I say, I say, I say, did you hear about the exec who went on a stand-up course? What can an entrepreneur learn about running a business from a self-professed “gobshite clown”? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Said clown, Paul White’s first comedy gig was in the mid-Nineties. He’d been blackmailed into it by a friend who said she would enter him into the BBC New Comedy Award or she’d publish compromising pictures of him. He entered with no previous experience and his fourth gig was the final, alongside Lee Mack and Julian Barratt. He was hooked. “It was new territory,” White says. “Imagine your first kiss. I’ve yet to find anything else that was as much fun.”
Since that time White, performing as “Silky”, has become a circuit favourite, appearing on BBC’s The Stand Up Show and making successful appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe and running a number of successful comedy clubs and events.
“It’s a measure of the addictive hit of stand-up that it's been 24 years since I started, but still, last week I got up at 3am to endure five flights across 24 hours just to spend 30 minutes in a room full of strangers in Norway,” he says.
Five years ago White started running comedy courses in his local city of Leeds, originally to make use of Mondays, a traditionally a quiet night on the circuit, and to create a source of income should his stand-up and promotional career show signs of flagging (it hasn’t, yet). White’s taught around 300 people in that time, though, he says, “I hope I was already a helpful resource before that.”
His courses take three current forms, six weekly sessions, half-day workshops and one-on-one mentoring. The courses aim to make people happier before they came but “without over-confidence” and all culminate in a five-minute routine written and performed by the participant. Exercises cover things like finding your own voice, writing and refining material and confidence tips.
People take the courses, White says, “to challenge themselves. To take a baseball bat to their ideas and push the boundaries of their lives, to see what they are capable of, to gain confidence, to turbo-charge their creativity.” That, he adds, “or they've got to do a best man's speech and are bricking it. We also do very good biscuits.”
The courses are open to anyone. “The breadth of potential applications of stand-up never fails to amaze me,” says White. “We’ve had people from every walk of life, from the President of the Professional Speaking Association to an award-winning funeral director.”
He adds, “We have working comedians doing the course as a refresher and we've seen shy people do the course to increase their self-confidence and end up in the finals of national comedy competitions.” One client came to him because she feels the voice in her head bears no relation to the voice that everyone else hears.
White draws on his own experiences of how stand-up has helped him personally. “I became skilled at reading a room, learnt comfort and confidence in front of any type of crowd, speaking in my own voice: sounding like me,” he says.
And humour – used strategically of course – can make a huge difference to any social and corporate situation. “Good humour comes from humanity and it doesn't take much humour to make a vast difference to any presentation,” White says, “I know at first hand that incorporating playfulness into my life has increased my income and quality of life. You also learn a strong focus and how to surprise yourself with what you are capable of.”
Improv, says White, has particular uses for the corporate world: “The more you listen, the more you learn, and the broader the range of colours you have on your palette. Both stand-up and improv teach you the value of narrative structure and flow, and there is a growing body of evidence that it can be powerfully helpful with anxiety and self-esteem too.”
Stand-up also teaches you about thinking on your feet. White says, “The comedian's feedback from an audience is immediate and, uniquely, comedians are able to finesse their response, second by second. We get to have an idea that afternoon, (often, on stage) and test it that evening.”
Moreover, doing a stand-up course, says White, “eases the pressure on a stressful corporate life. It can be really easy to forget you’re a creative, playful person when you’re thinking about the dollar. There’s a reason Google and Apple have rooms with trampolines in. If you forget who you are, you conform and that’s ultimately bad for the bottom line.”