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A Lesson from Stand-up Comedy for the Leadership Stage

Almost everyone who ever worked with me knows that humor is my go-to resource when I need energy or new ideas. A resource is your tool of choice that helps you to see challenges from a different angle and to stay sane when times get rough. My resource became a serious hobby in form of performing stand-up comedy. This year, I had the unique experience to work and learn from the best in this field in London.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from stand-up comedy: Dealing with hecklers.

We all have hecklers in our audience.

A heckler is a person in the audience who yells something like “you are not funny”, insults you or just want to derail you, heckle you. (Waldorf and Statler from the Muppet Show are stereotypical hecklers.) This concept sounds familiar when looking at our professional lives:

  • Most of us experience external hecklers: Hecklers who crash our client pitch or a call with colleagues. But also, negative comments or behaviors from peers, executives, team members, our personal network or sometimes even family that make us doubt our choices, work, or skills.

  • Besides these very real-life hecklers, there are also internal hecklers. Some call them imposter syndrome, limiting belief system, negative inner monologue, or internal saboteurs. But whatever they may be, they are all hecklers rating and commenting our performance and talent - and not in a good way.

For many climbing up the career ladder also means that the number of internal and external hecklers grow.

How to deal with hecklers and strive on stage?

When it comes to hecklers, stand-up comedians have two major challenges 1) the big unknown if and what kind of hecklers are present and 2) they must leave their own internal hecklers behind the stage.

As a baseline when dealing with hecklers, it’s important to understand that hecklers (in most cases) don’t hate you personally. They are heckling for their own reasons and motivations. Many of them just want to get involved by using this very weird and unfriendly method. So, how does a comedian deal with hecklers and (feels confident enough to) continue going on stage? Here are my 5 most important points:

Before you go on stage: Solid foundation.

1) Solid answer to the 2 whys.
  1. Before you even considering going on stage, you need a solid answer to why you want to go on stage (or take the lead). If the answer to your why is “I like to be admired”, “I like money” or any other ego-related answer, keep questioning yourself “And why is this?” because you need a solid answer that can withstand heckler attacks and setbacks.

  2. The other why question is “why are you on stage?” in the sense “what is your message/ mission?” It might sound overlapping with the first question. But the reason to want to be on stage and the reason being on the stage are 2 different things. The audience need to understand why they should listen to you. This why changes with different setups, new topics, and over time. Hecklers will realize if your reason is shaky and might use it.

2) Be prepared.

What is the worst an internal or external heckler could say? And what would be your answer to it? Having an answer to the worst comments eases a lot of stress when facing the unknown.

When on stage: Don’t build a wall – It might protect you, but hardly anyone can hear you.

3) Own the stage.

When you take the stage, leave you internal hecklers behind the stage. Tell them you will listen to them later, but now is not the right time. Instead, take your whys with you on stage.

Owning the stage doesn’t mean to build a wall between you and the audience but to be confident and create a permeable atmosphere. The latter is crucial to transport your message and to take the audience with you, as their guide, on the journey/ story you are telling.

4) Integrate hecklers.

Many hecklers want to be integrated and be heard. If a heckler heckles, try to integrate the comment into your set or give a smart, witty answer (“Humor heals the heckler”, Gerald C. Meyers). But make it clear that you own the stage. If a heckler crosses your line, make it clear. You don’t have to integrate every heckler’s comment. It’s your stage.

Your message and mission to be on stage is an offer which not everyone appreciates or needs. (“You can spend your time on stage pleasing the heckler in the back, or you can devote it to the audience that came to hear you perform”, Seth)

The Aftermath: Important time to grow.

5) Hone, adapt, grow.

Sometimes you just performed badly, and no motivational quote or ice cream amount will make you feel better. It happens even to the most experienced comedians. But this shouldn’t be a reason to give up if your whys have solid enough answers.

Stand-up comedians always try to find someone to film them, to watch their own performance afterwards. This is necessary (but of course sometimes very uncomfortable) to hone their set. Good stand-up comedy, in contrast to what many people think, requires thorough preparation and a little bit of perfectionism. Comedians ask other comedians for feedback, try the same joke with a different tone or slightly rephrase it until it’s perfect.

They also adapt their sets to different audiences. And sometimes it means to let go of a joke you really liked, but seldom worked.

With every new experience, feedback, and video debrief the stand-up comedian grows.

Of course, in business context we can’t record us. But we can

· ask for feedback, mentor advice or coaching.

· take attention to reactions and to external and internal heckler comments we received. And ask us questions, such as: If my idea wasn’t understood, what could be a different way to phrase it? What went well? Was my message relevant to the audience? Why did my inner monologue turn negative? And so on…

Look at bad performances and listen to your hecklers with the curiosity of a researcher and use it to grow and follow your whys.

Do you need heckler training or answers to your whys? Let’s grab a virtual coffee.

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