Entrepreneur uses laughter to help businesses develop
THE revelation that stories and humour can oil the wheels of business first struck Sarah Archer more than 20 years ago.
Born in London, she had come to Wiltshire with her family in her late teens, and by her early 20s was a contractor working in Germany for an IT firm.
“While I was out there, I got elected to become chair of the works council. It’s kind of like a union but with less teeth.
“I was 22, I think, and chair of the works council, and had to do a talk to the whole company at the annual meeting.
“Back then, the internet was in its infancy, so I didn’t have many reference points. I got a few books from the English bookshop in Munich and one of them was an after-dinner speaking book.
“I was reading these after-dinner stories – they were from politicians and celebrities – and I found that within those stories there was often a message or a moral or something. I found that within that story structure, and often with the humour on top, the message resonated and was more memorable.
“I decided that I would use a couple of those after-dinner stories that were relevant to the points I wanted to make in my speech, just to try and engage them. I had to win the trust of the company because most people were sceptical as to whether I could do the job at my age.
“Also, the rest of the works council were older German men, which is fine, but things weren’t where they are today.
“I was petrified. I prepped this thing and I’ll never forget. On the day of the meeting there were a good few hundred people in the audience.
“All the management were on one side, we were on the other. There was a lectern in the middle. The CEO gets up, or the senior vice president as he was then, does his bit and then looks at me.
“You could have heard a pin drop. I’d spent most of the morning in the loo.
“But I went up there and I opened with a funny story, and it got a big laugh. The other stories that I used landed as well.
“So basically, through that talk I won the trust and respect of the people, and that was really when I realised the power of stories – and that if you can put humour in them as well it’s almost magical.
“That stuck with me.”
The experience set her on a career in HR which lasted until Sarah finally left the corporate world for good last year.
She also began working in a realm of public speech far more daunting than any business presentation - stand-up comedy.
Sarah, who specialises in story-led routines, has toured clubs throughout the nation, including appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe.
A play she wrote, Dearly Beloved, was also seen in Edinburgh before going on tour and being published, and in August Sarah will be back in the Scottish capital to co-star in another play, The Amours of Lily Langtry.
Back in Swindon, Sarah runs twice-yearly stand-up comedy workshops, a series of sessions at which people put together five-minute routines and eventually perform them at Old Town music and comedy venue The Vic.
Often, people who never thought of themselves as capable of facing an audience leave the stage with applause ringing in their ears.
Although bringing comedy and storytelling skills to the business world might seem counterintuitive, Sarah insists it is anything but.
“I find it’s wonderful as an icebreaker. You have to use it appropriately – there has to be an element of emotional intelligence with it so it’s the right context and it’s appropriate – but in my speeches and whenever I speak at company meetings I always try to have a joke in there because it relaxes people. It makes you relatable.”
Last year saw Sarah begin a podcast, The Speaking Club.
“I started it because I wanted to do a podcast that was business-focused, but I also wanted it to be fun.”
It is heard in 71countries, and Sarah has been approached by people at conferences who said they were listeners and felt they already knew her.
Last month she piloted a boot camp called Stories that Sell. The second will be held later this month.
“It’s for individuals, entrepreneurs or companies that want to get their message heard. I focus on showing people how to plant their irresistible offer in a way that attracts the right people to buy their product or service and also coming up with what I call their breakthrough story.
“The aim is that they leave with a story that they can use in pitches, in presentations, in web copy, and you can use the structure for testimonials and case studies.
“The thing is that stories sell. We are conditioned as human beings to pay attention to stories.
“Everyone’s got a funny story in them, and you can adapt the funny stories in your life for business messages. Down at the pub you’ll always tell somebody a funny story about what happened to you.
“Harvard business studies have shown a correlation between people who use humour and career progression – and humour and size of bonus!
“Even people who told bad jokes at interview were rated as more confident than people who were serious, and the ones who told jokes that landed were more competent and more confident.
“If you’re willing to tell a joke, it does say you have a level of confidence about you.”
Sarah’s website is saraharcher.co.uk