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Nothing is harder than delivering a “tight five” in a crowded bar. For a professional keynote speaker seeking to level up, stand-up comedy is the perfect training ground. Specifically, learning the tricks and techniques of comedians. What I gained from my time in the comedic Dojo and how I became hooked along the way.

As a professional keynote speaker, I decided I needed to level up. I was looking for a rigorous training program that would either kill me or make me strong.I found stand-up comedy classes and decided to go for it.

Stand-up comedy class is serious business. We had homework – reading and assignments – and grueling practice performances. We were a rag-tag group of unlikely performers, dutifully entering the Dojo once a week to practice. The final exam was a live set, delivered in a real comedy club to actual, paying customers.

It was an extraordinary amount of effort, fun and fear all at once. It immediately expanded my boundaries and comfort zone and providing a new tool in the box going forward.

When we laugh, our defenses are down. We’re relaxed and ready to absorb new information. Concepts that are technical and dull suddenly become interesting and memorable. We are engaged, we pay attention. The information goes straight to our long-term memory centers.

There are also changes in the brain: humor leads to open-mindedness and increases the emotional connection with the presenter, providing a more positive atmosphere in the room[i]. We connect positively with both the speaker and the ideas he’s sharing[ii].

The quality of a business presentation is measured by the value of the information, the effectiveness of the slides and presence of the speaker. Your audience is there to learn, not laugh. You have about 50 minutes to mess up, get sidetracked and find your way back to your point. You can hide behind your slides, tell an anecdote and still deliver a message. You often have notes, videos and props and time to answer questions.

With stand-up, it’s just you and a microphone. You’re alone on a stage with less than eight minutes to entertain your crowd. The audience is there to laugh. But rarely gives this away for free.

Performance is measured in the number and intensity of laughs. In the end, it doesn’t really matter how you get there – with accents, act outs, a dry persona or a witty pun – every laugh counts. Due to the shortage of time, you use only the bare number of words needed to set up a punchline. A joke lands if the final word is the funniest, closing a loop. Your set therefore has to be memorized practically word for word. Forget one word in the sequence, and its… crickets. Which feels a little bit like dying.

Achieving audience laughter is a complex algorithm, both a science and an art. It’s a combination of good writing, structure, storytelling, presence and flawless delivery. The energy you bring, your confidence and the mood in the room all play a part.

1. Standup is scarier than death

“Glossophobia” is the fear of public speaking[iii]. Presenting to a live audience can be terrifying; 75% of us name it as our top fear, ranking it higher than the fear of death[iv]. It’s linked to our fear of failure, rejection from our tribe. And performing stand-up is glossophobe’s worst nightmare.

2. Failure is Essential

Failure is a guaranteed part of the stand-up experience, fundamental to the learning process. Some jokes we think are great on paper fall flat on stage, while others surprise us. Failure is how we to refine and improve our routines. As we learn, we aim to minimize – but never eliminate – failure; we learn to read the room and adjust our set on-the-fly.

3. It is not effortless

Great comic artists make it look easy. You don’t see the hours and hours of brainstorming, writing, preparation, practice, repetition, memorization and testing that go into an 8-minute set. We record our performances, listen to them endlessly, practice our delivery, measure our pauses and often throw everything out and start again from scratch.

Stand-up comedians employ various tricks and techniques to engage the audience and land a funny. All of these can be woven into a business presentation, used to break the ice at the start of a talk or to lighten the mood between speakers.

  • Crowd Work: Interact with the audience by asking questions. There is an art to this; crowd work is targeted, thought-through and curated, so that any answer given ultimately supports the joke you’re telling. Stick to one or two, then get to the jokes. This creates a sense of spontaneity and connection, even if it’s planned.
  • Go Big: On stage, you appear physically smaller than you think. Using exaggerated body movements, gestures and facial expressions brings your audience with you, and accentuates the energy in the room. Great physical act-outs can get a laugh on their own, even if the joke itself falls flat. This includes doing funny voices, accents or different postures to tell a story.
  • Callbacks: Open a loop early in your set; tell a joke, make a reference, describe an invisible Porsche that’s part of a skit… then later in the set refer back to it (“don’t touch my Porsche!”). This closes the loop in the minds of your audience and creates a feeling of connection in the room. The crowd is part of an inside joke that only exists in this time, in this place and with this group.
  • Planted Hecklers: Unplanned hecklers are part of comedic life. They can throw you off track and raise everyone’s stress level in the room. Planting a trusted accomplice to shout out a certain line at the right moment is a great way to complete a joke and add energy to your set. It also encourages more participation from the audience, provided this is what you want.
  • Misdirection: The moment your audience can predict what you’re going to say next is the moment you start to lose them. Misdirection is the act of playing with your audience’s expectations and then throwing in an unexpected punchline or twist.
  • Vulnerability: Sharing a funny story about your biggest mistake or admitting to flaws makes you instantly more relatable to your audience.

    “During a speech in Paris I tried to impress the audience with my French. Never do that. I wound up telling them that I was excited to be a banana.”

    We’ve all been there, right?
  • Relatability: People form a connection to the things they know; the average, tiny, every-day event. If you find that green smoothies look like Shrek in a blender and pineapple on pizza should be punishable by death, chances are others feel the same way. Reflecting on our shared experiences make your audience feel part of the joke. Laughing at yourself – your own faults and mistakes – is always funnier than laughing at others.
  • Memorize your Set: Know your material. Learn it backwards and forwards, practicing every day. There is nothing like ample preparation to combat that horrible feeling of being on stage and drawing an absolute blank. Chunk the set down into bits that relate, so that the blocks become manageable. Visualize yourself walking through your house, meeting visual cues triggering each block as you go. Record yourself and play it back as often as you can stand it.
  • Silence: The biggest mistake beginners make is on stage to rush through their set at breakneck speed. The audience barely has time to process the first joke you’re halfway through the second.

    Silence is a powerful, elegant speaker’s weapon. It takes enormous discipline, willpower, and control to use it well. It’s why your mother can hold your toddler’s attention when telling a story. The long pauses to collects her thoughts or clean her glasses are all part of the effect.

    Two beats before a punchline, three beats at the end of a joke. A good joke needs time to land, especially if it’s complex. It also allows you to think, read the room, relax and enjoy the moment.

Giving a humorous work presentation increases motivation by 27% and speakers are seen as more 37% competent and confident than their serious colleagues[v]. Learning these skills is simply good for business.

This was my starting point. Make incremental improvements to my performance and move on. My goal for the course was to “just get through it” and go back to my day job a bit wiser and tick “comedic training” off the list.

What I didn’t count on was getting hooked. I began haunting the Open Mic scene in various cities nearby and watching lots and lots of live shows. I performed more than once, gaining experience and building my very disciplined brand of AI humor to audiences kind and harsh alike.

And now? If my fellow classmates and I get “the call” by our extraordinary teacher to appear for a set, I do everything I can to be there, performing or, at the very least, supporting.

Sign up to learn comedy; course starting May 28.

Learn comedy from Rachel Morton-Young @ Mad Cow Comedy

Take Comedy classes in September for beginners by UICF.

Follow fellow students Igor, Daria, Susan and Vishnu

Reach out to me for advice – I have a few nice tricks up my sleeve to help guide you on your way, as well as a few “insiders’ links” I can share to get you that free trial version you need to get started.

No eyeballs to read or watch? Just listen.

The Working Humans Podcast

Working Humans is a bi-monthly podcast focusing on the AI and Human connection at work. The goal is to help leaders and teams understand and integrate AI, understand each other, and be their best at work. The task is to empower and equip the non-technical professional with knowledge and tools for the transformation ahead.

About Fiona Passantino

Fiona is an AI Integration Specialist, coming at it from the Human approach; via Culture, Engagement and Communications. She is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator and trainer.

Fiona helps leaders and teams engage, inspire and connect; empowered through our new technologies, to bring our best selves to work. She is a speaker, facilitator, trainer, executive coach, podcaster blogger, YouTuber and the author of the Comic Books for Executives series. Her next book, “AI-Powered”, is due for release soon.