continues from part 1
Posture and positioning
Stance is crucial to the way you start your time in front of the audience. The classic comedian’s stance is about stability, centredness, grounding. It’s all about “owning the space” – the sense of having the right to be where you are, and being at ease there. The classic stance is directly facing towards the audience, with the feet somewhat apart and the knees not locked, but slightly softened. It’s the same stance that’s used as a starting point in many martial arts, because it’s the ideal solid, grounded position from which it’s easy to deal with any demand that is made, and make any movement that is required. It isn’t stiff or rigid – it’s strong, but softened and flexible. It’s stable, but it’s also energised.
If you give out the recognisable physical signals, people will believe. The physical determines the emotional – for the audience, and for you. A posture like this not only speaks to the audience of strength and assurance – it also naturally makes you feel more secure and confident. A central position in front of an audience creates the sense of being clearly in charge, if that’s an option. Stand-up comedy microphones are set up centre stage, ahead of performances, for a reason.
Acknowledge your audience, and be interested in them. You may not be interacting with them as a comedy mc does, but they need to know that they’re important to you.
Clearly, some comedians don’t come straight onto stage and keep still; quite a few pace around, and make that part of their act. But most comedians who move around do so, resuming a strong position between movements. Too much movement is a distraction for most speakers and audiences. There’ll be more about body language in subsequent blogs
Breath and breathing
Good breath pattern is absolutely crucial to establishing a confident and effective start to your presentation or speech. Nervous speakers nearly always neglect effective breath, often breathing quickly or shallowly – not leaving enough time to breath before starting to speak, or between sentences. Successful comedians build organised breathing into their whole pattern of timing and phrasing.
Many of the best comedians come on stage and the first thing they do is pick up the microphone, look at the audience and let the audience look at them, and before saying anything, take a breath. This has a strong effect on audiences, who will think, “this is the behaviour of a confident person who I can trust to take charge here” and who will then more eagerly anticipate what the comedian is going to say. It also prevents the onset of that self-perpetuating nervous combination of speaking too quickly and not breathing enough. This is a highly recommended strategy for speakers and presenters, too. Don’t rush to start. And take time to be interested in the audience.
It’s also helpful to learn the form of breathing which best builds a sense of unassailable stability and centredness – abdominal breathing. The in-breath causes the diaphragm to sink as the lungs expand downwards and the lower abdomen expands outwards, while on the in-breath the diaphragm rises and the lower abdomen recedes.
Abdominal breathing is universally used by singers for breath control and strength of voice, and by actors for projection and audibility. It’s also used in all the martial arts, and is learned naturally by people who practice yoga and Pilates. Abdomenal breathing is really worth practising and making second nature.
As well as giving good breath and voice control, this diaphragm based form of breathing also creates a lower centre of gravity, like those toy figures that are impossible to knock over because they just bounce back up, in readiness to respond and deal with anything that goes wrong.
More shallow forms of breathing – especially upper chest breathing, where the upper ribs and collar bone clearly move in and out or up and down with the breath – promote feelings of nervousness, whereas abdominal breathing promotes calmness.
Breaking the rules
One of the rules of comedy is that there aren’t really any rules, that any rule can actually be broken. Whatever generally accepted guidelines you can think of for comedy success, there will always be a couple of incredibly successful comedians who completely ignore them – that’s the nature of comedy, in which rebelliousness is always a sought-after attribute. And so it is with the general principle of needing to come across as super-confident and assured from the start of your delivery. On occasion, a certain degree of vulnerability can be a positive factor, and for many comedians it is a key component of their stage persona, helping build a strong connexion and empathy with the audience.
However, for both comedians and other speakers, this needs to be vulnerability as in ‘I’m human and sometimes I experience problems, but I know what I’m doing here today’ rather than vulnerability as in I might fall apart at any moment and dissolve in a puddle of tears’.
So it’s not about pretending to be some sort of supremely confident super-human – it’s about being yourself – the most confident form of yourself – and continue to cultivate this as you develop your speaking career.
Professional comedians learn and thoroughly practise how to do getting on and off stage, when there’s no audience – because it’s such a crucial part of an act, and because it can be practised; and they want to do everything they can to succeed and to make the performance a positive experience for themselves as well as for the audience. This is a good idea for presenters too – ironically, the more you practice, the more natural it becomes. It builds your confidence, and it enables you to anticipate and solve any problems that may occur with how you do it.
It’s a good idea to do general purpose practice, but if you have a big and important presentation in a specific setting, get access in advance and walk that through your entrance a couple of times.
Know fairly accurately what your first words are going to be. From there on, you’ll probably have notes or powerpoint cues to keep you going.
Summary of key pointers
- own the space
- face the audience and adopt a strong, stable but relaxed stance
- take breath before starting to speak
- practice and use abdominal breathing
- fake confidence and keep going
- remember, it’s all about them, not you