Comic or Leader – You Have to Adapt

Late last night, I was a comic for five minutes. The open mic host called my name, I walked up, said thank you, and started my set. Three jokes in and no laughter. A few more made no difference. I tried other material and garnered some chuckles, but by the end, it was clear that the audience and I were underwhelmed by the experience.

When the ordeal was over, I went back to my seat and reflected in this order:

  1. I blame the audience. This material killed at other shows, so…not my fault.
  2. It’s my fault. I didn’t have enough energy. They could tell I was nervous. My material stinks; the only reason people ever laughed at it is because they felt sorry for me. I’m incapable of connecting with an audience.
  3. Shut up and get over it. This is exactly what every comic goes through. Even seasoned performers bomb. The point of open mic is to test material, practice-practice-practice, and learn from the experience.
  4. Research time. Don’t leave – stay ‘til the end. Pay attention to what the rest of the comics say and do, and how the audience responds.

So that’s what I did. I stayed, watched, and listened. I made note of comic and audience demographics, plus changes in audience size and mix as the night progressed. Next time I can do the same and adjust my set before I go up.

And this is pretty close to what I do when my attempt to lead and influence a team doesn’t go as planned.

Comics vs. Leaders

Stand-up comedy is by far the most challenging attempt at influencing others I’ve ever tried. But it’s not completely foreign, because it parallels leadership:

As a Comic 

I attempt to influence audiences to achieve a shared goal: laughter.

As a Leader

I attempt to influence teams to achieve a shared goal: adopt a new process.

The Comic’s Challenge

Just because one audience laughs at my jokes and delivery doesn’t mean other audiences will.

The Leader’s Challenge

Just because one team responds well to my leadership and communication approach doesn’t mean other teams will.

The Comic’s Evidence

Last week’s audience laughed when I said, “I learned how to sing in Korean. Now maybe my daughter will finally pay attention to me.”

However, last night’s audience did not.

The Leader’s Evidence

After discussing benefits and expectations with all teams, they begin to follow the new process.

However, within a week, one team reverts to the old process.

What the Comic Can Do

Research. Pay attention to how audience members respond to my jokes and delivery (and to other comics). Observe what motivates different individuals to laugh or stay silent. If appropriate, ask for feedback afterward. Learn how to adapt what I say and do to accommodate what different audiences need. Then try it. Repeat as necessary.

What the Leader Can Do

Research. Pay attention to how team members respond to my leadership and communication style (and those of others). Observe and meet with them to find out their concerns and what motivates each to accept change or resist it. Learn how to adapt what I say and do to accommodate what different people need. Then try it. Repeat as necessary.

The world, our audiences, and our teams are diverse. Whether we’re comics, leaders, or both, our go-to communication approach will not always work. It’s natural to feel it’s someone’s fault, even our own. But as long as we learn from the experience, and we can adapt to accommodate the diversity to achieve our goals.


Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis
Mel is a leadership consultant, coach, writer, and speaker focused on helping people become confident, influential leaders who have the courage to step outside their comfort zones. Her Not-So-Mad Path blog and services offer insights into organizational leadership, influence, creative problem solving, agile decision making, critical thinking, and communication. For fun, she does stand-up comedy, writes nerdy poetry, reads research papers, and cultivates her tortured genius persona.

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