Laff institute uses comedy to coach clients

While his colleagues prepped for Chicago-based improv empire The Second City’s 50th anniversary celebration this December (festivities that include an “SCTV” reunion), SC president and COO Tom Yorton was thinking about your mom.

As one of the new clients on SC’s marketing and corporate training side, dubbed Second City Communications and overseen by Yorton, frozen-foods brand Sara Lee wanted to create an online space where moms could share recipes and horror stories. So it hired The Second City to invent fictional characters with humorous, but relatable stories to appear in a series of online videos called the “Mama Sagas.”

To tackle the assignment, SCC brought in some of Chicago’s top improvisers and fleshed out the characters in the rehearsal room, resulting in more than 600,000 video views on Metacafe and 20,000 Facebook friends.

Second City Communications has been around, in one form or another, for the theater’s entire 50 years. It was born out of necessity: Business leaders would come to a show, find themselves smitten with comedy, then pay The Second City to perform at corporate meetings. In 2001, shortly after Yorton came onboard, the division set its sights on things other than pure entertainment. Today, the division applies the theater side’s understanding of the core principles of improvisation — adaptability, listening, working as a team — to internal client dilemmas.

It’s a breath of fresh air in a training industry that often emphasizes results over process; and, as it turns out, SCC’s unconventional, theater-based process can yield some unexpectedly dead-on results.

In the past, SCC has livened up a travel agent-directed online survey with custom video content for Norwegian Cruise Lines. It has co-produced a live, brand-expanding “Art of Satire” comedy tour for the Economist. And for Major League Baseball, its members wrote and performed scenes about the temptations rookie players face — a veritable after-school special about steroid use — and it’s been a hit nine years running.

“(Their) creative perspective comes from the stage, finding truth in the moment,” says Todd Hansen, a principal at the PR firm O’Malley Hansen, who hired SCC on behalf of Sara Lee. “It’s very antithetical to how marketing creative is driven.”

When Yorton enlisted, the division was responsible for roughly 10% of The Second City’s total earnings; eight years later, that figure is closer to a third. Last year, according to Yorton, SCC had more than 400 clients, half of whom were Fortune 1000 companies.

“If you go to a company meeting, what’s happening between 9 to 5 isn’t what’s really going on. It’s the stuff at the bar, where people are being honest with one another,” says Yorton. “Our role is to get at the stuff they’re going to talk about anyway.”

Still, SCC faces a bit of a struggle, particularly because of The Second City brand’s comedic history. “I always find it surprising when people talk to us and say, ‘We’re not very funny'; then we inform them we’re not trying to teach them that,” says Sarah Finch, director of learning for SCC. “The bigger surprise is that people underestimate the skills we can teach them.”

That doesn’t stop SCC from adapting on the fly. In 2007, Wachovia called it in to prepare high-potential workers for a big presentation to company execs. The Second City team entered to a room of bickering, disagreeable employees and suggested taking a step back. The team ran everyone through interactive improv exercises, reinforcing teamwork and empowering the employees to take the presentation into their own hands.

Learning to get along and listen to one another did wonders for Wachovia’s employees, reinforcing SC’s “Yes, and …” teaching principle, the core tenet of all improv: Take someone’s idea and validate it by adding to it.

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