In this article I’m going to explain how doing a group presentation is a bit like singing in a choir.
Once again, massive thanks to Terry Simpson for proof reading it.
I’m in a choir. I’m a comedian from Birmingham, the choir is for Birmingham comedians, it’s called “The Birmingham Comedians Choir” – I’ll pause for a moment to let you digest the creative brilliance of the name…
I must confess – I haven’t got a great voice. I used to sing a few bars of a song as part of my act until one day another comedian pointed out that my voice wasn’t good enough to amaze people, or bad enough to make them laugh. Anyway, I can carry a tune and I’ve been put in the bass section where we usually get just 4 different notes we have to sing in any song.
And it is great fun. There’s something uplifting when we get a song sounding good – a sense of group achievement. But when it goes wrong it can sound pretty dire…..
We’ve got our first gig in a few days at a benefit concert for Syrian refugees. Some of you may at this juncture be thinking “haven’t they suffered enough?”
“But what’s all this got to do with presentations?” I hear you mutter.
Well, if you consider a lot of situations when you’re presenting to a customer you are part of a wider agenda. OK, maybe you’re doing the important solo – but is someone else introducing it and setting up the whole meeting? Is someone else going to talk about the implementation, or discuss a particular topic?
I’ve seen loads of group presentations, and been part of a fair few where the following has happened: Person A has introduced it, Person B has done their bit, then Person C has come on with a completely different topic, followed by person D who introduces another subject, and then finally back to Person A to wrap it all up. …And to jump to a footballing simile that can seem like having a bunch of superstars on the pitch that can’t score a goal…. England anyone?
“Ahhh,” I hear you shout, “what they need is a theme to tie it all together.”
And you’d be right. Someone’s got to conduct the choir…
So yes, after we’ve decided what our theme is going to be, someone needs to be in control as we plan it, rehearse it, and deliver it.
Now having a common theme is important.
However, I’ve seen group presentations where there’s been a theme, and where persons A, C & D have done their bits referencing the theme. But then in the middle, Person B has done their bit using a completely different theme or without referencing the theme at all. I’m not sure which one is worse – not having a hymn sheet or not sticking to it.
Obviously, unlike a choir, we’re not all going to present at the same time – although it would certainly make for a memorable day ….
Now there are certain songs where at one part the harmony deliberately creates a clash – I think the technical term is ‘discord’. And that’s fine as long as the next bit resolves that clash – it sets up tension.
And sometimes in a presentation we want to set up a bit of tension – maybe we pose a controversial topic or ask a challenging question – and again, that’s fine – let’s just remember to resolve it rather than leave it hanging because all the audience will remember at the end is the unpleasant clash.
Also, when we’re singing a song we don’t always stay at the same volume – we have quiet bits and loud bits – light and shade if you like. Thus our presentation needs variety – not just in terms of volume (although, frankly, some presenters do suffer from a monotonic delivery); it needs changes of pace, tension, and resolution. And it’d be nice if it finished on a crescendo, rather than just stopping suddenly or petering out leaving the audience confused.
The key things to remember are; someone needs to be in charge (the conductor), have a structure, agree on a theme (and everyone’s presentation supports the theme), plan it, and most importantly rehearse it.
Plus, and this is the biggie – we’re a choir – we aren’t competing with each other – we are working together as a team to create the best result we can. OK, so we all want to be the superstar but we win as a team and we lose as a team. It doesn’t matter if the bit you did was great if the overall performance was poor. Or, going back to football for a moment… It doesn’t matter if you score a wonder goal if you allow the Russians to equalise in injury time…
Anyone who’s been in the presenting game for any length of time has probably had a presentation or demo go spectacularly wrong…. Anyone who has done Stand Up Comedy for any length of time has had the dubious pleasure of dying on stage – but there are some gigs that are so bad that everyone dies – we call these car crashes…. Once more, big thanks to Terry Simpson for proof-reading.
People have asked me what it’s like doing a really bad gig – well here’s something I wrote a couple of years ago to amuse my comedic friends… enjoy..
Car Crash (adj) Comedian slang for a really bad gig, e.g. “How was that gig on Friday?” “Car crash, mate, absolute carnage.”
Whenever a bunch of comedians meet up (is the collective noun for a group of comedians a gaggle?) we talk about gigs. Nobody wants to hear stories about how you absolutely smashed it, how the crowd begged you for an encore. No, what they want to hear is about the gigs that went bad… Especially if it wasn’t just you who died… Everybody loves a good car crash story.
Well, here’s one I wrote a few years back about a gig I MC’d. The MC or Compere is the person who starts the show, introduces the act, gets the crowd warmed up and basically in the right frame of mind so that the rest of the acts have great gigs.
Big Warning – I wrote this as a comedian for comedians (it got great feedback) so some of the language is a little bit ripe and there’s a few slang terms in there as well… Hopefully context will explain them.
I’d agreed to MC Lisa D’s Aristocrats gig as she’d managed to double book herself and was supposed to be doing a gig in Derby at the same time. And I thought women could multi-task. She told me it was at the social club, I had visions of a bear-pit of a gig, ranks of grizzled men and women slowly supping warm beer, some bloke coming up in the break and saying “Here’s one for you, there were these two Pakistanis…”
I was wrong, it was The Social Club. On Temple Street in Birmingham, by the Cathedral and where all the upwardly-mobile bright young things go to play. What we used to call a trendy wine bar back in the 80’s… The 80’s being when I was last considered remotely trendy. She also told me that they normally get between 20 – 30 punters who sit there quietly facing the front and laugh like drains at anything remotely funny. So it sounded like it could be fun… And fun it was indeed.
I got there at 7:52 and it was rammed. If you can imagine a trendy wine bar that is comfortable with 60 people in, then try to imagine one that has 3 to 4 times that number shoved into it. Historians may make note at this point that this was the Thursday before Good Friday, and thus the last evening before a 4-day weekend. I managed to bump into Johnny P and together we managed to track down Lisa who was just about to leave. She introduced us to the landlord. He told us that a number of leaving do’s had decided to partake of his hospitality that evening, he also said that he’d told them there was comedy going on and that they were all really up for it. I think that’s what he said but the background noise was peaking at RB211 just before take-off level. He showed me the sound system. It looked the sort of thing that Led Zeppelin would choose – if they were going to play a gig in a two berth caravan and didn’t want to wake up the toddlers who were very light sleepers. I realised shouting would probably be required. Note for my American readers – a caravan is what you guys call a trailer…
Billy and Danny had also arrived; I’d met Danny before but not Billy. Lisa had suggested that he went on towards the end as he was a bit dark. Billy told me he’d played the Hollybush (a well-known comedy club in the West Midlands) the other week and had gone on first. Now students of comedy know that they like it dark at the Bush. But after his set Wolfie (owner of the Hollybush Pub and legend) had suggested that next time Billy plays it he goes on towards the end. I realised he’d be a bit dark in the way that Karl Marx’s philosophy of ‘The Workers Control of Factories as a Means to Destroy the Industrial Bourgeoisie” might be described as ‘a bit left of centre’. Hannah arrived and we all shared mutual thoughts of ‘this could be tough’.
The stage area was a small clearing at the back of the room with the sort of portable backdrop you see in a shopping centre where someone is demonstrating a magic mop or a new method of eyebrow plucking. There was a mic stand and a mic and the cable snaked away into the distance where it made its way to the sound desk. So the stage area was at ground level surrounded by a few tables where various office parties sat and around which the main throng stood in huddles laughing and flirting, the lighting was dim and sexy which sort of suited the clientele. For those of you who don’t know me I should point out that not being on a raised stage isn’t an issue as I’m 6’ 7”. Those of you who do know me may be slightly amazed at that fact as I look about 5’ 9”. So the big issue was going to be people seeing us.
At 8.20 I announced the comedy would be starting in 10 minutes. I think a couple of people noticed. 10 minutes later I stepped up to the mic and said in a very loud voice “WELCOME TO ARISTOCRATS.” And then something amazing happened. The talking stopped. Everyone looked at the stage. Those who could sit did so, the rest stood around and laughed like drains at everything remotely funny.
This actually happened. Really, honestly, it did. That is if you believe that Heisenberg’s uncertainty theory must lead to an infinite number of universes. So in a universe somewhere Colin Harris was MC’ing this gig and everybody listened. Plus, if Heisenberg is right then there was also a universe where a chrysanthemum called Colin is standing in front of a field of poppies and they’re having a great time as well. Excuse me for a moment cos I need to go and see a bloke called Schrödinger about a cat.
Unfortunately, in the universe we are in, about 10 people applauded and the rest carried on as if nothing had happened. There was a table of girls right by the stage and they were great all night, really supportive and laughers; there was a corner area to my left where people showed some interest – more about them later. And there were a few random guys and gals who showed some sign of comedy life. I did some bantering and tried a few jokes and the girls laughed and the people who were listening laughed as well. Plus I felt my throat tear slightly as I had to shout to make myself heard. This just had the effect of making the rest talk a bit louder. Anyway after about ten minutes of this I felt that it was as good as it was going to get so I announced that they should welcome the first act…
He’s known on the West Mids comedy circuit by us comedians as ‘Big Johnny P’, this is because he’s about 6’ 5”. Any non-comedians reading this should just skip over this as understanding how such comedic genius works is probably beyond you. All I will say is that the clue is that he’s tall, so we call him big. Anyway Johnny P started his schizzle and the girls were laughing and the rest carried on with their plans of oblivion.
After about ten minutes a guy approached me. He looked like an accountant. He told me that that chap said something quite amusing back then and he thought he was quite funny however he couldn’t really hear him that well. I nodded sympathetically. He then said he’d got an idea. He admitted he’d never done any comedy but he was quite an experienced public speaker. “What you should do is grab the microphone and shout, really shout, and ask everyone to shut up.” I said I was with him so far but didn’t mention that I’d been really shouting and that my vocal chords were fraying like a Primark T shirt after a bio wash. “And then, this is the cunning bit, when they shut up you tell them to be quiet for 1 minute while you tell some jokes and that if they don’t think you’re funny, then they can throw things.”
I spotted the major flaw in his plan and consoled myself that he probably hadn’t seen my act. Then I thought maybe he had seen my act. Anyway, call me a coward if you like but laying down the gauntlet with the line “Throw things if I’m not funny” was not what I wanted my final words to be.
Johnny P finished off after 20 minutes and got a great reception from the girls. We shared a nod. A nod that says “well I was a hit with 4% of the audience so job well done.”
I called for a break. I think a few people noticed. I stood outside with Hannah and convinced her that playing her guitar was the right thing to do. That guitars were magic wands that would instantly calm crowds and turn this crazy gig around.
“Bees, eh, what’s that all about? They flit over you, have a swig of your nectar, nick your pollen and then eff off to the flower next to you, b*******s.” The poppies went wild for that one.
Meanwhile in our universe I did some more bantering. Unbeknown to me a young wag crept over to the mic cable and was in the process of pulling apart the connector. Fortunately, Danny R spotted him and intervened. In the ensuing mêlée I was able to deliver my own personal tribute to the late great Norman Collier. Danny made the nasty man stop it and even faced down his mates who were up for it. Brave or what?
Anyway, after this mic foolery I got things back on track and welcomed on stage….
Hannah S. The girls liked her and she did some stand up and then she said she was going to sing and play her guitar. Unfortunately, the mic stand holder was a bit loose so I had to help her jam the mic at the right angle. She took up her guitar and started to play “Paradise City” and the effect was magical. People stopped and looked and started laughing and clapping along. Then the landlord emerged from the crowd brandishing a knife with which he attempted to adjust the mic stand. The knife touched the mic and the feedback wailed like a banshee with haemorrhoids, kids in caravans across the country were woken up. The mic stand was adjusted but the magic spell was broken. Hannah started the song again but the majority had gone back to their conversations once more. We can only dream of what the gig could’ve been – beware of knife wielding landlords has now become my motto.
Chrysanthemum Colin did a bit about having a good mothers’ day mainly because he didn’t end up in a vase. The poppies lapped it up. Meanwhile I coaxed my vocal chords into life once more and after 4 minutes of nonsense called for.
Danny R. He strode the performance area with the presence of a man who can deter cable meddling hoodlums. He did a joke and the girls laughed, plus a small section behind me exploded with gales of laughter. Thus buoyed up, Danny carried on. More shrieks and gales of laughter, unfortunately this didn’t coincide with anything approaching a punchline. I looked round me and saw the reason for the jocularity. Apparently ‘Steve’, the wit of the accounts payable department was regaling his colleagues with tails of purchasing mishaps. I caught the tail end of the one about the time he’d bought 700 boxes of A5 paper instead of 700 boxes of A4 paper. The punchline was “I thought they was cheap!!!” Young Sandra, a buxom blonde was fixing him with big bedroom eyes and told him he ought to go and do some stand up. Steve caught my eye and I made the universal gesture of “You can do 5 minutes if you like”. Steve thought about it and realised wisely that 5 minutes of how he bought the wrong things, punchline “I thought they was cheap!!!” would probably not fly and that it could ruin his chance of getting his leg over young Sandra. He murmured something about not wanting to show up the other acts and went back to talking to Sandra’s bosom.
I missed most of Danny’s set as Lou C, who’d just arrived, grabbed me and said we needed to talk. We wandered outside where I have my office. He’d got his hands on his knees and was looking rough. He told me he’d been throwing up all evening, and then stopped and had another retch. He looked pretty bad and I glanced around fully expecting to see the Grim Reaper nonchalantly hanging around waiting for business. I told myself that if Lou croaked I would nick his wine routine, it’s what he’d want. He said he needed to go home and I told him it was OK, I decided death or no death I’d do his wine routine for him that night.
I went back in, Danny finished and I called a break. During the break I told the others that Lou was ill and said to Billy that he could do as long as he liked.
I did my remembrance day stuff and the poppies cried with laughter – know your audience. I did some stuff about growing up in Brum (Birmingham) and the girls laughed. Flushed with success I called for and got the one called…
Billy R. Who started a bit dark. His favourite song is probably ‘a darker shade of dark’. I know that use of the C word may offend. Ben B does a routine about it, and very funny it is too. I was there the night when he asked the audience if they were offended by the C word and some girl shouted out “do you mean cucumber?”. Billy used the C word, in the same way that you and I use haemoglobin as a means of transferring oxygen, that is constantly. He interspersed it with the F word so we got a stream of scatological binary with 1 being the C word, and zero being the F word. Later analysis revealed he’d actually said “Go now, flee my children, flee, for our earthly bodies have been transcended. I’m a little teapot.”
The audience were starting to notice. He then mined the comedy dark that is paedophilia, necrophilia and radical mastectomies. Jerry Sadowicz, who’d popped in to see what was going on, winced and left, shaking his head. The audience were starting to boo and shout stuff. He then went even darker and the boos got louder, but he kept going like a demented marionette being jerked by a foul-mouthed puppeteer. The fat lady wasn’t singing but she was screaming “Fanny cancer is not comedy. I hope you get fanny cancer.” She was one of the group who’d listened all the way through. I deduced she was drunk. And whilst I’ve no formal medical training; 15 years of watching ‘Holby City’ (a popular UK hospital drama) has got to count for something. I was not aware of the carcinoma named after the diminutive of Frances, believing Billy may be confusing cervical or perhaps ovarian metastases. However, this was not the time for me to point this out to William. He reached a crescendo and left the stage to a flood of catcalls. Danny had videoed the set so perhaps we will be able to see it on YouTube…
I went back on stage and decided to do a few minutes of material (possibly about wine) to restore calm and to send the good denizens home on a happy note. However, the landlord had switched the sound system off so I shouted out a few thanks and the girls cheered. And we declared the gig closed. No doubt 96% of the people in the bar may think sometime over the weekend that they thought there was supposed to be some comedy on that night. Then they’d shrug and forget such foolish notions. I spoke with the rest of the gang, Billy told us he’d enjoyed it. Normal Aristocrat rules say that the acts other than the headliner get paid from donations. Johnny P and I decided that asking for donations after Billy’s rant on fanny cancer would probably be a tad futile. We wished each other ‘Merry Easter’ and I left.
Outside Steve was chatting with Sandra who appeared very unsteady. Without warning she leant forward and let the contents of her stomach cascade over his shoes and shins. I knew how he felt. Welcome to show business.
By Colin Harris – Conchcom Ltd
There’s no greater high than having a roomful of strangers laughing at your jokes, conversely standing in the spot light with nothing but oppressive silence can be a very lonely experience.
I’ve been presenting and demoing for 30 years now, but for the last 6 years I’ve also been a stand-up comedian. OK, so you’re unlikely to ever see me on the TV and my accountant isn’t advising me to give up my day job. But I enjoy it and guess what, there are some similarities with presentations and demos, however there are some major differences.
So what has Stand Up-Comedy taught me
In stand-up you get given an amount of time to perform. When you start out and at most open mic nights it’s usually 10 minutes (but it’s usually 5 in London),. If you’re playing in a professional club then the opening act usually does 20, the middle 2 acts do 15 minutes each, and the headliner usually does 40. And there’s a compere or MC who will do 10 – 15 minutes at the start of the show and 5 – 10 after breaks or before the next act. But the cardinal rule is that you don’t overrun. It looks unprofessional, if everyone does it the night runs late and people get tired, and it’s a strange coincidence how over-running and not being funny often go hand in hand.
It’s the same when presenting – how many times have you sat through a presentation when someone has taken 30 minutes to say what could have comfortably been covered in 10 minutes. Plus, like a comedy club, people have only got so much time and energy to invest and not many deals are won by boring the audience into submission. I always wear a watch on stage with a stopwatch function. I press start when I go on stage so I know how long I’ve done… And guess what, after performing for a number of years I’ve got a pretty good idea how long I’ve been talking for.
Setup Pause Punchline
The classic way of telling a joke is set up, pause, punchline.. It might be a simple one-liner, or it might be a slightly longer set up involving a story, however the key thing is to pause before you hit the audience with the punchline. It gives them time to process what you’ve said, and they’re expecting something; then you hit them with the punchline that causes (hopefully) that involuntary reaction we call laughter.
With presenting we’re not looking to have them rolling in the aisles but to take note of what you’re saying. Say we’re describing how a feature of our product solves a particular problem. What you shouldn’t do is show the feature (or tell them about it) and then explain its benefit. No, you tell them about the problem, pause to allow them to think about it, then show them the solution, as succinctly as possible. In comedy we sometimes add on an additional quick joke or two to an existing joke, we call these ‘toppers’ so if you’re feature provides another benefit as well then add it on as well. Just don’t over egg it, it’s unlikely one feature is going to solve everything up to and including world peace.
Comedy is unique amongst the performing arts in that you get immediate feedback to what you’re saying, hopefully in the form of a laugh. People wait until the end of a play or a song before applauding. With comedy it’s about making people laugh, sometimes one comedian will say to another after a dying at a gig “Well I really made some people smile tonight”. There’s a cartoon going around at the moment that shows the view from the stage, in the first picture there’s loads of people in the audience laughing but in the middle there’s one guy sitting there looking grumpy with his arms crossed. The second picture shows what the comedian sees – an empty theatre with one person looking grumpy with his arms crossed.. Guess what, you then spend the rest of your time trying to make that one guy laugh. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The key thing is that you’ve noticed you hadn’t got someone on board and tried to do something about it. Sometimes appearances can be deceptive… It’s happened where the grumpy guy has approached me after the show, shook my hand and said “I really enjoyed that”… To which the unspoken reply is “Well I wish you’d let your face in on the secret”.
“OK, so why’s presenting like that?” I hear you ask. Well, because you are getting immediate feedback – are they sitting forward, nodding, are they engaged. Or are they sitting back, suspicious, aloof, disengaged… If they’re the latter then those are the people you need to focus on. Stand up is a monologue, but during a presentation you can turn it into a dialogue. Ask whether this bit is relevant, see if they’ve understood it. In comedy you don’t explain the joke or repeat it (unless the joke involves explaining the joke), but in presenting if they haven’t understood it then you have to, probably in a different way or ways. And if they’re still not convinced then maybe it’s not your day. Maybe all you did was make some people smile.
Not Stepping on the laugh
You’ve just hit them with a killer line and they’re laughing like drains… (I’ve had it happen to me, no seriously)… So what do you do? You wait until they finish laughing… Nervous comedians often start telling another gag immediately – it’s known as ‘stepping on the laugh’. The problem is the audience isn’t ready and, if they’re really laughing hard, they won’t hear what you’re saying anyway… Relax, enjoy it, take a moment to bask in the limelight… then when the laughter subsides, hit them again. However, if you keep stepping on the laughs then all you’re doing is training the audience to not laugh that much.
“Well that’s all very well, isn’t it? But we’re not talking about closing at the Comedy Store here, we’re showing a bunch of people how neat our stuff is at doing that really cool thing with the aged debt report.”
And that’s exactly the point – you’ve just shown them something really important – let them take a while to digest – some people might get it straight away, others it might take a few seconds for the penny to drop… Give it some time to set. Some people might still be baffled so maybe you’ve got to repeat it. If you’re presenting to a darkened room and you’re not getting any visual clues, then maybe you’ve got to train the audience that when you pause it’s because you’ve just said something important.
Making an immediate impact
There’s a good chance the audience don’t know who you are, they’ve never seen you before. They’re hoping you’re going to be funny (after all it’s a comedy show) so it’s up to you to let them know that you are going to be funny, and that’s by making them laugh. Preferably within the first 20 seconds (it doesn’t sound a long time but trust me, look at your watch – time how long 20 seconds take) – and if you haven’t made them laugh within a minute then let me tell you, the other 9 are going to seem like an hour. OK, yes, I know, that guy off the telly, the really funny one, when you went to his show he spent about five minutes waving and smiling and generally mucking about before he told the first joke. But you knew he was going to be funny so he could afford to take the time, plus he’s got a two-hour show, he can afford to start slowly. But I’m me, you’ve never seen me before, so I’d better make sure I make an immediate impact so you trust me.
A presentation has the same sort of dynamics. The audience is hoping you’re going to be interesting, and that what you say will resonate with them. So if you do make an impact then there’s a good chance they’ll carry on listening. On the downside it’s amazing how quickly the audience can tune you out.
So if it’s a presentation – maybe open with a relevant story, if you can do humour then that’s great – if you can’t then don’t worry, not everybody can. It’s much better to start with a good story that relates to what your trying to say than reeling off a series of off-colour jokes your mate told you that aren’t funny, especially the way you tell them.
In comedy you’re advised to open with your second best joke (or bit of a routine) and end with your best bit. However, if you’re doing a demo you’re not looking to save the best til last – start with the most important bit first, then do the second most important bit next. That way you’ve maximised your chances of being successful.
The law of the expected pay off
I was talking with a couple of other comedians the other day and I came up with the law of the expected pay-off. What it means is that the longer the set-up, the greater the expectation of how funny the punch line needs to be. So if I take 5 seconds on the set up then the joke doesn’t need to be incredibly funny to get a laugh. But if I take 5 minutes on the set up then the punch line needs to be amazing otherwise the audience feels cheated and gets distracted. There’s probably a scientific formula I could come up with but there’s no money in that, not with universities scrapping research grants.
If you’re doing a demo or presentation then the same rule applies – don’t waste twenty minutes waffling on about some vague portion of system set-up – spend your time on the important bits. Plus, and this is a big but, the law of the expected pay-off works both ways – if you do a brief set-up and then hit an amazing punchline the laugh is so much greater than if you spent twice as long doing the set-up. So don’t pad the explanation. OK, maybe the feature you’re going to show is the really important one, so what, take as few words as you can to explain it and then show it. The effect will be far greater.
The barometer joke
In stand up you don’t get any time before the show to do discovery. Ok so if you’re not on first you might get some clues about what the audience like, but quite often you have to guess what sort of stuff they like. So we use things called barometer jokes – maybe one’s a pun, maybe one’s a bit risqué, maybe one’s a bit story based. The idea is you know from experience that these are funny jokes but not all audiences go for them – you’re trying to gauge what sort of stuff they like and what they don’t like. You then tailor the rest of your act to stuff you think they’ll like.
This is quite relevant when you get asked to do a demo without having the chance to do any discovery, say at a trade show, or during a first meeting when the prospect wants to get an idea of what your product can do. Rather than coming out with a list of barometer jokes then you can show them a prepared list of subjects you could demonstrate and ask the prospect to choose which one is most relevant. Some people call this the menu demo and it works well because you’re showing stuff you’ve already prepared and it’s stuff the prospect has expressed an interest in.
I’m dying here
There are going to be times when you die. And when it happens it’s a lonely cold place. Most people don’t shout out “get off, you’re rubbish”, no, you stand there in silence. Sometimes it’s a nervous embarrassed silence and sometimes it’s a horrible oppressive we hate every atom of your being silence. But you’ve agreed to do 10, 15 or 20 minutes…. You can try doing different material, maybe that can pull it round. Sometimes if you just acknowledge you’re dying it can have a dramatic affect and get the audience back on side… But sometimes nothing work and you slink off stage to a tiny patter of applause and the rest of the comedians give you that knowing look. If they’re your mates then they’ll probably find it hilarious and make great suggestions along the lines of ‘Have you thought of throwing a couple of jokes in?’… Oh well, there’s always another gig.
And the same can happen when you’re presenting – the audience aren’t responding, the demo isn’t going well, they’re hitting you with questions that are taking you away from what you’re showing. And this is when you need to acknowledge it – maybe the meeting hasn’t been set-up right – there’s been a miss-communication, maybe what you’re showing isn’t relevant. If you can address it and show them what they want then that’s great but if you can’t then remember, you haven’t been contracted to do an hour demo. It’s OK to acknowledge it and call a halt to the proceedings. Who knows, you may even get some brownie points for finishing early.
Learn it, don’t read it
I see lots of new comics make the same mistake. They read their jokes from a piece of paper, mainly because they’re frightened of forgetting their lines. But it’s bad, because if you haven’t learnt the material then you’re showing the audience you don’t have much confidence in it. Plus it’s very difficult to maintain eye-contact with the audience when you’re staring at a piece of paper. So learn it. Ok, if you’re that worried you’re going to forget it or maybe you’re doing 20 minutes then jot some key points of what bits you’re doing on the back of your hand, or on a water bottle, or on a cheat sheet you put on the floor. The main thing is have confidence in your material.
So it is with presenting – don’t read off the slides (especially don’t turn your back on the audience), don’t read your presentation off a piece of paper – learn it and present it. OK you can have a cheat sheet on the desk or lectern or maybe in pencil on the flip chart but have faith in your material – present it and there’s a chance the audience will trust you and believe in it. I know the President or the Prime Minister have their scripts on a tele prompter or those clear screens that the audience can’t read and if you are the President then that’s fine, because their script writer wrote it. But you’re not the President. So learn it.
We talk a lot about energy in comedy. That mystical force that makes the night go great. The way that it appears effortless when you perform. Similarly, we’ve all seen comedians who’ve managed to suck every ounce of energy out of a room and when that happens it’s up to the MC to get the energy back up otherwise the next comedian on is going to have to spend time getting the energy levels back up. I’m not talking about you having to run around like a maniac. Deadpan comedians can have great energy. it’s a performance skill. Ideally you want to tailor your energy level to being the right level for the room – if you’re playing a small room to twenty people there’s no point bounding on stage like you’re playing Wembley Arena, and if you are playing Wembley then you don’t need any advice from me.
With presenting read enthusiasm for energy. You want to shimmer with it. You want to broadcast confidence. You’re probably nervous but the audience don’t know that – you’re in control and at the very least you’ll gain the audience’s respect for bravery. So if you can appear confident then you’ll get a lot of kudos. Interestingly most people quote speaking in public as one of their worst fears, and when questioned usually reply it’s because they’re worried that people will laugh at them. Comedians have exactly the opposite concern.
Leave them laughing
With comedy you finish on your best material, get the big laughs and then thank the audience and walk off to the admiring gaze of the room.
With a presentation you want to finish by telling them what you’ve told them, explaining why it’s relevant and then finish. OK, you maybe have to answer some questions but right at the end you need to remind them what they’ve seen and heard and why it’s important. Finish on a high rather than just petering out. Then you get to walk off to the admiring glances of your audience and colleagues…
Two big differences
There’s two big differences between Stand Up and Presenting. Firstly, in comedy you never steal anyone else’s material. It’s the big no no. You write your own jokes. You don’t borrow another comedian’s. Because if you do then someone will call you on it, the word will get round, and the bookings will dry up.
But in presenting that’s fine – maybe Sally has got a great reference story, perhaps Bob has a really good way of explaining a particular feature – great, steal them, make them your own. Borrow ideas from everywhere – just don’t ever try to claim that it was you, not Shakespeare who wrote that play about the Danish Prince.
Secondly, and this is the big one, they’re not heckling you, they’re asking questions. If someone shouts something out at a comedy club then it’s your job to take them down. Believe me, 999 times out of a 1000 the heckle won’t be funny and will ruin the night for the rest of the audience.
But if it’s a presentation or a demo then it’s perfectly allowed. OK, so if the question is going to take you off track or is maybe not relevant to the rest of the audience then park it and say you’ll answer it ‘off-line’ (just make sure you do.)
Just remember the rules – repeat the question so that the rest of the audience can hear it and to check you’re answering the right question. If necessary check whether it’s just a general question or whether they really need to know whether your product does X – there’s no point answering a question, especially in the negative, if it’s not a requirement of theirs. This will give you time to think of a reply. And remember – you don’t have to be the fount of all knowledge. If you’re not sure then tell themyou’ll get back to them. Just make sure you do.
Being a comedian is a lot like doing a presentation – the performance skills are very similar plus there’s a great buzz when you know you’ve done a great job. So go out there and give them hell.
I’m here all week – don’t forget to tip your waitress.