Have a think about your favourite films, or TV shows. What about your favourite Ted Talks? Have a think about the types of people you like to surround yourself, at work and at home.

No doubt there are facets contained in all of your favourite stuff that stirs the emotions, satisfies your intellect needs and stimulates your grey matter.

But there is often one all powerful and overriding common denominator present in all of your favourite things. And that is comedy.

We all like to laugh. And we’ve been doing it for years; your first laughs came at about four months old, long before you were able to speak.

The limbic system at the centre of our brain (the bit that contains the amygdala and hippocampus to process our most basic emotions, like fear and hunger) is triggered when we hear or see something funny. This, in turn, stimulates the motor region of our brains, to make us physically react – making a loud sound, giggling, chuckling, crying even. Some of us have this reaction more than others (perhaps, you get to work with some really funny colleagues). But on average, we laugh about 17 times a day.

And laughter is a funny thing, really. Nobody decides to do it, it just sort of creeps up on us. Of course, we can consciously inhibit it. But we don’t consciously laugh, and it’s virtually impossible to fake it. As Robert R. Provine, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland says: “Laughter provides powerful, uncensored insights into our unconscious.”

Provine also asserts that laughter is a message that we send to other people. ”We know this because we rarely laugh when we are alone,” he says. It is a view shared by Belinda Raffy who says that comedy doesn’t just make people laugh. It makes them think. And that is perfect for storytelling.

Virgin Unite, storytelling, Tom Idle, Belinda Raffy

Belinda is the founder of Sustainable Stand Up, a comedy and improv workshop for people with a passion for something – and a need to communicate that passion. Through her courses, she has been helping business execs, for example, use comedy to circumvent ingrained perspectives and challenge business-as-usual thinking. “I studied some theatre improv and always had an interest in how we take that mindset and technique and apply it elsewhere – not necessarily to perform, but to help people be better leaders and navigate the unknown,” she says.

“I remember watching An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore and thinking, ‘Isn’t this interesting. But I now want to go get into a Hummer and go shopping’. He put us in our lizard brain.” For Belinda, improv and comedy is designed to open the mind to new possibilities, to be collaborative, open and curious.

Over six weeks, participants in Sustainable Stand Up are encouraged to bring their story or presentation to life by learning the skills of what it takes to get on stage, make people laugh and communicate in a way that they have probably never done before. At the end of the course, those taking part get to stage a live set in front of a real audience. Previous courses have run in London and Berlin.

“I love people like Jon Stewart and John Oliver; that certain bent of anger that shuts judgmental people off,” says Belinda. “I wanted a way to empower lovely people in the social enterprise and sustainability realm to get their ideas across in a way that’s really engaging.”

Hands up who has sat through a PowerPoint-heavy slide show, as generic and impersonal as it is tired and dull? Yep, thought so. Well, one of the activities course participants are encouraged to do is to tell the rest of the class what they were like as a little kid. “Often, there are seeds that show up now that are really lovely. ‘So, you were fighting the system even as a six year old?’ Ha ha. Do you know what I mean? Stuff like that it helps us to like you and connect with you.”

The other key component of the ‘teaching’ is to avoid the default position most people take when they are nervous, which is to become negative, either about themselves or the stuff that we actually do, in fact, like. “I got so tired of going to open mic nights and seeing, usually young lads, go up there and say, ‘I hate myself, I hate you, goodnight,’” says Belinda. “We want people to talk about themselves and pick up on the delightful stuff because that has such a lovely knock-on effect – not only in their lives but when they are on stage and doing the show.

“It’s okay to be positive.”

Yes, Belinda’s work is about teaching people how to better communicate, especially when it comes to serious issues. But it is also about helping people to make significant shifts in the way they run their businesses or teams within a business. “People think of improv as being chaos, but it’s actually not. It’s about freedom within a structure,” she says. “We are helping to create a safe space within a company structure and we say, ‘What happens if we relax these linear ways of being?’ Because there are certain behaviours and processes that are making things harder instead of easier for companies to do what they need to do – to get in touch with the environment or treat their people better, for example.

“If we can invite people to come and laugh then we have a shot of helping them think differently about stuff.”


This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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