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Giving A Presentation? Take A Tip From Some Standup Comics

July 6, 2021

Hamlet public speaking giving speech to skulls holding audience in palm of his handIt’s presentation time. You’re going to get up in front of people and talk to them about something. blank vertical space, 16 pixels highHere’s my advice: go to school on standup comics and do what they do.

Alarm sounding red alert

 

 

Wait, wait– cancel Red Alert!!
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I am NOT saying you should be a standup comic. (Although humor is an important ingredient in any successful talk.)blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

I’m saying that standup comics have little tricks of the trade.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

You can use these same tactics to make your next speech or presentation successful.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Here they are:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

1. Never finish your presentation on a Q&Ablank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Picture this: You’ve given your talk. You’ve ended it on a rousing note. You’re done. But you’re not quite done. Now comes Q&A. You ask: “Does anyone have a question?”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

And there’s silence. No one raises their hand. Or worse, some windbag stands up and starts telling a story that has nothing to do with what you’ve talked about. The audience gets bored and restless and you’re left hanging there. Your brilliant talk ends on a lame note.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

No standup comic would allow the audience to hijack his act at the end.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

So take questions just before you wrap up. Before you show your final slide. When there are no more questions, launch into your closing and end your presentation on your own terms.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

2. Delay keywords till the end of a sentenceblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Example: a comic is telling a funny story. He’s coming to the end. In the story, he’s taking the lid off a box. He tells the audience:blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

“There was a cat in the box.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Maybe he gets a laugh. But he’d get a much bigger laugh if he delayed the surprise till the end:blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

“And in that box… there was a cat…”blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

The “keyword delay” works just as well with facts and statistics.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

“We’ve had an 80% growth rate year after year” doesn’t register with the same impact as “Year after year, we’ve had a growth rate of 80%.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

The latter phrasing gives you an enforced pause for effect. Your audience will pick up on it. They’ll jot that fact down, or tweet it out.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

3. Tell stories that draw on your own real life experiencesblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Comics do this all the time. For some, it’s their whole routine. A lot of these stories are about embarrassing situations. The audience loves it. You’re demonstrating openness and humility. They’re rooting for you. They’re on your side.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Personal stories are also the safest stories to tell. Because you know them by heart. You’ve shared them with family and friends, and you know they work. You even get requests for them: “Tell that one about the time you…”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

And personal stories are unique to you. Anyone can speak on a topic, but no one else has your “lived” perspective on it.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

After you tell the story, tie it back to whatever point you’re trying to make. Build a little bridge. “I told you that story because… (insert loose connection).”blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

4. Don’t be visibly dependent on written notesblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

David Nihill says that “once the audience sees you with paper in hand they subconsciously assume you are unprepared, nervous and unlikely to be worth their attention.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

His solution: hide a notecard behind some water bottles. If you draw a blank, walk over, take a drink, and sneak a peek at your notes. The audience will just think you’re thirsty.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Now that’s clever, but it’s a bit too cloak-and-dagger for me.
I see no problem with having a notecard in your hand. Just don’t walk onstage with a fistful of paper.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

5. Use visualsblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Comedian Sammy Wegent says most business presenters have a big advantage over standup comics: a giant screen the audience is staring at the whole time.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

He notes that today, visual humor has never been bigger. “So don’t just say funny things in your presentation. Show funny things, too.”blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

6. Be fully visible to your audienceblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Nihill says that podiums make people think of lectures and boring speeches and politicians. He recommends getting out where people can see you. If there’s a microphone stand, take the mic out, move the stand aside, and walk around.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

He says that “often the audience needs to see you to fully trust you.” Psychologically, I think that makes sense. It puts you closer to the audience, which projects candor and honesty.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

7. Get the audience clappingblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

A trick for quieting a room: Let’s say it’s time to begin your presentation. You’re on your own. There’s no host to introduce you. The audience hasn’t settled down yet, they’re still chatting.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

The trick: Ask the audience to clap if they can hear you. When a couple of people begin clapping, start clapping yourself until others join in. And they will join in because groups produce conformity. People will assume you said something worthy of applause and join in.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

8. Don’t ask the audience a question, ask them to DO somethingblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Wrong: “How many people think Mark Armstrong is a great illustrator?”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Right: “By your applause, how many people think Mark Armstrong is a great illustrator?” (insert thunderous ovation here)blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Be clear about what you want them to do.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

9. Use The Rule of Threeblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

The Rule of Three is based on the fact that human beings process information through pattern recognition.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Three is the smallest number that allows us to recognize a pattern in a set, which makes “threes” easier to remember than, say, groups of two or five.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Comedians use the Rule of Three to craft three-part jokes (set up, build up, punch line).blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Like this one:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Three guys are sitting in a bar.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

The first guy says, “It’s funny– my wife was reading A Tale of Two Cities and she gave birth to twins.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

“I’ll be darned,” says the second guy. “My wife was reading The Three Musketeers and she gave birth to triplets.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

The third guy jumps up and yells, “I gotta get home!”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

“What’s wrong??” cry the other two guys.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Third guy says: “When I left the house tonight, my wife was reading Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves!”blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

The Rule is also used in stories like The Tree Little Pigs:blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

The first pig sets up the story by building his house of straw, which the wolf blows down. The same thing happens to the second pig’s stick house, creating a sense of anticipation. The third pig breaks the pattern when he builds his house out of bricks, which drives the fable’s resolution.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Use the Rule of Three when you craft your presentation: give it an introduction, body and conclusion. In the words of Dale Carnegie:blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.” (note use of the Rule again)blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Then apply the Rule to the body of your speech: break it into three ideas you’d like to present. Fewer than three, your presentation will seem thin; more than three, you risk boring your audience. Three ideas strikes the right balance.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

10. Use a callbackblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Comics use callbacks to get extra laughs. In a callback, they refer back to a joke they told earlier in the set. Kind of an inside joke for the audience.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Callbacks, whether they’re funny or not, also enhance memory. So when you conclude your presentation, refer back to something you said earlier. It’s a way of emphasizing your core message, something you want the audience to remember.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

11. Think fun over funnyblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

“Making people laugh is only one type of humor; getting them to smile is another,” says Andrew Tarvin. “When starting out, focus on making things fun as opposed to making things funny.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

That’s an incredibly important point, and one I tried to make in a post called Humor In Content Marketing: It’s NOT About Being Funny.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

When you create content or give a presentation, “humor” is not about telling jokes or being a standup comic. It’s about being genial, positive, upbeat, and ready to laugh and poke fun at yourself. It’s putting others at ease, which is what makes communication possible.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

12. Have fun yourselfblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

“Don’t put something out there that bores you. If it bores you to tell it, you can bet it will bore your audience to hear it,” says Sal Calanni.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Two final thoughts:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Keep it short.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Dave Nihill claims that “the human attention span deteriorates after 9.59 minutes and never recovers.” I can’t find anything to back that up, but it sounds about right to me.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Acknowledge the obvious and never ignore disruptions.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Mr. Nihill says he once saw a speaker interrupted by a fire alarm. He announced he only had 15 slides left and would rush through. No doubt the audience’s attention was elsewhere.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

I’m done. Here’s my callback: Don’t try to be a standup comic, but do think about using their tactics in your next presentation.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       * blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

About Mark: I’m an illustrator specializing in humor, branding, social media, and content marketing. My images are different, like your brand needs to be.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

You can view my portfolio, and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Questions? Send me an email.blank vertical space, 40 pixels highRecommendation testimonial for Mark Armstrong Illustration from Charles McNair Pulitzer Prize nominated author Land O' Goshen storyteller creative communicator

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2021 5:47 AM

    Ah, good old public speaking. Thank the lecture halls, those days are behind me! 😋 Nothing beats fumbling with note cards while keeping eye contact with the audience and not spilling water down your front because your throat won’t become unparched. Fun times!

    Like

    • July 13, 2021 2:48 PM

      Hi, Steve!! Sincere apologies for this very tardy reply, and thanks so much for your comment– which made me laugh out loud! I’ve done some public speaking (nothing recent), and man, early on, I was a wreck. Like anything else it gets easier if you do it enough, but I’ve never felt fully relaxed in front of a crowd. And don’t even get me started on the “3-minute speeches” I first encountered in 9th grade!!

      Nowadays, “Don’t be afraid to fail, trying and failing is how you ultimately become successful” seems like a cliche– you hear it all the time. I could have used that advice back in 9th grade and for many years after!! Ah, well. Hope all’s well with you, and thanks again! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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