5 lessons for communicators from stand-up comics

It’s no joke: Just like you, comedians string words together to tell stories and convey ideas, sometimes more effectively than others. (Haven’t you ever had flop sweat?) Try these tips.

For those of you tired of tedious press releases…

For anyone who’s delivered a speech to a chorus of yawns…

To anyone writing those same stale articles you first wrote when boy bands ruled the earth…

Your audience is just as sick of your anemic prose as you are. It’s not your fault. Business messaging has been dry and boring for so long that it’s practically become background noise.

There is hope, though. Some communicators are so good at what they do, we hang on their every word. They can make anything interesting, from Hot Pockets to the stomach flu. They just happen to call themselves comedians.

So read on to find out why you have stop thinking like George Orwell and start thinking like George Carlin.

1. Comics can make any topic interesting .

Comedians live and die on engaging their audiences. Take Brian Regan—he can talk about the serving size of Fig Newtons, and you’ll still want more at the end. Fig Newtons aren’t funny; they’re completely unimportant.

Brian proves it’s not what you say; the magic is in how you say it. Some call it delivery. Some call it style, tone, voice. No matter what you call it, it’s what you have to develop to captivate your audience.

Are you funny? You don’t have to be. Style can be anything that infuses you into your work. It can be quirky, erudite, colloquial, sparse—even wordy or snarky. As long as it’s authentic, identifiable and appropriate, you’ll move your story forward in a unique way.

2. Comedians practice and polish their craft all the time.

There are a rare few comedians who can get up on stage and improvise for extended periods of time or riff on audience interaction. It’s a gift, but even gifted comedians spend hours and hours practicing, polishing, tweaking and testing their material.

Too often, we work in a vacuum. How often does someone else look at your blog posts before you publish them, or listen to your speech pre-performance?

Unless you’re at an open mic night, or your comic tells you the material is new (and they do, sometimes), you can bet it’s already delivered thousands of laughs. Their goal and ours, too, is to make all this work seem fresh and new every time.

3. Comics know we have the attention span of—hey look, a bird!

People in my age group (nearly 40) grew up on television. We took in endless quick-cut, 30-minute shows interrupted by 15-second commercials flashing by at intervals. Millennials have lived most of their lives tethered to smartphones; 140-character tweets and even shorter texts come in, rapid fire, all day. It just gets worse for Gen Z.

To keep things fresh and interesting, you have to move fast; just ask TED curator Chris Anderson:

[Eighteen minutes] is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily.

The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.

4. Comedians speak like real people.

We know jargon is awful—but why? Jargon is poisonous because it’s abstract and cliché. Audiences, readers—everyone—wants details and concrete imagery.

Here’s a brilliant quote from Jerry Seinfeld: “Marriage is like a game of chess, except the board is flowing water, the pieces are made of smoke, and no move you make will have any effect on the outcome.”

It’s all about painting pictures with words. Remember when your third-grade teacher used to tell you, “I want showing writing, not telling writing”? Well, it’s still true.

5. Comedians know that laughter equals agreement.

This is why so many comedians write jokes revealing a simple truth. George Carlin was the king of pointing out all the stupid things we do in life—and then making us laugh at them: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

This is a powerful thing: getting people to laugh at their foibles by presenting them in a humorous context. Some think of this as translation. I think of it differently: When people laugh, they do so because at some level, they are agreeing with you.

It’s easy to see why you would want to use humor in your communication. If you get people to agree with you up front through laughter, the rest comes easy. It’s like a persuasive shortcut, no matter if you are candidly being persuasive or just selling an idea. You don’t have to work as hard when people are laughing.

The bottom line is you don’t have to be a stand-up comic to be a stand-up communicator. Humor is a great tool, but you don’t have to be a comic genius.

The techniques they employ can make you successful, too. They work hard. They’re not afraid to fail (failing on stage is a requisite experience). And they see perfection as a moving target—just as you do. That’s why you can take these ideas to the bank.

A version of this post first appeared on Stand Up Communications.


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