What BAs Can Learn From Stand Up Comedy

Sometimes inspiration comes from the most unusual of places.  I’m a real fan of stand up comedy, and as any true stand-up fan will tell you, the only way to fully appreciate a show is to see it live.  I have spent many a Friday evening enjoying unheard-of-acts performing in small, intimate venues.

On one particular Friday night, admittedly after a few drinks, my mind wandered during the show.  I started to draw similarities between Business Analysis and stand up comedy.  How can such seemingly different disciplines be similar, I hear you ask!?  Let me explain…

Lateral thinking is like humour

Microphone : Stand Up Comedy

Most jokes work by taking you to somewhere you weren’t expecting. They challenge your assumptions about a particular set of circumstances, and then directly and vividly juxtapose this with an alternative (unexpected) outcome.   That’s the comedy, and that’s what gets the laughs.

As BAs, we use a similar set of techniques whilst working with our project team. When eliciting requirements, objectives or solution options we act as a “critical friend” to our stakeholders, challenging their assumptions and encouraging them to think in different ways about problems.  We work with them to understand their real objectives and needs, rather than just relying on their stated needs.

In the most creative projects, we might even do well to act more like comedians.   We might choose to use lateral thinking techniques to encourage the generation of quirky and seemingly “hair-brained” ideas, by exploring alternative and unlikely situations – just to see where it takes us.  In many ways, lateral thinking is just comedy without the laughter.  The most creative types of lateral thinking involve thinking the seemingly unthinkable. Yesterday’s joke is tomorrow’s innovation. Fifty years ago, who would ever have thought you could carry a computer in the palm of your hand?

Hecklers & Stakeholder management

A good stand up comedian quickly builds rapport with their audience.  They respond appropriately to any “heckles” but keep their audience under control.  If someone heckles, they’ll keep a close eye on them and be prepared to respond to anything further.

As business analysts, we carry out a similar process, but we call it “Stakeholder Management”. It’s our job to make sure we know who our key stakeholders are, and to  spend time building rapport with our key stakeholders.  Occasionally, we may need to respond to “heckles” (concerns) that they raise that are relevant to our work.  Fortunately, we’re unlikely to ever be heckled in quite the same way as a stand-up comic, and stakeholders tend to be more diplomatic and constructive!  However, being prepared to deal with a short, sharp, non-constructive “heckle” – perhaps during a meeting or workshop – is a skill that every BA should have in their toolkit!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this light hearted article. However, next time you see a stand up comedian, let your mind wander, and let me know if you find any other similarities!

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  1. In addition to Adrian’s tips for dealing with “heckles”, I keep a list of “canned comments” that I find useful to deal with problems that may occur in requirements sessions, such as interruptions, blocking, accusing or laying blame, etc.:

    “I understand you disagree, Frank, but let’s wait until Donna finishes her thought before we discuss it.”

    “How do you feel this meeting is going in terms of the rules we set?” “How can we make sure we follow the rules?”

    And so forth. I find it much easier to have prepared responses than to try to come up with a strategy to manage a conflict while it’s happening :-).

  2. Hi Adrian – Nice article! I liked the analogy you posed in BA’s and stand-up comedians and in agreement here. The rapport building is necessary with your stakeholders. It certainly helps in great deal to build confidence with them.

    On your comment to Mark, a laugh at ourselves when things are not turning right is a helpful tool and helps in bringing positivity in the room. It is like positive reactions does change negative ones and make them counter-productive. It kind of start working in your direction and suddenly an idea or thought brings the solution to the table. I have experienced it personally.

    Ravi Pardesi

  3. Hi Mark,

    Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article 🙂

    I’ve always found dealing with “heckles” during a workshop is more art than science, and to some extent it depends on the nature of the “heckle”. Here are some techniques that I’ve found to be effective:

    1. Park and move on: Sometimes, there will be a stakeholder who has an absolutely *burning* issue that they want to discuss – trouble is, it’s not always relevant for the meeting. In most cases, I find that the stakeholder really just wants to be heard. So I find that the simple technique of listening, playing back their concerns, and offering to “park” the issue for a later date works well. For more formal meetings, having a flipchart to visibly “park” items works really well. Of course, it’s important to make sure these issues *do* actually get followed up on…

    2. Start from the common ground: If there is even a shred of common ground, I find this is the best place to start. For example, if someone heckles during a workshop,a response might be “That’s a valid point and I hear what you’re saying. From my understanding of the issue I think that we’re all agreed on xyz – and this is how we’ve agreed to address it. That does leave abc unaddressed, but I don’t think we can resolve this here. Does that present an issue for you? If so, can we take that issue offline?”

    3. Sometimes a stakeholder is just being “playful”, and perhaps is interjecting a bit of humour into proceedings. In these cases playing along can be fine. However, in more serious cases people use humour to mask a more serious issue. For example, a worrying heckle would be “I don’t know why we’re bothering to prioritise requirements – the project is never going to deliver benefits anyway, it’s like rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic!”. This would suggest a genuine concern – probably one that needs to be understood after the meeting in private. If the concern is genuine, it might need escalation. Alternatively, it might suggest a need for more robust stakeholder management!

    4. Most importantly – I am always prepared to laugh at myself. I’m sure we’ve all facilitated workshops where unexpected things have happened. One particular workshop springs to mind where I had real problems with a projector screen on multiple occasions, resulting in me standing at the front of the room wrestling with it. In this case, the heckles were all good natured, and the best thing to do was laugh along with it! It became a useful way of raising the energy in the room!

    I’m sure there are other techniques, but these are a few that spring to mind.
    I’d be very interested to hear any other techniques, so please feel free to add your comments.

    And thanks again Mark for your comment.

    Kind regards,


  4. Adrian,

    I loved this article – it got my creative juices flowing. 🙂

    I have heard Kupe Kupersmith speak about using improvisation techniques to improve communication with our stakeholders. One that stuck with me was using “Yes and…” as the start of a response to someone’s comment as a way to keep the conversation open & moving forward rather than shutting it off with a “No” response.

    You said “However, being prepared to deal with a short, sharp, non-constructive “heckle” … is a skill that every BA should have in their toolkit!” I’m curious what techniques, resources, etc. you can suggest that would help in this area?

    Thank you!

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