How stand-up comedians handle the challenges of pitching

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Acouple of years back, a copywriter shared his perspective on how he was inspired by stand-up comedians. Their ability to observe things about life and generate insightful perspectives are incredibly helpful for those of us that strive to produce creative work that move people. After reflecting on it a little more, I found other similarities between stand-ups and us in the ideas industry.

Both jobs require creativity, and research has found that at the highest levels of both creative and comedic professions, there’s an element of ‘madness’ and even ‘psychosis’ that allows them to connect different thoughts together to form new ones.

Besides creative ability, when both professionals are in front of an audience, the expectations are that we ‘move’ them. To do that, they must display enough authority, or risk the crowd feeling the discomfort that comes with seeing someone not being in control. While we might not have seen it personally, I’m sure you can relate to that cringe-worthy moment when you witness a meltdown.

The reality is, whether we’re out in front of a crowd trying to tell a joke, or in a boardroom of cold faces trying to pitching an idea, we will run into challenges. Here are some of them, and how stand-ups handle it.

No one is more judged in civilized society than a standup comedian. Every 12 seconds you’re rated.

– Jerry Seinfeld

Getting on the stage

By far, one of the biggest fears people have is public speaking. Pitching an idea can be daunting, but there are ways to overcome and manage that fear.

1. “The fear ain’t going anywhere”

The first step is getting on stage, and we’ve all been in moments where instead of abs (6 packs or kegs), we find jelly. The bad news is, Lois CK believes that there’s really no way to avoid it. You just have to do it anyway. It’s an unfortunate truth; but you’ve just got to put in the amount of volume to help reduce to the point that it doesn’t become a stumbling block. Having a competing or alternative desire helps take your focus away from the fear.

2. Separate the things you can and cannot control

Try and distinguish between the things you can control, and those you can’t. Take action to reduce the risks in areas you can control, and accept that you can’t do anything about the things outside of your control. While it might be a cliche question, asking yourself what’s the worse that can happen might help. In any creative or comedic career, it’s inevitable that you will bomb (and not just once), and besides being a bad day, it’s not going to be fatal. A professional understands that and keeps the lessons for the next gig.

3. Practicing helps reduce fear

Of the things you can control, the old-adage of practicing works! Take it from this guy who tried stand-up for the first time. There was one guy I worked with whom I thought made the greatest strides in his pitching skills. By enforcing at least 2 to 3 dry-runs prior to any presentation, within a year I watched him transform from being a shy, uncertain presenter to someone that was able to stand in front of clients and communicate with clarity and confidence.

4. Growth only comes when you face discomfort

It can be tempting to run from that feeling of discomfort. However, if we look at it as a learning experience, it can be lend us the confidence to get on that stage. After all, only when you’re uncomfortable, you grow.

Connecting with the audience 

Now that you’re on the stage, the next thing to do is tell your story so that it moves the audience and leaves a hopefully positive memory.  

1. The most important comedy rule

Surprise people. Being able to grab the audience’s attention through a surprising revelation (or joke) helps. When it comes to pitching ideas to clients, we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the idea itself is the ‘surprise’, and might neglect the art of using surprise in the actual sell. A surprising fact or detail can often act as a way to grab attention, or to provide context or persuasion to your idea.

2. Add relevance and emotion for memorability

A surprise is great, but for real memorability, researchers have found 2 additional things that matter. Your revelation has to have consequences, or matters to the audience, and is delivered with emotion. For example, say you’re presenting an idea to Nike for a new product targeted at women, and you opened up with “Did you know, 72% of mothers with children above 1 work out? As opposed to only 39% back in 1976?”. Assuming that your idea builds upon this fact, you probably have their attention and an easier sell. 

3. Build drama before the punchline

Stand-ups understand that a joke isn’t just the punchline. Before the reveal, there’s always the setup. Steve Jobs famously used a combination of the ideas above when he revealed the first iPhone. As you read the scene below, imagine that you’re part of that crowd. You would have already anticipated the announcement of the iPhone along with the rest of the attendees.

“Well today we are introducing three revolutionary products of this class. The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device. So, three things: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough Internet communications device.

An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator.

An iPod, a phone”

“Are you getting it?

These are not three separate devices. This is one device.

And we’re calling it iPhone.

Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”

Dealing with a tough crowd

You’ve done your homework, taken care of all the things that you can control, but we will always encounter an audience that’s just not responsive, or worse still, hecklers. In the stand-up world, they disrupt and actively try to tear you down. Thankfully, when presenting ideas, it’s rare to encounter someone that’s outright antagonistic, but every now and then, we encounter people that keep interrupting or throw you off your game. What do you do when you walk into the room, being the 5th agency in a total of 8 pitches the client has seen today?

1. Find an ally in the room

The first piece of advice is to engage someone in the audience that’s paying attention to you, even if it’s only one person. It’s easy to get unnerved by such a setting, so find those allies that give you a chance to remain calm. Stand-ups sometime refer to the process as an exchange of energy. Treat that person like a spark you can hopefully ignite to reintroduce positive energy in the room. 

2. Reassure them

One way Bill Cosby handles a heckler is by ‘reassuring them’. Listen carefully, and be extremely linear.

“…a woman’s voice shouted out, “I hate those shoes!” And because of the way I think—which is not to challenge, not to beat up the person but to understand what the person has just said and to remain linear—I said, “Madame, you are very, very fortunate, because these shoes will not be performing.” And, man, I never heard from her again”.

I personally find this method the most useful in my experience. Often enough, we meet clients that have the tendency to jump on something trivial that’s often not even the point you’re trying to make. By allowing ourselves to get annoyed or irritated, we are also being both arrogant for thinking that we know best, but also selfish because we risk of letting our entire team down for being unable to control ourselves. 

Unlike the lives of stand-ups, who are alone on stage to face the crowds, assuming you have a good team, you’ll always have some additional support. If you’re feeling the heat, don’t forget to look for that friendly face.

Soon MinHow stand-up comedians handle the challenges of pitching