Serious Presentation Tips From Standup Comics


A version of this article previously appeared on Inc.

The worlds of standup comedy and business presentations are not as disparate as they may appear at first glance.

Comedians are entrepreneurs. They often write their own material, book their gigs, arrange their travel and negotiate and collect their compensation from club owners. In addition, both comedians and entrepreneurs must engage and entertain their demanding audiences. As such, there is much entrepreneurs can learn from their comic brethren.

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Comedic Tips

The following characteristics of a successful comedy routine are also applicable to effective business presentations:

1. Strong StartGrab your audience’s attention and tell them who you are and why they must listen.

Due to their limited stage time, comedians must quickly set the tone of their act. Often the success or failure of the opening joke determines how well a routine is received. When appropriate, open your business presentations with an anecdote or personal story that establishes affinity with your audience. Such a story should tell the audience, who you are, what your passion is and why they should share your passion.

2. Physical Humor Use your voice, posture, gestures and physical appearance to establish the appropriate tenor.

Successful comedians are well aware that it is often not what they say, but how they say it, that has the greatest impact. Studies have shown that approximately 55% of a speaker’s communication during the first few minutes of a presentation is nonverbal, while an additional 38% is tone of voice. A mere 7% of a speaker’s initial communications comprise the words they utter.

3. Heckler Management Do not alienate your audience by shutting down troublesome critics too quickly.

An audience has a group identity, even when they do not know each other or have any formal affiliation. This effectively creates an “us versus them” paradigm between the speaker and the audience.

Experienced comedians understand this dynamic. They know that if they prematurely shut down a heckler, they risk alienating the crowd. Instead, veteran comedians endure a heckler’s interruptions until it is clear that the audience is also annoyed, at which point the comedian shuts down the heckler with the audience’s implicit approval.

The success or failure of business presentations often rests upon the questions and answers following the formal pitch. An audience member who asks an irrelevant or nonsensical question is analogous to a heckler at a comedy show. The presenter must respond respectfully. If the questioner continues to ask off-base or overly pointed questions, the audience will eventually become agitated. Once their impatience is evident, the speaker should politely dismiss the questioner by indicating they will address their additional questions after the presentation has concluded.

4. Audience Repartee Carefully orchestrate your audience interactions, especially questions and answers.

Comedians often ask their audience questions and make comments about peoples' wardrobes, dates, drinks, etc. If you pay close attention, you will notice that these comments are often not directed to anyone in particular. However, the audience assumes that the guy drinking the “girlie drink” in the back of the room really exists.

Entrepreneurs clearly are not well served by chiding or mocking their audience. However, soliciting their participation can help keep an audience engaged. If the crowd’s size is intimate, engage participants by using their first names and ask probing questions to uncover hidden concerns and objections. Comedians often ask questions to set up their punch lines. In business presentations, you can deploy the same approach to underscore your key selling points.

5. Rehearsed SpontaneityPractice so thoroughly that your remarks seem fresh and spontaneous.

The documentary The Comedian chronicles Jerry Seinfeld’s effort to create a new comedy routine. It makes clear that even a talented comic's new material usually bombs. Comedy requires extensive trial and error to separate the bad bits from those that work. The same is true with business presentations.

The next time you attend a comedy show, watch the waitstaff. In most cases, they stoically move about the room, even when the audience is laughing uproariously. Why? Because they have heard the jokes over and over, in the same order and delivered in the same “spontaneous” way. Great comedy appears off-the-cuff and effortless, yet it is usually the result of painstaking practice.

When we took Computer Motion (NASDAQ: RBOT, sold to Intuitive Surgical) public, we conducted a three-week road show in which the executive team gave the same presentation day after day, often multiple times per day. Our most effective presentations were those in which our well-rehearsed “adlibbing” sounded spontaneous. If you prepare thoroughly, you can achieve the same rehearsed spontaneity that distinguishes professional comics from amateurs.

6. SeguesMake it easy for your audience to follow your story, especially when transitioning between its beginning, middle and end.

Proper pacing is of vital importance in comedy. Comedians must allow adequate time for the audience to comprehend each joke and react appropriately. At the same time, too many pauses make for a dull routine.

One way to ensure effective pacing is to establish segues that alert the audience when you move from one subject to another. In comedy, empty phrases such as, “Anyone here from New York?” or “Did you guys hear the news story about... ?” are often used to mark transitions between topics. Such verbal landmarks give the audience a chance to catch their breath, while guiding them to the next subject. Entrepreneurs should afford their audiences similar mental respites and clear transitions.

7. HumorUtilize tactful humor that is relevant to your story.

Deft use of humor is the greatest lesson entrepreneurs can learn from comedians. As described more fully in PowerPoint Presentations That Suck Less, business presentations do not have to be boring. Interjecting humor into your talks, when done judiciously, can make them more engaging, and thus, more impactful. Engaged people are persuadable people.

8. FiniClose with impact and clearly communicate your call-to-action.

Comedians often deploy the bookend technique, in which they reference their opening joke at the conclusion of their show. This gives their performance a feeling of completion and symmetry. Entrepreneurs can utilize this approach as well, by referring to their opening personal story in their closing remarks.

Whatever closing technique you deploy, call upon your inner-comic and end your talk on an applause line that underscores a clear call to action.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet about standup comedy or that killer burrito I just ate.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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