What performing standup comedy taught me about public speaking
Six tips from the standup circuit
Everyone has a fantasy side hustle. Mine is standup comedy, and a few years ago, I decided to try it.
I enrolled in a standup course. (Which seems counter-intuitive, because the best comedians are naturals — right?)
The first thing I discovered is I’m not that funny – and, in fact, *being funny* is a lot of hard work. It’s also terrifying — I almost ran off stage during one of my public performances.
I’m still in my day job, and the standup circuit is safe from my tortured routines. But on the plus side, the intensity of that standup experience made all other forms of stage performance feel like child’s play. And I learned some great techniques that have come in handy for my public speaking work.
Six public speaking tips from the standup circuit:
Saying it out loud is always different: Practicing your whole performance out loud is important because sometimes things that seem funny in your head come out wrong – or sad, or even angry – when you say them. (Which is possibly Freudian, but that’s another story.) Tip:you need to practice out loud!
Even the heckles are scripted: Good comedians make you feel like they’re effortlessly ad-libbing. This leads us to think that people who are good at joking around in every day life would also do well on stage. In truth, the best comedians are 100% scripted. And there’s a lot of memory work to do before you go anywhere near a microphone. A good standup routine is an intricate web of jokes that can unravel if you forget a line, miss a beat or get something out of sequence. Seinfeld is famous for working on one joke for a year. Yes, one year. Even the hilarious audience put-downs are scripted responses, based on classic heckling behavior. In other words, good comedians put in a mighty amount of written preparation and practice to make it look that *effortless.* Tip: put in a mighty amount of preparation and practice if you want to make an impact.
Structure is your friend: Audiences require a sense of navigation, even if it’s subtle. A structured speaking framework gives you and your audience the confidence that you are taking them somewhere interesting. Structure is also the best way to remember a talk — all you need to memorise is your key navigation points, and your sub-conscious mind will fill in the gaps. If you lose your way and forget something you can rescue the performance simply by moving onto your next point. Tip: waffling on is a performance killer, have a structure to your presentation.
You can’t be *relatable* unless you are vulnerable: What the best talks and the best comedy acts have in common is a thread of core, relatable, human truth. Without this content, even the most perfectly polished speech will slide right off the audience, leaving them wanting. This not only means digging deep to find that truth — but also allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to share it in a truthful way. Humans instinctively relate to truth and filter out anything that feels contrived. Tip: don’t try to bull&%$# an audience to look better — share relevant personal stuff in a truthful way.
Strangers hate it when you waste their time: Friends and family will laugh or smile at your jokes — they want you to feel good and to like them back. They’re also more likely to get where your joke is coming from because they know more about your story. People who pay money or give up time to see you on stage are mostly there to be entertained, inspired or to learn something. They will have no qualms about talking over your performance, ignoring you or even walking out if they feel you are wasting their time. Tip: think about why your audience has shown up and put some effort into trying to deliver for them.
You can’t engage with an audience if you don’t know your material: The best comedians make their performance seem like a random line-up of jokes or even things that happened earlier that day. Don’t be fooled. They have practiced the heck out of that material and, possibly, converted a few of their old jokes to create the impression of a local or real-time flavour. However, being really funny is so much more than their written material — it’s how they deliver the jokes. That level of performance mastery is only possible when you know your material well enough to relax and focus on connecting with people in the room. It feels like authentic connection because it is. It’s sort of like the organising part of their mind can go on autopilot — which frees up their creative mind to be present for the performance. Tip: practice enough to not have to worry about remembering your speech — or relying on notes.