You wouldn’t think you’d find the CEO of a successful PR agency in Manhattan on stage at a dingy underground comedy club working on his improv but that’s exactly where Peppercomm’s Steve Cody put himself.

I’ve been to these clubs many times in New York City’s Greenwich Village where there’s usually no charge to get in or maybe you’re asked to buy a drink so you can listen to amateur comics. Routines are kept short and mercifully so for those who are not exactly hitting it out of the park and can slink off stage before things get too painful.

However, it’s in those cringeworthy moments when you’re just not connecting with the audience that Cody found gold for his work life. “That kind of passivity was so extreme that it made going to do a client presentation like a cakewalk,” Cody explained during April 27 O’Dwyer’s webinar hosted by Researchscape’s Tony Cheevers on why humor is such a huge differentiator in attracting and retaining talent and crafting compelling and unexpected stories.

Cody has turned the experience of doing stand-up into practical training to get the best out of his employees by encouraging them to see business as a performance type of interaction. The goal is not developing the ability to tell jokes but learning how to tell stories, Cody stressed.

Interestingly, Cody says introverts tend to excel more at improv, surpassing extroverts who overelaborate and take longer to get to the point. “We’ve found that some people who we thought would never do well on a business pitch, turn out to be stars after a training session,” Cody said.

The training fosters more pointed and unexpected pitches to clients as well as to reporters which improves media results, Cody explained.

Comics are great listeners

Cody insists good stand-up is all about active listening and being able to read your audience and sometimes change direction on the fly and this directly applies to the business world.

There’s a scene in the movie out now called “Air” where Matt Damon’s character, Nike exec Sonny Vaccaro, is in a pitch meeting with Michael Jordan and his parents and things are falling as flat as one of Cody’s stand-up routines (though not all of them I bet, Steve!), so he improvises an impassioned plea for NBA-bound Jordan to wear Nike’s new Air Jordan sneaks and the rest is history as we all know.

Steve Cody at the West Side Comedy Club
Cody at NYC's West Side Comey Club

You’ll have to see the movie though to see how Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is ridiculously woven into the plot as inspiration for Damon’s course correction.

Cody works with clients too on teaching them to harness the power of comedy. Of course, he’s well aware of cancel culture and the pitfalls of trying to insert humor into the workplace so the sessions are specifically tailored to each company.

Some warning is given that there will be improv training, but an effort is made not to give too much lead time, Cody explained. “Always a deer in the headlights situation at the beginning, but once people get past the fear, they really get it,” Cody said. “It’s almost like a drug.”

One exercise is to have teams come up with a hypothetical product, name it, figure out the consumer need and plan a launch. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed so no matter what people talk about they all end up connecting with each other, Cody explained.

That's definitely the vibe at amateur comedy shows where you root for the person on stage to bear their soul a bit and the bond created with the audience is what makes it enjoyable no matter how good or bad the material is.

For Cody, this is the missing ingredient in the workplace that he's hoping to foster.

“Too many PR people take themselves too seriously,” Cody said. “We’re great at what we do but you’ve got to loosen up a little.”

Cody's new book, "The ROI of LOL: How laughter breaks down walls, drives compelling storytelling, and creates a healthy workplace" will be published by HarperCollins in mid-September and available in print, audio, and digital versions.

Peppercomm's training takes place at NYC’s West Side Comedy Club – or your offices – during lunch. If interested, contact [email protected].

Feel free to reach out to John O'Dwyer at [email protected] if you'd like to suggest a topic, be a panelist or are interested in sponsoring a webinar.

Past webinars:

Using PR as a Creative Engine

Using PR as a Creative Engine
Adam Ritchie, Adam Ritchie Brand Direction
Mar. 14, 2023

Leading Through Challenging Times with V2 Communications CEO Jean Serra

Leading Through Challenging Times
Jean Serra, V2 Communications CEO
Nov. 15, 2022

To Plan or Not to Plan: Strategic Planning in a Dynamic World

To Plan or Not to Plan: Strategic Planning in a Dynamic World
Monique Waters, H2O Strategies Founder
Tina Charpentiar, EVP, Padilla
Oct. 18, 2022

Overcoming Toxic Culture: Everyday Practices That Make a Difference

Overcoming Toxic Culture: Everyday Practices That Make a Difference
Dr. Kerry O’Grady, Faculty Director and Associate Professor of Practice, Georgetown University
Sep. 20, 2022

Business Development for PR Agencies

Business Development for PR Agencies
Karen Swim, President, Words for Hire
Vanessa Horwell, Chief Strategy Officer, ThinkInk
John Vernon, Sr. Business Development Mgr., PAN Communications
Apr. 21, 2022