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Bill, Robin and Jerry. (dushan milic)
Bill, Robin and Jerry. (dushan milic)

Role models

Stand-up on the job: What Jerry Seinfeld can teach you about work Add to ...

If you want to get ahead at work, Jerry Seinfeld is probably a better role model than some corporate titan.

"If business people had the same pressure as comedians, I think they would be better at their jobs," says Ron Tite, a creative director at a Toronto advertising agency and a stand-up comic. Indeed, there are few other professions in which success or failure is so immediate and irrefutable - people either laugh or they don't.

For nearly half a decade, Mr. Tite, 39, has delivered an address called "Everyone's a comedian (or at least they should be)" to dozens of companies, including Kraft Canada, American Express, KPMG and Magna International.

Don't start lacing up your clown shoes just yet, however. "It's not about being funny," Mr. Tite says. Instead, success at the office - whether it's giving memorable presentations or wooing clients - is about understanding the rules of stand-up comedy and putting them to work.

Know your audience

In comedy: Whether or not a joke is funny depends on who's listening. Mr. Tite, for example, once watched a fellow comedian do a set about "every possible physical and mental disability" that had crowds at comedy clubs in Toronto rolling in the aisles. A few nights later, the same set bombed at Queen's University. Turns out, almost everyone in the audience had that day volunteered for the Winter Adapted Games for the physically challenged.

At work: Are you making a presentation to your subordinates or your global CEO? Do the clients you're looking to make inroads with work in an easy-going culture, or is it all business all the time? Figure out who you're dealing with and you'll be better able to meet their needs.

Know your setting

In comedy: "There are 1,000 different variables that can lead to a successful performance or a not-so-successful performance," says Mr. Tite, who works at Sharpe Blackmore Euro RSCG. A gig can quickly go south depending on who's introducing you, or if you're on between two bands, for example.

At work: "In the business world, not enough people think beyond the idea," he says. "Once you've got some creative ideas, then you have to look at all the other variables. When are they being presented? Who are they being presented to? What room are they being presented in? Where is the decision-maker sitting in that room? You have to align as many variables in your favour as possible."

Never ignore reality

In comedy: "If I tell a joke and a punchline completely bombs, I have to acknowledge that I just told a joke that no one laughed at," Mr. Tite says.

At work: Always admit your failures or shortcomings. People will respect that much more than deception. Honesty will also give you a better chance of winning them over. "How you react to risk or failure can actually be more creative and more memorable" than if you had succeeded in the first place, Mr. Tite says.

Deal with hecklers

In comedy: There are "active" and "passive" hecklers, Mr. Tite says. The active heckler is the guy who screams "you suck!" The passive heckler is the one who's not even bothering to pay attention. Either way, you have to engage them and get them on board.

At work: Let's say you're giving a presentation. There could be someone openly critical of your ideas. Or there could be a few people who aren't listening. When it comes to active hecklers in the boardroom, "you have to address all of their concerns right away," Mr. Tite says. As for the passive heckler, approach them later and gently press them for feedback.

Tell a story

In comedy: The best jokes are usually part of a narrative, Mr. Tite says. "A story allows you to set the scene, it allows you to go on tangents, it allows you to use characters, all designed to tell the heart of your story, which is your idea."

At work: "It's so much easier to follow a story than … graphs and charts," Mr. Tite says. "A story can be told from the perspective of a customer or a client or internal staff or from suppliers or investors." A story provides a context for understanding whatever facts you're trying to get across.

Leave people wanting more

In comedy: "The best joke is the last thing you say," Mr. Tite says. Going out on a high note will make people in the audience want to see you again. "It's always better to do a set that's two minutes too short than two minutes too long."

At work: Say you're tasked with pitching ideas to your boss: Don't just ramble on about every single concept you've managed to come up with. Instead, narrow it down to your very best ideas, which have been tweaked to their essence. "A great two-minute bit is better than a pretty good 10-minute bit," Mr. Tite says.

Be likeable

In comedy: "If you establish that you're a nice person, that you laugh at yourself, the audience wants to laugh because they like you and they don't want to see you go down," Mr. Tite says.

At work: Colleagues don't want to get behind the office jerk, even if she does have the best ideas. Build a rapport with co-workers and clients and you'll have a much better chance of success, whatever it is you're doing.

Don't blame the audience

In comedy: Often, a comic will tell a joke that completely bombs and then blame the audience for being too stupid to understand the humour, Mr. Tite says. "A lot of comics will get angry, and as the comic gets angrier they start to alienate the crowd and the crowd starts to hate them."

At work: "When people don't support our ideas, or when people don't see our way of doing things, instead of thinking that other people are too stupid to understand your brilliance, you should think, 'I'm not doing a good enough job of explaining my ideas. I'm not doing a good enough job of convincing people that this idea is the right one.'"

Three ways to make 'em laugh - or at least listen

They are the primary colours of comedy: Every stand-up is a mixture of the three. And not only are Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams and Bill Cosby three of the most successful comedians of all time, they are also object lessons for anyone looking to get ahead at work, says Ron Tite, a creative director at a Toronto advertising agency and a stand-up comic.

By several measures, Seinfeld is a terrible jokester. He doesn't do impressions, he's not very animated, he's a terrible actor. "But his perspective is so unique that that's what carries him through," Mr. Tite says. He's proof that a one-of-a-kind point of view can be enough to win audiences over, whether that's a crowd in a comedy club or clients expecting a sales pitch.

Robin Williams is the opposite. On the page, his material isn't all that impressive, Mr. Tite says. But thanks to a cranked-up delivery filled with impressions, wild tonal changes (he screams, he whispers) and a manic stage presence that is completely unpredictable, an alchemy occurs and Williams is able to turn those words into comic gold. The substance might not be much, but the style is legendary.

As for Bill Cosby, listen to his bits about his parents, his childhood or his brother Russell and it's impossible not to feel a tug at your heartstrings at the same time he's tickling your funny bone. His material, coupled with his delivery - Cosby is anything but a wisecracking ironist - allows him to make a deeply personal connection with his audience. Yes, it's easy to make fun of those Pudding Pop commercials, but everyone likes Bill Cosby - the guy's impossible to hate. And it's just as true of the stage as it is for the boardroom: People will go out of their way to help out someone they like.

Indeed, the special qualities these three comedians possess should be kept in mind at the office, Mr. Tite says.

"In business, you either come up with a really, really unique perspective that has never been heard before, or you sell your thinking really hard or you really get to know either your consumer, or the employees or whoever you're trying to come up with a solution for, and connect with people emotionally," he says.

Dave McGinn

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