The night before last I watched a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld called Comedian. I think it was via a recommendation from Garr Reynolds that I bought it. It’s the story of how Jerry Seinfeld decides to go back and gig as a comedian after putting together all new material. Comedians, it seems, always have a stock of trusted material that they can use. His peers are surprised and shocked that he’ll be using just new material.
We go with Jerry as he goes back to basics, does 5 min stands, perfects them, goes a bit longer, gets to 20 minutes eventually and eventually goes for longer and longer stints. We see him bomb and stall, we see him hold his notes in his hand and use them as crib sheets. We see comedians stress with animation that you never EVER start with new material. Jerry works his ass off as he builds and builds and runs from club to club eventually doing as many gigs as he can in one night. His jokes change and get better over time, though they really are the same punchline, the delivery changes based on a live crowd.
All this reminds me of talks I do and how every talk is a chance to perfect your presentation, throw in something small and new, how different crowds will interact differently and you have to be ready for it all. I’ve gone from giving a talk in front of 600 people, to doing one in front of 11 the next day, to a few dozen the next. Each and every talk is worthwhile and makes the next one better. I accept as many offers as I can to do talks, paid and free if my schedule can fit with them.
I used to be an introvert, severely shy, never wanting to put my head and body into the public glare. I can now, without much butterflies stand in front of a crowd with or without notes or even prep and feel confident enough. That wasn’t the case when I started doing this though. Over time I learned what works with crowds, what doesn’t, when to move on from a point or dig deeper, all based on the feel of a crowd. It rang home when watching Seinfeld making himself better by just getting out there and doing it.
I’ve chatted to some people about public talking before and I guess my advice is, get up and speak. Do what Jerry does, 5 minutes, then 10 minutes and many times until you get that feel for the crowd. If it makes you feel better, you will suck the first few times but you will get better each time too. So why not bang through those first few times? The sooner you do them… Toastmasters and those clubs are great too. But. Comedians don’t perform for comedians, they need real crowds and so do you. Those clubs are good starts but you want out in the real public. The ratio too of time speaking to the crowd directly should be way way higher than looking at your notes or slides. How else can you get the feel of a crowd?
With my line of work though, the gold for me is questions, I absolutely, positively love it when people ask questions. I’m pretty disappointed if none are asked as I feel I’ve not made the crowd comfortable enough to ask or haven’t made their brains jump enough to shoot up a hand. While many questions will be repeated per talk, you’ll always get new ones, these are proper challenges, can you answer them on your feet? Will they make you think and re-evaluate a viewpoint? Hopefully.
And yes, smaller crowds, I try out new material or sometimes I’ll write something that’s been on my mind for a while and stick it on some paper 10 minutes beforehand and see how I go. Did that for the Press Ombudsman talk. For Open Coffee Galway, I decided (5 mins beforehand) to talk about how I do business, I didn’t know where I was going to end up with that talk but it was fun. Hope the crowd didn’t mind the experiment.
You have to get up and speak, you have to realise that it’s about iterating what you do. Do the circuits. The documentary shows super comedian Jerry go from being terrified in front of a small crowd to swaggering a few months later in front of a massive crowd and feeling on control. Lastly, be absolutely grateful to the crowd, be it two people or two hundred, if they’re paying or not, they’re your training partner really, without them you’re a gym bunny taking on a world boxing champion.