Continuing my series on public speaking for scientists, we look at what we can learn from comedians. There is no more attentive audience then that watching a world-class comedian. They are completely within his or her power, hanging off every word. The easy answer to the question “how do they do it?” is “by being funny”. While we could throw one or two jokes in, a scientist can’t turn a conference presentation into a comedy routine. However, there are a few lessons to be learned.
1. Learn From Others
The book “Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-up Comedy” by Franklyn Ajaye begins with these words:
“The first and most important step for anybody who wants to be a good and stand-up comedian is to make sure that you watch the good ones and study them intently”.
I found the same advice in almost every “how to be a stand-up comedian” guide. It’s what I’m attempting to do in these posts. Everyone knows what good public speaking is because we know when we have enjoyed a talk or lecture. So if you find yourself enjoying a talk or lecture, try to work out why you are enjoying it. Reflect on your undergraduate lectures: what made the good lecturers good and the bad lecturers bad? Remember: you are the audience. You are the ultimate judge of what constitutes good public speaking.
2. Get Feedback
The reason that the best comedians are so good is that they get immediate, brutally honest feedback. A comedian is never in doubt about whether he or she has command of the audience – the deafening silence following a bombed joke is the stuff of comedian nightmares. This unforgiving environment inspires comedians to hone their delivery and timing to the highest degree. Consider the following quote about Jerry Seinfeld (2/11/08, The Guardian):
Friends who have known Seinfeld for years say that he has always been sharply attuned to the fitness of his stand-up act, and eager to perform it no matter what else was occupying him in his personal or professional life. “When he wasn’t out there for a period of time, he would start to get antsy and feel like he was losing his edge,” says Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld … “The phrase he would use was ‘out of shape’.”
The moral is simple: to refine your skills, you need feedback – as honest as possible. It’s not just practice; it’s the reaction of the audience that sharpens the act. Comedians get feedback immediately; as a scientist, you’re going to have to seek it out. After a talk, pull someone aside and ask them to evaluate your talk.
More importantly, comedians have to stay one step ahead of their audience – comedy that is predictable isn’t comedy. And the only way to stay ahead of your audience is to be a harsher critic of yourself than any crowd. As a scientist, that won’t be hard: most conference crowds demand only that you don’t interrupt their sleep. If you want to pull ahead of the pack, you’re going to have to set high standards for yourself.
3. Be succinct
Here’s a quote from UK comedian Jimmy Carr:
Writing comedy isn’t really about writing; it’s more about editing. It’s about what you don’t say. A feedline is like figuring out what’s the fewest words I can get down here in order to get to the funny bit.
Comedians are masters at trimming the excess from every sentence. They cannot afford to make their audience wait. They must build momentum, with each laugh leading seamlessly into the next. They cannot waffle. They must get to the point as quickly as possible. This is especially true of “one-liner” comedians; here are a few of my favourites:
What does this mean for the scientist? Be as concise as possible. Get to the point! Well constructed, lean sentences tell your audience that you not only know your stuff, but you know how to put it into words. Long sentences are easy to write but difficult to listen to – we tend to forget how they started. Avoid meaningless filler, e.g. saying “I mean” or “basically” in every second sentence. Silence is better than “um”. You could use the time you save to explain the same point in a different way, or in more detail, or to give your audience a few moments of silence to take it all in.
Next time: Political leaders.
More in this series:
Public Speaking for Scientists:
- 1: Introduction
- 2: How Comedians Do It
- 2a: Jokes
- 3: How Political Leaders Do It
- 4: How Social Activists Do It
- 5: How Preachers Do It
- 6: How Educators (should) Do It
- 7: Powerpoint