Lessons in Public Speaking From a Stand-Up Comedian

What Exactly Goes Into Preparation

  • Anticipating obstacles and having a plan B, a detour, or amendment in place and ready to go.
  • Knowing the precise timing of the material you are delivering. You may not have a clear understanding of what exactly your presentation is highlighting until you’ve timed it and timed all its sections. You may find that you’re spending too much time on one section to the detriment of another.
  • Knowing the room. This expression is usually used to refer to the audience, but knowing the room, literally, is also very important.
  • Knowing the other speakers/performers. The person or persons who speak before you — and this includes the host or MC — will set the tone for the event. You need to understand what kind of tone they will set so that your presentation does not stick out in a bad way.
  • Knowing the lighting. The stage lighting affects how or if the speaker/performer is able to see the audience.

How to Recover From a Poor Opening

What Not To Do

  • What you perceive to be a poor opening might be just that — your perception. The audience — or at least a portion of the audience — might not have noticed, or they might think the opening was quite good. Just because you didn’t get the reaction you anticipated doesn’t mean the audience isn’t engaged. Different audiences show their appreciation in different ways.
  • When you apologize or self-deprecate you draw attention to the misstep. You also show a lack of confidence and are likely to cause the audience to doubt you going forward.
  • Once you go off script, you’ve immediately failed at what you set out to do — deliver the message you came to deliver. If you follow a poor opening with a poor presentation and a poor ending, at least you will have accomplished your main objective — to deliver the message you prepared to deliver. Then you will need to go back through your material or watch a video of your performance to understand where it went wrong. In the middle of your performance is not the time to do that.

What To Do

  • Literally, take a moment, a breath. You don’t want to quickly transition into the next part of your set/presentation. Instead, you need to mark the end of the opening with a beat or two of silence. This sets it apart from the rest of your set/presentation. It gives you a new start, as it were.
  • Give yourself and your audience a new perspective before you go into the next part of your presentation. A new perspective can be accomplished simply by taking a step or two and facing the audience from a different point on the stage.
  • Making a slight adjustment to your posture or changing how you hold the microphone will help give the next part of your set/presentation a different look and a different feel. You don’t want to acknowledge the weak opening verbally, but you can and should distance yourself from it physically — both for your sake and for that of the audience.

The Little Things That Can Make the Difference

  • I am not a big fan of moving while I’m talking, not counting hand and facial gestures. And I mean that in a literal sense. When I talk, I stand still. I will, however, shift positions or take a step in between sentences when I’m taking a breath, and only in those moments.
  • I’m not suggesting this approach should be used by everyone. But I do recommend paying attention to how you incorporate silence into your presentation, how you handle it, and what you are doing with yourself in those moments.
  • Silence can be unsettling for the audience, but it is necessary. When I reserve movements only to those moments of intentional silence, I am showing the audience that I am still in control, they need not be unsettled. Also, by standing still while I’m speaking, I draw attention to my every sentence.
  • When I deliver a joke that lands especially well, I’m not quick to get off it. In fact, often I will repeat the punchline. I milk that cow until it’s dry.
  • What I won’t do is repeat the punchline with different words (unless it’s in my script). I will repeat the same punchline with the same words, perhaps changing the inflection and adding a gesture.
  • In smaller venues or in more intimate settings, after having delivered the joke to the audience as a whole, I will focus my attention on a single audience member and deliver the punchline for just that person. It works every time.

The Takeaway

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