From comic timing to crowd control, there’s some vital skills in the comedy profession that will come in handy for your next pitching session.
Here, then, are some hints and tips based on comedians’ methods, which will help you become more lively, confident, effective, engaging, responsive, entertaining, and memorable for your next pitch.
1. Be prepared to take risks
Don’t rely on same-old, same-old material and delivery. Practice risk-taking in less demanding settings – more on this below. Worry less than you probably do about making mistakes and looking stupid, unless it’s really crucial. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
2. Be yourself
Let your own uniqueness and personality come through, rather than being totally neutral, or hiding your individuality behind a Powerpoint presentation. Steadily develop your individual style of expression.
3. Be well prepared and in control of your material
But be open to an element of spontaneity – the ability to be in the moment. You can learn a lot from children in this matter.
4. Don’t shoe-horn jokes into your presentation just to get a laugh
Jokes that fail because they’re forced are worse than no humour at all. Material needs to fit, to be organically connected and integrated. By all means, do as comedians do: develop a repertoire of funny material which you know goes well with your serious content, and which you gradually become better at delivering.
5. Practice ability to use set-up and punch-line structure
The way to gradually improve this kind of delivery is to take a line that people already laugh at, then think about how you can best introduce or ‘set it up’, then refine the punch-line for maximum effect. Practice in low-risk settings.
6. Learn to engage with your audience
Introduce interaction and active engagement opportunities for them. Place your attention on the audience rather than on any anxiety you may be feeling. Develop that sense of connectedness, where you can pick up on whether things are going well or whether you need to change tack a bit.
7. Practice comic timing, and timing in general
It’s closely related to audience sensitivity. Don’t be afraid of pauses; practice using them effectively. Learn to ‘listen’ for that sense of the optimum moment to speak, and the natural length of pause. Develop this into a gut-feeling, an instinctive capability. Talking too fast is the most common fault associated with speaker’s nerves, and pause-practise is the most effective solution. Develop this by repetition and trial-and-error, starting in situations where it’s okay to make mistakes.
8. Cultivate the comedian’s mind
The habit of finding a perspective other than the conventional one in any situation. This is how comedy material is generated.
9. Learn from the comedian’s ability to deal with things going pear-shaped
You’re unlikely to get drunken hecklers when you address a panel of investors, but you may well encounter so-called ‘questions’ designed to show how much the questioner knows and how little you know. So be prepared, think ahead to anticipate such eventualities, and develop a repertoire of generic responses. When things do go wrong, it isn’t necessarily a disaster – humour can be a terrific device for turning an unexpected turn of events to advantage.
10. Beware of humour that deprecates
If you’re going to deprecate anyone, make sure it’s yourself.
11. Attend one of the many courses available these days in stand-up comedy or improvisation
Even if you don’t end up doing an open mike spot, you’ll learn a lot of the skills mentioned above – and improve your nerve, no end.
Many of these techniques are best practised in situations where there isn’t too much riding on it – like down at the pub with your mates (or talking to a partner who doesn’t listen to you anyway) – rather than at some high-powered speaking gig. Keep practicing, and these techniques will become a natural habit, something that you have to think about less and less – and a key part of your evolving personal style.
One of my favourite doesn’t-matter-a-bit situations for practicing a variety of comedy skills is when I receive one of those unsolicited calls from someone trying to sell me double glazing, tell me my computer has a disease, or sign me up a financial scam and empty my bank account. You can say anything to these people and they’re never going to hang up; and anyway, they have a terrible job so they really deserve cheering up…
Gerry Maguire Thompson is a stand-up comedian, presentation trainer and one-to-one coach, and author of fifteen books which have sold almost half a million copies in a dozen languages.
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