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What I learned about business from performing stand-up comedy

So, a couple of years ago, I entered a stand-up comedy competition to raise money for a local charity called Wirral Mencap. They do a lot of great work across the world helping adults with learning difficulties.

Every year, they host a stand-up comedy competition (or at least they did before we had the lockdown), where five, six or seven people who think they’re funny (like me) would essentially write and perform their own stand-up comedy in front of a couple of hundred people to raise money for charity. The audience would then vote on who was the best comedian, and the winner would not win a physical prize but the accolade of being the stand-up comedy winner.

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do – I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a comedian, even though know I’m not THAT funny! It dated right back to school because while I wouldn’t say I was the class clown, I certainly thought I was!

One day, we had this English speech competition where we’d have to write a speech and then deliver it in class, and whoever was voted by the class to have done the best speech would get to deliver it on the stage in the assembly in front of both the first and second year of high school.

I wrote a speech about Margaret Thatcher, because she was Prime Minister at the time and she was also obviously a main character on Spitting Image at the time, which I used to watch and find hilarious even though I don’t think I fully understood all of the jokes.

Anyway, I wrote this speech about Margaret Thatcher and I don’t think it was that funny or original, but I delivered it well and I was voted the best speech in the class, so I got to deliver it in school on the stage in front of the first and second year. I was convinced I was going to win this competition because I’d already been voted the best in the class, so why would I not be the best in the school?

So, I delivered it on stage thinking “I’m going to win this competition in front of everybody”. My older brother, who was about 14 or 15 years older than me, had drawn a Margaret Thatcher caricature like the Spitting Image puppet and cut it out for me to put my notes on the back of, so it looked like I was holding Thatcher’s head while I was delivering this speech.

But I didn’t win, which I was a little bit (well, okay, a lot) annoyed about because I was convinced I was going to win. I don’t recall if they even mentioned who came second or third, but it crushed me, quite frankly. Still, at least I’d won in the class.

A couple of months later, they did another speech competition in the class, and I wrote another one because I had this reputation of being the funny one who made everyone laugh. I always remember there was this girl sat right at the front with her friend – I think it was Julie Jones. So, if you’re Julie Jones from Bassaleg Comprehensive School and you started around about 1987-88, then this is for you!

Julie Jones turned to a friend just as I was about to start this speech and she said “don’t laugh”. And I remember looking at her just as I was about to begin and thinking “you’re f***ing gonna laugh, I am gonna make you laugh your bloody b****cks off!” So, she became my target audience. I was going to make her laugh, because she didn’t like me. I don’t know what I’d done, although I was probably a bit of a d***head, but she said “don’t laugh” to her mate. So I vowed to make them laugh.

And they did. They both laughed even though this speech I’d done was nowhere near as good as the first one because they’d given the subject of “punning” – you had to do puns, and puns, as we all know, are not funny (sorry, Tim Vine). But I did it and she laughed – I converted her.

It reminded me of a podcast I listened to a while ago where Russell Kane was interviewed by Steven Bartlett, and he talked about training his “converting muscle”. I thought that really made sense because he said doesn’t get as much of a thrill out of doing stand-up comedy for his fans, as they come because they know who he is and like his work.

He prefers to go to gigs where people don’t know he’s going to appear. Maybe somebody’s paid £20 to go to this gig and they don’t know who the comedians are, and Russell Kane rocks up he said it splits the room in three ways.

A third of the people think “oh, brilliant, I’m going to see Russell Kane for £20, what an absolute bargain!”

Another third of the people think “who the f**k’s this guy? I’ve never heard of him!”

And the other third of the people think “Russell Kane? I hate this p***k!”

That final third are the ones he wants to aim at, because if he can make them laugh, if he can “convert” them into liking him and into becoming his fans, then he’s really done it – he’s exercised his converting muscle, and that’s exactly what I did with this Julie Jones. She turned to her mate and said “don’t laugh” when I started that speech, but they both laughed, so I had succeeded. So I was convinced from that age that I was funny, and that I could get up on a stage and do stand-up comedy.

Also, in this interview with Russell Kane, he said two things that really stuck with me.

The first thing was that he thinks that he’s funny, and he thinks that he was always destined to be funny, and that this is for the same reasons that I do. That’s firstly because he’s the youngest of several children, which means you’re always trying to compete with your older brothers and sisters you’re the always trying to get the attention of the parents by being the funny one. I could relate that to growing up with my elder brother because he was always the one that they would pay attention to, and I was just trying to get the attention in the same way.

But he also said it’s because he was born in August. Now I immediately thought “b****cks, you’re going to go into horoscope s**t now and talk about being a Leo or a Virgo or whatever”. But he said it’s nothing to do with horoscopes, it’s because if you were born in August, you are one of the youngest kids in the class, because if you were born in September you go into the year after and you’re one of the oldest kids in the class. If you’re born in August you’re one of the youngest kids, which means you are the least mature. Often, you could be the shortest. You’re trying to compete with kids who may be almost a year older than you – they are more sensible, more developed, more mature and often more intelligent. That’s because they’ve had more time to develop and you are trying to compete with them and get attention.

I thought that’s exactly what I was – the youngest in the class. I was an idiot, basically, but hearing Russell Kane I realised what I was trying to do. So when this opportunity came along to do stand-up comedy, I thought “f**k yeah, I’m going into that and I’m gonna be bloody hilarious!”

For those of you interested, you can actually listen to my whole stand-up comedy routine in Episode 5 of the Engaging Marketeer Podcast. It’s a 15-minute performance and it is well worth listening to if I do say so myself.

When we entered this competition, it wasn’t just about getting up on a stage and doing stand-up comedy at Prenton Park, the home of Tranmere Rovers FC, no less. No, they also gave you a weekly training program with a professional stand-up comedian, so every week you’d spend a session of about two hours with a stand-up comedian where you’d go through some exercises, basically in being funny, spontaneous and ad-libbing. Then you’d go through the routines that you would put together.

I thought “this is brilliant! I’d pay for this kind of training”, because the stuff you can learn from a stand-up comedian goes way beyond just stand-up comedy. For example, when I came to the first session, I was more ahead than any of the other people who were there because I’d been thinking about this for a long time. I had my routine pretty much word for word nailed out when I got there. So when I started to go through my routine, everybody was like “yeah, he’s bloody funny, isn’t he?”, but we videoed each of us doing it so we could watch it back afterwards, and I noticed things that i was doing that I wasn’t aware I was doing.

For example, I was hobbling back on one leg, so maybe I was putting my weight on my left leg and just moving my right leg back and forth without being aware of it, and I watched it back and thought “why the f**k are you doing that? What the hell are you doing? Control your bloody body, for God’s sake!” So the second time I did it, I made sure I rooted myself and any motion I made was purposeful, as it enhances the comedy.

There was another person who was doing the comedy with us, and he didn’t do this videoing thing, he didn’t play it back, and he didn’t go to all of the sessions either. I noticed on the actual live show we did in front of the audience, he was still doing this rocking back and forth thing that I was doing because he wasn’t aware of it.

That’s a really important lesson in any sort of speech delivery – not just comedy but any public speaking or business pitching – be aware of what your body’s doing! Don’t start fidgeting with your hands and moving them about, and don’t start rocking back and forth. If you’re going to make a movement, make it purposeful.

So that was the first thing I picked up from that, and the big thing I got from doing stand-up comedy (other than the fact that I won – I don’t know whether I’ve dropped that in yet?) was the fact that I now don’t have any fear of public speaking. I can happily get up in front of five, ten, a hundred or a thousand people without fear, because I’ve done stand-up comedy. I stood up on a stage with no notes and did a 15-minute routine with the sole purpose of making people laugh, and they did laugh their b*****ks off. It was the best rush I’ve ever had and it was also the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done, so whatever I do from now on, I just tell myself “you’ve done stand-up comedy, how hard can this be?”

But there were other things I picked up on that help me within business, giving presentations, talking to business owners and making sales pitches. For example, my stand-up comedy was story-based – I specifically told a lot of stories rather than jokes. When you’re telling a story, you get people hooked – they listen they want to know what happens next. In short, stories sell, so I now use them in presentations and sales pitches. I don’t list a load of facts and load of benefits and then try and sell something based on that, I tell a story.

I learned about mimicking movement when you’re in front of somebody. If you mimic their actions they are more inclined to like you because they see you as being like them. That’s a sales tactic – a bit of an obvious one, you could argue – but it does work, so if the person in front of you folds their arms, you fold your arms. Not immediately, don’t do it like a bloody creep, but if you see it, gradually do the same. If they lean forward, you lean forward. If they sit back, you sit back. You do that on stage – you’re mimicking movement. If somebody does something in the audience and you want to replicate it, you can do that on the stage.

Your movement is important – pausing and timing in comedy is everything and if you’re delivering a line a comedy line or a punchline, you need to let it land, you need to pause and wait for people firstly to (hopefully) laugh, but wait for it to sink in. It’s no good delivering a comedy line and then carrying on immediately on something else, and that’s exactly the same when you’re doing a presentation or a sales pitch. If you deliver a meaningful statistic, or something that you need people to understand or pay attention, you can give it impact by waiting once you’ve delivered it. If you just deliver a stat and then immediately start talking about something else, they’ve got no time to reflect on it or realise how important it is. Pausing and pacing in a sales pitch or presentation in a speech is just as important as it is in stand-up comedy.

Then, of course, there’s your big finish. You need to make sure that your big line at the end is delivered perfectly and with impact. Once again, it’s the same in a sales pitch – your opening line and closing line are the two most important things you do in stand-up comedy, and they are the two most important things you do in a sales pitch as well.

Your opening line needs to be the reason people listen to you, stay awake and pay attention to you. Meanwhile, your closing line is the most important thing because it’s going to be what they end and the reason they buy from you, the reason they like you, the reason they want to hear from you again.

I’d do stand-up comedy again in a heartbeat. It’s difficult because it requires a lot of headspace – I used to walk at lunchtime down to Sainsbury’s and back, which would take me about 15-20 minutes, and I’d go through the routine in my head every single time I was walking there until it was absolutely perfect. So when I delivered it on the night it was almost word perfect. I think I laughed at one line when I shouldn’t have because I tried to keep a straight face, and I flipped another two lines around. Other than that, it was word perfect, so I knew I didn’t have to worry about the script – it was all about the delivery, the pacing, the pausing and the deliberate movements of the body.

So, if you’re looking for a comedian then please get in touch – I’d be very interested in going again. Have a listen to Episode 5 of the Engaging Marketeer Podcast my stand-up comedy performance where I became a Liverpool Comedy Festival (I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that already). Leave me a review if you could as well – I’d love a review if it’s positive, or if it’s negative leave a review for Michael McIntyre – he can take it!

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