Ten Lessons from Standup Comedy That Will Make You a Better Speaker

How thinking like a comedian can help you win over a room

Matt Ruby
Matt Ruby
Jan 18, 2017 · 10 min read

An essay by comedian/author Matt Ruby. Want more? Sign up here to get my newsletter.

Image for post
Image for post

“I consider myself a thought leader.”

“I am Senior VP of ________.”

“Did I mention I got my MBA from Harvard?”

“Big data, VR, the cloud, and [insert more buzzwords].”

“I was having lunch with [name drop] and we were discussing [name drop].”

That’s the way people in the business world (and academia) love to talk. They want you to be impressed by them. They want you to know they ooze confidence. They want you to know they’re important/smart/respected/won’t lose your money.

The typical result: Whoever is listening wants to go to sleep. It’s just another suit bragging about stuff. “Yeah, you’re amazing. Nice job, pal. Now when’s lunch?”

But look at standup comedians. They take the opposite approach. They come right out and tell you how unimpressive they are. Rodney Dangerfield talked about how he got no respect. Louis CK talks about his body falling apart. Jim Gaffigan tells you he’s pale and fat. Chris Rock tells you he’s a high school dropout. Richard Pryor talked about his drug use. Doug Stanhope talks about his drinking. Woody Allen and Richard Lewis go on and on about their neuroses. Maria Bamford discusses her mental illness and various prescriptions. And the list goes on and on.

Why do these seasoned performers take a path so different than the one chosen by business folks? First of all, because it’s interesting. Anyone who hears “I want to confess something to you” is going to be intrigued. When a speaker is that honest, audience members sit up and pay attention. I don’t want to hear the valedictorian’s speech. But a tape of their therapy session? Sign me up.

Also, these performers are building a connection. They’ve honed their act in front of crowds night after night for years on end. They know what works. And they realize the best way to get an audience on your side is to open up about your faults. To be vulnerable about what’s wrong with you. To be honest about what you really think and feel, even if it’s kooky. This openness builds trust. The crowd empathizes with you. They’re on your side. (Well, as long as you’re not admitting to being a serial killer or something.)

The best way to get an audience on your side is to open up about your faults.

And once you’ve got them on your side, that’s when you can really take ’em somewhere. Johnny Carson once said, “I think this is the greatest thing that a performer can have if he’s going to be successful: an empathy with the audience. They have to like him. And if they like the performer, then you’ve got 80% of it made.”

But don’t you need to seem confident? Yes, but you should realize that you can be confident and vulnerable at the same time. You can command the stage yet still let people see your flaws. “There’s something more interesting, more honest, and easier to connect with when there’s a little bit of that admission of loneliness sometimes, or insecurity, or self-doubt, or any of that kind of stuff,” says comedian Demetri Martin. The things that people try to hide are the things we most want to hear.

So what if you took the approach of a comedian in a “real world” setting? After all, comedians aren’t the only ones who need to work the room. Maybe you’re giving a talk at a conference. Or you’re pitching a client. Or you’re heading up an office meeting. Or interviewing for a job. Or chatting folks up at a networking event. In any of those situations, you can use the same techniques that standup comedians use to kill. Here are 10 tips standup comedians know that could help you win over a crowd…

1) You improve what you measure

As a comic, you know why you’re there: to make ’em laugh. If they’re not laughing, it’s not comedy. It might be a great story or an interesting lecture, but it’s not comedy. It’s actually quite refreshing because you’ve got a clear way to measure your success. You can listen to a set and measure the frequency and intensity of the laughter and know how well you’ve done your job. And that gives you a metric. You can tell if you’re getting better. Without that, you might be flailing around without ever improving.

So push yourself to figure out how you’re going to measure success. If it’s a talk, maybe it’s by applause. Or maybe it’s the comments you receive after the talk. If you’re telling a sad, heartfelt anecdote, maybe you’ll know it’s hitting when people get choked up (or silent). If it’s a pitch, you might measure by whether you close the deal or how many questions the potential client asks. If it’s a networking event, maybe it’s how many business cards you get or how many 10 minute conversations you sustain. If it’s an office brainstorming session, maybe it’s the number of ideas that are written down. If it’s a job interview, it’ll be getting the job or second interview. Figure out how you define success and start measuring yourself. You may not get there overnight but at least you’ll know if you’re getting closer to your goal — or that your cause is hopeless.

2) Open and close strong

The two most important moments for a comedian’s set are the beginning and the end. Your opener is when you set the table. The crowd figures out who you are. They get your point of view. They decide whether or not they trust you and like you. It’s the introduction to everything that comes after. That’s why many comics will start off by riffing on the room or the crowd as a way to ease into their set. Then they’ll move into a joke that’s solid, quick, and indicative of what’s to come.

The closer is crucial because it’s what the crowd will remember most. How they feel when you walk offstage is how they’ll remember you. Even if the majority of your set doesn’t go that well, a killer closer can leave them thinking it was a strong performance.

Note: If you’ve got anything that involves music, video, or multimedia in some way, consider closing with that. Going back to plain old speaking after something like that can feel like a letdown to a jazzed up crowd. Once you do your big tap dance routine, call it a night.

3) Sandwich new material between established bits

If you’ve got new material, work it in between things that you know will work. That way, if it fails, you can quickly win them back with something that consistently kills. As Steve Martin said, “When I had new material to try, I would break it down into its smallest elements, literally a gesture or a few words, then sneak it into the act in its shortest form, being careful not to disrupt the flow of the show.” Even if your new stuff falls flat, it’ll just seem like a blip on the radar. Often, the crowd will give you credit for taking a chance and trying something new.

4) Make it conversational

You don’t want it to sound like a rehearsed monologue. You want it to feel alive. Comedians like Mike Birbiglia and Louis CK are masters at telling a story dozens of times and yet still having it sound like they’re saying it for the first time. “I try to keep it as much like I would talk about it in life as possible,” says Paul F. Tompkins. “It’s the way you’re sharing something with a friend of yours. You’re not approaching your friend like they are an audience. There’s an intimacy there.” Sometimes it can help to pick one person out in the crowd and focus on explaining things to that individual instead of a mass of people. Just make sure to keep looking around the room instead of locking in on your vict–, er, target.

5) Get physical

What’s the first thing a comic does after taking the stage? Grab the mic and move the stand out of the way. The reason: It blocks people from seeing you.

Yet conference speakers and professors tend to stand behind lecterns. “I am to be respected!” they seem to say. In truth though, it’s an obstacle that prevents the audience from connecting with you.

Work around these kinds of blockages. Move. Use your hands. Walk into the crowd. It gives the audience something to see and it gets you more involved with your material. Maybe you’ll even get a bit of a workout.

Keep in mind how much we communicate via body language normally. If you’re just standing stiffly behind a laptop or lectern, you’re missing a tool from your toolbox. Writers frequently fall into this trap. They emphasize words and ideas so much that they forget how much performance matters too. Eddie Brill, who used to book comedians for David Letterman’s show, once commented, “When you write, it’s usually just word, word, word, but it’s easy to leave the physical element out. How you look, how you act can play a major role in how an audience responds.”

6) Throw the script away

Avoid looking at notecards or a PowerPoint presentation. Those things are crutches that make you seem rehearsed and aloof. The crowd doesn’t want to feel like they’re hearing a canned presentation. A robot can press play, a human is in the moment. Make them feel like you’re right there with them.

The less you rely on a scripted presentation, the more you can gauge the energy of the room. You can feel if people are with you and change course if they’re not. You can take questions. You can shift gears. All that gets you in a “front of mind” space (engaged, fluid, spontaneous) instead of a “back of mind” space (rote, stiff, rehearsed). Take the advice of Bill Hicks: “The act is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say.”

7) Screwups are a gift

Often, the biggest laugh of the night comes when something goes wrong and a comic recovers gracefully. Comics know that if the waitress spills some drinks, it’s a smart move to talk about it. If someone’s got a weird laugh, discuss it. If the microphone cable cuts out, give the performance “theater style” (i.e. talk loudly) and you’ll be amazed at how much of a leash the crowd gives you. If some drunk yells stuff out, shut him down gently but firmly. If you fall off the stage — well, that one might be tough to recover from.

Crowds love that stuff. They know it’s real and in the moment. And they’re impressed when an obstacle is handled smoothly. It makes them feel they’re in the hands of a professional.

In fact, those are often the most memorable part of the show. Robin Williams once filmed a movie with Jeff Bridges and talked about it afterwards: “Something screws up and [Jeff] says to me: ‘It’s ok. It’s a gift. If something screws up, it’s a gift. Don’t be afraid of it.’ That forces you to make something special that you didn’t plan. You’re in that moment and you’re forced to deal with it and deal with it together.”

If something goes wrong, embrace it. Now everyone in that room is having a shared moment. And if you bring ’em out the other side, they’ll have your back the rest of the way.

8) Take the opposing side

If everyone agrees, try to argue for a different point of view. It’ll get people’s attention. Being a contrarian is interesting. Even if you’re just playing devil’s advocate in order to spark some debate, it gets people’s juices flowing. Besides, it’s like Mark Twain said: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”

This advice is especially important if you’re performing in front of a crowd that isn’t paying attention or seems distracted. Saying something outlandish or pigheaded or controversial will shut them up and get them intrigued. Now they’re listening. Once you’ve got them paying attention, you can explain yourself. Talk about your crazy views and see what happens. Sometimes, backing yourself into a corner that way forces you to think on your toes and come up with a creative solution.

Being a contrarian is interesting.

9) The act is always a work in progress

Every time you perform is a chance to hone your material. It’s a chance to try a new bit. Or maybe you can add a tag to an old bit. Or throw out a line that’s not working. Or thread together two separate bits into one longer chunk. A good comic is always tinkering and improving their material. Plus, it keeps everything feeling fresh and prevents you from going into autopilot mode. Louis CK talks about how he is constantly refining material: “It’s like the way they make Samurai swords. They fold a piece of steel and bang it until it’s thin. And then they fold it again and bang it again until it’s thin until it’s just compact and all the air and impurities are just leaving and it’s just this pure, dense steel. So that’s what I try to do.” And let’s avoid talking about what samurais do when things don’t go well.

10) Always leave ’em wanting more

How they feel when you leave the stage is how they’ll remember you. You don’t them to be tired and waiting for it to end. You want them to be jonesing for more. Get ’em to a high point and then get offstage. Jerry Seinfeld knew that when he walked away from his TV show: “I wanted to end the show on the same kind of peak we’ve been doing it on for years. I wanted the end to be from a point of strength.” The right time to end is a little bit sooner than they — aaaaaand good night!

About the Author
Author Matt Ruby is a standup comedian from New York City and the creator of Vooza, a video comic strip about the startup world (sign up for Vooza’s email list). He’s been featured on MTV’s Girl Code, CNN.com, The Huffington Post, NY Magazine, Time Out NY, and Splitsider. He’s also appeared across the country at comedy venues and festivals including SXSW, Bridgetown, NY Comedy Contest, SF Comedy Contest, Boston Comedy Festival, and the New Orleans Comedy and Arts Festival. He’s also been a featured speaker at tech conferences like The Next Web Europe, 3686, TechFest NW, and more.

Sign up here to get my newsletter.
Follow me
on Twitter.
Follow me
on Facebook.

Sandpaper Suit

This is the comedy blog of Matt Ruby.

Matt Ruby

Written by

Matt Ruby

Comedian/writer. I just want all the right things to be in the wrong place.

Sandpaper Suit

This is the comedy blog of Matt Ruby. I’m a standup comedian and the creator of Vooza, a video comic strip about the tech world. Learn more at mattrubycomedy.com.

Matt Ruby

Written by

Matt Ruby

Comedian/writer. I just want all the right things to be in the wrong place.

Sandpaper Suit

This is the comedy blog of Matt Ruby. I’m a standup comedian and the creator of Vooza, a video comic strip about the tech world. Learn more at mattrubycomedy.com.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store