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Big Presentation? Imagine It's Open Mic Night

Successful comedians are deft presenters. 8 comedy lessons to apply to your next business presentation.
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What do standup comedy and business presentations have in common?

More than you think. Comedians are entrepreneurs. They often write their own material, book their gigs, arrange their travel and negotiate and collect their compensation from club owners. Both comedians and entrepreneurs must engage and entertain their demanding audiences. You might not be looking for laughs, but there's plenty entrepreneurs can learn from their comic brethren.

Tip #1: Go for the strong start.

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

Tip #2: Get physical. 

Successful comedians are well aware that it is often not what they say, but how they say it. Studies have shown that approximately 55 percent of a speaker's communication during the first few minutes of a presentation is nonverbal. An additional 38 percent is tone of voice. A mere 7 percent of a speaker's initial communications come from the actual words. So use your voice, posture, gestures and physical appearance to establish the appropriate tenor.

Tip #3: Manage the hecklers. 

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. Then the comedian shuts down the heckler with the audience's implicit approval.

You may not have hecklers at your presentations. But you probably have a Q and A session. An audience member who asks an irrelevant or nonsensical question isn't that different than a heckler. The presenter must respond respectfully. If the questioner continues to ask off-base or overly pointed questions, the audience will eventually become agitated. That's when speaker should politely tell the questioner that they will address their additional questions after the presentation has concluded. It's all about getting the audience on your side.

Tip #4: Develop a repartee. 

Comedians often ask their audience questions and make comments about people's wardrobes, dates, drinks, etc. The audience assumes that the guy drinking the "girlie drink" in the back of the room really exists--though often he doesn't.

Chiding or mocking your audience probably isn't the best idea. But soliciting their participation can help keep them engaged. In a small group, use their first names and ask probing questions to uncover hidden concerns. 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.

Tip #5: Rehearse your spontaneity.

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're straight-faced--even through the funniest bits. 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, but it is usually the result of painstaking practice. That's what distinguishes professional comics from amateurs.

When we took Computer Motion 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 ad-libbing sounded spontaneous.

Tip #6: Stop for a breath.

Proper pacing is of vital importance in comedy. Comedians have to wait for each joke to sink in. At the same time, too many pauses and people get bored.

One way to ensure effective pacing is to establish segues that alert the audience when you move from one subject to another. In comedy, questions like, "Anyone here from New York?" or "Did you guys hear the news story about... ?" are used to transition between topics. Verbal landmarks give the audience a chance to catch their breath and guide them to the next subject.

Tip #7: Don't fear humor.

This is a big one. Deft use of humor is the greatest lesson entrepreneurs can learn from comedians. Business presentations do not have to be boring. Injecting humor into your talks, when done judiciously, can make them more engaging, and thus, more impactful. Engaged people are persuadable people.

Tip #8: Bring it home.

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. You can do the same: refer to your opening story in your closing remarks.

Whether or not you circle back to the beginning, your line is crucial. So call upon your inner comic and end your talk on an applause line that underscores a clear call to action.

IMAGE: rockinfree/Flickr
Last updated: Feb 20, 2013

JOHN GREATHOUSE | Partner, Rincon Venture Partners

John Greathouse is a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, an early-stage VC firm. A serial entrepreneur, John led Computer Motion?s $110 million public offering, and the $236 million sale of Expertcity (creator of GoToMeeting) to Citrix. Check out his hands-on start-up advice blog at Infochachkie. Or, follow his start-up oriented Twitter feed, where he promises not to tweet about koala bears or killer burritos.




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