As someone who loves watching people, stand-up comedians have always been a fascinating bunch. Veneration, love or hatred aside, just the absurdity of vocalizing structured epiphanies and getting people to nod in agreement or gasp with dissension is refreshingly profound and alluring.
Insights are epiphanies that find the right words. And the journey to find one is tumultuous but, the more time you spend pondering and digging, the brain fog settles and makes way for an epiphany that can be re-shaped into something and starts looking like a strategy.
For a profession that rewards the audacity of thinking and then pays you in epiphanies every day, full-time thinking work can start to feel a bit heavy after a while (it’s only normal; so, be gentle with yourself at this point!). But, sometimes breaking new strategic ground demands recalibration and looking at things with a slightly different POV - like a stand-up comedian’s (call-back, haha).
Here are five strategy lessons that planners can learn from stand-up comedians; along with a prompt and a gentle caveat:
Stand-up comedy at its core is about the truth - sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s ugly, sometimes it’s scary but, at all times, it’s absolute and honest. When solving brand problems, look for things that could make the room uncomfortable - create tension, find a provocation and vocalize it. It can be a difficult pill to swallow for clients, but the honesty cuts through and makes your team look like the only people that can solve it for them.
Prompt: Think what would a comedian say about this.
Caveat: Don’t just make people uncomfortable for the sake of it. The truth must be ‘true’ else, it’s just a projection of your confirmation bias.
Humor is a comedian’s weapon of mass disarmament. When the room smiles or laughs, the guards come down and that’s when you know they’re walking onto your side. Engineer moments like these throughout your spiel and your slides - give fun names to your ideas (sometimes they may sell just because of it!), write down the ironies, and make hyperbole your ally — humour is memorable if it’s unpredictable.
Prompt: Ask yourself what is a joke I can make right now.
Caveat: Don’t try too hard to be funny; less is more.
Comedians, especially the ones that do well, work tirelessly on finding their own voice, a unique style of writing, delivery, and have signature provocations too. Think of your work as an extension of your personality and try to seamlessly weave in the ‘you’ in it. Such that when people see the finished piece, they feel your presence there - the look, the feel, the writing, the structure, the sound - everything is an opportunity to surreptitiously leave a trail of breadcrumbs.
Prompt: Think of your work as an opportunity to create an invisible logo.
Caveat: Don’t default to a comfort zone; complacency is the enemy of evolution.
If humour is a comedian’s weapon of choice, a metaphor is a melee weapon that helps them get close to you and draw blood! As you wrestle with a brand problem, finding parallels to explain complex concepts becomes key. Metaphors sometimes force you to take a lateral leap and that gives the creatives a lot of room to play with the strategic space and unlock new realms – who knows they may even start liking you!
Prompt: Ask yourself what the current situation reminds you of.
Caveat: Don’t use metaphors if they don’t convey the intended message clearly and accurately; you don’t want to leave a room confused about your strategy work.
All comedians know content is king, but the good ones know that context is divine. Playing to your audience’s realities and sensibilities is imperative to landing a joke but also, your strategy work. If you’re writing a creative brief, write it for the creative folk. If you’re writing it for the client, use the grammar that they’ll understand. If you’re building a strategic space for a campaign, be cognizant of the cultural nuances, the market conditions, and the competitive landscape - jokes that get the loudest laughs at a comedy club rarely work for a corporate event or even a Netflix special – so, contextualize!
Prompt: Stay clued in to pop culture - it helps create work that creates culture.
Caveat: Don’t take things directly at face value; try peeling the onion.
OPEN THAT DOOR
Writing strategy and stand-up comedy requires a very high level of empathy, understanding and envelope pushing. Getting familiar with consciously shifting one’s perspective will take time to become second nature - but, like any skill, it can be learnt, and sharpened with practice. Sometimes it’s just a matter of putting yourself into seemingly uncomfortable spaces as if opening a door not knowing what could be behind it. The hardest part is just being OK with the idea of turning the door knob. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you realize that it wasn’t such a bad idea in the first place!
And for the seven of you who’re wondering, here are five stand-up specials I found very insightful:
Nanette by Hannah Gadsby
Keep It Real by Kanan Gill
Homecoming King by Hasan Minhaj
Humanity by Ricky Gervais
Haq Se Single by Zakir Khan
So, the next time you find yourself grappling with a brand problem, try to wear a comedian’s hat for a bit - you'll either find an epiphany you can use or you'll stumble upon a nice joke - it'll be fun, both ways.
(Gaurav Derebail is Regional Head - Creative Strategy, Dentsu Creative India)
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