the time, it can significantly damage staff morale.

The study by Gang Zhang, a postgraduate student at London Business School, warned that if a boss wanted to tell jokes, he or she had better be sure they had the talent to do so effectively.

Meanwhile, John Nicholson, founder and chairman of Europe's first business psychology firm, Nicholson McBride, says: "It's only safe to use humour in business when you understand your audience well enough to know what tickles them.

Image caption,
If you are a boss, then telling bad jokes is many times worse than telling no jokes at all

"Provided you do, humour allows you to deliver tough but necessary messages, because it keeps people listening to unwelcome news instead of switching off. It just takes the edge off the situation."

Back at Quebec's National Comedy School, Ms Richer says she has been fighting for comedy to be taken seriously in the business community for almost 30 years.

"We still face resistance, and people still tell us what we do is stupid, but we are evangelical."

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