‘Because we are the truth tellers, we say really what’s going on. Because we use humour, we get away with saying stuff that other people can’t… The art of clowning about, really paying attention, serves me in every place that I go.’
I’m willing to bet you’ve never met a Corporate Clown Coach before, not unless you’ve already met Em Stroud. In this fascinating conversation we talk about clowning and its role in work and life, finding fun in writing, and how we rediscover the parts of ourselves that may have been neglected over the years and integrate them into our day-to-day lives for more joy, playfulness and whole-hearted success.
Em’s website: https://emstroud.com/
Em on Twitter: https://twitter.com/emmastroudldn
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2023: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-23
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: This is good: I am here today with Em Stroud, who’s a Corporate Clown Coach – yes, you heard that right – for the brave and the curious, encouraging businesses and employees to work well, play harder. She’s the founder of Global Movement Laugh, Think, Play.
She’s the host of the Clowning Around podcast, and we believe she is the only person ever to have delivered a TEDx talk dressed as a banana. And her new book is called Lessons From a Clown: How to find courage to show up for yourself and laugh every day.
So first of all, welcome Em.
Em Stroud: Hello. It’s very nice to be here. Thanks for having me.
Alison Jones: Thank you for bringing just the most joyful biography I have ever had the pleasure to introduce. I mean, where do we start, well, let’s start with the corporate clown thing. Is that a thing?
Em Stroud: Well, I think it is, and actually it’s one of those really interesting things, you know like, I’ve started working with some brilliant people in the world of PR and marketing and they’re like, so what do you do ? I was like, well, I’m a clown and I work with lots of corporates and I’ve also been coaching people for 25 years, sort of thing.
So, and it was actually, it was this amazing woman, Sophie, that I’m working with, and who came up with well, how do you feel about being the Corporate Clown Coach? And I was, hmm, well, it makes sense and also I think when it’s quite hard to kind of pin down what somebody really is, finding those three words that are all true, really resonated.
So yes, that’s how it came up and I’m now the Corporate Clown Coach amongst other things.
Alison Jones: I mean, you make me think of What Three Words then, you said I locate myself with these three words.
Em Stroud: You’ll find someone that understands big business, who is also genuinely a clown and has also been a coach for a long time. Here I am.
Alison Jones: That’s a great game. We should all sort of think of the three words that that sort of locate us on our kind of demographic, psychographic map.
Em Stroud: That would be so good.
Alison Jones: Brilliant, isn’t it? There’s an app in there somewhere. Love that.
So clown is, it’s such an interesting, multi-layered, emotionally laden, historically loaded word. Let’s unpack it a little bit.
Short word, and people think they know what they mean, but you know, you talk in the book about the different reactions you get when you talk about being a clown, from the naked fear…
Em Stroud: Yes.
Alison Jones: …to this sort of, go on, tell us a joke then. So what does it mean to you to be a clown?
Em Stroud: To me it’s meant freedom. And to me it’s been, the easiest way I think for me to describe is it felt like I came home.
Alison Jones: Hmm.
Em Stroud: So I rediscovered clowning… So I’d done some clowning back when I was at university and, because I did a theatre degree, and I went over to Italy and I studied Commedia dell’arte, for those of you that might not know, that is kind of the roots of where pantomime comes from.
Alison Jones: And Punch and Judy.
Em Stroud: And Punch and Judy, exactly.
And when I went over there, I loved it and I really sort of revelled in doing that course and enjoyed it. And then for other reasons, I then was like, Ah, but I want to go into business and I’m an improviser. And so I kind of parked the clowning. And then about five, six years ago, I just kept looking at this, one of the top clowns in the world’s website. So her name’s De Castro, and there’s sort of arguably four top clowns in the world. And when I say clown, my sense of clowning is very much the theater clown. So think kind of the Shakespearean fool or the court jester. So we are in essence the truth tellers.
So we’re the observers of life and we always come from a kind place and because we are the truth tellers, we’ll say really what’s going on. So because we use humour, we get away with saying stuff that other people can’t. Hence the court jester could say stuff and wouldn’t be killed by the king.
Alison Jones: I mean, that’s such an interesting parallel for business, isn’t it? You think about the courtroom where everybody was very subservient, everybody was observing protocol, and there was this one person with the license to say anything and to call out the king, and you kind of almost, you could see how that would work in a boardroom.
Em Stroud: Yes, and I think, honestly, I think it’s one of the reasons that I’ve had the level of success that I’ve had, is also because I am a truth teller and I always have been. And I can walk into any rooms and the thing is, is that I don’t pay attention to job roles. You know, it’s like I meet a person, I don’t mind if someone’s a CEO of the biggest bank or the CFO or the cleaner. It’s like, are you a good soul?
And clowning and that kind of art of clowning about, really paying attention, serves me in every place that I go. So clowning has really been about coming home and in essence, finding the best parts of me and then exploring it. And then there’s this beautiful thing that, you know, is Orange who my main clown that I co-wrote the book with.
Alison Jones: Well, exactly. So let’s talk about Orange. And you’re very careful that there’s no gendering of Orange. Orange is always Orange. There are no pronouns at all, and Orange is you, but is separate from you, has a different voice in the book. What really struck me and I got all quite emotional, was the time when Orange met your son.
Em Stroud: Mm.
Alison Jones: And I thought that was very revealing because your son completely accepted Orange as an aspect of you, but also something different. So just tell us how Orange fits with Em.
Em Stroud: With me, well, I think the easiest way of doing it, for those that are listening that aren’t clowns and including yourself, it’s like…
Alison Jones: …probably the majority of listeners. I’m going to be honest…
Em Stroud: …probably the majority of listeners is fair. You know, we all have different parts of ourselves. So we all have different parts that we will show depending on who we’re with.
So, you know, we’ll have a mother part, a friend part, a businesswoman part, a, you know, fill in the gap. So we all have different sides of us. It still is us but we might choose to show a really silly bit with perhaps an old friend, that type of thing, right? Now, clowning really is an extension of that.
It’s a part of me, and so Orange is a part of me that is probably the most, well, probably is the most joyful and full of kindness and full of wonder. And it’s that part of me that truthfully, as I was growing up, I didn’t always get to explore. And then when you move into the world of clowning and then you find: what does Orange want to wear? And how does Orange stand? And Orange showed me all of this.
This is the thing about being a practitioner and spending weeks in a rehearsal room and going, Ah, this is Orange. And so Orange for me is like the most, yes, the most childlike, the most joyful part of me. And it’s through Orange that when I…
…when Orange and I sort of merge and I become Orange or Orange is me, I don’t know, it’s one of those weird things to try and explain, honestly, I see things that as Em I would just dismiss and I have those moments to pause.
And what I find fascinating about kids is that, and it’s not just with William that’s met Orange, some of his friends have met him as well, all of the kids just meet Orange and are like, Hi Orange. We knew, we were hoping you were going to come today. And Orange is like, Hello and is very excited to be there. And I remember I did this at, they were all at a football tournament and William had said, Right, Mum, can you bring Orange as well to this football tournament? I was like, Okay, you sure?
And he is like, yes, yes, yes, everybody wants to meet him, meet Orange. And I was like, Okay. And so then Orange came out, but the parents were there. All the kids were like, Hi. And all the parents were like, Who is this? I was like, I’m Orange. And it just struck me at that moment. And then I had to explain, you know, then I came back as Em, and then I had to explain to the parents who Orange was.
And they were like, Oh. Whereas the kids just felt it and they felt that open heartedness and they felt that there was nothing threatening. And so I think for me, that particular, you know, Orange as my clown helps me access that amazing state that we can all have, which is that permission of how do we get back in touch with ourselves and our joy.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting and that when you say bring Orange, I mean, of course Orange is Em and Em is Orange, you know, so of course you can’t not bring Orange. Yes, sorry about that.
What’s the visual cue that we’re looking at Orange rather than Em or is there one or is it just…
Em Stroud: Yes, no, and it’s really interesting because my lovely other half hadn’t met Orange until I did a book launch experience. So when the book came out, I did this whole experience and Orange hosted 90% of it because Orange co-wrote the book and then Em came along and did a talk at the end that wasn’t quite as interesting as Orange, to be honest.
And my missus had never met Orange and she just went, Oh my word, you move in a different way. And I’ve seen photos of myself as Orange. My eyes are slightly wider than they normally are, and there is just something, I don’t know, I’ve got a fairly innocent face anyway, but Orange has a really innocent face and so, and there’s just a different…
…a different level of energy. So it’s almost like when I step into Orange, this whole part of me, the physicality just naturally flows because I know Orange so well. But yes, it’s the eyes. And Orange does also wear a slightly oversized orange jacket that Orange thinks looks fabulous with some horrible, to my mind, grey trousers and a trilby that, trust me, as Em Stroud I would never wear. Orange thinks that they look amazing.
Alison Jones: And you know that’s what is most endearing about Orange, isn’t it? Is that absolute lack of cynicism or judgment, that in the moment playfulness. Do you channel Orange in everyday life as Em too? I mean, is there a sort of an overlap there?
Em Stroud: Yes, and I think this was one of the reasons when, I didn’t know that I was going to write my first book called Lessons from a Clown. That really was not what I thought I would write, and it just became more and more apparent how much Orange has taught me. And how, actually, now I’ve always been a pretty playful individual. I’ve always been pretty joyful and upbeat and optimistic. But Orange enabled it to go to a whole other level, and it actually helped a lot of the, kind of, the pieces of my puzzle to really make sense. And so as a result of that, it was like, yes, you know, I’m deeply passionate about people being kind to themselves, but in order for people to do that, Orange really reminded me I had to be really kind to myself. You know?
Alison Jones: There’s a sort of microcosm, isn’t it? You know, we’ve been talking about different levels here. The historic role of the clown for kings, in courts, that the role of the clown in the boardroom. All of the clowning in your life at all different, there’s a license, there’s a permission there for something that is essential, but we as grownups find hard.
Em Stroud: Yes, I mean it’s this really strange thing and I think for me, I realized that one of my purpose of of life is to help adults rekindle the wonder and joy of play. Now, I’m in no way suggesting that everybody should become clowns, but what I am really suggesting is that why as adults are we so fearful about play?
Why do we not allow ourselves and prioritize play? And quite often when I’m running workshops or I’m working with big businesses, it’s because people are worried they’re going to look stupid or they’re going to get it wrong. Or, you know, we’ve hit this point of adults of like, well, I put on all my professional masks and this is what I do, and I’m very serious and I’m a lawyer and I might occasionally play with my kids, but even when I play with my kids, I’m kind of thinking about four other things that I really should be doing.
And for me, again, coming back to what Orange taught me, and, you know, Orange is my truth and it’s the only truth I have, it’s like, actually it’s through play that we can connect. And it’s through play that we can find our own sense of wonder and our own sense of joy. And actually you can’t get it wrong.
Like we were all little kids and we’d all play in different ways. And that’s one thing that I think is really important. Everybody’s definition of play is different, but it’s about remembering what it is and also being open and curious going, well, I’m no longer seven, so maybe I wouldn’t like to do that anymore.
But I wonder…
Alison Jones: …maybe I would…
Em Stroud: …maybe you would, you know, it’s just like… and that’s the thing because quite often people go, but what if I don’t like it? I’m like, well, then you just don’t do it again. And as adults we get so fixated and it’s like, no, no, and, you know, look up and see the wonder, pay attention to the small details.
And that’s really what Orange has properly gifted me. It’s like, every day be fully present. And if you’re fully present, you can only really see how extraordinary the world is rather than all of the bad stuff.
Alison Jones: I mean, it’s a wonderful vision. It’s human, it’s kind, it’s playful, it’s yes, we just need to be a bit more Orange, all of us.
Let me ask you a question. Is writing play?
Em Stroud: Oh, that’s a question. I think when I started this book, it wasn’t.
So you have to remember, I come from a theatre background, so a theatre and a business background. So I’ve written one-woman shows, I’ve written scripts of full on sort of proper theater productions. But the way that I’ve always written has always been through the process of devising and working with someone else who will then take the process and then we’ll write.
So I never viewed myself as a writer. And, you know, and I had that beautiful message from school, you know, where you can’t write, et cetera. Turns out when I went to uni they were like, Are you dyslexic? And I was like, don’t think so. Turns out I am. So I had all of those different things to jump through.
So when I first started, even the idea, the nebulous idea of, oh, I could write a book, it categorically was not play, and so unsurprisingly I didn’t like it. Then fortunately I then went, okay, let’s go back. How can I make this so that this becomes joyful? How can I make this playful, even when sometimes I just sit there and nothing comes?
And actually the thing was, it was all about how I showed up to it. And so now when I sit and I write, and I’m just starting my second book, I sort of go, okay, how can I make this the most fun, even if I end up only writing three words? And it’s like, because the outcome is irrelevant because I know I’ll get there because I’ve already got evidence, because I’ve already got one book that I’ve held in my hand and has gone out to the world.
So I think it can be, I also know that within play, play also can be work. That’s the thing, you know, within the structures of play, if you think about improv and things like that, there’s a discipline, there’s routines, there’s practice. And my clown coach and my clown, she, you know, DeCastro, she is all about you have to have discipline. You have to have punctuality, you have to have muscle memory. There is about precision. So anybody that thinks that us clowns just rock up and are like, ta dah, here we are. Absolutely not. There’s a whole load of skill and expertise. So even in the most playful thing, there’s all of those things, which I think does correlate to writing.
That was a really long answer about play and writing.
Alison Jones: So glad I asked that question. What a brilliant answer. But I want you to go further because you say, how can I make it fun? Tell us what do you do? How, what does that look like for you?
Em Stroud: Different things. So for me there’s many different things that I’ve now worked, that I’ve worked out work for me. So sometimes it’s simple as, you know, change of location. It’s like, okay, cool, I’m going to go and write in different places. And other times I go, right, okay, let’s set a timer. But I set myself a timer of 10 minutes and go, how many words can I write in 10 minutes?
Alison Jones: That’s such a great way of just bypassing the judgment, isn’t it?
Em Stroud: Yes, and you go, I’ve only got 10 minutes. I also know that one of my strengths is that I stand up and I speak a lot and I podcast and do all that kind of stuff. So I record myself in terms of thinking, and then get it transcribed. That is so much more playful because I can be walking my dog and be like chatting on my phone. So it just looks like I’m having a call and you know, and that by its very nature helps.
And then quite often I will now get various different, I’ve got them here actually. I’ve got loads of little things like this. This is story cubes, which I really like, you know, so you just get these kind of little dice and you kind of go. How’s this going to fit in?
Ah, this one is about a key and a turtle, so I’ll just write something about a key and a turtle, and then I can go, right, how could that possibly fit into what it is that I’m building? But again…
Alison Jones: People who haven’t done improv, people who don’t use these sort of random prompts will be like, what are you talking about? The whole point is that you start somewhere different. There’s nothing here for you. There’s nothing you, you’re not in a rut because you never normally think about keys and turtles.
So it’s just that energy of starting somewhere completely different is incredibly empowering, isn’t it?
Em Stroud: Yes, and I think the other part for me about the process to keep it playful and to keep it light is having people around you that are doing the same stuff. You know, it’s why I love what you do. And it’s that thing of, you know, I’ve got my book person that is my kind of keeps me on track and that’s brilliant, but I’ve also got a couple of mates that are writing books and so we’ll go and we’ll have a beer and we’ll go right, okay, five minutes, complain about how bad your writing was this week. You’ve got beer and you don’t say anything back to anyone else, you just listen and you go, well, what I wrote was garbage, you know, or whatever it might be. And again, that connection, because I think writing can feel, for someone like me who’s naturally an extrovert, I think sometimes the fear at the start was, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time by myself in my own head. And actually for me, writing in community is really important.
Alison Jones: Although you actually have a community in your own head, to be fair,
Em Stroud: Well that is true. I actually really do have a community, I’ve got Orange and then I’ve got Frank and Barbara, so I’ve got three clowns.
So, yes, and that is, it’s funny that you say that actually, because I did actually let Frank try and write some of my current book. Didn’t go very well. Frank’s…
Alison Jones: …not his strong suit.
Em Stroud: Frank’s my new clown and he tries really hard, but everything goes wrong. So unsurprisingly, the writing wasn’t that good either.
Alison Jones: I bet it was fun though.
Em Stroud: Oh yes, exactly. Exactly.
Alison Jones: And going back to the points about the prompts as well, I mean, one of the, obviously you’ve got a background in improv as well. And we talked about that a little bit on this podcast before. I think it’s just so fascinating. But what’s wonderful about that is, again, the suspension of the negativity.
So with improv, you just have to take what’s given to you and build on it. You can’t block it, you can’t say no. And when we are in our own heads writing, a lot of the time we block ourselves. So we offer ourselves a sentence, and then another part of us goes, oh, that was rubbish, that’s not right. You kind of, you immediately step in with the judgment, the editing, you know, the so on.
Building that discipline actually of refusing to block yourself, of building on that energy, of seeing where it goes, of trusting that the process is going to take you somewhere useful, even if it looks like garbage right now, that’s a great discipline, isn’t it, as a writer.
Em Stroud: It’s so weird, and I think there’s something, there’s something really important about that word trust, because when you actually just go, okay, there’s that sentence and you don’t have any agenda with it, and you kind of quieten that voice that goes that’s not very good. If you trust that it’s come out for the right reason. Because writing, you know, it’s a, you know, we are sort of, when you are in that beautiful state of flow, however you describe it, everything is like, Oh, this is going very well and everything like that. But actually we’re always in the flow. And even those moments where we go, I don’t like that, actually that’s still flow. It’s just a different type. But it’s how we get emotionally attached to it, you know?
And so for me, it’s like if I don’t really like something that I’ve written, then what I can do is you can just put it on different page. It doesn’t necessarily have to go into a big manuscript, and sometimes you go back and go, actually that was quite useful, you know?
Alison Jones: I can see where that fits.
Em Stroud: Yes, exactly. So everything’s always going to have its place, even if it ends up never going out to the main world. I mean, to my right here, I’ve got a box which has got, I think it’s probably got about four or five comedy shows that will never see the day of light because they’re not very good. But there’s still moments in those that I might refer to and go, God, I had that idea about that weird little character that I was going to be, Oh yes, it was in there.
So nothing is ever wasted because you allowed it.
Alison Jones: And it’s all practice. It’s all that, yes, I agree. Wonderful.
I always ask my guests, Em, for their one best tip for an author who isn’t where you are, on the side of, you know, here’s my book in my hand, they’re starting out.
What do you kind of wish you had known then, that you know now, that you’d like to share with people?
Em Stroud: I think the biggest thing for me, and the biggest thing that surprised me was don’t do it by yourself.
Alison Jones: Hm.
Em Stroud: When I started, I was like, I’m a self starter, I can do this by myself. I can, and honestly, there was no energy behind it or around it. And as soon as I started to reach out and I ended up, yes, with my book person, but also my friends and also starting to articulate it out loud, I am starting to write a book. Just the act of owning it made it not feel so overwhelming.
So knowing that you are talking to people, trusted people, but talking to people about it was the biggest thing, and I wish, I only really did that sort of probably four, five months in and I wish I had known that right at the start.
Alison Jones: Because the proposal challenge was there as well. We’re talking about working with people and working with structure and so on as well. I think, that’s a really good, plugging it shamelessly myself. But you…
Em Stroud: No, rightly so, I know people that have gone through it and it’s a very beautiful and very powerful thing, so, yes, yes, plug it. It’s a good thing. You should do it.
Alison Jones: It’s a good way of getting with people who are at the same stage as you, which is very empowering. Brilliant. Great tip. Thank you.
And you’re not allowed to plug your own book. I’m really sorry. And you’re not allowed to bring any other big people onto the set who might plug your book.
Just preempting a really sneaky ninja move there. What book would you recommend that people who listened today should read?
Em Stroud: There are so many, but there is one that I keep going back to and it is The Big Leap by Dr. Gay Hendricks. And I was lucky enough to interview him, and he’s a delicious human being. Like, he’s everything that you want him to be, who has written 40 plus books now? Something like that. And it’s the book that I probably recommend the most to people.
And it’s the book that I, gosh, I read years ago and I go back to it and I don’t think, I’ve got loads of business books that are all brilliant for different reasons. But if there is one that I consistently go back to, it’s that, so that one.
Alison Jones: I could not agree more and it’s one I often recommend to people. He was one of the first guests on this podcast six, seven years ago. Yes, and he’s absolutely, and I think one of the reasons it’s such powerful book is that there isn’t an agenda behind it. He is genuinely that person and he’s sharing what he has discovered and it is so, I think the zone of genius…
Em Stroud: …zone of genius…
Alison Jones: …zone of genius, it’s just absolutely… And that, kind of the way that you block yourself, the sort of self limiting thing. Just, yes, superb. If you haven’t read The Big Leap, honestly, both of us are telling you, just do it.
Em Stroud: Yes.
Alison Jones: Go read it right now.
Em Stroud: Just do it. And if you like Audible, he narrates that one and he doesn’t narrate all of his later ones. And he has the most delicious voice in the world. So hearing it from him is, I just think is even more magical in certain ways.
Alison Jones: I might have to go and get that. Just for the joy of being able to listen to him on tap.
Em Stroud: Yes, do it. Do it, man. Do it.
Alison Jones: It’s been just such a joy talking to you and fascinating on so many levels. Really, really challenging as well because I’m pretty sure there’s somewhere in me is something like Orange, which doesn’t get out nearly enough. So I’m going to reflect on that. Thank you, thank you so much for your time today.
If people want to find out more about you, more about Orange, more about the book, more about all the good stuff, where should they go?
Em Stroud: Easiest thing is just go onto emstroud.com, so emstroud.com. There you go.
Alison Jones: That was dead easy. All right, well, I’ll put the podcast link up and, and you know, all the other good stuff on there as well, but yes, yes, thank you so much for your time today.
Em Stroud: Thank you for having me.