Stretch your Speaking – Stand-up Comedy

Stand-up comedy

This post is the second in a series about finding ways to stretch yourself when it comes to public speaking. The goal is to encourage people to explore different ways of developing their speaking skills and thus to become better speakers. For the previous post in the series, please click here. For the next post, please click here.

I am a big fan of stand-up comedians. Whether watching them on television or seeing them live, it is always a pleasure to see them delight audiences. Public speakers can learn a lot from comedians. See, for example, my posts on Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld.

But it is one thing to analyze others and another to do it yourself. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt’s Citizenship in a Republic speech, it’s not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to the person who is in the arena, striving even when they fail again and again. So last year, I decided to toss my hat into the ring and do some stand-up.

My first attempt was in Munich. My friend Mel Kelly is a professional speaker and comedian. He is from Ireland but now lives in Germany, the subject of a great little book that he wrote. Mel runs Comedy Club Munich, the biggest English-German comedy show. I had a speaking engagement in Munich that coincided with one of their performances and Mel invited me to do a 7- to 8-minute set. Here is the result:

It was a great crowd of about 200 people in a great venue, the Theater Drehleier. I was the sixth or seventh act, so people were warmed up. And, Mel gave me a great introduction, noting that it was my first attempt at stand-up comedy, so he set the audience up nicely. Still, I was happy with my performance and the reaction that I got.

A couple of months later, I was doing some work in Barcelona, Spain. I checked out the stand-up scene before traveling and got myself a set one evening at Craft Barcelona, a small bar in the heart of the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) of the city. (After booking the gig, my friend Conor Neill, with whom I teach once a year at IESE, told me and my fellow teachers that he had tickets to see Barcelona play at Camp Nou that same evening. I have never been to a professional football match and it pained me to say no, but I had committed to the stand-up and did not want to back out.)

The ambiance was very different from my Munich experience. For starters, the room was much smaller. It was cozy, but long and narrow, and below ground. 

John Zimmer Stand-up comedy
Me on stage in Barcelona.

At the start of the show, there were perhaps 30 to 35 people. There was an hour or so of improv comedy (a subject for a future post) and then the stand-up began. The audience’s reaction was mixed; some laughs, some groans, some silence. With a smaller crowd, it was a challenge for the comedians to keep the energy up.

Time passed and by the time I was called to the stage, it was after 11:00 p.m. To make matters worse, just before my set, there was a short break during which at least half of the people left. I later found out that they all wanted to catch the last subway train home. (Spain is country for night owls so I still have trouble understanding why the Bareclona subway system shuts down so early!)

So, when I finally got on the stage, there were perhaps 15 to 18 people in the audience. And those at the back of the room were chatting with each other! I delivered pretty much the same set that you saw in the video above (with some minor changes here and there). There were smiles and a few chuckles and that’s about it. The experience was completely different from  that in Munich. It felt flat and uninspiring.

A few months later, I went to see the another brilliant Irish comedian (besides Mel), Dara O’Briain, perform in Geneva. He opened the show by saying something along the lines of, “If you’re the kind of person who loves comedy but who just smiles and keeps the laughter inside … get the fuck out! I want people who laugh loudly!” I know how he feels.

But I powered through the Barcelona set and the experience was worth it. My friend Mel says that such is the life of a stand-up comedian. It’s easy when you have a big crowd that is energetic and laughing. The real test comes when you perform in on small stages to small crowds that are only half interested. That’s gut-check time.

It was great to share a beer or two with the other comedians afterwards and learn about their experiences. They all had stories of triumph and success, and they all had stories of failure and woe. It comes with the territory.

The benefits of doing stand-up comedy

I encourage you to try stand-up comedy, as daunting as the prospect might seem. If you live in or near a medium-size or large city, you will almost certainly find stand-up comedy clubs. Almost all of them have open mic / open mike nights when amateurs can get on stage and try a set.
Here are some of the speaking benefits you will get from doing stand-up comedy:

1.  You will learn to work with with humour. Humour is an important element in almost any speaking situation. I wrote an extensive piece on humour for Presentation Guru in which I look at its uses and benefits. I am not saying that you should tell jokes in your corporate presentations. You can be humorous without telling jokes, but all jokes involve humour. Through stand-up, you can get a feel for different types of humour and which ones work for you.

2.  You will learn speech craft. To write good comedy, you have to delve into the language. You have to have the right syntax. You have to choose the right words. For example, did you know that comedians generally agree that words containing a “k” or hard “c” are funny words?

Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say ‘Alka Seltzer’ you get a laugh … Words with ‘k’ in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that’s a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland … Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there’s chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny – not if you get ’em, only if you say ’em.

—  From Neil Simon’s play, The Sunshine Boys

3.  You will learn to pause. Delivering a joke is not just about getting the words right, it is about the set-up. And pausing is usually a big part of the set-up. Also, if you get a laugh, you have to pause and let the laughter run. If you start speaking too soon, you step on the laugh, cut the audience off and they will likely miss your first few words. Learning to pause is one of the most important skills any speaker can master.

4.  You will learn time management and how to be concise. When I performed in Munich, I was one of about a dozen or so acts that evening. Mel had everything timed down to the minute. Our instructions were clear: stick to your time or be called off stage. So I worked and worked the material, trimming and cutting and also factoring in potential laughs, so that I would stay on time. All of your speeches and presentations should stay on time.

5.  You will learn to connect with the audience. The overwhelming majority of stand-up comedy acts involve just the comedian and the audience. No slides, no props, nothing to deflect attention away from you. You have to engage the audience. You have to look at them, smile at them, interact with them. Connecting with an audience is something that every speaker should do every time. As comedy writer Jack Bernhardt says,

[S]tandup is unlike any other artform. With music or theatre, there is something else to keep an audience entertained: a story, a melody, other actors. With standup, it is just a microphone and a comedian.

6.  You will build resilience. Not every joke works. Many bomb. Or, you might have the same kind of experience that I had in Barcelona. It builds character and it teaches you that just because a speech or presentation does not go perfectly, it is not the end of the world.

7.  You will gain self-confidence. If you can perform stand-up comedy, you can handle pretty much any type of speaking situation. And if you get the laughs, your confidence will soar!

8. It’s a fantastic experience. The world can always use more laughter. If you can bring a little bit to your audience, it is an amazing feeling you will never forget!

I don’t plan on becoming a professional comedian but I want to do more stand-up. I also signed up for Steve Martin’s online MasterClass in comedy to see what nuggets I can learn. (Check out the two-minute promo video. It’s good and contains some excellent advice.)

So don’t be shy. Give it a go. Make us laugh!

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  1. That was so funny! I’ve been faithfully following your blog for a while, but I’ve just seen you in a whole new light. Thanks for making me laugh 🙂

  2. Hi John,

    Great article and lots of useful tips. Been doing stand up for 6 years now and still find it a rush every time I get on stage!

    If you’re ever in Vienna (where I’m now based) drop me a note and I’ll let you know if there’s a show. Quite a good comedy scene, although Austrians are surprisingly more reserved with laughter than Germans.

    All the Best and See you in Athens,
    Alex de Jong

    1. Hi Alex. Thanks for the comment. I know that you have been doing stand-up for a while. Well done! I will definitely let you know if I get to Vienna. And yes, we will see each other in Athens. Cheers!

  3. Have you seen The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? It’s about stand-up comedy and covers (informally) a lot of the things you mentioned above. I mainlined it this week and it’s the only thing I’ve ever seen that made me kind of, sort-of interested in doing stand-up comedy.

  4. Excellent sketch about Ikea… sooo good, can really relate… keep it coming.. maybe that is your niche area – every day expériences that we relive in a funny way thanks to your performance.

  5. Hi John, great post. Interesting enough. I just started! First show was 6th of Jan, and it was like 100 people in the room. Great experience and I love it! More to come – 2nd show on 3rd of Feb. Do you fancy a comedy writing discussion?

    1. Hi Wang. Great that you are doing stand-Up! Well done. I’d be up for a comedy discussion, but I’d like to do it later in the year after I have had a chance to go through Steve Martin’s course. Also, I have some other speaking projects that I want to focus on first. But yes, let’s plan on it.

  6. Great set, John – thanks for sharing. And I feel for you with your time in Barcelona! It’s good that it was the same material as you did in Munich, as that shows the reaction in Spain was all down to circumstances.

    I did a comedy course about 10 years ago, which culminated with a 5-minute set on stage in front of several hundred people. The audience was great, and my jokes went down well. So I quit my comedy “career” while I was ahead! Still, it was a great experience, and one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever spoken to.

    On my blog, there’s a 45-second video that parodies public-speaking courses (or Toastmasters) – using just a couple of words. It always makes me smile!

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

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Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

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HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

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National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

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General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

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CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

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Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

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Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

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Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International