Steve Hughes, MBA ’93, is a funny guy. “I have always enjoyed making other people laugh,” he confesses.
Here’s the good news: He can make you funny, too … or at least funny-er. No, not professional-comedian funny, but more engaging and personable if you occasionally have to stand and deliver in front of groups. Using humor effectively is one of the keys to being a good communicator, he explains, and communicating well is a skill Hughes teaches 50 to 60 times a year to audiences that pay him handsomely for being both funny and smart.
“The elements that go into making a person a good speaker are things they can control more often than they think,” he says. “They can come up with interesting stories. They can use a well-placed quote. They may never be Tony Robbins, but they can be better than average. I really believe that great speakers are made, not born.”
Hughes did not set out to be an entrepreneur, although his earliest post-college jobs — telemarketer, software salesman, high school history teacher — required communication skills. Seeking to propel his career to higher levels, he entered the MBA program at the Olin Business School.
An early harbinger of Hughes’ entrepreneurial talents may have been his team’s victory in the business school’s annual Olin Cup entrepreneurship competition. His team’s concept was an international grocery store called World’s Fare, featuring celebrity chefs and offerings unavailable in the Midwest at the time.
After finishing graduate school, Hughes relocated to Minneapolis for a job at a national advertising agency, but his heartstrings pulled him home after a year. “When I was at Olin, I met a woman who worked at Nestlé Purina during my internship there, and we began dating,” he says. Hughes married her, and today she works with him and is the mother of their two daughters.
“Washington University was a great experience for me,” he says. “It gave me a quality education and a great career, and it helped me land a wife, as well.”
His post-MBA career began with a 12-year run of marketing, advertising and sales promotion success working with major clients. But all of that changed one night, when Hughes accepted a friend’s dare to do five minutes of standup at a comedy club. During his performance, something clicked, and he returned several times. That led to a friendship with a professional comic who wanted help with a seminar program for training aspiring comedians. Then a friend at a law firm in Chicago, upon hearing of that project, asked Hughes if he could teach its lawyers to be funny. “I said I couldn’t do that,” he says, “but I could teach them how to add more humor to their presentations. I then realized I could have a successful business if I pursued it full time. In 2004, I quit my job and started the company.”
His company, Hit Your Stride, got its name from another of Hughes’ passions — running — but it has relevance to his business audiences. “If you understride, you aren’t optimizing your strength and abilities,” he explains. “If you overstride, you run out of energy and risk injury.”
Hughes offers a series of programs intended to teach his clients how to look and sound smart when they speak to an audience. Does he have a special tip for fellow alumni? “No matter what the size of the group,” he says, “you want to speak to individuals in your audience. You want to make them feel as if you’re speaking to them personally. The best way to do that is to lock eyes with one person, deliver a complete thought, then find another person and repeat the process. Everyone will feel as if you customized your presentation just for them.”
Robert S. Benchley is a freelance writer based in Miami.