You're a Leader, Not a Comedian -- You Can't Get Away With That

You're a Leader, Not a Comedian -- You Can't Get Away With That

It’s okay to be funny in the office. In fact, I think a sense of humor is critical to success in life and work. But at work, you’re a leader, not a comedian. You don’t have the same latitude as a stand-up comic on stage. And to confuse the two can be costly.

To sort through the difference on my podcast this week, I spoke with professional comedian and humor-at-work expert Drew Tarvin. (Click play above for the whole conversation.)

Normally when I have a guest on the show, I have them share a story, and then I take a crack at finding the leadership wisdom in it. But today I wanted to do the reverse. I shared the story of a business person’s joke at the office that went terribly wrong, and I asked Drew to point out the problem and how to fix it.

Here’s what happened:

Back when I worked in a corporate job, we’d hired a consultant to help plan one of those multiday long-term strategy development sessions. Basically, we were trying to figure out what our business strategy should be over the next 10-15 years. And the consultant had a process for that he was going to lead us through.

So, imagine a big conference room with about 12 managers from all different functions, all sitting in a big circle and this consultant stands up at the front to kick everything off.

He introduced himself and started into a story about an experience he had at the airport when he got there the day before. Apparently, as he was leaving the terminal to catch a cab, he noticed a police officer writing a ticket for a car that was illegally parked in front of baggage claim. So, the moderator watched as some man comes running out of the terminal and started berating the officer. “What are you doing? I just stopped for a few minutes to get my bags! Don’t you have anything better to do!”

The officer calmly listened to the man’s tirade, puts the ticket under the windshield wiper, and starts writing out another ticket. I guess for being a jerk to a police officer. I’m not sure if that’s illegal, but it’s probably not smart.

Anyway, that outraged the guy even more and he starts cursing at the policeman. After the officer had written the third ticket, the man finally gave up his fight and stormed back toward the terminal. So, the moderator stops the guy on his way in and asked him, “Why did you keep yelling at the police officer? All that got you was more tickets.” The guy looks up and smiles and says, “Oh, that’s okay. It’s not my car.”

Ba-dum crash!

It was all a big joke. That was his icebreaker.

I got the impression he got this story from a joke book and just told it as if it were his own, as if it were true. Sure, there was polite laughter in the room. But only after an awkward pause, as people had to mentally transition from hearing what they thought was a true story to laughing at a joke.

The guy totally ruined his credibility with me. I was left wondering what else he was going to make up or take credit for during our meetings.

Drew’s take. . .

So, I asked Drew what went wrong there and what he thought should have been done. It’s far more fun to listen to him explain it himself on the podcast. But here’s my synopsis if you prefer to read:

Yes, pretending that story was true and about him was not cool. He could have fixed it by:

  • Kicking the story off by saying, “I heard a funny story the other day about this guy coming out of the airport. . . .” The story’s just as funny, but without the deception.
  • Alternatively, he could have said at the end of the story, “Okay, clearly that was a joke, but at least you’re awake now and paying attention.” Not as good, but better than never owning up to it. By never admitting it wasn’t true, it leaves the audience to wonder what else he will say that isn’t true. That ruins your credibility, and you can’t get anything done at work as a leader without credibility.

In general, a comedian has more leniency into what is factual and what is not.

Nobody expects a comedian’s stories to be true. They expect them to be funny. But your business associates probably expect you to be honest first, and funny second (if at all).

Drew Tarvin is the author of the author of the new book The United States of Laughter: One Comedian’s Journey Through All 50 States.

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Source: Lead with a Story: How to Craft Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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