5 things I Learned about Communication from Standup Comedy
Some years back I began an extensive search for literature on comedians and comedy techniques. I was hoping I could adopt and adapt some comedic skills to boost my personal presence and effectiveness as a communication skills coach and facilitator. However, after spending a considerable amount of money and time on books about comedy, it dawned on me that I was chasing a Holy Grail. I realised that ultimately, comedy comes from who a comedian is as a person. Being funny is about the truth of who you are, your experience and how you’ve lived your life – and that’s either funny or it’s not.
Of course, it helps if you have a few, good jokes.
This then led me to the conclusion that in order to understand what makes one comedian funny and another not, I would have to go and watch, listen and learn exactly what successful comedians did on stage. If I could discover their secrets, maybe I could apply them in the context of communicating a message in business and teach them to my clients.
Over a period of about 2 years I travelled far and wide in my pursuit of comedians plying their trade and I can report – if you didn’t already know – that there are some truly unfunny people out there. I soon learned that there is a big difference between comedians who say funny things, and those who say things funny. The gory and sometimes hilarious details of my research are outlined in my book 'Communicate With Charisma' but for the sake of brevity, here are the five Bs I learned that you can use to inject some humour into your communication style when you’re presenting.
1.Be relevant. Present yourself and your content as being appropriate to your audience by quickly establishing common ground. Comedians do this by saying something observational about their own behaviour that an audience can instantly relate to. For example, ‘Nothing is worse than that moment during an argument when you suddenly realise you're wrong.’ Or ‘Nothing is more frustrating than when you’re looking for your car keys and someone will say - where did you put them last? …If I knew that!’
2. Be humble - Many comedians talk about how difficult their life is or has been in a self deprecating way. This helps to communicate to the audience that you are vulnerable, just like everyone else, and can encourage the audience to empathise with you and your message. There is often more humour in sharing some of our most embarrassing and challenging moments than in bragging about our successes. Raw honesty about our weaknesses can be surprising to people and can even generate a laugh. For instance, I once heard a comedian say, ‘I always hated Christmas Eve as a child, until I discovered I was dyslexic. It was then I realized Satan wasn’t coming down the chimney after midnight.’
3. Be generous - Avoid patronising or undermining your audience with sarcastic humour to try and be funny at their expense. Always empower your audience by letting them know the wonderful and positive things you’ve discovered about them. Do some research to learn about any accolades and awards a person, team or organisation has achieved and celebrate with them. This is a great moment to ask questions and interact with your audience. Humour can often come from people’s spontaneous responses to your questions.
4. Be enthusiastic - When telling the story of an event, use a little more energy than normal to bring specific characters and locations to life by fully describing them. The key here is to use movement, gestures and posture. Show and tell by miming the personalities, characteristics and moods of the people, places and things in your story.
5. Be Specific - Specificity is always funnier than generalisations. For example, ‘I was sitting at my desk eating a snack when my boss unexpectedly walked in.’ is less interesting than, ‘Yesterday afternoon I was googling Manolo Blahnik shoes, stuffing a Kit Kat into my face when my boss Helen Johnstone marched in.’
Remember - humour is all about relevance, recognition and surprise. Because our brains are pattern recognition machines we can usually (or assume we can) predict what someone is going to say. That’s why during a conversation we can often be thinking about what we’re going to say next rather than fully listening. Our ability to 'assume' we know what’s coming next can be a challenge during presentations, particularly when we want to keep people engaged. This is why I’m always surprised when someone shows a ten-point agenda as their first slide. We all know what’s coming and the people who are waiting for either point five, six or seven will start checking their emails, texting their friends or worse still, take a nap until you get to the point on the agenda they are particularly interested in.
If you want to raise a spontaneous laugh, set up a pattern and then suddenly break it with something unexpected or shocking. However, bear in mind that comedians have a degree of creative license to stretch the boundaries of taste and good manners, but for those of us in the business world, it’s vital to maintain an appropriate attitude at all times.