7 Presentation Tips from Stand-up Comedians
By John Millen
By now you no doubt know that I believe there’s a fascinating story in all of us. All we have to do is ask people about their stories and listen. That’s why I accept offers for coffee or calls with readers when time allows.
I was rewarded when I recently had Wednesday coffee with Daniel Steinberg, a longtime reader. I learned that Steinberg, a Rabbi and educator here in Columbus, Ohio had for almost a decade pursued a career in comedy, after serving as a young intern for Saturday Night Live and the Howard Stern Show.
Last year, Daniel again got the creative itch and began writing and performing shows here in Columbus. You can learn more about Daniel at the end of this article.
What follows are seven tips from Steinberg about the lessons we can learn from comedians for our own presentations.
1) Treat an audience of three like three thousand. Comic Kirk Fox says this because every audience, no matter how large, is comprised of individuals, and every individual is deserving of your best presentation.
2) Treat an audience of three thousand like an audience of three. Fox also says not to be daunted by the numbers. Speak to this group of assembled strangers as if they belong together, and you will bring them together and create as intimate an environment as your own living room.
3) Nervous? Acknowledge it and they’ll love you for it. There is a scene at the beginning of Richard Pryor’s stand-up comedy special Live at the Sunset Strip, where, in a moment of openness and vulnerability he calls for some water to help calm his nerves.
After taking a drink, he candidly confesses to the audience: “All I needed was some water to calm down, re-lax. Because I know you all want me to do well, and I want so much to do well for you. But let’s just relax, calm down, and let whatever happens, happen.” The crowd erupted into loving applause. It worked wonders to completely disarm the crowd and win them over to his side for the rest of the show.
4) Write a “set list”. Prior to a show, comedians will prepare a short, bulleted point list of the topics they plan to talk about, and possibly a few subcategories under each main point. This serves two purposes: Studying your set list will help you recall the sequence of your content far easier than merely memorizing everything you’re going to talk about in the order you plan on presenting it.
And writing a set list forces you to consider the structure of your content. Is there a natural progression from the first topic to the last? If not, consider revisiting your subject matter and its order, until an implicit narrative emerges that weaves everything together.
5) Have a go-to story or joke. Even the most seasoned professionals go blank onstage from time to time and forget what they were going to say next. Comedians always have a stockpile of “street jokes” at their fingertips for just this occasion. Street jokes are humorous, non-original jokes whose structure is perfect for impromptu telling, regardless of the context. (“Did you hear the one about…?”)
This buys them the several moments they need to recall their routine and get back on track, without losing the audience in the process. Curate funny jokes and interesting stories and you’ll never appear to be at a loss for words, even when you are.
6) Hold their attention. Analyze your favorite contemporary comedians and you’ll notice they deliver a laugh every three or four lines. That’s what it takes nowadays to hold an audience’s attention. While your goal might be to educate or persuade rather than to entertain, be conscious when preparing your speech of how long you go before providing another engaging or fascinating nugget.
7) Always leave ‘em laughing. It’s tempting to give your audience everything you’ve got, but in show business the rule is, “Always leave them wanting more.” Quit a great presentation on a high note, while you’re ahead, and they’ll keep coming back for more of you every time. Stuff them with too much and you’re likely to make them sick of you.
Many thanks, Sunday Coffee newsletter reader Daniel for these tips from professional comedians that can be helpful with our every day presentations.
Let me add that one of the most frequent questions I get in my presentations skills training is whether to start with a joke. The answer is, if you're not naturally funny, no.
If you are naturally funny, maybe -- if the joke is tasteful and perfectly relevant to your point. In most cases, the risk outweighs the reward.