The Second City has no shortage of hilarious history. From the theater’s start in 1959 to its current reputation as the breeding ground for the talent that’s graced the set of Saturday Night Live for decades (think Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Dan Aykroyd and Amy Poehler, to name a few), this comedy institution has transformed funny into an art.
Having now completed five classes at the The Second City Training Center in Chicago (and currently working my way through my sixth), I’ve stumbled across a curious byproduct of learning to be funnier. My investment in the art of laughter has also been a darn fine investment in my business.
If you’ve ever found yourself having a hard time looking at the brighter side of things, wanting a bit more laughter in your day, or wondering why no one’s having a good time in your meetings, listen up: These three lessons from my Second City studies just might let you have the last laugh in your business ventures.
There’s Humor in Everything—or Why Your CPA Makes Me Laugh
Every day, I run into people who have a stick up their backside. Their industry is (apparently) above levity. What they do every day is serious business, and they can’t possibly be bothered with a laugh.
The better truth is that what you do for a living—no matter what you do for a living—is an absolute riot. And you, my friend, are an absolute riot, too.
The rigors of business have us conditioned to think that every challenge and decision has to go through some Keanu Reeves-flavored matrix, which is a lie. There has been no greater realization in my course work at Second City than that everyone and everything is funny. From the management consultant assigned to a major airline account to the 19-year-old headed to MIT in the fall, they’re all delightfully funny. I’ve been in a class with someone’s CPA, and let me tell you, your CPA is an absolute hoot.
The next time you think you can’t have a little fun at the expense of your industry, think again. Being funny comes from having an opinion about something—what Second City calls a point of view. You’re human, and you have opinions. Be less afraid of sharing them and more concerned with finding people who share your perspective.
My funny hack: When I'm having a totally bad day, I grab my notebook. On one side of a page, I make a list of all the things irking me. Then, on the other side, I write down why each irritation is actually a good thing. Not only does this lower my intake of Xanax, but it also helps me find a positive in nearly everything wrong with my business.
Write the Crappy First Draft—or My Comma Didn’t Go to Oxford
Having made my living as a writer since 2008, I’ve lived in fear and been plagued with the “what ifs” for the past six years. What if my spell check screwed me again? What if I said what I felt and someone didn’t like it? The truth is, we find ourselves afraid to hit “publish” because someone told us we had to be perfect.
The better truth is that we’re a lot better off when we go out in pursuit of the truth instead of perfection. That’s where the crappy first draft comes in.
When you see a standup comic rattle through an hour of nonstop hilarity, that act has been honed over months, sometimes even years. It all starts with an idea. They test that idea in front of an audience and see what gets an unexpected laugh and what falls flat. Then they hone. Writers do the same with the sketches and monologues you see on shows like SNL and The Colbert Report (Stephen’s also a Second City alum). Good writing doesn’t happen out of the gate. When you sit down to get that crappy first draft out of your brain and onto paper, you’re planting the seeds for more successful ideas.
So go write your crappy first draft—and make sure it’s super crappy. Don’t edit, don’t go back and worry about whether you’re using AP style or an Oxford comma. Just get the ideas out, because that’s how brilliant ideas begin.
My funny hack: Since starting coursework at Second City, I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. When I have an idea, no matter how lame, quirky or otherwise twisted and wrong, I write it down. My notebook has become a nonstop source of blog and column ideas. I’m terrified of what will happen to my creative process if I leave it on the train one day.
Five-Point Structure Rocks—or How to Give a Presentation That Sucks Less
Have you ever been stuck in a presentation wondering: a) how many times you can “go to the bathroom” without arousing suspicion, b) if anyone from your office will notice how many status updates you’ve posted to Facebook in the past hour, or c) both of the above?
Bad presentations are the equivalent of the Rocky franchise sequel that never should have been made—a total waste of everyone’s time, energy and money. At Second City, however, I learned the cure for bad presentations. It’s called the "five-point structure."
As someone who makes about 50 percent of my living from speaking engagements, I never want to be the speaker who prompts mass bathroom breaks. While I’ve always had a knack for telling a story, the five-point structure I’ve learned at Second City has upped my storytelling game—and audience satisfaction—beyond my wildest dreams.
Every sitcom, TV drama and movie you’ve seen ever is structured around this five-point formula. Presentations that follow this roadmap give your audience a sense of cohesion and give you the chance to actually tell a story that your audience can follow. Here’s a quick outline of the structure:
1. The Set-Up. This is the opening of your scene/presentation. It establishes the who/what/where and creates the world your story lives in.
2. The First Turn. This is where you introduce the conflict. What problem are you going to solve in this episode (or in your case, your talk)? Everything that follows depends on a clearly stated challenge.
3. Exploring the Conflict (or Heightening). This is the place for shenanigans. The madcap twists and turns that we see as our characters (or audience) struggle with trying to solve this problem. This sets you up for step four.
4. Introducing the Solution. Once your characters are exhausted by struggling to solve the challenge, a solution appears. This is your chance to say, “I showed you the world we live in and how hard it is. What if you tried this?”
5. The Resolution (or The Out). This is your “memorable moment.” How will you wrap things up so your audience remembers that one thing you want them to remember?
My funny hack: When I sit down to write keynotes, I use the five-point structure as a guide for my ideas. If I can’t make the story I want to tell fit this structure, odds are, it’s not a story ready for telling and needs more work on my part. If I can’t see it, it’s unlikely my audience will remember it. This structure has also improved the visual side of my presentations, ensuring that my visuals are purely support for my ideas and not some death-by-slides kind of hell omitted from one of Dante’s hottest pieces of work.
I’ve built a cheat sheet for the five-point structure. If you’d like a copy, send me an email with “I want one thing” in the Subject field, and I’ll send it your way. You won’t be added to a mailing list. You’ll just get a PDF, and that’s it.
If you’re interested in finding your own kind of funny, check out their intensives and immersions. You can sign up for three to five days and go scuba diving in the funniest sea ever. You can also check out Second City's online writing classes that require no plane ticket but a fair dose of discipline.
I don’t gain a thing if you decide to sign up for a class. But what will you gain? Maybe the same three things I’ve gained above—and more.
If nothing else, start laughing, and don’t stop. Business is hilarious.
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