Opinion

Conquer your fear of public speaking with stand-up comedy

8 min read

04 May 2016

Harnessing stand-up comedy taught me the art of crafting a successful pitch: devising a story that the listener can emotionally relate to.

At the age of 25 I plunged headfirst into my entrepreneurial career, but just one year in I found myself treading water desperately trying to stay afloat.

An exciting opportunity to pitch for an international software development project in New York drifted my way, and it was sure to set my business up for life. But, for various reasons – fear, anxiety, and an unfortunate twist of fate involving a split pair of trousers, a bare bottom (mine) and some paper clips – I failed to land the deal.

Although I now refer back to the incident fondly as #peachgate, at the time it was a hugely challenging period for me. My situation grew increasingly dire; I was faced with the frightening prospect of losing my business, as cash ran out and the order book of new clients dried up fast.

One December night I found myself alone in the office, casting a forlorn figure by the window. Staring out at the city night, I was shocked at what I saw looking back at me. My reflection revealed the truth: I had become a deflated, scared and defeated version of myself, far amiss from the successful and confident entrepreneur I had envisioned.

Some hours later, while wallowing in self-pity, I reached to close the lid of my laptop when an email hit my inbox; I recognised the name, “Sam Avery”, as an old friend from school.

The email read: “Are you suffering from a lack of confidence? Could you benefit from learning to present better to rooms full of people? Would you like to overcome your fear of public speaking?” Yes, yes and yes, I thought to myself.

Moments later, I rubbed my eyes and scratched my head. It soon became apparent that I had just signed up for a six-week, intensive stand-up comedy course, culminating in a 15-minute performance in front of 300 strangers. What on earth had I done?

Stand-up or give up

The next six weeks flew by as I immersed myself into the offerings of the course: writing, performance, delivery and timing. I soon learned the value of brutal honesty; having a peer tell me that a certain joke was terrible came as a relief not an insult, since the alternative was to crumble on stage in front of heckling strangers. I journeyed on, taking in as much as I could.

Before I knew it, the big night was upon me. I sauntered onto the empty stage before the show, closed my eyes and visualised my performance for the night. I was overcome with a wave of confidence that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I had studied, learned, practised, failed and got back up again. The reality of the situation went far beyond a mere stand-up routine; if I failed now, I was sure I would never achieve my dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur.

Standing backstage, the first few acts passed in an ephemeral blur, and before I knew it I was heading out into the unknown, giving myself up to the mercy of the moment. Palms sweating and heart pounding, I took a deep breath and walked out into the bright lights; I took the mic in stride and brought it up to my mouth: “Don’t worry; I have no idea who you are either.” With a loud burst of laughter, I was off.

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Crafting the perfect pitch

That day marks one of the most defining moments of my career and, in essence, my life. Sales meetings seemed to flow with effortless ease, while networking events gave me an opportunity to actually enjoy the company of others, rather than doubt my own insecurities.

The transferable skills I gained for business presentations were a welcome surprise. Stand-up comedy taught me how to structure a story, communicate a message, read an audience, and consequently engage and time my message to have the most lasting impact.

Here are a few tips:

· Break the ice early with a simple comment, observation or reference that puts the audience at ease quickly

· Practice keeping your stands and feet still – nervous energy expelled with movement distracts an audience and can make them nervous too

· Use the rule of three for delivery, setup, anticipation, punchline – examples work better in threes as well

The formula for planning a joke is the same formula for a successful pitch or presentation – it’s about crafting a story that the listener can emotionally relate to. If you aren’t connecting to someone on a personal level, it’s almost impossible to create a degree of tacit trust that is essential to successful business relationships.

Conquer your limiting beliefs

Nowadays, I enjoy public speaking and it has become a vital aspect of my business. I’ve since spoken to audiences in excess of 2,000 people, and here’s the real kicker – I’ve loved every minute of it.

My advice to others would be this: conquer your limiting beliefs by diving headfirst into your fears, because only by facing them directly will you ever be able to overcome and, hopefully one day, master them.

It all returns to the same fundamental truth: often, the biggest obstacle holding us back in life is ourselves. All the fear, limiting beliefs and insecurities weren’t solved because I learned how to tell a joke, but because I made a conscious decision to stand up to myself. You can do the same.

Turn adversity into opportunity and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can win respect by conquering your deepest fears.

These are the ten biggest fears in the British workplace.

Bryan Adams is the CEO and founder of digital marketing agency Ph.Creative

Image: Shutterstock