What speakers can learn from comedians
May 26, 2014 By Dan Dion


Nobody has more speaking engagements than full-time comedians.
A working New York comic might have three sets on weekend nights and three gigs “on the road” during the week. One show may have them doing a set to corporate executives at a luncheon, and the next in front of rowdy drunks in a sports bar. This has made them experts at knowing their audience, tailoring material, and being able to handle almost any situation. Here’s some things you can learn from these dynamic speakers.

Open with a good joke

Of course, first impressions are critical to public speakers, and the ability to make people laugh in introductory remarks cannot be overvalued. But whereas comedians can make a point about their personal point of view, for the typical speaker, it’s best to stick with something simple, clever, and free of politics or anything potentially offensive. Something site-specific is good (“It’s great to be back in San Francisco. I got in last weekend and I just found parking.”) Avoid hokey bits that may appear like they’re from a joke book, and steer clear of anything resembling an insult, however good spirited.

Confidence, with a tad of self-deprecation

One thing almost ALL comedians have in common is an air of self-confidence. The constant tone of their material contains the assumption that what they have to say is worth listening to — that they are an authority on their chosen subjects, however fleeting. That said, they avoid confidence seeming like arrogance by sprinkling their material with self-deprecation. Nobody likes a know-it-all, but someone who can simultaneously admit his own shortcomings in a humorous way can really endear himself to the listener.

Know your audience

Comedians can quickly “read the crowd,” be it by the way they are dressed, the demographic, or the audience chatter before a performance. As a speaker, you should try to hone this skill as well. If you are speaking at a private event, get as much information beforehand about who will be attending. Are they mostly from one profession? Are they deep-pocket donors? Are they young tech nerds? Are you speaking in the middle of the day, or are you the evening’s entertainment? Knowledge is definitely power, especially if your presentation lends itself to adjustments and off-the-cuff remarks.

Callbacks & repetition

Chris Rock has a well-known chunk of material about race and economic disparity where he says no less than five times “I’m not talking about RICH, I’m talking about WEALTH.” Rock is brilliant social observer, and he uses a sledgehammer to drive home his points. You needn’t yell like he does, but the repetition of an important phrase can add emphasis to your primary message. Just be sure you repeat the phrase more than twice, so it is clear what you are doing is intentional. Another technique is the “callback” where you reference something at the end that you highlighted in the beginning. It can be a great way to reveal a surprise, tie up a loose end, or put an exclamation point on your presentation.

Close strong

Comedians often finish their set on a callback, because the crowd reaction to getting the joke is universal — you’ve already assured them that the reference won’t be lost. The reasoning behind this is to always “close strong.” Their thinking is to leave the audience wanting more, but to be satisfied that they’ve just seen a great show because they remember laughing until the end. You may have a different action item in mind — to make a sale, convince skeptics, or to just generate enthusiasm, so your closing should be the strongest part of your speech. It may take some trial and error to find out what works best, but finding a strong closing can not only make or break a speech, but can mean the difference in getting your next booking.
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