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Top Three Things Speakers You Can Learn From Stand-Up Comedians
By:Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant

A duck and a platypus walked into a bar…

Starting your presentation off with a joke can be a good way to grab your audience’s attention. But there are three other really good lessons you can learn from stand-up comedians to make every talk, lecture, pitch, or presentation more entertaining, motivating, and memorable.

1. Plan for things to go wrong. Stand-up comics write “savers,” funny comebacks for the things that can go wrong. For example, the audience doesn’t laugh when they’re supposed to, someone falls asleep, the microphone stops working, cell phones go off, instead of thirty minutes there are now only seventeen for your presentation, half the audience has just rushed out of the room with food poisoning, etc.

Being able to respond to problems with a sense of humor is a great trait for speakers to possess. It shows the audience you work well under pressure and don’t let a few setbacks stop you. And, if you are able to deliver your savers as if you just thought them up off-the-cuff, the audience will be impressed by your quick wit and intellect!

The best bet is to write “savers” for the specific situations that are most likely to happen when you’re speaking. Let’s say you’re scheduled to present a PowerPoint presentation in a hotel ballroom for an audience of 350. What are the things most likely to go wrong? And how might you lighten the moment?

• Problem: Your computer and the hotel’s projector don’t work together and you have to wait five minutes for another projector to be rustled up. Saver: “Okay, I’ll be delivering my presentation using shadow puppets. Note how the rabbit has been very profitable this year…”

• Problem: Every time you press your wireless laser device to forward to the next slide, your computer brings up the task bar or the previous slide. Saver: “What you don’t know is that every time this happens, a rat somewhere is being fed a piece of cheese.”

• Problem: The microphone squeals every time you move more than four feet. Saver: “You think this is bad? You should hear what happens when I go through security at the airport!”

• Problem: Only twenty people show up. Saver: “I don’t know about you, but I prefer small audiences. We get a better chance to get to know one another. This lady in the front row, for example – I can tell you she’s married, stayed up too late last night, and wishes she hadn’t worn her 3” heels today.”

• Problem: Due to the lateness of other sessions getting out, half the group comes in during the middle of your presentation. Saver: “To recap, Kendall got pregnant with Greenlee’s baby only to find out Ryan wasn’t the father…”

• Problem: You save ten minutes for questions and there are none. Saver: “Okay, I have some questions. Why are we here? Where do socks go when they get lost in the dryer? And when does the afternoon snack arrive?”

2. Apply the rules of comedy to your presentation. Comedians all know the rules for making things funnier. These rules also apply in many cases to presentations of all kinds.

• Rule #1: Your material should be universal; meaning everyone in the room should be able to understand the material, the context, and the emotions behind both. If you are speaking to a room full of accountants and all you keep using references to quantum physics, you’re violating the rule of universality. No wonder the audience’s eyes are glazed over like so many donuts. Other things that cause problems with universality include:

- Gender – You’re a woman and your audience is mostly male (or vice-versa),

- Age – You are 50 and most of your audience has something pierced (or vice-versa),

- Culture – You’re from America and you’re speaking to an international audience (or vice-versa), or

- Region – You’re from the Midwest and you’re audience is in New York (or vice- versa).

As a result, it is very important it is to know (to the extent possible) the demographics of the people to whom you will be speaking and to make sure your references click with them.

When I was speaking regularly in Texas, I had a joke I often used that relied on the audience knowing that in the Lone Star state, the educational system is divided into Independent School Districts. I would say, “My family was so dysfunctional, the kids went to a co-dependent school district.” I learned that when not in Texas, I either had to preface th joke as I did here, or tell another one. Then, when I moved the gray and rainy Pacific Northwest, I had a similar situation. Often when I have early morning audiences in the dead of winter in Oregon or Washington, I might say something like: “It’s okay. I have S.A.D. too. Sleepy Attitude Disorder.” This is much funnier where the audience knows S.A.D. stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder.

• Rules #2: Be as specific and visual as possible. The better you can create a picture, the more engaged the audience will be in your presentation. It’s not an office, it’s a 7-foot x 7-foot cubicle wedged between the women’s bathroom and the elevator. It’s not a car, it’s an orange Yugo with no front door and a bumpersticker that says “Honk if you see things falling off.”

The problem with not being specific is that each audience member begins to paint his or her own picture and it can take you too long to reel them back in so that you’re all on the same page again.

• Rule #3: When dealing with topics that are still painful to the audience (recent tragic events, lay-offs at work, new management, budget cuts, etc.), use exaggeration in your examples to keep things in perspective. Here’s an example: “Things have been really stressful at work, what with the new CEO, the changes in our job description, and the dress code that requires everyone to wear prison uniforms on Wednesdays.” While the first two items may be true, the third one will relieve the pressure by letting the audience laugh.

There is a basic rule in comedy that Comedy = Tragedy plus Time. If not enough time has passed, comedians substitute Exaggeration for Time. They both provide distance from the sensitive issue and perspective. If you exaggerate enough, it doesn’t look like you’re dealing with the real issue and the audience may be more receptive to your message. There’s an old joke letter that made the rounds on the Internet a few years ago in which a teenage daughter writes to her mother that she’s just discovered she’s pregnant by her boyfriend who has decided to have a sex change operation, even though she has his name tattooed on her thigh. At the end of the letter, she admits to making it all up because she just needed a few bucks to pay the rent. The exaggeration makes the truth seem more acceptable by comparison.

• Rule #4: KISS (Keep it simple, stupid.) Make your presentation only as long as it needs to be. Avoid complex ideas that require more thought than the audience will have time for; those are better discussed in breakout sessions or meetings. There’s almost nothing worse than an hour-long speech with only ten minutes of “stuff” in it.

I once heard a speaker spend almost twenty minutes trying to describe the diagram he had on a single slide. If your slides are that complicated, they’re better left to handouts rather than presentations. Instead of considering your presentation a way to showcase your intellect (unless you’re at a MENSA meeting), consider the simplicity of Show and Tell a better way to approach your presentation. I myself usually forgo PowerPoint presentations, overheads, or slides in lieu of props and hats. I can make the same points and in a way that is not only simpler, but more memorable. Be honest, if my point is that 67% of Americans feel that our country has gotten ruder in the past five years, would you remember that better if I illustrated it with a pie chart or did a little comedy bit in which I pretend to be a salesclerk talking on her phone while running the register?

• Rule #5: It happened today (or at the latest, yesterday.) Use present tense verbs to give your presentation a feeling of being topical and urgent. Americans are an instant gratification, attention-deficit society. If it feels like you’re presenting old news, you’ll probably get tuned out quickly, unless, of course, you’re delivering a speech on Celebrities of the Greco-Roman Empire.

Here’s an example of how you can increase the audience’s interest by changing the tense of your verbs. Let’s say you’re comparing the organization of your company today to five year’s ago. When talking about the past, you could say: “Five year’s ago we were wondering if we would ever succeed in selling our spray bottle fans. Then Jolene comes in (notice change in verb tense) and she’s having a hot flash and we all look at each other and bingo, we know just the market for our product.”

3. When relying on humor in your presentation, take a cue from the tried-and-true comedy writing formulas that are easiest for non-comedians to use. By using professional joke-writing techniques, you can tailor jokes to the topic and the audience like a pro. The joke styles that are easiest include:

• Cliché jokes. You can write this type of joke by taking a cliché or advertising slogan and change the ending. For example, if you were speaking to a group of veterinary dentists: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him floss.” For brain surgeons, “No brain, no gain.” For home brewers, “Just brew it!” For pet shop owners, “A bird in the hand is messier than two in the bush.”

• Definition jokes. These take words and acronyms and redefine them so that there is still some truth, but it’s twisted in a funny way. For example, “I haven’t gained weight. I’ve experienced personal growth.” That’s a redefinition of the concept of “personal growth.” Or “My eye doctor said I had Presbyopia. I told him that was impossible, I’m Lutheran.” This joke is depends on the audience knowing that Presbyopia is far-sightedness and would work best with middle-aged audiences or those in the eye care industry. It’s an example of something that might not have universality for all audiences.

A great way to throw some personalized humor into your presentation is to take the acronym of the group or an acronym the group often uses and redefine what it stands for. Again, things are usually funnier if they retain a bit of truth. For example, IBM could stand for “Irate Bingo Mamas,” but that doesn’t have much relevance to the real IBM. On the other hand, “Itty Bitty Machines” does. While OCO might stand for Oregon Credit Organization, if you say it means “Overworked Chocoholics Organization,” chances are there’ll be plenty of truth in that as well.

• List of three jokes. This is one of the most commonly used joke styles of all; it’s simply a list in which the first two things go together and the third is unexpected. For example: “The only things we can do to prevent lay-offs this year are put a freeze on hiring, cut back on raises, and track down Rumplestilskin and have him spin our shredded documents into gold.” Or: “Most of the children in home-school programs are intelligent, independent, and always eat their own lunch.”

• Top 10 Lists. You’re undoubtedly familiar with Top 10 lists from David Letterman, but you don’t have to have ten items on the list, it can be top 5 or top 7, etc. This is an effective way to use humor, but only if done visually. Studies show that the human mind has trouble remembering more than three things in a list, so by the time you got to #4, most of the audience will have forgotten what it was a list of. Put your top 10 list on slides, overheads, or a flip chart. Here’s an example:

Top 5 Ways for Speakers to Stay Awake While Speaking

5. Eat jalapeno anchovy pizza immediately prior to your speech.
4. Place boa constrictor in your underwear
3. Velcro your eyelids open
2. Set your beeper to go off every 5 minutes in vibrator mode
1. Employ a German shepherd to goose you from behind

By using some of these tips as you write your next presentation, you’re bound to kill – that’s comedy talk for “blow the room away.”

(C) 2006 Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant

Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant, M.P.H. (master of public health/mistress of public humor)http://www.accidentalcomic.com

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