4 Things that product people should learn from stand up comics
Weekend PM

4 Things That Product People Should Learn From Stand-up Comics

Last weekend, I laughed too hard. I went to a stand-up comedy special by Karthi Durai a.k.a KD, an upcoming stand-up comic from Chennai. The show was amazing. The jokes were smart, were timed well, and had a neat flow to them – something that takes years of experience to perfect. And, the best part was the jokes weren’t too far from our lives. It was about the simple things. And, that worked wonders. We laughed continuously for seventy-odd minutes and left home with a great smile. As I drove back home, a lot of thoughts kept coming to me. Of all, three of them made perfect sense.
  1. Comedy is hard. (I know this because I tried doing it and publicly embarrassed myself during open mics. So, I guess it’s not for me).
  2. A stand-up comic has to be an amazing writer to pull off a great set.
  3. There are a lot of qualities product people can learn from stand-up comics. (wait, what!)
Yes! Stand-up comics and product people have a lot in common. But, they don’t know it!🙂 Let’s take a look at them one by one to understand what I am talking about.
Before that…
Whom do I mean by ‘product people’?
These are people who work in tech startups and SaaS companies. These are my people. I am one among them for the past six and half years. So, when I say product people, I refer to product managers, marketers, technical writers, salespeople, UX designers, visual and video designers, developers – everyone who is involved in the making of a successful SaaS product.

Know your audience

The biggest trick to the success of a stand-up comic is the material they write. On the surface level, it might look like everybody is writing jokes and punch lines, but when you look deeper it is all about writing for their audience. Everybody is different – Russell Peters talks about ethnic differences; Andrew Schulz talks about current affairs; George Carlin talks about People and their beliefs; Indian stand-up comics talk about their miserable lives in IIT and IIM😄 and so on.
The point here is every stand-up comic knows their audience and writes jokes that are relatable to them.  It is hard. Every joke should fall in the right zone. The jokes should make the audience laugh at the right moment. Neither too soon (before the end of the joke) or nor too late (defies the purpose).  Also, it should have a mix of jokes. One can’t have too many cricket jokes or political jokes. The audience might have people who won’t get it and might get bored with too many jokes about a topic.
There are so many nuances that make a stand-up special enjoyable. The same applies to product managers and product marketers. They should know their audience. The product they build or the solution they market should be relatable to the target audience. Even though you group users into a persona, there is diversity among them in terms of educational background, technical expertise, and grasp of technology. The design of a product should focus on making the user experience easy for all the people who make up this persona. The same applies to marketing. The landing page you write or the collateral you design should appeal to all the prospective users of a product. It should make sense someone who is getting to know your product and technology and as well as to a veteran who has spent several years in the domain.
So, know thy users!😄

Tell a compelling story

Every stand-up comic is a master at narrative storytelling. That is key to preventing the audience from taking their phones out during the show and start texting. Good storytelling holds their attention. Similarly, every product person should learn to become a storyteller. They should know how to capture the attention of their audience as it is key to the growth of their product. When I say product people should learn storytelling, I am not talking about people who are working in sales or marketing. I’m also talking about internal stakeholders. But why?  A lot of time, internal stakeholders like product managers need exceptionally engaging storytelling skills to convince an entire product team to agree to build their proposed solution.  They’ll have to have the attention of the team, sound convincing, and sell them their vision. Also, with the rise of remote-first startups, you need storytelling to grab the attention of other team members on a Zoom call to prevent them from switching tabs while on the call. 

Start small

I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four years were spent in wild success. – Steve Martin
Overnight success in comedy takes several years of practice.  A stand-up special takes several months and sometimes even years to get to perfection. Stand-up comics perform hundreds of jokes in open mics, small clubs, and other shows and pick the best out of them to create a stand-up special. And, that is just the beginning. They later perform it in a bunch of smaller shows and fine-tune them based on live audience response and feedback. Typically they start with an MVP and incrementally improve their script to a finished product.
The same applies to any product. You can’t build a product like Notion or Stripe overnight. It takes several years. You start small and build on top of it. The same applies to marketing. You can’t expect your first campaign to bring in a thousand leads. You might succeed in bringing in ten leads, or a hundred leads. Sometimes even no leads. But, you learn from them. You analyze what worked and build on top of it. Do what stand-up comedians do – launch the product or the marketing campaign for a small audience. Do A/B testing. Get feedback from your peers, early users, community, and friends from the industry. Work on the feedback. Make it better and repeat the whole cycle again. This will make your product better and will get it the appreciation it deserves.


Be Opinionated. Be Confident.

Stand-up comics can be offensive at times. It’s because they’re opinionated. They have a view and they take a stand. You can’t be neutral and do stand-up. It’s all or none. Similarly, if you’re a product person, you should stand by the vision of your product. It might result in the loss of a small number of prospective users who want you to build a feature that doesn’t fit your product vision. That’s fine. Focus on your vision and you’ll eventually attract the right users. If you agree to do that to please this small group of users, you’ll do the same for another set of users who wants something else. Slowly you’ll slip away from your vision and will end up with a product that offers too many things and is too hard to sell.
The same applies to marketers. When you pitch a campaign, a couple of others in the team would say  “Why this? Why not do it this way?”. It is part of the process. Take the feedback if it really makes sense. If you think it adds value. If it aligns with the vision of the product. If it doesn’t, then be confident to say no. It is okay to be opinionated. It might offend people at times. But, in the end, everyone in the team is working for the success of a product. So, you’ll eventually become friends again and drink tequila shots together at the office party.
As I write this line, I realize that every person you come across in life teaches you something. I never thought going to a stand-up comedy show during the weekend will help me think about the similarities between stand-up comics and product people. Every day of our lives is filled with different thoughts and experiences🙂 All we have to do is stop, look, and learn from them.
P.S. People of Chennai can follow @kdthecomic for updates on his new stand-up special. It is amazing and you shouldn’t miss it.
The person on the cover: Karthi Durai (KD); Photo by Joshua.