I felt like I had blacked out.
I could barely remember a thing that had happened in the last five minutes. My pulse was racing. I was sweating.
But the audience were clapping, and I found myself saying “Thank you very much!”, putting the mic back in its stand, and walking offstage.
I’d just completed my first, last and only stand-up comedy set.
How many accountants do you know who have ever done stand-up?
I have. As a result I became a more confident, relaxed, sociable person. Which landed me a good job. I felt comfortable presenting to groups. Which meant people took notice of me. Which meant I got more opportunity to develop. Which means I grew in confidence. And so on, in a virtuous cycle, until I landed a CFO job a year ago.
Stand-up was the best thing I’ve ever done for my career, and I still feel the benefits 13 years later.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a comedy fan. I remember watching Peter Kay’s Top of the Tower when I was about 12 and crying with laughter. From there I grew to love Mock the Week, with Frankie Boyle’s acerbic, dark humour and Russell Howard’s surrealism. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. The Office. Black Books. Parks and Recreation. I love comedy in all its forms.
In particular, I have a real love and appreciation for the craft of stand-up comedy. I’ve been to the Comedy Cellar in New York, the real mecca of comedy, where legends have honed their craft. One of my favourite documentaries is the movie Comedian, following Jerry Seinfeld as he develops a new show from scratch, and the show Talking Funny, where Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld and Louis CK talk about what it means to be a true comedy great.
In my view, stand-up comedy is the purest performance art. There’s no band. No instruments. Usually no set or props. No other characters or actors. Just a person talking into a microphone.
So of course, I wanted to try it myself.
Firstly, here’s the proof of work.
I’m the first to admit I’m not exactly a world-class comedian, but I did OK, and got a few laughs. Not so many that I was hooked and wanted to do it again, but enough that I felt validated and proud of what I’d achieved.
There were two direct, immediate lessons:
Little did I know at the time, I’d be feeling the benefits for years.
What were those other benefits, you ask?
In his excellent book Before & Laughter, Jimmy Carr shares this great quote about all the things you learn doing stand-up.
Because the reality is, there’s no such skill as “stand-up comedy.” As Carr says, it’s a bunch of separate skills. James Altucher calls these “microskills”, and lists a few he’s learned doing stand-up comedy: skills like humour, of course, but also likeability, improvisation, timing, and reading a room.
I won't pretend I've mastered all these skills from just one attempt on stage. I didn't. And I never did stand-up again. I graduated, and went and got a “normal job”. But here’s the crucial difference: compared to every other bang-average graduate starting their first corporate job, my brief affair with stand-up had already given me a better grasp of the skills that Carr and Altucher talk about.
How did this help in practice? Well, I was more relaxed in interviews. I was better able to connect with other people able to inject humour into conversation. That meant I was more likely to shine in application processes, and get a good job.
After nine months in my first corporate job, I had to present to my department of 70 people, talking about what I’d learned so far. This was a big enough crowd to make most people feel nervous.
I wasn’t nervous.
I was nervous when I did stand-up, because there was pressure. People -- strangers! -- expected me to be funny.
But this? This was a straightforward talk to a group of friendly colleagues. No pressure at all.
I gave my little ten minute talk. I sprinkled in a few jokes here and there.
People LOVED it.
They said I was a natural speaker. That I was hilarious. Hilarious! I got five laughs in ten minutes. One laugh every two minutes. If you get a laugh every two minutes at the Comedy Cellar, your stand-up career is over.
But if you get a laugh every two minutes in a talk about what you’ve learned on a corporate graduate scheme, you’re a comedy genius. When the bar is set low, it’s easy to clear it.
One attendee announced that if graduates like me were the future of the business, then the future was very bright indeed. Another attendee pulled me aside to tell me she was hiring shortly, and she'd love me to apply.
Stand-up let me stand out. Because the reality is that most people want to fit in.
Speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing. Number two was ‘death.’ Death was number two! That means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.
-- Jerry Seinfeld
Have you ever tried to make conversation with a random stranger? It’s really hard. Most people ignore you. Some grunt and look for the exit as quickly as possible. A minority will engage politely, but won’t take the initiative. Only a tiny proportion will embrace the conversation, inject some humour, and create an interaction that the two of you truly enjoy. This is probably the top 10% of day to day conversationalists.
I’m not the funniest person in the world, but I’m in that top 10%.
The funny thing is, being in that top 10% isn’t technically difficult. It’s not like trying to juggle knives or land a sick Tony Hawk-esque 900.
It’s just uncomfortable. It’s mentally and emotionally difficult. The good news is: you get over that with practice.
Want to know a great way to practice getting over mentally and emotionally difficult things? Stand-up comedy. Once you’ve done stand-up, putting yourself out there in a one to one conversation is easy.
In fact once you’ve done stand-up, a lot of things become straightforward. Like normal public speaking, with no pressure to be funny.
Remember, most people are trying to fit in. They’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.
By comparison, someone who is mildly funny stands out. Someone who is at ease talking in front of people stands out.
I’m now a CFO at a small company here in the UK. I landed that job about a year ago, after a rapid but steady career ascent, starting as a finance analyst back in 2011.
Being able to add ‘skilled public speaker’ and ‘good conversationalist’ to my set of skills turned out to be a massive advantage. Pairing any technical skill with the ability to communicate is an excellent career strategy if you want a senior leadership role. In the venn diagram of qualified accountants and people who have done stand-up comedy -- and therefore developed the communication skills that come with that -- there is only a tiny amount of overlap.
That tiny overlap is where I sit, along with most other CFOs. I have a combination of skills that is both rare and valuable, which means I’ve had more career opportunities presented to me. I took advantage of those opportunities time and time again, and it’s worked wonders.
It all started with that one decision to get up on stage 13 years ago. Even if I’ll never play Wembley or Madison Square Gardens, it remains one of the best things I've ever done for my career, and for my life. I am a happier, better, more successful person because I did stand-up comedy.
Thanks to Will Patrick and Daniel Thomason for reading drafts of this essay.