Presentation skills: Lessons from stand-up comedians

Presentation skills: Lessons from stand-up comedians

Monday, 04 March 2019

Not heard the one about the monthly departmental and the comedian? Probably because “Definitely don’t make jokes” — the staple advice from the long-running Public Speaking Power podcast — is drummed into us from the moment we’re capable of causing offence.  

The good news for anyone wanting to engage and entertain through their PowerPoints is that you can do it without turning your workplace storytelling (one of today’s most overused buzzwords according to Picking the Low Hanging Fruit...And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in The Corporate World author, James Sudakok) into a David Brentesque masterclass in one-liners. But that’s not to say Ricky Gervais and friends can’t teach you a thing or two about captivating an audience...



Successful comedians take risks. And not just when it comes to controversial punch lines — a risk might simply involve deviating from the script in response to the environment or audience mood. But those stand-ups who do this with natural ease are able to do so because they’ve spent months or even years fine-tuning their routine.

Comedy's about taking risks, taking chances, working in a safe environment where you're comfortable making a fool of yourself.

Michael Spiller, Emmy winning Director of US show Modern Family


So if you’ve been sticking to the same tried and tested patter for as far back as your team can remember, perhaps it’s time to take a calculated risk. Tear up your template and create a picture-led visual that allows you more breathing space to ad lib, or kick off with an invitation for audience participation by posing a question or requesting a show of hands.

Each time you try something a little different in your public speaking, pay special attention to how your listeners react. Look for feedback through their body language and facial expressions and consider what you might need to change or do more of next time. It’s best to try out any new ideas in low importance presentations – there’s a reason why stadium-filling stand-ups spend months on the club circuit before they take to the big stage.



Creating good vibes in meetings doesn’t necessitate peppering your patter with an endless stream of office in-jokes. Whether you’re a seasoned speaker or you have a tendency to fall victim to nerves when you’re standing in front of your clients, a genuine smile holds untold power, says Stephanie Davies, former stand-up turned founder and director of Laughology, a training school for the corporate world in the science of laughter.  

“Smiling can greatly improve your mood and reduce stress. Even when fake smiling, you still get the same results. Smiling doesn’t just benefit you on the inside, it also works to your advantage from the outside. [Studies have] found that people who smile are more likeable and are perceived as more courteous and more competent. This is reason enough to smile at every person you potentially want to do business with,” says Davies, who spoke on the importance of light-heartedness and joy at work at our 2017 everywoman Forum: Advancing Women in Technology.

“Lifting those facial muscles into a smile is also contagious; if you smile and they smile, everyone in the room becomes a little happier. So why is a smile so powerful? It all comes down to how smiling can change your brain. When you smile, your brain is aware of the activity and actually keeps track of it. The more you smile, the more effective you are at breaking the brain’s natural tendency to think negatively. If you smile often enough, you end up rewiring your brain to make positive patterns more often than it does negative ones.”



“At one gig, the comic before me did a bit about how he hated and plotted against his girlfriend’s cat,” recalls Canadian comedian Andrea Henry. The punch line? “The show was a fund-raiser for an animal shelter.”

The moral to this cringeworthy story is that what went down a storm at your team meeting isn’t necessarily going to win hearts and minds at the investor pitch you’ve been working up to for months. If you’ve been asked to repeat a successful presentation, you can assume you did something right first time round. But take care to consider how your audiences differ and how your tone and content should be adapted for optimum success.












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