All Articles Leadership Live at #SXSW: 6 innovation lessons from the world of standup comedy

Live at #SXSW: 6 innovation lessons from the world of standup comedy

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Standup comedy isn’t easy. It requires confidence, attention to detail and broad adaptability — with spectacular failure always lurking as a real possibility.

Paul Valerio, a researcher at experience design-firm Method, sees a parallel between comedy and innovation, and he outline those in a white paper as part of Method’s 10×10 series. At a Saturday afternoon session at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, Valerio discussed six lessons from his “What’s So Funny About Innovation?” white paper, alongside Baratunde Thurston, a former writer for The Onion, who co-founded the technology- and comedy-focused agency Cultivated Wit.

  1. Know your audience, then ignore their advice. Thurston talked about comedians “knowing the room,” and how it’s based on gut feelings and trust. If you feel you’ve earned your audience’s trust, you can ask them to go beyond their comfort zone. The key for innovators: Don’t wait for your customers to tell you what they want. First earn their trust, then have confidence in your ability to understand their needs better than they do.
  2. Data does not replace insight. Valerio paraphrased a joke by Jim Gaffigan about ketchup bottles — people had been storing them upside down for years to get all of the ketchup out, so why did it take so long for Heinz to invent the upside-down bottle? Comedians and innovators both thrive on insight — the observations that seem obvious in retrospect, that make people think, “How come I hadn’t thought of that?”
  3. Keep it fresh. So you’ve found something that’s working — when do you move on? Thurston says some comedians throw out all of their material every once in a while, but that it might be better to try to rediscover something new about your old idea. “You can find a lot of new in the old,” he said.
  4. Develop your own point of view. Comedians frequently work from the same stock ideas — awkward situations, relationships, the day’s news. In an age when nearly everyone has a platform to get their message out, having a unique point of view is paramount. In both comedy and innovation, crafting a “familiar surprise” out of common elements can carry the most weight, Valerio said. It’s that much more satisfying when we discover something that we didn’t previously know we wanted, he added.
  5. Don’t expect everyone to get it. Thurston said the a mark of a good idea may be that not everyone accepts it. Valerio added that good branding can be about sacrifice — about what you say no to. Don’t try to appeal to everyone. Try to excel within the group that does get it.
  6. You can’t test your way to a decision. “Research is an aid to judgement, not a replacement for it,” Valerio said. Thurston added that comedians don’t have much of a choice — they launch their ideas every night and learn on the fly. The key is that you can’t seek permission from the consumer through endless testing; creative decisions are yours to make.