I am a big fan of stand-up comedy. I have enormous respect for the men and women—whether professionals or amateurs—who get up on stage and do their best to make us laugh. And though I like many comedians, my all-time favourite is, and will always be, Steve Martin.
I discovered Steve Martin in the ’70s when I was a teenager. His album, A Wild and Crazy Guy, was a revelation for me. I would eventually get all of his comedy albums on vinyl—Let’s Get Small, Comedy is Not Pretty! and The Steve Martin Brothers—and spent hours listening to them. (I kick myself that I gave them away when we moved to Europe.)
Steve left stand-up comedy in the ’80s after 18 years. He has had a successful film career, published several books, written plays and even won a Grammy Award for his outstanding banjo performances the legendary Earl Scruggs. I could go on, but for those of you who are not familiar with Steve, you get the idea. He’s a talented guy.
I recently finished reading Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up. A terrific read. Jerry Seinfeld, another comedian whom I think is great, called it “one of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written”.
As I worked my way through the book, I found myself taking notes because of all the insights that Steve shares about his life in comedy. I have listed some of them below, in the order in which they appear in the book. They are valuable lessons, not only for aspiring comedians, but for anyone who has to speak in public.
Ten lessons from Steve Martin
Lesson 1: If you want to get good at speaking, you must work at it. Being a good speaker is rarely an overnight thing. It takes time.
Lesson 2: The audience comes first. You must remain focused. I can relate to the quote below. When I gave this speech at the Toastmasters European Championships in 2009, the audience was laughing so much that I really had to focus on what was coming up (in the speech) and also on staying with time. My analysis of the speech, along with my thought process while I was delivering it, can be found here.
Lesson 3: Don’t forget about the transitions in your speech. They help to hold it together.
Lesson 4: As you change through experience, and as technology changes, so too will there be opportunities for your presentations to change. Look for them, try them out, keep what works and discard what doesn’t.
Lesson 5: Be aware of what is going on during your day. Carry a small notepad. Jot down ideas that come from things that you see. Start a story file (hard copy or electronic). You never know when these experiences will fit into a speech. If you don’t write them down, you will most likely forget them.
Lesson 6: You may think you have nothing to say. There is always something to say.
Lesson 7: Self-confidence is very important. This is not to say that you should be smug or arrogant. Just the opposite. And humility and vulnerability are important too. But if you don’t look and sound like you believe in what you are saying, the chances are that I won’t believe in what you are saying.
Lesson 8: Keep at it. Seek out speaking opportunities. You will get better. But don’t rest on your laurels. Hitting a home run with a speech is great, but it is more important to be good every time you step on stage.
Lesson 9: A speech is composed of several elements: content; body language; voice; pausing; structure. They are all important.
Lesson 10: A great speech is one that the audience takes home.
Photo courtesy of David Shankbone