This is part of a series: Learning from stand-up comedians
for brilliant public speaking and presentation
Stand-up comedians are noted for their legendary ability to engage with their audiences in order to get them on-side, be appreciated, and present their material to best effect – comedians have to be experts in crowd control. A successful comedian will unite the audience and take them on a journey of shared emotion and shared responses.
Speakers and presenters need to achieve the same broad outcomes, albeit without quite the same pressure. So, how do comedians successfully engage with and exert control over their audiences?
How do they do it?
In order to successfully connect with an audience, the comedian needs two things:
1) engaging content or material
2) an engaging mode of communication
Comedians can have great material, but if they don’t win over the audience it won’t work for them and the audience won’t find them funny. The communication mode comprises two components, both driven by engagement criteria:
The comedian’s established style and manner of presentation, ongoingly evolved and developed with experience
Additional measures that need to be taken in a particular setting, with a particular audience, or with particular audience members
Reading an audience
Sensitivity to an audience is central to the art of stand-up comedy, and indeed to any form of speaking. Comedians read the audience all the time – not only when they’re on stage, but before they go on.
This gives the artist information of crucial importance and immense value – from their behaviour, their body language, the general mood and the atmosphere. What kind of audience are they, collectively and individually? Are they subdued or excited? Are they tired or energised? Tense or relaxed? Easy-going or picky? Cautious or adventurous? Sober or inebriated? Liberal? Conservative? Determined to have a good time? Grumpy as Hell?
The results of these observations will not only influence how the show is likely to go down, but will also provide vital cues about how to pitch the performance, and which material to include or leave out. The observation process continues throughout the performance.
Having tuned in to what’s going on with their audiences, how do comedians ensure that they make a strong connexion with them? Professionals often characterise live comedy as an energy exchange – energy passes to and fro between performer and audience, affecting one another much as electricity flows between one pole and another.
The comedian initiates this energy flow; some performers express this outwardly and physically, while others are deadpan or seemingly subdued – but the charge has to be there. It manifests in qualities such as enthusiasm, passion, emotional content, and what performers call commitment – believing in yourself and your material and giving yourself over to the performance 100%, in whatever style is authentic and truthful for you.
Engaging material is a key part of the comedian’s method of connecting with the audience. The main elements of comedy are recognition and then surprise – so the audience has to be able to relate to what the comedian is talking about – to recognise experiences and aspects of life. Telling the comedian’s own story is helpful into connecting – everyone likes a story, and wants to know what happened next. Surprise or shock are also used by comedians as methods of securing the audience’s attention.
If the audience seems not to be engaged, the comedian will tinker with variables such as manner, tone, pace of delivery or choice of material in order to get them back on board.
The art of conversation
The format of stand-up comedy is unique – one person talking unscripted, and the audience listening. The objective is to establish a conversational style – like a conversation between friends. This is the ideal basis for drawing the audience in – as if you all know each other already.
Engaging the audience in these ways, enticing them into commitment, leading them on, are the subtle basis for getting them to do what you want – controlling them.
The approaches we’ve talked about so far are mostly to do with how the performer is behaving. But working the audience often involves getting them actively involved and doing stuff – singling people out, making observations about them, perhaps walking among the audience, talking to individuals, asking them questions, then using their responses to create material.
Getting the audience interactive in any of these ways has a powerful effect – not only on the individuals concerned, but on the whole crowd. The adrenalin level shoots up; everyone is now on the edge of their seats, most of them thinking “I’m glad that’s not me” or “Please not me next!”. Comedy MCs routinely use this approach to raise the energy at the start of a show, and between acts if energy levels have dropped.
When things go wrong
Managing a comedy audience, of course, very often involves having to deal with individuals who are having an adverse effect on the performance – people who are more interested in chatting amongst themselves, people who think they’re funnier than the comedian, people who want to be disruptive and mess things up, people who really should have stayed at home.
These people have to be dealt with in order to keep the audience engaged and getting value for their money; there are many ways of doing so, according to the differing styles of comedians. Some do it in an aggressive way, some in a friendly way, but any methods that alienate the rest of the audience are pointless. Most comedy experts recommend a playful response – in other words, not taking it too seriously. People didn’t come to a comedy show to be serious.
Applying these principles/ summary of key principles
These strategies and techniques can be applied to great effect by non-comedian speakers and presenters, in order to engage, connect and manage their audiences. Here is a summary of the key points:
1) Know what your audience wants and doesn’t want. Your audience wants you to be authoritative and able to impart good information, and they will also appreciate being entertained. They fear the discomfort and embarrassment caused by someone who cannot command the audience’s attention, and they fear wasting their time.
2) Have engaging content and material, which your audience can relate to personally or professionally
3) Be interested in your audience
4) Commit yourself wholeheartedly to the your audience, to your presentation and to your content
5) Learn to read your audience as an overall group, also looking out for positively or negatively oriented individuals.
6) Initiate an energy exchange with your audience through your delivery.
7) Let your individuality come into your performance persona
8) Use elements of story in your presentation
9) Adopt a conversational tone, as if speaking with friends
10) Use eye contact constructively
11) Have a plan that includes what to do if things go wrong.
12) Include elements of spontaneity in your presentation.
13) Get the audience to actively enter into their listening experience, using interactive devices as appropriate.
14) Employ comedian’s methods of engaging and dealing with individuals in the audience who are having a particularly positive or a particularly negative effect on the session.
15) Try to enjoy it!