Strong communication and storytelling skills can be a formidable asset in business, improving your ability to write, present, network and sell. Today we're going to look at how stand-up comedians achieve high levels of engagement with their audiences and how this can be translated into the business world. 

Stand-up comedy is loved by millions globally as the archetype of feel-good entertainment, but it is simultaneously regarded as one of the hardest things to do. Even successful comedians such as Will Ferrell describe stand-up comedy “hard, lonely, and vicious”.

Stand-up comedy is particularly hard because the feedback of the audience is instant and crucial for the comedian’s act. Audiences expect a comic to provide an endless and steady stream of laughs and this places enormous pressure on the performer to deliver. Without the audience’s engagement their act is nothing.  

So how do the best stand-up comedians engage with their audience? Here are 7 things we can learn from stand-up comedians to become powerful and engaging communicators.

Follow the 70% rule

Stand up comedians don’t only practice their delivery over and over again until it’s flawless; they dedicate a substantial amount of time reading up about the latest news, trends and hot topics and researching their audience to ensure their content is interesting and relevant. 

The worst thing a comedian can do is pick the wrong material for the wrong crowd, and the same goes for presentations and written content in the business world. This is why many content marketers are taught that roughly 70% of the work you do towards producing content should be research and planning. The remaining 30% is for writing and editing.

One of the reasons why you should spend much more time on research and planning is so you truly know your audience and have the time and headspace to thinking creatively and laterally. Consider how you can incorporate pop culture, humour or storytelling to offer a fresh take on the subject, and let your ideas evolve. 

When you have to improvise, be open to the situation and go with it 

The best improv stand-up comedians are quick to respond to external stimuli and are powerfully ‘in the moment’.

In a more corporate setting, you should see higher levels of engagement if you follow their example. When relevant, reference recent trends or breaking news and respond to your audiences comments. If someone questions your argument or asks a question they are engaging with you and your content, and it's up to you to maintain that engagement and encourage others to do the same. If the situation forces you out of your comfort zone, that's a good thing. 

Talk about problems

Comedians understand that great stories often revolve around a problem that needs to be solved. Whether it’s a personal anecdote or political satire, comics will often talk about a problem that resonates with the audience and offer an – albeit comic – solution in the hook.

Next time you deliver a presentation, write an article or attend a networking event, try focusing the conversation around challenges and solutions. Describe a problem you’ve faced in the past and how you overcame it, or address the challenges your audience is facing. 

Focus on your message, not yourself 

Stand-up comedians have to manage their stage fright to be successful, but how do they do it?

I’m not a stand-up comedian, but I used to have terrible stage fright and found a way to conquer it. I’d get so nervous before singing or playing the piano in front of an audience that I’d shake and struggle to breathe deeply, which of course impeded my ability to perform and engage with the audience.

My singing teacher offered some great advice to manage stage fright: focus on your message, not yourself. Focus so much on why you are communicating that there’s no room for self-consciousness. You’ll be more ‘in the moment’ and your delivery will come across as more passionate, clear and authentic. 

Talk to the audience, not at them

The most engaging stand-up comedians make the audience feel like they’re listening to one of their friends speak. Comedians like Dara O'briain and John Bishop might talk as though they’re in a pub with their friends, but it takes a lot of preparation and practice to develop such a smooth delivery. 

When you're presenting to a room of people or producing some written content, try to maintain a down-to-earth, lighthearted tone of voice. Coming across as pretentious, grumpy or condescending will most likely alienate your audience.

Learn how to handle failure

 Even world-class comics fail on stage from time to time. The audience won't get the joke, you'll fumble over your words, the material just isn’t right. Even technical issues can throw a seasoned performer off track.

In the business world there will be moments when you realize you’ve lost the attention of the listener. When this happens it can be tempting to flounder, apologize, stop talking as soon as possible or blame other people. But the best stand-up comedians don’t let these moments phase them – if a bit isn’t working they’ll accept it, move on and review the content after the show to see whether it can be repurposed to generate better engagement next time. Do this in a business setting and you’ll be remembered as professional and poised, not as a poor communicator. 

Take every opportunity to practice

Stand-up comedians take every opportunity to practice their craft, whether it be at home or at a local open mic night. At the beginning of their career, very few comics would turn down an opportunity to perform if they could make it. Even if the numbers are low, it’s still a great chance for them to try out new content and fine-tune their delivery.

In the business world you should try approaching every conversation, every piece of writing and every presentation as an opportunity to practice. It will make you less worried about making mistakes and over time you’ll discover how you can get the best engagement from your audience. 

Here's hoping I've convinced you all to be a little more like stand-up comedians in the workplace. You might want to hold back from cracking those awful jokes at the Christmas Party though. I'm not sure that would help your career. 

Written by Izzy Griffin-Smith

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