Learning from stand-up


I have to own up, I enjoy training. Though, I also have to own up, I sometimes enjoy myself too much. My argument is that if I am enjoying myself, then maybe the delegates are, too. I like to fool myself and am very good at it.

I like to make training enjoyable. There is a reason and, to be fair, I quite often get good feedback because of this very thing.

Many years ago, after a great day training with an Irish bank in London, a few of the delegates asked me if I’d like to come to a Comedy Club and some even pointed out that it was an open mike night and, hey, “Why don’t you have a go, you can be funny” (which I took as a compliment). I pointed out that whilst I can entertain people who have to be there for three to six hours and are being paid whilst they do it (including coffee and lunch), I knew that stand-up comedy was different. Very different. You have 30 seconds to make an impact on a room full of people who have paid to get in and are invariably drunk. Unlike training.

So, on this occasion, as on many others, I demurred and went back to my hotel room for a lay down.

I love comedy. I love comedians. But I know how very difficult it is. But I also know the impact comedy has.

For example, some of you will recall the impact that Video Arts films (yes, films, youngsters, and eventually on VHS but never on DVD) on training. Their well-scripted, well acted and well structured films made people recall key points through the effective use of comedy.

All films were fairly similar two act plays: John Cleese (for it was normally him) showed you how not to do it in Act One and in Act Two somebody would learn from his errors and show you how to do it. A brilliantly impactful 30 minutes (though I did work for a manager who thought they were 15 minutes films; he watched the John Cleese inept bits, stood up and said “Yes, I do all of that” before turning the VHS player off. Honest. I’m still scarred.)

One delegate said he liked my sessions as he realised he needed to concentrate in case he missed the funny bits.

Fast forward (slowly in VHS) to last year, when I was doing an advanced presentation skills course, when somebody pointed out an “error” on one of my slides. An error? In one of my slides!!!??

“Yes! That says don’t tell jokes!” he said. “And you tell jokes!”

I corrected him: I never tell jokes when I’m training (I don’t do it much now even when I’m not training) but I tell stories which, I hope, can be amusing and also illustrative and illuminating. And, if they are amusing stories, maybe people will recall more and concentrate more. (One delegate said he always enjoyed my sessions as he realised he needed to concentrate in case he missed the funny bits.)

And, over the years, I realise that I have picked out elements of comedy and stand up to enhance training sessions, though I never tell jokes.

Like what, I don’t hear you ask?

Don’t Tell Jokes
Stand-ups don’t tell jokes any more. They tell stories. Once upon a time they told jokes with a punch-line. And in training we showed acetates with “how to do stuff” things on them. Then we learned about blended learning and involvement. And people learned quicker. People also like stories, anecdotes and things that make the learning come alive and relate to what they do.

Be self-deprecating
I start with rules. One rule is about “no phones”, which can be tricky until I point out that the only phone that has gone off recently was mine, which makes a point whilst deflating any ego I have. I have never had a phone go off in training since I did this. By showing you know that you might have an ego you make a point but also make a point.

Have a structure
Like I said, back in the day, stand-ups told jokes. Today, they seem to meander through stories and tales but bring them all together at the end. Like good training should do, joining the dots and achieving your objectives.

Use the comments and views of your delegates
Stand-ups often talk to a couple of people and keep bringing them back into the routine. Similarly, really involve your delegates, use them for stories too and remember what they want to achieve to make it personal and memorable. Group work is great, nobody like role-plays (or real-plays as some idiot wanted to call them some years ago, maybe he was a comedian) but people like to be involved.

Make sure you have a punch line
Have learning objectives. Yes. Work towards them and your ultimate aim. And have an action plan for each delegate to complete at the end of the session. Though it shouldn’t necessarily be funny.

Make a serious point in a non-serious way
Comedy sticks, tragedy sticks (ask Shakespeare, who wasn’t really funny, but great at tragedies, as were The Bee Gees and that other lot with “H” in them). It can make a really powerful point.

Business isn’t serious but you can take it seriously
See above. Honest, unless you’re a surgeon it’s not life threatening. And they can be the funniest people of all.

The more you rehearse the more natural it all seems. Stand-ups now go around small clubs for weeks before their major tour, honing and practicing their routines, taking out the weak stuff, strengthening the strong stuff. There’s a lot to be said.

Watch your content
Of course, I hear you say (I love hecklers), you can’t make all subjects fun. Yes you can. I recall sessions on Inheritance Tax and Note Taking which we had to have a break from as we were enjoying ourselves too much. Diversity and H&S are coming up, both of which can be fun and will be fun.

If you’re not funny…
… the stand up isn’t for you. But some of the principles can be used to make delivered training more memorable. Though always be careful comedy is a subjective thing. Though being light about things isn’t.

You’ve been a lovely audience so…

… before I go…
…why shouldn’t you wear Russian underpants… sorry, no, don’t tell jokes.



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Training Design & Delivery of topics such as Customer Service, Note Taking, Business Writing, Presentation Skills, All Management/Team Leader areas, Sales, Sales Management, all tailored and run in-house for your personal requirements. Also, coaching and mentoring.

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