Here are a few lessons we speakers can learn from the laugh-makers:
Own The Stage
I’ve been backstage with Bob Hope when he was weary. He would sit slumped in his chair eager for the evening’s entertainment to end. Yet when his theme music played and the emcee began his introduction, Bob Hope would stand tall and march onto the stage with determination.
All the great entertainers do more than simply make an entrance; they commandeer the stage. They let the audience know immediately who is in charge, who will be orchestrating the evening’s excitement.
The same should be true for a speaker. When you are brought to the podium, capture it and the listeners. Don’t relinquish your authority until it’s time for your “thank you” and “goodnight.”
Know What You Are Going To Say
A recurring dream – no, nightmare – I have (and you probably do too) is that I am called to the microphone to “say a few words.” When I get there, I can’t think of a thing to say. I stand there frozen.
I remember working with the legendary comic actress, Lucille Ball. I told her we were adding a small bit to the show we were doing. She said, “Fine, let me see the script.” I said, “It’s just an adlib bit. We won’t have
a script.” She said, “I tried that once when I was a young actress and I died onstage.
I want to see a script.” Lucy wanted to know what she was going to say. We
got her a script. Comedians know they need material. They know where the laughs are and how to get them.
Speakers, too, should know their message and how to deliver it before they approach the lectern.
Respect Your Audience
A comedian’s formula is very simple – if I get laughs, I’m a
success; if I don’t get laughs, I’m a flop. And each comedian knows where those laughs come from: They come from the people sitting out front. I once heard a beginning comic being chastised by an old pro. The veteran said to the newcomer after a sub-par performance, “You quit out there tonight.” The neophyte said, “I had to. That was a bad audience.” The wily old-timer said, “No sir. When it’s a bad audience, you have to work harder.”
Good audiences are to be cherished and enjoyed, but all audiences are to be respected. A speaker owes all his or her listeners courtesy, consideration and the best darn per- formance you can offer. In other words, be professional.
Build Up To Your Message
A comedian’s message usually is the punch line. That which produces the laugh is sacred to a comic. It’s the entire purpose of the performance. Consequently, every- thing else in the presentation is there to promote, enhance and reinforce the punch line.
I know because I have worked into the early hours of the morning with some comics who insisted that this word be changed, or that phrase be replaced, or this sentence be relocated – do something, they would plead; do anything to make the joke stronger.
As a speaker, your message should be as sacred as the comic’s punch line. You should work as hard and as intelligently as you can to promote, enhance and reinforce your overriding theme.
Wait For Your Laughs
I have coached many beginning standup comics. Before I hear any of their material or see them step onto a stage, I offer one bit of advice that applies to and can benefit all of them – “speak slowly.” Young comics are usually ner- vous and want to get on stage and off as fast as possible. So they rush. If the act is going well, they get excited. So they rush. If the act is going badly, they want to escape. So they rush.
Polished comedy performers value the jokes they’re telling. They want the audience to hear every word,
every nuance. So they take their time. They even pause at critical points in the presentation to build suspense. “Something wonderful is coming,” they seem to be telling the listeners, “but I’m going to make you wait just a little longer for it.”
When they do deliver the comic gem, they wait for the impact to sink in. They wait for their laughs.
You, the speaker, have something wonderful for your listeners, also. Don’t rush them through it. Let them savor it, wallow in it. Let them hear every delicious word and give them time to appreciate it.
Don’t Let Them See You Sweat
This admonition was popularized in TV commercials not too long ago. “No matter how badly you’re doing,” various comics advised, “don’t let them see you sweat.” I heard
Bob Newhart talking about sub-standard performances one night. He admitted he had them. In fact, he said that any comic who said he never had an off night was not telling the truth.
I remember a lecture I delivered in a movie theater. I had been working to the crowd in the back of the hall and the balcony. It occurred to me I should pay some attention to the people in the first few rows. I glanced down and the entire front row was catching a nap.
Many comedians will tell you, almost fondly, of their disastrous shows. One thing they won’t tell you, though, is how they gave up on those shows. The pros don’t. As mentioned earlier, they work harder.
You will have many lectures that go through the roof. Unfortunately, you’ll also have a few that just sit there. Learn from the comics and give each performance your all. Determine in your own mind that if you have an off night, it will really be the audience’s fault – not yours.
Learn From Others
Many years ago I went on tour with a comedian I was writing for, and I rarely saw his act. Each night he sent me to other clubs to see what other comedians were doing. It wasn’t that we would borrow material or any- thing like that. This comic just wanted to see what the others were doing, what worked, what the audiences did and didn’t appreciate.
All of us can learn from other speakers. We can pick up effective gestures that might work in our own speech- es. We can learn from their dramatic pauses. We might see how they handle props and visuals. We might just become better speakers by listening to and learning from better speakers.
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
Good comics are not afraid to be the foil of their own gags. When writing dialogue for a particular comedian and his guest, I gave the comic (since he signed my checks) some really powerful lines. However, he revised the script. When the show was performed, all my funny lines were given to the guest. They got beautiful, giant, boffo laughs.
I asked the performer why he made those changes. He told me, “The audience always likes it when the guest star does clever put downs of the star.” He was not only will- ing to be the butt of his own jokes, but relished it. The laughs were bigger; the show was better.
As speakers we often have momentous messages that should be treated respectfully. But we should remember it’s the message that’s important; not us personally. If you can present a sense of humor about yourself, the audience will respect that. They’ll listen to your important message even more eagerly.
Speak The Truth
Early in my comedy writing career, I sent several gags to Phyllis Diller. I was especially proud of one in particular. However, Phyllis turned it down. I was so stunned that I had the audacity to ask her about it. I said, “Why did you turn that one joke down.” She said, “It wasn’t true, and honey, if it’s not true, don’t send it to me.”
Comics can exaggerate, distort, twist, bend, rearrange – do lots of things with facts. However, for a joke to be truly effective, the audience must recognize some truthful, realistic basis for it. It must have an honest foundation.
In my presentation, during questions and answers, someone will often ask if a certain anecdote is true. I tell the audience very frankly, “Everything I say in my talk is either true or would have been true if it had actually happened.”
Yes, I manipulate some facts in order to emphasize the humor, but it remains based in recognizable reality. As a speaker, you have a message you are delivering. It should be based on valid, honest, well-researched facts.
It sounds so simple, and it is. Comedians love to entertain. They enjoy the laughter and the applause. Once Bob Hope was going on a vacation to a remote part of Alaska. He was going to be gone for four weeks and would be away from phones. We writers couldn’t reach him and he couldn’t reach us. Frankly, I was looking forward to this vacation of my own.
After three days, he called me for material. I said, “Where are you?” He said, “I’m home.” I said, “I thought you were going fishing in Alaska for a few weeks?” He said, “I found out fish can’t applaud.”
Comedians have fun on stage. When they do, people have fun in the audience.
Enjoy your time on the podium, and the listeners will enjoy themselves, too. Luckily, laughter, enjoyment and happiness are contagious.
by Gene Perret