Although hiring comedians to perform at corporate meetings isn’t exactly commonplace, many planners find humor in various forms to be a potent motivational tool.
More planners turned to comedy as the economy improved, says comedian Adam Christing, president, CleanComedians.com, a Los Angeles-based event company that books comedians for corporate meetings. “There is the stereotype that financial and banking people are boring, but we find that is not the case. Planners who contact us often say they really need something to engage attendees,” says Christing, who also performs at corporate meetings.
Humor, presented the right way, offers more than just mindless entertainment. Comedy makes attendees more receptive to information, reduces tension, boosts enthusiasm and generates goodwill among executives and employees, according to planners and comedians.
“One thing about insurance and financial meetings — although the content is important, it’s not the most exciting. When you inject comedy, it enlivens things.”
— Todd Zint
Most of all, meeting planners can use comedy to reinforce meeting goals by blending humor with key themes and topics. Laughter also reinforces a company’s personal connection with attendees, builds attendance and creates a memorable experience. In addition, comedy helps attendees — from executives to rank-and-file employees — learn how to laugh at themselves.
Some planners turn to comedy simply for a change of pace. That was the case for a three-day sales meeting in Orlando for 300 salespeople for an insurance company. It was the first time that a comedian performed at the meeting. “We usually have speakers but we wanted something different,” says Todd Zint, CMP, CMM, the owner and chief experience officer of Austin,Texas-based Ignite Event Solutions LLC. “One thing about insurance and financial meetings — although the content is important, it’s not the most exciting. When you inject comedy, it enlivens things.”
Zint hired the Water Coolers, a professional comedy troupe specializing in the workplace, after seeing them perform at a Financial & Insurance Conference Planners (FICP) conference. Water Coolers performers include Broadway and off-Broadway performers, professional comedy writers and entertainers.
Prior to the meeting, the Water Coolers staff learned all they could about the insurance company’s meeting and its attendees. “They had phone conversations with the president of the division,” says Zint. “They asked several questions: ‘What are some successes?’ ‘Are there new products involved?’ ‘Are there key new initiatives underway?’ We also talked about points to communicate to attendees. They came up with scripts and ran them by us before they performed.”
Water Coolers performed four short vignettes between meal courses during a dinner that had the audience in stitches. Attendees laughed because it was something they could identify with either as part of the business or personal experience, says Zint.
The meeting was a success. “Attendees appreciated that we thought outside the box and brought something unique to the program they hadn’t seen before,” says Zint. “Everyone in the room laughed at some point because at least one of the vignettes appealed to them.”
Zint recently created Ignite Event Solutions, which delivers high-touch, high-impact events that align with one’s organizational vision, goals and culture to create a true sensory experience. As the chief experience officer, Zint’s new company provides an array of services, including full-service event management, project-based initiatives and consultative management.
The veteran meeting planner offers the following advice to planners considering selling comedy to their executives for the first time. “It has to be the right fit and right time for the right group and its meeting goals,” says Zint. “I positioned the Water Coolers as a good alternative to a regular dinner with a speaker or music. I pitched it as a group that offers light, enjoyable humor that makes everybody comfortable. That was our goal.”
According to Bob Korljan, CPA, president of Eaton-Cambridge Inc., a Scottsdale, Arizona, investment advisory firm, comedy works. He has used comedy many times at some of the three or four financial education events his company holds annually.
In October, Eaton-Cambridge partnered with another firm to hold a tax, investment and real estate education event for more than 100 clients at a Scottsdale area country club, where a comedian performed and set the tone for the event. “He set people up to listen better,” says Korljan, who planned the meeting. “He was the master of ceremonies and introduced speakers. He made jokes and worked the room, taking away some of the seriousness people feel as they prepare to hear speakers on serious topics.”
In April, Korljan used a different approach at another meeting, offering humor solely as entertainment at a “Tax Relief Party” for 60 clients at the Squaw Peak Inn in Scottsdale. “We decided to make it just a fun event for our clients,” says Korljan. “We had no agenda other than offering comedy as entertainment. The performer weaved comedy with magic and engaged the audience with card tricks. Two people would come up to the stage, pick out a card, and somehow it would be in the shirt pocket of the person.”
Another financial firm, Menefee, California-based Royal American Financial Advisors, has used comedy at more than eight meetings, says Scott Buchanan, managing member, who planned the event.
In August, a comedian/magician performed at Royal American’s investor coaching event for about 40 attendees at the company’s conference center. “We spoke with the comedian before the meeting to discuss our theme ‘The Illusions of Investing,’ and our goal of offering advice on financial markets and disciplined investing,” he explains. The comedian/magician connected the meeting’s theme with magic tricks that involved playing cards and dollar bills. “He joked that some investments and the way they are marketed can give a confusing or false impression about their potential for financial return,” says Buchanan. “He had people laughing as they learned, which brought credibility to us.”
Planners find that they get the best results from comedy by using performers who engage attendees.
Comedians agree. “We tend to book comedians and performers who are interactive and engage the audience,” says Christing. “When the person is doing interactive standup comedy, magic or improvisation, it’s hard for people to be bored because they are participating. We try to make the show about attendees, not the performers, because it makes great memories for them.”
The key to engaging attendees through comedy is customizing it. “In a comedy club setting, comedians just do their sets,” says Christing. “But when we bring comedy to an organization, we have to remember that we are part of a bigger picture of an awards program, training or sales meeting. We have to tune into what the meeting is trying to accomplish.”
One of the keys to customizing a comedy routine is the effective use of self-deprecating humor. Comedians can draw big guffaws when working onstage with executives who can laugh at their own quirks, habits and mannerisms. Such comedy humanizes top executives and connects them to employees. Christing cautions, however, never to embarrass guests and says, “Comedians don’t have to be filty to be funny.”
Christing and his “clean” comedians engage attendees by zeroing in on a variety of individual and company topics. “It’s things like their habits, dress or golf game,” he says. “We also include company culture. One financial firm was addicted to acronyms with one for everything. Another was promised new computers long ago that hadn’t been delivered. A company had cubicles with funny shapes. Making fun of personalized stuff like that can rock them with laughter.”
Some comedy performed at meetings can be big productions. Last year, a large financial firm set up a stage for a ‘Tonight Show’-like format at its national sales meeting for about 400 attendees. “We helped them build a set like the ‘Tonight Show,’ ” says Christing. “A comedian was the host, and we also had Taylor Hughes, a magician/comedian, warm up the audience. We had funny bits written for each VIP who came onstage to be interviewed.”
One executive, who is short, sat on phone books. One had a psychic routine and played the harmonica. Another said he had no entertainment, and announced that he would outsource it to the magician/comedian. “The executive walked over to pay the entertainer to perform, and it brought the house down. The company loved seeing its people as stars,” says Christing.
Comedy also can be effective for international meetings as long as most attendees understand English, and the performer engages people from various backgrounds.
Advice from meeting and incentive planners and comedians includes these points to ponder when providing comedic entertainment.