Go Ahead, Make Me Laugh

Laughter may not have helped you ward off the flu this winter, but it may be the best medicine for curing the boring meeting blues. And it could even have longer-term effects on your corporate culture.

In a nutshell, that's the philosophy espoused at Spark Creative, a Chicago-based group of improvisational-comedy performers cum business consultants.

"Companies are more aware that a fun place to work is a productive place, so our services are becoming more sought-after," says Al Samuels, Spark's founder, who has performed, written, and taught comedy and creativity to corporations for more than a decade.

Spark Creative's services include producing full-blown, tailor-made shows and conducting more intimate comedy workshops. The performances can be geared to product introductions, meetings, even "roasts" for retiring personnel. The workshops, meanwhile, aim to boost teambuilding, self-confidence, and spontaneity in the participants. Spark staffers spend a few hours training employee groups in the finer points of improvisational comedy, then turn them loose to perform before their co-workers.

Think on Your Feet "It's sort of the comedic version of a 'ropes course,' but I think the advantages and take-aways are even richer," Samuels says. "Comedy is certainly safer and more applicable to everyday business life in that the group comes up with a plan and works as a team to create a finished product. With comedy, there are more psychological and emotional layers and more long-lasting lessons than with Outward Bound-type programs."

It's the improvisational aspect of the workshops that Samuels says provides the high-risk, trust-your-buddy type of experience. Improvisational comedy is unrehearsed, free-wheeling funny business based on a premise rather than a script. The risk lies in the potential to look foolish in the attempt to get laughs; the payoff is that when that laugh comes, it's a tremendous rush.

More important from a corporate point of view is that participants take away a new confidence in their ability to think and act spontaneously, and they bond with their teammates/co-workers.

Humanizing the Company A case in point is Schwab Institutional Marketing, an arm of San Francisco-based financial-services giant Charles Schwab & Co. Inc. Every February, Schwab Institutional hosts a three-day, off-site meeting to set the goals and tone for the coming year, says Jakie Kangas, Schwab's creative services manager. Businesses don't get much more serious than financial services, which perhaps is why Kangas thought a helping of humor was in order for the 1999 meeting, at the Pointe Hilton South Mountain in Phoenix.

"We wanted some help with ice-breakers at the beginning and we wanted a slam-bang ending," Kangas says.

Enter Spark Creative. "We were involved for a total of about six hours over the three days," says Tad Glauthier, director of Sparks' West Coast office in Palo Alto, Calif. "We would come in every now and then to raise the energy and the level of collaboration."

That collaboration centered around the show Spark pulled together to wrap up the three-day event. "Normally, we coach attendees in improvisation and they put on a show, or we write and perform a show for the attendees," Glauthier says. "For Schwab's meeting, we wrote sketches that we might normally write for ourselves, but it was Schwab people who performed them."

Are We Having Fun? Skits were based on issues Schwab was facing at the time. For example, one starred Schwab executives as emergency-room doctors in an "ER"-based spoof of Market Storm '99, Schwab's effort to stanch the potential "hemorrhaging" caused by online day traders.

"The feedback was incredible," Kangas says. "People had a fabulous time performing." Not all attendees performed, though all did take part in teambuilding exercises over the course of the event. And Kangas believes everybody benefited. "If a company can laugh at itself, it's a good indication of how healthy it is," she says. "Meetings that give people an opportunity to have fun also tend to humanize upper management. They're often put on pedestals, and exercises like this show that they're approachable."

In fact, says Glauthier, the bonding that happens among the performers and between the performers and their co-workers in the audience is one of the greatest benefits the Spark programs can offer a company. "For the people who participate, there's a feeling that you're helping create the culture of the company," he says. "For the audience, the benefit is that you feel invested in a company that is willing to have fun and poke fun at itself. It makes you feel better about the company you work for."

The price of having Spark Creative bring such benefits to your company varies. A rule of thumb: between $1,000 and $1,500 per Spark instructor involved. For more, call (800) 899-1960 or visit www.sparkcomedy.com.