The Standup Speaker

Before you read any further, take a few minutes (5:46, to be exact) to watch this YouTube video of 14-year-old standup comedian Dylan Roche.

Isn’t he hilarious? He also provides very good examples of three elements that standup comics and public speakers have in common.

1. They both perform in front of a live audience. Thus, they have to be “in the moment,” ready to react to any event that happens, and they have to rely on immediate feedback from their listeners. For a comic, of course, the feedback mostly manifests itself (or doesn’t) as laughter; for the speaker, the feedback can be as varied as head nods, or lifted eyebrows, or smiles (or closed eyes and frowns). Both the comic and the speaker have to adjust their performances accordingly, responding, say, to a groan (the comic) or a furrowed brow (the speaker). They learn when to respond and when to ignore. (Did you notice what Dylan did after an audience member shouted, “That’s sad!” when he said that his middle school years were filled with “bullying, cliques, and gossip—mostly from the teachers”? He ignored it.) A public speaker also has to know—in the moment—when to respond to an audience member and when to just let it go. (Ellen once had an audience member who responded to her every comment with an audible “Yup!” She quickly checked to see if the “yups” were bothering anyone else in the room; they weren’t, so she just kept going.)

2. They both work hard to engage the audience and keep them involved in the performance. Comics do this by directly addressing audience members (several times, Dylan calls on a man named Tim to participate in his routine), as do speakers, who frequently check for understanding by asking questions like, “Is that clear?” (In this respect, speakers sometimes have it a little easier than comics, as participants in a workshop typically have their names on tent cards so that the speaker can directly address them.) When Dylan comes back again to Tim later in the routine (“You know what grinds my gears, Tim?”) he gets a huge laugh. This classic standup comic technique is called a “callback” and it gets an even bigger laugh because the audience remembers the first occurrence and responds to both the surprise and the familiarity of the second reference. A callback can also be a valuable tool for speakers, as it provides an opportunity for the speaker to remind audience members of a previous point (or story). If you start your presentation with a story and then “callback” to that same story at the end of your presentation, you will give your audience a sense of coming full circle to closure.

3. They both perform best when they stay in character. Many standup comics have created a “persona”—a stage character who may or may not reflect who the performer actually is around friends and family. (Don Rickles is the perfect example: a nasty—yet hilarious—insult-heaver, but apparently in real life a nice lovable guy. Joan Rivers was the female equivalent.) Dylan’s persona is obviously Smart-alecky Teenager. (The braces are a nice touch.) This persona allows him to talk about what he is most familiar with (the trials and tribulations of middle school, techniques for test-taking, etc.). Once the audience has accepted his persona, they accept all of him, not minding that he has to stop quite frequently to take a sip of water. What could be distracting for a different performer becomes endearing for Dylan.

So as a speaker, what persona should you have? It starts with your basic personality. If you are a somewhat manic (in a good way), highly enthusiastic, very LOUD speaker like Ellen’s quantum physicist brother, your persona will be Authoritative Scientist with a Passion for Physics (Neil deGrasse Tyson also comes to mind). If you are clever, quick-witted, and highly knowledgeable like Ellen’s other brother, a professor of business, your persona will be Factual Expert Who Enlightens (we’re thinking the late Steve Jobs would fall into this category). And if you are dedicated and devoted to your cause, whether it be improving world literacy, establishing peace in the Middle East, or finding help for stressed-out veterinarians (which is what Ellen’s professor of veterinary medicine sister advocates for), you might be Concerned Advocator for Change (like Michelle Obama or Elizabeth Warren).

Whether your goal is to impart knowledge, inspire action, or just get laughs, it will always be important that you know how to respond to feedback, how to engage your audience, and how to build a successful persona. Dylan Roche figured this out at 14; it’s never too late to learn.

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