What Standup Comedy Teaches About Public Speaking

Becoming a great speaker and presenter takes effort and commitment. While there are several methods to improve your performance, the more practice you have in front of a real audience the more improvement you will make. For me, that meant performing stand-up comedy! In fact, my experiences in stand-up was one of many components that helped guide me to become a professional speaker.

Back in the late 80’s and through most of the 90’s I performed in comedy clubs, and I learned a lot about presenting to audiences.  Full disclosure: I was never a professional comedian who traveled the country and earned a living from making people laugh. However, standing in front of an intoxicated audience, telling jokes and hoping for laughs, and getting my fair share of crickets, was a great training ground for me. I suggest standup for any one who wants to become a better speaker, professional or not. Standup comedy helps you learn to read an audience, learn about practice and preparation, write tighter (i.e.,word economy), take risks, and look for stories that make you show the authentic you.

On my podcast, Improv Is No Joke, I have interviewed several professional comedians, and I asked each of them what stand-up comedy taught them about being a better public speaker.  Here are excerpts from my interviews with Dan Swartwout, Rik Roberts, and Judy Carter, all professional speakers and comedians.

Dan Swartwout is a professional touring comedian who is also an attorney and a member of the City of Powell (Ohio) City Council.  Here are some of the insights he shared with me:

  • The ability to read an audience, the ability to measure my performance based on the audience’s reactions and expectations, and I think a lot of those skills are translatable to many different types of performances and speaking engagements.”
  • “The key between a good speaker and a great speaker, is the great speaker and the good speaker are both prepared and ready, and on top of what it is they’re going to do. The great speaker, however, doesn’t appear to be over-prepared. It seems they’re just talking to you, even though they know exactly what they’re going to say, what they’re going to do, and how they’re going to do it to the audience.”
  • Let’s say you’re doing a presentation in front of accountants and you’re in the middle of your presentation and somebody drops a tray full of glasses, and the glasses shatter everywhere. I mean that’s something that, if it unnerved you, it could throw off your entire presentation. Keep connecting with your audience regardless of what might happen. Anytime you get in front of a group of people and talk there is always room for error.”

Rik Roberts provides clean comedy and creative keynote presentations. Rik also provides excellent comedy education in the School of Laughs, which includes a hilarious podcast of the same name, and comedy classes that will help anyone who wants to add more humor to their writing. Some of Ric’s thought include:

  • “Doing the comedy clubs was like going through all four years of college, and you get an education and you get that experience level from having faced every type of audience and tough crowd. Comedy College: just go out there and experience it, and take those lessons to the corporate speaking world.”
  • “Comedy is an art and sculpting is an art. So in comedy, if they gave us 30 pounds of words, we would try to use all 30 pounds. A sculptor would take those 30 pounds of clay and chisel away what doesn’t need to be there. Amateur comics don’t. They try to use all 30 pounds of words. But a professional will try to get that down to the bare minimum. An artist removes things so that you can see the beauty of the art, whereas a laborious person would just use everything to show you that they can do it.”
  • “When I deliver speeches, even though there’s plenty of humorous points in there and lots of funny stories and jokes, when I’m delivering the contents of the material (and it’s taken me awhile to learn this) I need to slow down and hear it as I’m saying it, as if it’s the first time I’m saying it, because that’s how the audience is receiving it.”

Judy Carter is a keynote speaker, an incredible author, and an effective coach. She is also retired from an impressive career as a stand-up comedian. Here are some excerpts from our interview:

  • “We all have this attitude that our life is absolute, random and chaotic, and in reading my book The Message of You people find that it’s not random, it’s not chaotic. That you actually have a message in your life and everyday you’re living that message, and you have something in your stories and what you’ve gone through that, if you share, can really help other people and create a ripple effect of inspiration.”
  • “What happened today, and find one moment in the day where something upset you, because we find that when things upset you they kind of hook into something that happened before, usually in your childhood, and from that we can glean a message. And we don’t have to wait for dramatic things to happen to us.  Extraordinary events are happening every day, and when we can capture that, it helps find exactly what is our legacy.”
  • What is therapy except knowledge about yourself? Understanding what motivates you, what rules you, because that’s power. I mean people go to therapy. But a lot of people want self-knowledge so they can use it to be an influencer in the world and understand, so they’re able to answer that question: what do I want to do?”

Great advice from very seasoned comedians on what they have learned from stand-up comedy. Here’s a challenge for you: put yourself out there and try stand-up.  Write seven jokes and go to an open mic night to try your material.  Before you venture out for the first time, I have a very important tip – do your homework. Find out how many minutes of mic time you will have, then practice your routine with a stopwatch. If you go over your time limit you probably will not get any more stage time at that venue for a while.  On performance day your goal is to take mental notes of everything yo observe while on and off stage. Watch and listen to the other amateurs, watch the audience reactions, stay in the moment.  After your set, write down your observations and come back better prepared the next week.

You can listen my full interviews with Dan, Ric and Judy on my podcast Improv Is No Joke found on iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play.  If you want to invest additional time in becoming funnier, check out Rik Roberts School of Laughs and Judy Carter’s The Comedy Bible.