4 Lessons Baratunde Thurston Learned from Comedy That Apply to Tech Startups

December 19, 2013

9:00 am

Former director of digital at The Onion, NY Times best-selling author, and current CEO of Cultivated Wit, Baratunde Thurston, shared four lessons from comedy that can be applied to tech startups at the Tech Cocktail Week speaker sessions last Thursday. He was joined by his creative director Brian Janosch and product director Craig Cannon, whom he met while working at The Onion.

1. Mix different types of people for play.

Thurston shared how there’s a basic principle of improv that you’re always agreeing the people you’re playing with. You’re saying yes. You don’t care about longevity. You just try things.

He recommended that everyone take an improv class. (This is something that I can personally attest to. If you’re in DC, I recommend the Shakespeare Theater Company classes.)

A recent project of the team at Cultivated Wit has been their Comedy Hack Day. It’s a hackathon they’ve held all over the country that’s brought together both technologists and comedians.  Two of the highlight projects have been Citation Needed and Magic Story Maker.

2. Embrace Accept Failure.

Baratunde shared how, during the season of his life when he did regular standup comedy, he’d be doing comedy shows night after night and always telling the same jokes. But, you’re constantly iterating on your routine. Some nights a joke would do well, and sometimes you’d do a new joke and it’d totally bomb. You’re constantly looking for and taking feedback.

At the Onion,  they would always write lots of headlines for articles. They admitted to intentionally making a lot of garbage that would never get used. Ninety-nine percent of what’s made will get thrown away. One percent will make a difference. 

3. Be a character.  Know your voice.

In comedy or entertainment, you’re always playing a role. You have a character who has a story and a voice. Your job, when you’re acting, is to be that person and know that voice.

At the Onion, there was a pretty elaborate story about the founding of the publication. It was so detailed that everyone knew the founder and what motivated him. This was used to help govern every decision that was made.

Baratunde urged the crowd that you need to learn the story of your company. He said, “What’s your voice?  What’s your story?  Instead of making it up, how would a character face this problem? We’re all writers in that sense. Makes problems easier when you know what your voice is.”

4. Create interaction, not just consumption.

While writing his New York Times best selling book, “How to Be Black,” Baratunde shared how he would do a screenshare/webcast with his community while he was writing and sometimes even open his community to contributing to the manuscript. This really solidified the relationship between him and his community beyond a normal relationship of just consuming content.

It’s important to build some level of play back ‘n forth with your users, readers, or audience. Be open to advice, but also be an expert.     

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Justin is the product evangelist for AddThis. Previously, he ran marketing at Tech Cocktail, online marketing at HelloWallet, and marketing at Clearspring. He lives in St Louis, MO.

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