How to nail public speaking: The Chris Rock approach

Hide your notes, channel your favourite comedian and never end with a Q&A

David Nihill: The most memorable parts of your talk and the safest humour involve personal stories. Photograph:  Kehlan Kirwan

David Nihill: The most memorable parts of your talk and the safest humour involve personal stories. Photograph: Kehlan Kirwan

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When you think of impressive public speakers like Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Scott Stratten one thing sticks out: They are all funny. In fact every one of the top 10 TED talks are funny.

Vaynerchuck goes as far to say he bases his public speaking style solely on three people: comedians Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. All these speakers are using comedians’ techniques, and if you know them you can quickly replicate them and be funny and engaging too.

That excitement is infectious and inspiring. It’s also the best way to attract and maintain audience attention.

Whether you want to expand your public speaking resume, or just get better at presenting in front of clients, these tips can help you meet your goals.

If you take the stage confidently, move your arms around enthusiastically, make eye contact with everyone, smile, maintain and open and welcoming posture, power pose and walk off again without saying a single word you will freak people out and never get asked back to speak again.

However, if you say what you want to say in the best way you can, using your words, without trying any of the above it should be okay. Rubbish content delivered beautifully is still rubbish.

If you are not yet being paid €5,000 or over per talk – focus on what you say over how you say it. Sadly, way too many coaches (who usually don’t know a whole lot about being stage, as they have never been on stage, other than to teach you about being on stage) focus on delivery, giving it at least 50 per cent importance. This usually just makes nervous speakers even more nervous. Anyone who spends more than two minutes talking about what to do with your hands while advising you on public speaking is wasting your time.

With that in mind here are some tips that should help you look better than 90 per cent of other speakers while not focusing too much on delivery:

Never finish on a Q&A

Would U2 spend years writing a new album, tour the US, get down to the last song at the end of a sold-out gig at Madison Square Garden and then stop and ask the audience if anyone would like to come onstage and sing a song themselves to bring this one home and close it out? No chance. You shouldn’t either.

Just like your favourite band you need to control the ending and realise it’s the most memorable part. To do this always save a conclusion slide and before you get to it say “I’m going to take a few questions before I make my conclusion”.

If there are no questions you move to your conclusion and avoid that awkward moment all speakers fear when they are left standing there like a swaying penguin awaiting questions that might never come, or worse still they encounter that audience member that seizes their 30 seconds of fame to give a 5 minute story outlining their emotional state of mind and that of their co-workers.

Nail your timing

This can be done by intentionally delaying key words until the sentence end to heighten your impact. Eg, “We have an 80 per cent growth rate year on year” vs. the superior “Year on year we have a growth rate of 80 per cent”. This gives you an enforced pause for effect after your key point, and you’ll see your audience take note (literally in cases) or tweet the very parts you want them to react to.

This is especially important if you are trying to be funny. For example, if the fact it’s a cat is the surprise or twist, don’t say, “There was a cat in the box.” Say, “In that box was a cat.” That way you’re not still talking when they’re meant to be laughing.

If the energy is down, bring it up

If the host didn’t introduce you with a strong round of applause, this is a good time for you to ask the audience to offer a round of applause. Feel free to ask for a round of applause for the presenter, the host, some of the presenters before you, the sponsor or organisers of the event, and even one for the audience themselves (even though they think they’re clapping for themselves, it still feels like they’re clapping for you).

This also takes their attention back from their devices, as it’s hard to clap with a cell phone in your hand.

Go short before long

The human attention span deteriorates after 9.59 minutes and never recovers. If you’re not confident in your ability to speak for 40 minutes plus, ask for less. How about I speak for 20 minutes and allocate 20 additional minutes for questions and answers. Better yet 10 and 10. Conference organizers, often more focused on filling time slots then making you look good, will seldom rebuff this. No matter how good your talk is nobody will ever approach you after and say “that was amazing, I loved it, I really wish it was longer!”

I use the Performance Timer App, which gives me a countdown timer on stage that I hide from the audience. Don’t rely on the venue having one on stage.

Draw on your real-life experiences

The most memorable parts of your talk and the safest humour involve personal stories, because they are guaranteed to be original and can be easily practiced and perfected. It’s your job to make an audience as excited and fascinated about a subject as you are, and real life tends to do that.

One of my clients is the chief executive of a large tech company who speaks regularly to more than 20,000 people and every time it’s his short personal stories that steal the show, never his fancy info graphics. Make a list of your favourite stories to tell (ideally the ones your friends, family and colleagues ask you to tell repeatedly at get togethers) and work them into your talks. Make them relevant to your topic even though they may not seem relevant on first inspection.

You can tell any story and connect it to your talk by making a generic opening statement or afterwards saying, “I told you that story because” ... insert loose connecting reason. If it’s embarrassing or frustrating for you it’s always funny for me and human nature makes me very happy to hear about it.

Acknowledge the obvious

If the audience is thinking it, you get easy points for vocalising it. That fresh stain on your shirt or the technical problems are never to be ignored and usually provide a quick source of laughter in their acknowledgement. I once saw a speaker interrupted by the startling sound of a fire alarm. He announced to a very worried audience that he just had 15 slides left and would rush through. Their only thought was that the building is on fire. Acknowledge the obvious and never ignore disruptions.

Never bring visible notes on stage

Once the audience sees you with paper in hand they subconsciously assume you are unprepared, nervous and unlikely to be worth their attention. Use this technique to avoid ever going blank on stage.

If you must have notes be sneaky about it and have them written on a small piece of card that is hidden from site on a stool, chair or table, with a couple of bottles of water in front of it. That way if you momentarily forget your lines you can take a few seconds to have a drink while you read your notes without anyone being any the wiser. Yes, three bottles of water is slightly strange to have on stage but better they assume you’re thirsty than unprepared.

Don’t sound like Siri

You have two ways not to sound like a robot. As TED often advise, practise so much you can sing every word of your talk to different songs effortlessly without missing a beat. This, they estimate, takes roughly 100 times. “One hundred times” I hear you say, but I am too busy.

Which brings you to option two. Practice the opening and closing lines as many times as you can and then use the memory palace technique as mentioned above to memorise the key topic areas of your talk. This means memorising the first 30+/- seconds, the last 30+/- seconds and the keywords you will hit along the way.

For those of you that say they don’t want to sound rehearsed this gives plenty room for impromptu components without sounding rehearsed, which is what will happen if you don’t practice the 100 times needed to sing it to any beat.

Screen your funny

Up the laugh and engagement count by incorporating other people’s already socially proven funny content. The more you can build up the reveal to show it the funnier it will be. In a world where funny Photoshopped images, memes, and GIFs dominate our devices, visual humour has never been bigger. So don’t just say funny things in your presentation. Show funny things, too.

Help your host help you

Often with nerves high, an event host will try some impromptu humour, unintentionally at your expense or say something unplanned that messes up your opening introduction. To get off to the best possible start supply the host with an introduction in advance of the event and also on the day of the event by writing or typing it out clearly on a small easy to hold card.

Your introduction should be short, ideally say three things about you and only say your name once and very last. Eg, ladies and gentlemen our next speaker is the founder of some wacky startup, an award-winning writer, and occasional low-quality Elvis impersonator. Please give a huge welcome for “your name here”.

Saying your name last and only mentioning it at this point builds anticipation and gives the audience their queue to applaud. Your talk starts with your introduction, before you take the stage, not when you take the stage.

Make sure you are fully visible

When you think of someone presenting from behind a podium often the first images that come to mind are preachers, politicians and that college lecturer that lulled you into a slumber. Not a group you want to be part of my association if you’re going for engagement. If there’s a podium try to get out from behind it. If there’s a microphone stand, once you’re comfortable, take the microphone out and move the stand to one side.

Often the audience needs to see you to fully trust you. Buy a slide advancer so that you are able to walk around and present from anywhere in the room. Do not trust the organiser to provide this as at least 20 per cent of the time it will not be there.

Speak up, not ah, eh but

It sounds straightforward enough, but make sure you speak loud enough for people to hear you. You need to reach everybody in the room. The added benefit is that by speaking at little as 20 per cent louder than normal you will reduce the amount of filler words (ah, eh, but) you tend to use. It’s very hard to say “eh” or “em” with this higher than normal tone. This feels strange to do but sounds perfectly normal to your audience.

Command attention

Next time the audience is still chatting or not quite settled, stop and ask the audience to clap if they can hear you. Once a few begin to clap, then keep it going until those who were talking shut up and join in. They will. Like birds flocking together, people naturally behave as a group. They will assume you said something interesting worthy of applause, fear they missed something awesome and join in.

You can also command attention by standing on stage without saying anything, raising one hand in the air and staying that way until the audience goes quiet. It usually takes five or six seconds but there is nothing more powerful than the silence that follows.

Watch the three speakers before you

This allows you build on their success and call back to their jokes and important points. Doing this really makes you one of the audience, as there was no way it could have been planned prior to the day and they know it. It also makes you are aware of any overlapping examples and helps avoid unnecessary repeats.

Interact with the audience

But be specific in what you want them to do. Always ask an audience to do something, rather than just ask a question. Eg, “how many people here think Ireland is a country full of great people?” will not get as much participation as “by show of hands/by round of applause, how many people here think Ireland is a country full of great people?

Of course they all do, but be clear about what you want them to do. If they don’t react like you wanted you can always use the tried and trusted lines, “This is not television. This is live. You know I can see you right?”

Don’t rely on potential

And last but not least, from master public speaker and Irish comedian Dylan Moran ... Don’t rely on potential.

“Don’t do it! Stay away from your potential,” Moran says. “You’ll mess it up. It’s potential; leave it. Anyway, it’s like your bank balance-you always have a lot less than you think.”

These tips are very easy to implement and will quickly make you stand out, as … well … how do we say this… most public speakers are boring ;). The best ones aren’t, and with their techniques you won’t be either.
David Nihill is the Founder of FunnyBizz Conference, Influencer ghostwriting, and the bestselling author of Do You Talk Funny?, 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (and Funnier) Public Speaker. A graduate of the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School he calls San Francisco home when immigration officials permit, and was named on the 2017 Irish America 100 List, which recognizes the accomplishments of the best and the brightest Irish-American and Irish-born leaders. For more visit davidnihill.com

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