Serious Presentation Tips From Standup Comics


A version of this article previously appeared on Inc.

The worlds of standup comedy and business presentations are not as disparate as they may appear at first glance.

Comedians are entrepreneurs. They often write their own material, book their gigs, arrange their travel and negotiate and collect their compensation from club owners. In addition, both comedians and entrepreneurs must engage and entertain their demanding audiences. As such, there is much entrepreneurs can learn from their comic brethren.

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Comedic Tips

The following characteristics of a successful comedy routine are also applicable to effective business presentations:

1. Strong StartGrab your audience’s attention and tell them who you are and why they must listen.

Due to their limited stage time, comedians must quickly set the tone of their act. Often the success or failure of the opening joke determines how well a routine is received. When appropriate, open your business presentations with an anecdote or personal story that establishes affinity with your audience. Such a story should tell the audience, who you are, what your passion is and why they should share your passion.

2. Physical Humor Use your voice, posture, gestures and physical appearance to establish the appropriate tenor.

Successful comedians are well aware that it is often not what they say, but how they say it, that has the greatest impact. Studies have shown that approximately 55% of a speaker’s communication during the first few minutes of a presentation is nonverbal, while an additional 38% is tone of voice. A mere 7% of a speaker’s initial communications comprise the words they utter.

3. Heckler Management Do not alienate your audience by shutting down troublesome critics too quickly.

An audience has a group identity, even when they do not know each other or have any formal affiliation. This effectively creates an “us versus them” paradigm between the speaker and the audience.

Experienced comedians understand this dynamic. They know that if they prematurely shut down a heckler, they risk alienating the crowd. Instead, veteran comedians endure a heckler’s interruptions until it is clear that the audience is also annoyed, at which point the comedian shuts down the heckler with the audience’s implicit approval.

The success or failure of business presentations often rests upon the questions and answers following the formal pitch. An audience member who asks an irrelevant or nonsensical question is analogous to a heckler at a comedy show. The presenter must respond respectfully. If the questioner continues to ask off-base or overly pointed questions, the audience will eventually become agitated. Once their impatience is evident, the speaker should politely dismiss the questioner by indicating they will address their additional questions after the presentation has concluded.

4. Audience Repartee Carefully orchestrate your audience interactions, especially questions and answers.

Comedians often ask their audience questions and make comments about peoples’ wardrobes, dates, drinks, etc. If you pay close attention, you will notice that these comments are often not directed to anyone in particular. However, the audience assumes that the guy drinking the “girlie drink” in the back of the room really exists.

Entrepreneurs clearly are not well served by chiding or mocking their audience. However, soliciting their participation can help keep an audience engaged. If the crowd’s size is intimate, engage participants by using their first names and ask probing questions to uncover hidden concerns and objections. Comedians often ask questions to set up their punch lines. In business presentations, you can deploy the same approach to underscore your key selling points.

5. Rehearsed SpontaneityPractice so thoroughly that your remarks seem fresh and spontaneous.

The documentary The Comedian chronicles Jerry Seinfeld’s effort to create a new comedy routine. It makes clear that even a talented comic’s new material usually bombs. Comedy requires extensive trial and error to separate the bad bits from those that work. The same is true with business presentations.

The next time you attend a comedy show, watch the waitstaff. In most cases, they stoically move about the room, even when the audience is laughing uproariously. Why? Because they have heard the jokes over and over, in the same order and delivered in the same “spontaneous” way. Great comedy appears off-the-cuff and effortless, yet it is usually the result of painstaking practice.

When we took Computer Motion (NASDAQ: RBOT, sold to Intuitive Surgical) public, we conducted a three-week road show in which the executive team gave the same presentation day after day, often multiple times per day. Our most effective presentations were those in which our well-rehearsed “adlibbing” sounded spontaneous. If you prepare thoroughly, you can achieve the same rehearsed spontaneity that distinguishes professional comics from amateurs.

6. SeguesMake it easy for your audience to follow your story, especially when transitioning between its beginning, middle and end.

Proper pacing is of vital importance in comedy. Comedians must allow adequate time for the audience to comprehend each joke and react appropriately. At the same time, too many pauses make for a dull routine.

One way to ensure effective pacing is to establish segues that alert the audience when you move from one subject to another. In comedy, empty phrases such as, “Anyone here from New York?” or “Did you guys hear the news story about… ?” are often used to mark transitions between topics. Such verbal landmarks give the audience a chance to catch their breath, while guiding them to the next subject. Entrepreneurs should afford their audiences similar mental respites and clear transitions.

7. HumorUtilize tactful humor that is relevant to your story.

Deft use of humor is the greatest lesson entrepreneurs can learn from comedians. As described more fully in PowerPoint Presentations That Suck Less, business presentations do not have to be boring. Interjecting humor into your talks, when done judiciously, can make them more engaging, and thus, more impactful. Engaged people are persuadable people.

8. FiniClose with impact and clearly communicate your call-to-action.

Comedians often deploy the bookend technique, in which they reference their opening joke at the conclusion of their show. This gives their performance a feeling of completion and symmetry. Entrepreneurs can utilize this approach as well, by referring to their opening personal story in their closing remarks.

Whatever closing technique you deploy, call upon your inner-comic and end your talk on an applause line that underscores a clear call to action.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet about standup comedy or that killer burrito I just ate.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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  • addroid

    As a former stand-up and now a Founder this post is near and dear to my heart. I would say the most important point here is the very first one. People think that they need a good closer but that’s not even close to importance as your opener. You literally have 10 or 15 seconds to win your audience over. This is not an exaggeration. As soon as you walk on stage you have to understand what the people in the audience are thinking, “Is this person going to bore me or make me feel awkward? Please don’t suck!” The very first words out of your mouth has to be clear, organized, and confident. If you nail the first 30 seconds you can slide off the rails later but they’ll stay with you because you’ve won them over.

    Amateur mistake number one is walking up and and the first words out of your mouth are, “I’m a little nervous” or “This is my flirt time on stage so go easy”. DO NOT say that. That’s just gonna make it worse. Rehearse the living daylights out of your first 30 seconds and the rest will fall in place.

    Final note: if you’re not a funny person don’t try to be funny. This is a trap. No one in your audience is hoping, “Gee, I hope this guy is funny.” No one wants you to be funny, they want you to be confident and not waste their time. If —if— you happen to make someone laugh during your presentation then that’s a bonus. However, you risk quite a bit by launching into a joke that falls flat. You really have to know what you’re doing hear so be careful. If much better to shoot for “likable”. At the end of your presentation you gaol should be to have people in the audience thinking, “I’d love to have to person over for dinner some time. So interesting!”. If you’re funny go ahead and crack a joke but don’t try to be Robin Williams because you feel like it won’t be a good presentation without a few snappy jokes.

    You won’t be a good presenter until you own the material. The people who are good on stage look like they are naturals. This is an illusion. Trust me when I say that making it look easy is simply a result of rehearsing the material until it is completely second nature. Your “true being” on stage will only be revealed when you own it at that level. If you don’t own the material then the audience is subjected to watching someone not communicating with them, but instead struggling to remember words and phrases which is torture for everyone.

  • Matt – you hit it on the head with respect to the importance of practice. I saw Seinfeld perform a couple weeks ago and he talked about the ‘art’ of comedy. He made it clear that it is “hard” to make it look “easy.” Practice, with a good feedback mechanism (such as recording yourself, having a friendly audience critique your talk, etc.) can turn a mediocre presenter into a highly effective one.

    I also tell my students to “never start your talk with an apology.” Saying you are nervous, unprepared, etc. is the worst way to open. As you say, who wants to listen to someone who is making them uncomfortable.

    Thanks for sharing your expert opinion. I had no idea you previously did stand up.

  • John, I frequently write about comedians as role models for speakers. A good comedian is a master at storytelling and audience connection, and knows exactly what is relevant to the them – otherwise, how could he or she push the right buttons and get the desired response? Comedians are also some of the most disciplined performers in the entertainment field. Watch these documentaries that show the comedian’s process to see what I mean: “Comedian,” “I Am Comic,” and “Heckler.”

    FYI, the 55%-38%-7% statistic you mentioned above is a misinterpretation of Albert Mehrabian’s research; he never said that about communication, yet it’s repeated over and over again. Here’s a short animated video that sets the story straight:

  • Lisa – the world isn’t flat? Wow, a spoiler alert would have been nice! 😉

    Thanks for the myth busting. I picked this stat up from a past speaker in my class (from years ago). As with all statistics, a pound of salt is a healthy ingredient. Thanks for posting the video.

    To set the record straight, the stats are only applicable when the speaker is discussing their thoughts and attitudes or when you are channeling Marcel Marceau.

  • John, when I saw in the video that the world was flat, I nearly fell over from shock. Luckily, Bigfoot was here to catch me.

  • I am assuming “Bigfoot” is your husband’s nickname?

    I am locked for speakers this quarter, but if you are interested in sharing your speaking insights with my USCB students next Fall, pls reach out to me via email, per the address on this page:

  • Oh, that was a good one, John. 🙂

    I’ll get in touch – would love to talk to your students.

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