Want To Learn Public Speaking? Try Stand-Up Comedy.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Deborah Brown and Clayton Fletcher of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm based in NYC. I asked them to write this article to describe their fascinating approach to presentation training, which uses comedy to help people break through their inhibitions.

According to surveys, people are more afraid of public speaking than dying. And, we’re not just talking about a conference with 500 people. We find employees are just as afraid to present to five people as they are to 500!

We’ve learned that through stand-up comedy training, offered as part of our proprietary Comedy Experience program, employees become better, more fearless speakers. We teach organizations great and small to employ storytelling techniques mastered by professional comedians. And, we walk the walk. Everyone at Peppercom – from management to interns – has performed stand-up comedy at least once, and many of us entertain comedy club audiences all over New York on a regular basis.

So, what does comedy have to do with business? Everything!

Below are four tips on how you can incorporate comedy skills into successful business presentations:

Comedian Clayton Fletcher, co-author of this piece, uses comedy to help public speakers

Tip #1: Use Storytelling to Engage Your Audience

Comedy skills are remarkably similar to presentation skills, since a comedy routine is itself a presentation. When you’re on stage, you need to engage your audience, right? The last thing you want is to see them texting, Googling, doodling, or falling asleep. An audience that is laughing is 100 percent engaged; a funny presenter commands attention and respect more than a bland one—that’s just common sense, right?

The key to engaging your audience as well as creating outstanding presentations is storytelling. This is the same required ingredient in outstanding comedy performances. Comedy, today, is not about joke telling, as in “three guys walk into a bar…” It’s about narrative based in truth. Comedy club audiences want to learn something about the speaker, and guess what? So do business audiences. Sharing a true story increases confidence; after all, you know the material – it’s your story. You know the journey you want the audience to take before you even go onstage. The goal of leading the crowd along that path gives a speaker confidence and a sense of direction. Presentations should be thought of in the exact same way, a story, a revelation, a journey!

Tip #2: Read The Audience

Another skill we can learn from great comedians is how to read an audience. Comics know how to pay attention and react to the body language and other non-verbal indicators, whether the crowd is laughing, yawning, slouching, squinting, giggling, frowning, ignoring, smiling, resisting, or engaging. If a stand-up is losing the crowd, she can improvise, ask questions, comment on the situation, and use her sense of humor to elicit a better response! You can do the same thing as a presenter. If an audience seems uninterested, ask a question. They’ll immediately respond. You can also say something off the cuff or be honest in the moment.

Co-author Deborah Brown uses comedy to teach public speaking.

Tip #3: Make Nervous Energy Work in Your Favor

Does the idea of presenting make you nervous? Good! You’re supposed to be nervous. Being nervous is a good thing; it lets people know you are passionate about your topic and that their reaction matters to you. The same is true of all comedians. They, too, are nervous before going on stage but they understand how to make that nervous energy work for them. Nervous energy is kinetic energy that must be harnessed and embraced onstage. Don’t fight the nerves. Channel the nervous energy into your storytelling abilities and you’ll transform nervousness into passion.

Tip #4: Show Vulnerability

It’s good to be vulnerable. When you’re on stage, you feel naked with all eyes on you. Instead of pretending it’s easy, show vulnerability, communicate to the audience that you’re human. The audience then finds you more relatable, assuming they are human as well, of course. Vulnerability, nervousness, and authenticity make people want to hear what you have to say.

We have conducted our Comedy Experience program for many companies, and the big takeaway has been the immediate and tangible results. For example, at one major corporation, we were asked to teach comedy to a group of scientists, engineers and researchers. These brilliant and serious professionals were reticent to try this idea, to say the least. But by the end of the session, they were laughing, connecting, and sharing. Everyone who performed got big laughs and the team-building power of laughter broke down the walls of skepticism one lab coat at a time. It was quite spectacular to watch as, one by one, these seemingly humorless people broke out of their respective comfort zones and connected with one another on a new and deeper level.

Comedy training is a corporate game changer that works best as an ongoing, culture redefining program. However, the tips outlined above will at least give you the immediate confidence you need to think of your presentation in a different way.

Comedy skills share a lot with business skills…and that’s no joke!

Deborah Brown is a partner/managing director of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm based in New York City. She tweets at @DeborahBrown21.

Clayton Fletcher is a professional comedian and Peppercomm’s Chief Comedy Officer. He tweets at @claytoncomic.

Have the best of the blog delivered to your inbox twice per month! Enter your name in the box below to join our mailing list.