What Stand Up Comedy Taught Me about Presenting
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.