Stretch your Speaking – 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.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a 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. 

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 “other” 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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Analysis of a speech by Oprah Winfrey

The 2018 Golden Globe Awards were handed out last night (7 January 2018). There were several highlights and many winners, but the overwhelming consensus is that Oprah Winfrey stole the show.

Winfrey, a talk show host, actress and philanthropist was honoured as the first black woman to win the Cecil B DeMille lifetime achievement award. She used her acceptance speech to repudiate racial injustice, abuse against women and attacks against the press.

It was a powerful speech that brought the audience to its feet for prolonged applause on more than one occasion. The speech, in full, is below. My thoughts follow.

    • Oprah had clearly prepared for this moment. Of course, she knew that she was being honoured with the award, but it is obvious that she had worked hard on her speech.
    • And yet, as prepared as she was, her speech felt natural and conversational. That is the result of good preparation. You know what you want to say, but you are not tied to a memorized script.
    • She grabbed the audience’s attention from the start. When you begin a speech, you only have a few moments to hook the audience’s attention, so you want to make those moments count. Psychologists talk about the learning principles of primacy and recency. People tend to remember the first and last things they hear. So the openings (and closings) of your presentation are important.
    • How did Oprah grab the audience’s attention? With a story. Note the details: the year; the linoleum floor (not a chair or a rug, but cold linoleum); the elegance of Sidney Poitier; his white tie and black skin.

In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: “The winner is Sidney Poitier.” Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black, and I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that.

    • She neatly concludes the story that began in 1964 by stating, “… it is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award.” (2:15) Circularity is a powerful thing in a speech.
    • There was a good pace to her voice, with many pauses (often helped by applause). And yet, she also knew how to quicken her pace, when appropriate, such as when she thanks a number of people by name (2:50) or recounts the women who have been abused over the years (5:00).
    • Because Oprah did not need notes, she was able to maintain eye contact with the audience throughout, sweeping the room from left to right.

    • She was firm but tactful in her rebuke of Donald Trump’s attacks on the press. She never mentioned the President by name, but everyone knew about whom she was speaking. (There has even been some speculation that Trump might have to contend with another TV Star in the next election.) And that made her words all the more powerful (3:08).

[W]e all know the press is under siege these days. We also know it’s the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice. To tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.

    • Oprah also spoke passionately and eloquently about the abuse and harassment and assaults that women have faced for too long. I especially appreciate how for her, the entertainment industry was only one part of society that has been affected (4:20).

But it’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia and engineering and medicine and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.

    • At 6:10, Oprah misspoke. She said that the men who had tried to destroy Recy Taylor were never “persecuted”. I am sure that she meant to say “prosecuted”. There’s a big difference.
    • She used rhetorical devices.
      • Polysyndeton
        1. “To tyrants and victims and secrets and lies.” (3:28)
        2. “They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia and engineering and medicine and science.” (5:05)
      • Epizeuxis
        1. “Amen, amen, amen, amen.” (2:02)
      • Tricolon
        1. “But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.” (6:40)
        2. “… they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.” (4:45) (Note that this is also polysyndeton.)
      • Anaphora
        1. “To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome.” (7:58)
      • Alliteration
        1. “… a culture broken by brutally powerful men.” (6:25)
    • She had a powerful conclusion circling back to little girls who might be watching Oprah’s speech on television and also calling for the day when nobody will have to say “Me too.” (8:30)
    • Oprah had a well-structured speech (logos). With her humble beginnings, her well documented career struggles and her undeniable success, she was 100% credible (ethos). She spoke with passion and told moving stories (pathos). Aristotle would have approved.

For two excellent analyses of Oprah’s speech, see:

  1. Sam Leith’s article in the Financial Times. (If you are blocked from reading the article by the FT’s firewall, the first link on this Google search might work for you.
  2. Nick Morgan’s post in Public Words.
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Stretch your Speaking – Introduction

This post is the first 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 next posts in the series, please click here and here.

Happy New Year! We are one week into 2018 as I write this post. Are you off to a good start? How about those resolutions? Get more exercise; eat better; learn a new language; find a new job. Have you made any progress?

What about your public speaking? What would you like to accomplish in the remaining 358 days?

Whatever your public speaking goals, I’d like to give you another one:


Improving your public speaking skills is commendable. It is something that I constantly try to do. But if you only speak in one type of situation or to one type of audience or at one venue, there is a risk that you will become comfortable and complacent. And when that happens, personal growth tends to stagnate.

If you only present to your department colleagues, if you only give speeches at your Toastmasters club, you may well become adept at those types of speaking engagements. But if you never leave your comfort zone, how do you expect to reach your potential?

Why not stretch your speaking skills this year by actively seeking out situations or audiences that are new? That make you uncomfortable? That scare you? As I have said before, public speaking is like cross-training; the more different kinds of speaking you do, the better speaker you will become. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

In the coming days, I’ll share different ways in which you can stretch your speaking in the coming year. These are all things that I have done and will continue to do. And if you have any thoughts or experiences of your own, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment below or on any of the upcoming posts.

Start warming up. It’s going to be a fun year!

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The benefits of humour and 10 tips for using it in a speech

PG LogoI am one of the co-founders of Presentation Guru, a digital magazine for public speaking professionals.

This post is part of a series designed to share the great content on Presentation Guru with the Manner of Speaking community.


French author Victor Hugo said, “Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.” When speaking to an audience of dozens, hundreds or thousands, the effect is amplified.

Used properly, humour is a powerful tool that can benefit speakers in several ways: 

  • It creates a bond between the speaker and the audience.
  • It energizes people and keeps them engaged.
  • It can provide emotional relief.
  • It helps the audience remember your points.
  • It leaves the audience with a good impression of the speaker.

To see three examples of humour being used in a speech or presentation, and to learn ten tips for using humour effectively, head over to this post that I wrote for Presentation Guru.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 271) – Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary (1920 – 1996) American Psychologist and Writer

“If you want to change the way people respond to you, change the way you respond to people.”

— Timothy Leary

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