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Taking It to the Next Level: Stand up Comedy – How Hard Can It Be?

microphone set up in bar for comedy act
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When John, Emma and I set up Presentation Guru we wanted to create a shared resource (The ‘guru’ is the community, not any one of us) of hundreds of articles for speakers, at every stage of their development, to help them do three things:

  1. Create engaging stories
  2. Build professional and engaging visual aids to add impact
  3. Help people connect with their audiences

We have done that, and at Presentation Guru, we believe that mastering these three fundamentals of presenting will help you stand out every time you stand up to speak. But what do you do as a speaker once you’ve mastered the basics and built experience and confidence? Answer: the really ambitious speaker has to develop a flexible approach and the confidence to deal with all sorts of groups and occasions to help them operate at the highest levels in their worlds.

In the last post, I recommended deepening your storytelling skills and broadening your pool of stories and real-life experiences by listening to podcasts, and refining your ability to connect with people by studying hypnosis. In this article, I want to explore building your confidence and experience by exploring something I’ve learned through stand-up comedy.

 

Why try stand-up comedy?

If public speaking is more frightening than death to most people (apparently), then stand-up comedy has to be the most terrifying of all kinds of public speaking. The language of the comedian refers to ‘death’ all the time. They don’t just have a bad performance, they talk about ‘dying on stage’. They don’t forget their words, they ‘corpse’. But nobody actually dies, do they? They just get their egos bruised by an audience that doesn’t respond in the way that was hoped for or expected.

It’s not like street entertainment, where the performers have no security, no crowd, no guarantee of even being paid until they earn it with their talent. Stand Up has rules and rituals to protect and help the performer, and the comic just has to learn how to operate inside those rules to be successful.

I’m not suggesting that stand-up comedy is easy – far from it –  but I really don’t think that it is that hard. It’s just a more rarefied kind of public speaking. You have an audience, and a time slot to fill with a message. Yes, the crowd might be drunk, or on their way to being drunk, and so be more honest and direct than your average business audience, but they will also tend to be less inhibited than a group of salespeople on a Monday morning in Staines or San Francisco, so there’s more energy in the crowd to use if you can connect with them.

How do stand up comedians learn their art, and what can we, as business communicators learn from the stand-up?

 

First understand the rules, then find out if you’re any good

Any kind of complex human skill has basic rules behind the scenes that define the art. Football, ballet, poetry, piano playing all require a basic understanding of the rules and fundamental skills before we begin to find out about the talent of the player. The rules define the structure of the sport or the art form. Understanding the structure of the thing allows people to express themselves freely within those rules. There’s a balance between structure and freedom in nearly everything that we do.

  • Poetry – Poetic structure, rhythm, rhyme. Only when you understand what a sonnet is, can you write one. Only when you’ve written one can we see whether you have any talent.
  • Football – Only when you understand the rules of the game can you apply your skills to winning games. Only when you’ve mastered the basic skills of football, can you test them in the game.
  • Making an argument – Only when you understand how to make an argument, can you begin to argue against a challenging audience.
  • Comedy – Only when you understand what makes people laugh and how a joke works, can you start to try.

There is always a balance to be found, and as a general rule: too much structure and creativity can be restrained; too little structure and the art is lost.

But you have to understand the basics to even give yourself half a chance of finding any kind of success. So I decided to learn the basics and I signed up for a stand-up comedy course.

Comedy courses are readily available all across the world, and I chose one at the Comedy School in London. It was a 6-week programme of 6 x 3-hour workshops. Sessions were run by professionals from the comedy circuit and the course took us through the process of becoming a stand-up comedian, from writing material to our debut performance – there’s a comedy showcase for new performers at the end of each course. More of that, and how I did in the next article. The topics covered by the course included:

  • Generating Material
  • Developing Performance Skills
  • Discovering Your Comic Attitude
  • Examining Stage Persona
  • Exploring Joke Structure

All of it was interesting; some of it was new to me, but the part that I found most useful came as a surprise. I learned a lot from the part that made me think about who I am.

 

Where does the comedy come from?

When I told people that I was going to try stand-up comedy, their first question was almost always, ‘What are you going to talk about?’.

It’s an understandable question, of course, because for most people their worry about any kind of public speaking is exactly that. But for me, with lots of public speaking experience, on all kinds of subjects, I was pretty confident that I would find lots to say; I was more concerned about making it funny. But as I learned more, and thought more about walking on stage in front of an audience for the first time, I became much more interested in finding out who I am: discovering my comic persona.

 

Lessons from Aristotle: character

Aristotle identified three elements for the successful speaker over 2500 year ago.  My colleague John Zimmer describes the great Greek’s thoughts on Logos, Pathos and Ethos brilliantly in another article. In describing ‘Ethos’ or ‘character’, Aristotle suggested that a great speech on paper (‘Logos’) needs a credible character presenting it for the whole message to be received well by the audience. By ‘character’ he meant that the message and the messenger need to work together, in the eyes of the audience, for the whole message to make sense to them.

‘Ethos’ is an appeal to the authority or credibility of the presenter. It is how well the presenter convinces the audience that the presenter is qualified to speak on the subject. This can be done by:

  • Being a notable figure in the field in question, such as a college professor or an executive of a company whose business is related to the presenter’s topic
  • Demonstrating mastery of the terminology of the field
  • Being introduced by or producing bona fides from other established authorities

A stand-up comedian has to seize the attention of the audience, and command their respect immediately. He or she has to prove their bona fides’ as soon as they walk on stage. They have to look like they belong there, and act like this is their domain. And then the ‘comedy material’ has to flow from that for the whole act to work. They have to have an identifiable comedy persona.

The challenge for a new stand-up (i.e. me) is that you have a very short time in which to establish your character with the audience. It’s much easier for the established comedian because the audience has generally chosen to come and see them by choice. The newbie has to establish that character in as little as the first 30 seconds if they want to connect with the crowd. If they get that right, get the audience laughing and, on their side, then they can relax and get on with the rest of their act. If they miss the mark and the audience misses them, then everything else gets more difficult.

 

What’s a comedy persona?

There are comedians who develop a fictional comedy persona, but most use something that is in them, and recognisable about them as the anchor to which all of their comedy is tethered.

Ricky Gervais’s stand up comedy persona isn’t really ‘him’: nobody could be so cruel and suicidally stupid in real life as he is here hosting the Golden Globes. But he seems to fit that type when he speaks about it, and the audience (now that he’s known) laughs in horror but seem to think ‘He’s just being Ricky Gervais’; and the whole act works because the link between his ‘comedy persona’ and his material works.

 

 

Amy Schumer isn’t really the way that she appears to be from her stand-up routines –  a drunken, licentious, foul-mouthed broad, but she has so obviously discovered something of that ‘attitude’  in herself, something that she finds funny; and has then expanded that into her comedy persona.

Here she is hosting Saturday Night Live and talking about how marriage has changed her (but her comedy persona remains the same), and the comedy comes out of the contrast between the outrageous freedom of her comic persona and the more traditional conventions of marriage.

 

 

I learned that a comedy persona is not a fictional character, it’s your character or something in it, expanded to comic proportions. It has to come from your personality, your take, your attitude, your bearing, your point of view, your general view on life if it is to work. Here’s a great article on the subject from Lynn Harris – 5 Ways to Discover your Comedy Persona.

Your persona is what makes your jokes your jokes. Anyone can write a joke about parents or dogs vs. cats or homework or taxes or gentrification or doughnuts. But only you can write a joke about your unique take on those topics.

She goes on to give the example of  Lauren Lapkus, the American actress and stand-up comic. You can get a sense of her persona without seeing or hearing her—just by reading these 18 words:

“I believe that each person can make a difference. But it’s so slight that there’s basically no point.”

Isn’t that brilliant? It’s a funny joke that tells you a lot about the comedy persona behind the joke. You can guess that she plays the spoiled, bratty, and cynical schthick to the maximum. And she does – it’s very good.

 

 

Generating material – It has to come out of you

To be any kind of original stand-up comic, you have to ‘generate material’ for the audience that is in front of you and it has to come out of your character. The material has to be right in terms of content, subject areas, tone, politics, language, and style, for that audience, or it needs to be made to fit them by making it relevant to them.

 

Identify your comedy persona, then use it

So the most important lesson that I learned from the stand-up comedy course, was that in order to be funny to others I had to find something in myself that might be funny to them. I had to identify my comedy persona.

I’m a 54-year-old father of 3, I have to be aware that if I walk on stage with an audience of students at a university, they will see me and think ‘Who’s grandad?’. It doesn’t mean that I can’t make them laugh with stories about my life and experience, but I will have to find a way to make those things live for them. And that’s where ‘comic attitude’ comes in.

Your ‘attitude’ has to match the expectations of the crowd and find a connection with them if they are to ‘buy-in’ to your ‘comic persona’. Your attitude has to balance what you seem to be to the audience, and how you see yourself. If there’s too much of a gap, then that is a potential source of confusion for the audience. I don’t want to be seen to be something that I’m not, and even if I did want to portray a different image I need to do it deliberately, rather than by accident. Imagine how this first impression might go:

He looks like a grandad but seems to think that he is 22 years old…

The very worst thing that I could do would be to go on the stage and try to be ‘one of the kids.’ It might make them laugh at me, but it wouldn’t be funny; it would be ridiculous and embarrassing for them and me. As Bob Hope, long dead, but well-remembered stand-up comedian from the 1940’s put it:

An audience will forgive you most things, as long as you don’t embarrass them.

 

Find your character – Be yourself, with skill

Finding your character as a speaker is about accepting who you are, understanding how you are seen by the audience and then finding a way to make the most of that to add power to your message.

It’s about being you if you’re the most junior person in the room, not trying to be older and more experienced than you are. It’s about being you if you’re the oldest person in the room and everyone else looks at you like you’re their grandfather. Don’t try to be young, or to win them over: make your case, respectfully, empathetically, but as you.

 

Lessons for the business speaker

Establish your character as soon as you can – like in the first 30 seconds. Most business presenters don’t start like a stand-up, they take far too long to get to the point, and they are often unwilling to stamp their character on their presentation. Why? Because it’s a hard thing to do. It’s relatively easy to talk about what you do, with a bit of help and experience, but a whole lot more difficult to stand in the spotlight and say ‘this is me, with all of my flaws, fears and frustrations…’

The effect of that for most speakers is that they are less influential, speak with less impact, and don’t give the audience the chance to engage with them as a human being.

 

Three simple things that you can do add ‘character’ to your on-stage persona – and none of them are fake

Rule 1 – Have an argument

So many presentations aren’t really saying anything. Remember that an argument makes a case for something. A course of action, a change of direction, a rethink, something. An argument for something, will always be arguing against something else, and so not everyone in the audience has to agree with your point of view, but if you’re not arguing for something, then you are saying nothing.

Rule 2 – Have an opinion

The audience often wants to know where you stand on the subject that you are presenting. Not always, of course, but more often than you’d imagine. So make sure that your opinion is in there somewhere. You are entitled to an opinion, and audiences, generally, want to know what it is.

Rule 3 – Know what you want to say and say it as yourself with skill

No apologies; just courtesy. No false claims; just as you, respecting the audience and respecting yourself enough to be you.

 

My comedy persona

After all of my soul searching I came up with my comedy persona. I looked for the things in me which I and my friends find funny about me:

  • My apparent anger at the world and nearly everything in it – I’m not really angry, but I do like a good rant from time to time.
  • My roots – I’m from Birmingham in the UK, a place so uncool that even saying the name of your town out loud provokes laughter in the (UK) audience.
  • The Birmingham accent – The nearest US equivalent would be Forrest Gump which, again, in a UK audience provokes laughter.
  • My hatred for cool places and cool people –  Because I’m jealous and I’m from Birmingham.
  • And my love for poetry, love, romance and beauty – Which is funny a) because I’m from Birmingham and there’s not much poetry there, and b) because I look like a cross between Shrek and a doorman at a seedy nightclub.

As Lynn Harris suggests, my material, my jokes, my act…

‘…should generally come from that place. Not rigidly or across the board,…not every joke … think of it as a lightly tinted lens that colors your jokes, or at least your overall point of view…’

I will, and in my day job, I will think more of the character that I am and that I am projecting as I speak, and see how that helps me to connect even better with the crowd. Getting better as a speaker once you’ve got lots of experience is about building self-awareness and flexibility. Training to be a stand-up comedian has helped me lots. Now let’s find out if I’m any good.

Jim Harvey

Jim Harvey

Managing Director at The Message Business
Jim is a serial entrepreneur and the MD of The Message Business, a company which helps international and FTSE 100 companies sell themselves, and their products more effectively. Jim has many years of experience speechwriting, presentation coaching and motivational speaking, all over the world.
Jim Harvey
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