What Stand-Up Comedy Taught Me

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I don’t know what’s on your bucket list, but until recently, I had just two things:

1.      Sit in the front row of an NBA basketball game.

2.      Take a stand-up comedy class.

You’ll be pleased to learn that #2 has been officially checked off the list.

After years of – let’s be honest – being too afraid to do it, I finally followed my wife Linda’s encouragement and signed up this past fall for an 8-week class at ImprovBoston in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It was, in a word, terrific.

Every Wednesday, for two hours, a dozen of us got together and, with the help of an instructor, learned the basics while trying out our material on each other.

At week nine, there was a “showcase night,” during which we all performed for an audience of friends, family and one guy who got the dates mixed up and came to the wrong show.

Having “graduated,” and while I’m a long way from hosting a Netflix special (although I would entertain offers), I have learned a lot.

And not just about stand-up, but about communication in general. All of which relates to the things you do in the name of promoting your professional service business…

#1. Content and delivery are not the same thing.

Our assignment each week was to show up with three minutes of content on a subject of our choosing.

Fine. I can do that. Writing comes naturally to me and I like fooling around with words.

But I found out very quickly that being a funny writer doesn’t make you a good stand-up comedian.

Sure, you need strong content. But delivering it in a way that sounds natural and conversational (even though you’ve rehearsed it 50 times) is a totally different skill. A skill that I don’t yet have.

When it comes to business writing – web sites, reports, newsletters, books, etc. – almost all the attention is given to the meat of the content … not the delivery.

The fact is, most professionals don’t even consider “voice” when writing. They focus entirely on the information value and the way it is organized.

All important, to be sure. But if you want people to find your words interesting and authentic (hint: you do), and if you want them to feel a connection with you beyond just the facts (ditto), you need to think about your delivery.

So try this. Before you write anything, answer these two questions“Who is doing the talking and how do you want to come across?”

Who? Are you a peer, a guru, an outsider, an industry veteran?

How? Are you warm, serious, supportive, sarcastic?

Information is a Google away. Voice is who you are.

#2. The audience decides what’s funny.

If people laugh at a joke, it works. If they don’t, it doesn’t.

You can defend its funniness all you want, but the only test that matters is how it plays in the real world.

When it comes to communicating your business focus – answering the question, “What kind of work do you do?” – the same principle applies.

If your response causes boredom, confusion, or your conversation partner pretending to answer a cell phone that isn’t actually ringing, you’ve got work to do.

In all cases, your goal in explaining your work is understanding (“Got it.”), interest (“Cool, tell me more.”), or, best case, both.

#3. The only way to get better is to practice.

ImprovBoston offers eight levels of improv classes. They offer just one in stand-up comedy.

Why? Because, I was told, with stand-up, once you know the fundamentals, the best and fastest way to improve is to keep performing in front of live audiences.

At its best, stand-up is a conversation, not a lecture. There’s a limit to how much you can learn at home by holding a banana and talking at a mirror (not that I’ve ever done that).

Here as well, there is a lot of similarity with business content.

That course you’ve been polishing for months but have yet to release…

The newsletter you’ve been stockpiling issues for since the Clinton Administration…

The new web site you keep threatening to update as soon as you get the content “just right”…

It’s time to put the banana down and release your content to the world.

I understand, it’s scary to put yourself out there. The first time I signed up at an open mic night (all of ten days ago), I sat there waiting my turn, debating whether I should just get up and walk out the door.

But, as with most things (raising children being the exception), the fear is usually worse than the reality.

Here’s the bottom line.

The best thing about my comedy class adventure is that it forced me to be a beginner again, something that doesn’t happen a lot once you hit a certain age.

It also shined (shown?) a bright light on certain communication essentials that are often overlooked.

The most important, I think, is to just get started.

P.S. Let me know if you have a couple of front row NBA tickets you’re trying to give away.


Discussion Questions:

  1. What’s on your bucket list?
  2. Have you ever talked into a banana? Explain.
  3. What’s a scary business goal that you intend to tackle this year?

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18 thoughts on “What Stand-Up Comedy Taught Me

  1. Stacey Shipman

    Big love on this one. So glad you crossed it off your bucket list! Totally agree – people don’t think about delivery! Voice, body, facial expressions all matter.

    1. My bucket list? I want to start a band so I can sing more often! Know anyone?

    2. No.

    3. More events. Specifically a women’s leadership breakfast this spring and a full day conference in Jan 2021- so planning and marketing start this year.

    I will be in touch about open mic night!

    Reply
  2. Sri Srikrishna

    1. Get that murder mystery set in 16th c. South India done – heck get the next ten in the series done
    2. I’ve certainly done the talking to bell peppers, bananas, carrots,—likely all the way down the alphabet of veggies, as I usually talk to myself when prepping for a meal (each morning.) I don’t discriminate on the basis of color, country of origin or other criteria.
    3. Kick off a consulting gig in my new home of Boston MA

    Reply
  3. Susan Danson

    Congrats on going out of your comfort zone. And I like the “raising children being the exception” throw in. Ain’t that the truth!
    1. Singing lessons. I CANNOT carry a tune (love the Cat Stevens from Mike)! Topic actually just came up tonight at my son’s basketball game.
    2. If I ever did, I was probably intoxicated and don’t remember.
    3. Get my first clients!!!

    Reply
  4. Kitty Love

    My bucket list includes learning to surf!

    I usually sing to my food rather than talk to it, but I make up the words as I go.

    I’m launching a Kickstarter for my oracle cards, The Empress Tea Party Game as soon as I do all the homework assignments about promotion that Kickstarter sent me.
    I’m launching a podcast about tarot, ritual and incorporating the Love Goddess into daily life.

    Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Kickstarter sounds great. One of my sons just launched one this week. Seems like a great way to test the waters and get started. Good luck with that!

      Reply
  5. Lori

    1. Go see Michael Katz perform a stand-up comedy routine!

    2. Many time. But only once has the banana talked back.

    3. Begin leading workshops. Which I guess means working on a few opening jokes to lighten things up.

    Reply
  6. Gina Longo

    Standup would be hard! Well done you for giving it a go. 🙂

    1) Move back home to Britain where I belong… this time, permanently.
    2) No, but I have been known to sing into a hairbrush from time to time.
    3) Finish my book; look into doing speaking gigs based around it; actually do something with the coaching programme I put together last year and then let just sit.

    Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Good luck with the book, Gina. I have to confess I never tire of seeing a REAL book with my name on it. I’m looking forward to seeing yours!

      Reply
  7. Nikki Myers

    Sounds like you had a great time.
    1. see the Northern lights
    2. no
    3. I am starting a small, side business this year

    Reply
  8. Amy Workley

    Congratulations on your standup experiences! That must have been pretty scary… and therefore pretty rewarding. 1. An RV tour of the West—Yellowstone to Yosemite via the Grand Canyon
    2. Yes, along with anything else that can be held like a microphone and lacks the ability to run away when I start singing!
    3. Becoming a successful freelance copywriter—I have a modest income goal in mind for this first year

    Reply

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