For millennials, 8 lessons from standup comedy

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Jessica Levco

I decided to try standup comedy.

It was the longest two-and-a-half minutes of my life. (Zing!)

Um…yeah. That’s pretty much how my set went.

Well, anyway, if you’re a millennial and you’ve got a big speech to prepare, there’s a lot you can learn from doing an open-mic session. If you don’t want to put yourself through that whole humiliating ordeal, though, you can just read what I learned. Here it goes:

Hire someone else to write your speech for you

I practiced some of my jokes in front of my mom. Afterward she said, “Oh, Jessie. There are just so many other things you’re good at. I don’t understand why you’re doing this. Couldn’t you just hire someone to write this for you?” That was a great idea. Before you even start writing your speech, pass it along to someone else.

Tell a story

If you can’t outsource your speech, remember this: People love stories. When I first started writing standup, I had a bunch of one-liners. I wasn’t saying anything substantial. There was no through-line to hold it all together. Most top comics—Cosby, Seinfeld, etc.—will start with an incident and extract the inherent humor. Is there a story about a company employee or a cute puppy that you can start with and then highlight your primary message? Something personal, heartwarming, or funny? Your audience will respond better to stories than to jargon and data.

Carry a pen and paper

Most of the comics in the room look like journalists—no, not twitchy with dark circles under their eyes. The good ones carried around notebooks and immediately jotted down what worked—and what didn’t—after their sets. When you’re planning for a speech, have a pen and paper with you at all times. Write on napkins at dinner. (Not cloth ones, though; decorum still matters.) You never know when a good idea is going to strike, so be prepared to write it down.

Always scribble

Don’t rely on inspiration to help you come up with something. Write whenever you can. Brainstorm new introductions and conclusions to your speech. If you write 10 versions of your speech, at least one of them will be good. Hopefully.

Know your audience

I was performing in a bar filled with twenty-something, underemployed dudes in plaid shirts. Your audience will most likely be different from mine—and significantly more sober (probably). Think about who will be at your speech or presentation. Are you speaking to stakeholders? CEOs? Your staff? Know who is sitting in the seats—and tailor your speech to them.

Practice your speech

Once I had my set, I practiced in front of friends and colleagues. (I stopped calling my mom.) I got different responses from everybody—ranging from “crickets” to chuckles. Looking back on it, I’m not sure whether practicing this in front of people made my set better or worse. Instead of looking for approval, I should’ve spent more time working on my delivery in front of the mirror—and laughing hilariously at myself. (I’m a great audience.)

Watch other speakers

Before I threw myself on stage, I went to a few standup shows around Chicago. If you’re looking for inspiration, watch some speakers on YouTube. Do you have colleagues who speak well during meetings? Watch what they do—and if you have your notebook handy (of course you do), take notes.

Learn to relax—and don’t forget to have fun!

I was nervous when I got on stage, so I sped through a few of my jokes. I forgot to allow time for audience reaction—and when people did laugh, in my head, I thought, “Wait…are they reallylaughing? I’m not prepared for this! I need to find Sarah Silverman’s agent after this set is over!” If your speech has a few punchlines, don’t skim over them. Let the moments soak in—and enjoy the fact that you’ve got everyone’s attention—whether they like it or not. 

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4 thoughts on “For millennials, 8 lessons from standup comedy

  1. I give you credit, my whole blog revolves around not having the guts to do stand-up for real. Instead I just write blogs as bits. I figure maybe this summer I will collect the blogs that did the best with people online and write them into bits to use on stage. Thanks for the tips though! They’ll definitely come in handy.

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