3 Things Stand-Up Comedy Can Teach You About Building a Moderating Business

With a background as a professional stand-up comedian, focus group moderator/interviewer Leigh Kessler delivers a unique perspective on the fundamentals of both, highlighting similarities and sharing three unique lessons learned in stand-up comedy that can help develop interview skills and make you a great focus group moderator. Learn how you can benefit as a moderator—and businessperson—by spending a little time doing stand-up comedy.

Leigh Kessler

By Leigh Kessler, Vice President, Client Solutions, Mercury Analytics, Washington, DC leighk@mercuryanalytics.com 

I’ve had two very similar business experiences in life—breaking into stand-up comedy and breaking into the world of moderating focus groups. 

If you are on the newer side of the moderating business—still breaking into the business—this article is for you… If you’re a veteran moderator who has already built your business, well, after you read this article, tell me if you think I’m right! 

First, I’m going to share what I learned about breaking into the stand-up business because I believe this can help anyone trying to break into the moderating business. 

Second, I’m going to share why even trying stand-up can make you a better moderator. 

Last, as you think about marketing and selling yourself as a moderator for hire, I’m going to share the single hardest part. It’s the same thing for stand-ups—learning to clearly communicate your unique sales proposition. 


Breaking in—Comedy and Moderating 

I became a moderator in my 30s after a nice run as a professional stand-up comedian in my 20s. When I discovered moderating, I found my second career calling. I had done work in the branding and advertising world, but, like most in qualitative research, I fell in love with focus groups. 

Everything about focus group moderating is like stand-up to me. Life on the road, hopping from city to city, working two “shows” a night, trying to win over a group of strangers. There’s even the VIP backroom, where they give you M&Ms and other free food. What I like most is getting paid to be fascinated by people. 

Both stand-up comedy and moderating are hard to turn into consistent income. I once heard someone describe making a living at stand-up like this: 

“Imagine applying for a job, going on a job interview, and competing with lots of people for that job, and then you get the job! Then, the next day, you have to apply and interview all over again for another job. Then you get the job! It’s the same thing every day.” 

Sound like being a contract moderator? You’re so excited to book a gig—then… “What’s my gig after that?” Am I right, folks? Breaking into stand-up and moderating is hard. 

Lesson 1: 

Breaking in—you are the only person who can make you a moderator. 

To do stand-up, especially to learn it, you need to practice in front of real people. You can’t practice at home if you really want to hone your skills. 

You can become an amazing guitarist at home without ever having anyone watch you. Actors are trained in a classroom. But stand-up comedy is self-taught by performing in front of ever-changing audiences. You have to practice on stage—practically and metaphorically. 

Let me add, it can be scary. Bombing on stage is scary, especially when it happens in front of a group of strangers. But you can’t be afraid of that because bombing is part of life in everything you do. Every time it happens, you get better. You learn what you did wrong (or what kind of things can go wrong that you need to look out for). You’re going to bomb running focus groups from time to time. Every moderator has felt that. You walk to the backroom after the group and imagine that the clients think you’re terrible at your job (even though you also know that they, realistically, probably aren’t thinking that). So, when you bomb in stand-up (and it’s not a matter of “if” but “when”), just look at it as getting one bad experience out of the way, and maybe it’s one less bomb you will do in front of a paying research client! 

So, the number one requirement for doing stand-up is to leave your house and find people who will let you practice your comedy. 

But the number one challenge of stand-up is the business side; that is, becoming good enough to get paid for it. People only pay you once you’ve proven that you’re good. That means you must find low/nonpaying opportunities to learn the craft. 

Sound a lot like the new moderator’s paradox? How do I get good enough at moderating so people will pay me to do it before I’m actually good enough to get paid to do it? Once I am good enough, how do I market myself so people will trust me with their dollars? 

While there may be no one formula or secret sauce, determination and proactivity are key ingredients. Like stand-up, no one is going to find you as a moderator if you’re just sitting at home waiting. Find ways to moderate, even for little to no pay. Offer to do research for a nonprofit in exchange for a recommendation. Be creative, be entrepreneurial. Focus on getting good, not simply getting paid. You have to be proactive to learn your craft so that you’re good enough to get paid, get your name out there once you’re good, and make your name top of mind among those who can hire you—or, just as important, recommend you! But only if you are good enough for them to think you’re worthy of pay! 

This is a hard business. Nobody will do it for you, nor are they interested in doing it for you. (Unless, of course, it makes them money.) 

So, there is lesson number one for breaking into moderating—it is 100 percent up to you to shoulder responsibility for creating your own business opportunities. You cannot be passive. You cannot think it will just come to you. You must want it! You need to be creative about how to get experience, and you alone are in charge of making that happen. 

Lesson 2:

It’s hard to be in charge of a room full of strangers. 

I’m often approached by moderators who want to try performing comedy, whether stand-up or improv. It’s obviously fun, but most are ultimately doing it to become better at moderating. Because, in reference to Lesson 1, stand-up and improv are great ways to practice being in front of strangers. 

In the winter 2022 edition of this magazine, Will Dennis wrote an article about the principles of improv comedy to build your skills. If you haven’t read it yet, go back and do so. It’s great! His four key points about improv making you a better moderator were right on the money: 1) Make others look good, 2) mistakes are opportunities, 3) listen before you react, and 4) view things from different perspectives. If you can walk away from trying improv with a better understanding of these things as a moderator, I think you’ve learned a lot. 

Let me add that there is one major difference between stand-up and improv as it relates to moderating: improv comedy is a group activity. No single person is in charge. The responsibility is evenly distributed among multiple improvisers. Everyone shares risk and failure. A bad performance doesn’t fall on any one person’s shoulders. 

Stand-up is like moderating in that it requires you to be singularly in charge of managing total strangers while also having a duty to the client who is paying you. It is your job—and your job alone—to demonstrate that you are a professional whom your audience (or group) can feel at ease with and trust to lead them over the next 90–120 minutes. It is your job to ensure you get through the entire discussion guide on time. If there’s an unruly participant, much like a heckler in a comedy show, it’s nobody’s job but yours to keep them in line for the sake of productivity for your client and the enjoyment of the other participants in the room. 

So, back to the question—are doing stand-up or improv good for moderating? Yes! Both are ways to get better and one more way to address Lesson 1! 

To be a professional moderator, the essential muscles you need to exercise are the ones that make you comfortable being the single person tasked with leading the experience for the others. You need to be comfortable doing it while all eyes in the room, backroom, and virtual room are focused directly on you. It’s about leading under pressure. 

Improv teaches you to think and listen under pressure, while stand-up teaches you how to own all the risk while also leading under pressure. 

Lesson 3:

You can’t sell yourself if you don’t know what you’re selling. 

This last lesson is not so much about moderating skills but about selling your services to buyers—the people who will pay you to be their moderator. It’s important. After all, your goal here is to build a successful moderating business. 

Through every stage of my journey in branding, marketing, advertising, and market research, what always struck me as so interesting is that they are all about the same pursuit that stand-up comedians go through in their journey: finding your voice. 

In the world of stand-up, finding your voice is about self-awareness and having a defined, authentic, and original foundation for expressing yourself. What do you want to say to the world? What’s important to you? What is your context—your life story—that gives you the authority to say it? 

As moderators, we are very similar to stand-up comedians in that we are in the business of selling ourselves. Our brands are personal ones. In marketing ourselves, we need our buyers to know why we, as individuals, are a perfect fit for their specific needs. 

Finding your voice means introspectively understanding why you are unique. What distinguishes you from all the other moderators out there? What makes people say, “That’s interesting and new. I want to hear more.”? 

As qualitative researchers, we are amazing at seeing unique attributes when our research is on behalf of a client. But like my mom used to say, “You can see a fly on someone else, but you can’t see an elephant on yourself.” Most of us struggle to articulate what makes us unique and interesting. We may not realize that there are certain things we naturally just know more about or gravitate to that others don’t, and that makes us unique. 

Your voice is usually based on career history, personal background, and life experience. It’s also inseparable from your appearance. We may be taught not to judge a book by its cover, but we certainly cannot help but frame our story with the attributes and visual details we are given. 

So, what are the attributes that you present to prospects? What details do you need to clearly bring to light in your presentation of yourself (i.e., marketing materials, website) to distinguish yourself and make prospective buyers say, “That’s interesting. That’s specifically what we are looking for.” 

The answer isn’t to be everything to everyone. The answer isn’t to be something you aren’t. The answer is to be the most well-defined version of your unique, authentic YOU. 

How do you do it? Well, that’s for you to figure out. But I can tell you one great place where you could start this process. Where, if you take the initiative to go there, you’ll not only improve your skills as a group conversation leader but discover authentic and relevant insights about yourself that will help you in marketing and selling your services. Can you guess where? 


Do You Like Virtual Learning? 

You may be interested in a program presented by Michael Doody, which can be found in the QRCA Qualology Learning Hub.  

Qualology Learning Hub

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