Archive for the 'Presentation Skills' Category

Delivering Humor — Let There Be Light

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Does humor play best with the lights up…or with the lights down?  I’ve written on this topic before.  Let me add some additional thoughts.

You have two areas of concern for lighting.  First, the lighting for the stage or the performance area.  And second, the lighting for the audience area.

We also need to recognize that sometimes you can control the lighting, sometimes you can’t.  For example, if you’re performing in a comedy club, it’s unlikely you’ll have much control over the lights.  They normally like to have the audience in the dark with bright spots on the stage.  If you want something different, you can ask, but be prepared to be happy with whatever they give you.


Although there are different lighting considerations depending on whether you’re doing a stand-up comedy routine or giving a humorous speech with a message…you will almost always want the stage well lit.

We are creatures of habit.  We are used to watching stand-up comedy in a dark room with bright spotlights on the stage.  When the show starts, we’ve been conditioned to “get ready to laugh” when the house lights go down and the stage lights go up.

The stage or speaking platform should always be well lit, even for a speech.  I’d never suggest a totally dim-lit room, which would include the stage.  The speaker or performer must always be clearly seen.  And optimal lighting makes the stage brighter than the audience area in most all cases.  That directs focus to the stage and ensures that the audience can pick up subtle expressions.


Laughter is contagious.  People are inclined to laugh if they HEAR others laughing and also if they SEE others laughing.  When it comes to generating good laughs, the hearing is more important than the seeing…but together they have a synergistic effect to maximize the humor when something funny is presented.  Hearing and seeing other people laughing creates a sense of community.  That’s good for increasing the laughter.  And that’s more likely to happen if the audience is somewhat lit, rather than sitting in the dark.

However, in a comedy club, just as we are trained to expect the spotlights on the stage, we are also expecting to have the house lights dimmed.  The audience is often sitting in the dark.  If the house lights were on, it would seem strange.  It wouldn’t feel right.  We would probably laugh less.  We’re pre-programmed to laugh in a comedy club’s dark room.  Almost any Las Vegas show is performed with the audience un-lit.

Another reason for playing stand-up comedy in the dark is that stand-up comedy frequently includes borderline subject material:  Sex, bodily functions, body parts, and non-PC subject matter.  A dark room gives us the “privacy” to laugh at something with less concern about being watched and judged.  So in that context, a dark room plays best for comedy-club humor.

In my opinion, there is a difference in optimal audience lighting for stand-up comedy performances and public speaking situations.  My experience has taught me that speech humor plays best in a room where the audience is lit.  Not sunshine bright…but light enough for the audience members to easily see each other.  When I hit a punchline, I want people to hear and SEE others laughing.  It magnifies the laughs. 

And your subject material in a “speech” is usually (and should be) in good taste…so the self-consciousness issue is less of a factor when you are a public speaker with a message rather than a comic doing joke-joke-joke.

In making your lighting choices, you might consider the “performance” aspect of your program.  If you’re putting on a “show” and your primary goal is to entertain your audience, a darker room for the audience may be appropriate.  This helps match the ambiance with what is expected by the audience.  If you’re doing lots of comedy, and maybe some magic, the audience will be placed into the laughing mode quicker if they are in a darker room.  That’s what they’re used to when enjoying professional comedy.

On the other hand if you’re doing a motivational after-dinner talk…humor with a message…people will likely be relaxing, connecting, finishing their meal and coffee.  Some light on the audience is a good thing.  The light in the room helps establish a connection between the speaker and the audience.  A speech is never a monologue, it’s always a two-way conversation.  But the feedback from the audience is not normally spoken.  Eye contact in a lit room strengthens the delivery, drives home the humor, and helps the speaker.

There are pros and cons when it comes to speaking in a light or a dark room.  Be aware of the factors, make intelligent choices, and study the effect of your lighting environment on the reaction of your audience.  It will help you make smart choices the next time you speak.

Avoid Energy Zappers

Friday, October 15th, 2010

When it comes to humor delivery and getting good laughs, it’s important to avoid the energy zappers that could suck the energy right out of the room.

1.  Your attitude.  A negative or pessimistic attitude can sabotage your laughter.  Sometimes it’s easy to slip into a “negative expectation” mode.  If your first funny line bombs, a speaker may start interpret the inner motivations of the audience.  “They don’t like me.”  Negative thoughts attract negative results.  The solution is to always assume the audience is enjoying your program even if they aren’t showing it.   Perform now.  Critique later.

2.  Eye contact.  Lack of good eye contact is an energy zapper.  Great eye contact gives you a presence and a connection with the audience that is critical to your success.  Great eye contact completes the conversation loop.  A speech is never a monologue.  It’s always a two-way conversation.  The feedback you receive from the audience works to energize you.  Lack of eye contact drains energy from your presentation.

3.  Warm ups.  Failing to warm up your body and your voice can have negative consequences.  I remember watching Leo Cortez, one of our most experienced actors in my California improv troupe twelve years ago.  Before a show he would always walk around back stage waving his arms, stretching, humming, singing, massaging his face.  He had a regular warm up routine that prepared him for the performance.  Often, before I take the stage for a keynote speech, I use some group warm up exercises borrowed from improv theater.  I do them alone when I can find a private spot.  Before you speak, take a brisk walk, or do some jumping jacks!  Before I present an Observational Humor monologue at a Toastmasters meeting, I always step out of the back of the room first so that I can do some stretching.  I don’t want to be introduced while having sat in my chair for an hour.  Warm up before you speak…or you’ll warm up as you begin your speech.  Warm up in private…or you’ll warm up in front of your audience.

4.  The seating.  A bad seating arrangement can pull energy out of the room.  Tall centerpieces that block some audience members from seeing you is not good.  An aisle down the center of the room is not ideal.  A large gap between the first row of audience members and the platform on which you speak is not good.  Be proactive in setting up good seating for your listeners.  Don’t get in the habit of passively accepting the seating arrangement as it is.

5.  The lighting.  Poor lighting results in dim laughter.  The audience needs to see you and your facial expression.  And the audience needs to see each other.  It’s a myth that comedy plays best in a darkened room.   I much prefer a lit room.  I’m not talking about a blinding light, but enough light so that a listener can easily see others in the audience.   The contagious nature of laughter, and the energy, is magnified when the room is not dark.

6.  The sound.  Can they hear you?   It’s better to have a microphone when you don’t need it, than to not have one when you do need it.  It’s a major drain on the energy if they can’t hear you.  Avoid the temptation to think, “I’m OK without a microphone.  I’ll just shout my speech.”

7.  The venue.  Some performing conditions are better than others,  especially for presenting humor.  An indoor event is usually much better than outdoor event.  When you speak outdoors, energy is sucked up to the sky.  Likewise, speaking in a room with a very high ceiling, like an over-sized ballroom or warehouse, has the same energy draining effect.  Speaking in a padded room is not ideal.  For example, I presented 30 minutes of humor in an elegant lounge area lined with heavy drapes and filled with over-stuffed furniture.  It was not an ideal humor venue.  Padding absorbs energy.  If you have a part in selecting the venue, make good choices.  If you have no control in picking the venue, you may have the option of declining the speaking opportunity.

8.  Distractions.  Anything that pulls attention away from your humor is a zapper.  If the serving staff is bussing dishes during your talk…not good.  If a band is playing on the other side of the sliding wall divider…not good.  If you’re performing stand-up comedy in a room with people talking in the back of the room…well, you get the picture.  Be proactive to eliminate potential distractions before you take the platform.

Eliminate the energy zappers and you’ll increase the odds that your humor will connect and laughter will fill the room!

Challenging Performing Conditions

Friday, September 17th, 2010

After reading the post Don’t Sing Opera To Wrestling Fans, TJ Walker writes:

“Great points about venue selection.  But in the case of stand-up comedy in a less-than-ideal situation, isn’t it still helpful to a speaker to go through such an experience?  To ‘survive’ it?  Doesn’t it build confidence for when a speaker is in more ideal situations?”

Excellent question.  Yes…you do learn things from having challenging experiences!

A good part of what you learn comes from your applying the filter of your previous experience.  This means that a seasoned performer will learn more than a novice.  The novice is apt to learn the wrong lesson.  “I couldn’t get laughs…I’m a terrible comic or speaker.” He or she may blame their own performance and not be fully aware of how bad the performing conditions really were.

As a seasoned performer, what I learn and re-learn is to “avoid bad speaking situations.”  Been there…done that!

My advice to the novice is…get good first…then look for challenges which will help you grow.  Practice at Toastmasters and at good  comedy venues first.  And then tackle the challenging assignments.

And to the seasoned performer, I’d generally avoid bad situations.  You’ll find yourself in bad situations without trying!  And when you find yourself in a horrible situation, take advantage of it.  Learn and grow.

My comedy club experiences were all good.  But I did have a bad, comedy-club-like experience at a professional engagement.  I had been hired to perform comedy and magic at a New Years Eve party.  At 11pm they interrupted the dancing for me to do a 30-minute performance.  The audience would have rather kept on dancing!  I wasn’t an added attraction.  I was an interruption.  Likebin a bar situation, the back of the room was engaged in conversation.  Because of the buzz in the room, the middle of the room couldn’t hear the performance, so they started talking too.  Soon, nobody beyond  the front row had a chance of hearing anything I was saying.  My carefully crafted punchlines were falling on deaf ears.

At the end of the performance, I quickly packed up my things and slipped out the side door, vowing never to be in that situation again.  Not fun.

But there are good things to be learned from really bad comedy-club-like situations.  Here are a few:

1.  The set-up.  Give the organizers of the event instructions which will help them set up the stage, lights and sound to give your act a fighting chance.  In a bar or formal club situation, you may have no control.

2.  Arrive early.  Hopefully you’re aware of how bad the situation will be BEFORE you take the stage.  How are the emcee and the performers before you doing with the audience?  It’s best if you’re not totally surprised.

3.  Start your act with a bang.  Open with your best material.  Avoid long set-ups which delay the punchlines.

4.  Project.  Speak loudly straight into the microphone.  Often, the biggest issue in a nightclub situation is having an audience which can’t hear you.

5.  Be big.  Show energy.  Use large gestures.

6.  Get close to the audience.  Move forward.  If necessary step off the stage.  Get into their space.  This isn’t always practical, but be aware that it might be an option.

7.  Tighten the act.  If things are going poorly, shorten your set and get off the stage.  You may have an obligation to fill time, but there are limits to how long you should be tortured.

8.  Be nice to the audience.  They’re not against you, they’re just talking to the person next to them because they can’t hear you.  NEVER scold the audience.  There’s nothing wrong with closing with “You’ve been a great audience,” even if they seemed less than great.  Being negative  towards an audience can turn an indifferent audience into a hostile audience.

Those are things I’ve learned from performing in less-than-ideal situations.  So YES you can learn from bad performing conditions.  I   just wouldn’t go seeking them out until I had some experience under my belt.

Canned Laughter

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Here’s an interesting article on Canned Laughter by Ben Glenn II, Television Historian.  It was published in the Paris Review Daily and brought to my attention by Loren Ekroth, Dr Conversation.

Getting Your Speech Off To a Good Start

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Las Vegas is a classroom for performance and presentation techniques.  One of the lessons I’ve learned after watching over 200 shows is the importance of The Show Before The Show.  Rarely does a Las Vegas show begin with the curtain rising on a dead stage before a lifeless audience. 

For example, Cirque Du Soleil shows usually warm up the audiences with characters in costume wandering about the theater and interacting with the early-arrivers.  It’s definitely the show-before-the-show.  People don’t want to be late because the pre-show IS part of the show!

Two years ago I saw Toxic Audio.  It’s an amazing program of five A Cappella singers.  Since their show features “the human voice,” their audience warm-up gets the audience making sounds with their voices.  Bark like a dog.  Quack like a duck.  In the theme of the show.  Effective.

Many shows have a pre-show consisting of Video Footage.  Carrot Top shows R-Rated funny videos.  Several performers show clips of past performances (Gerry McCambridge, Vinnie Favorito, The Society of Seven).  Some comedy performers use video footage of other comics and celebrities making jokes at the performers expense (The Scintas, Bobby Slaton).  Many acts use music to warm up the audience (Terry Fator, The Las Vegas Tenors, Barry Manilow).  The Blue Man Group used a video show with dialogue text connecting with the audience. 

The classic show-before-the-show is the Warm-up Act where an actual performer, usually a comic or a singer, opens for the headliner.  Steven Wright’s show was opened by another comic.  A singer often opens for a singer. 

Those are just a sample of what professional performers are doing to make sure the audience is energized before the curtain goes up.  How does this apply to speakers?

As a speaker, you want to avoid approaching the microphone with a stone-cold audience.  That’s one of the reasons contest speakers don’t want to draw speaking position number one in a competition.  They don’t want to be the show-before-the-show for the other speakers!  And that’s the reason the Emcee of the Contest usually tries to warm up the audience before the first contestant speaker hits the stage.

The next time you speak, what can you do to warm up your audience before you say your first word on the platform?

1.  Everything you do before you start your speech is part of your show-before-the-show.  Robert Orben said that the speech begins in the parking lot.  Others have said that the speech begins with you walk out your front door.  How do you behave at the airport ticket counter when your flight is delayed?  A member of your upcoming audience could be standing behind you while you are being nice or rude to the desk clerk.  When we were stuck in San Francisco traffic, Alan Weiss shared with me, “I never honk within ten miles of a client.”  Since he doesn’t know for certain where his clients are, he never honks!  Always be on your best behavior before a speech.  You never know who is watching.

2.  Patricia Fripp is a great example of someone who warms up the audience by mingling.  Do you mix, mingle and chat with the audience before your speech?  I have occasionally connected with my audiences before my talks by performing strolling magic.  If you mingle well, when you are introduced you already have friends in the audience.

3.  Many speakers use music as part of their show-before-the-show.  Anthony Robbins has loud music with a rock beat playing, not just before the talk, but before the audience enters the room.  While you’re waiting in the hall for the doors to open you can hear the pounding beat of the music coming from inside the meeting room.  It’s definitely an energy and anticipation builder.

4.  Speaker can use video or PowerPoint to warm up the audience.  Bill Gates, before he took the stage, used a video introduction to introduce himself in a humorous way at the 2007 CES Convention in Las Vegas.  Using PowerPoint you could share relevant quotes or a trivia quiz with your audience.  Keep their minds active while they’re waiting for the main event…you.

5.  Be aware that your written introduction, to be used by the person introducing you, is part of your warm-up act.  Make it interesting.  Include some humor.  Make sure it’s not a dreary bio which puts people to sleep.  You don’t want it to be the show-before-the-naptime.

These are just a few thoughts on the subject of warming up your audience.  We could probably add another 100 to the list.  What can you do the next time your speak to ensure that your audience is awake and eager to hear your message.  The energized audience doesn’t happen by accident.

Lessons From The Olympics

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

If you watched the Olympic Opening Ceremonies from Vancouver, you probably noticed the problem with the lighting of the Olympic Torch.  According to the plan, four pillars were to rise out of the floor to become part of the torch.  One of the pillars had a mechanical failure and never appeared.  Although it seemed longer, the wait time was more than two minutes as the network narrators began commenting on the situation.  TV hosts said the torch bearers were “all dressed up with no place to go.” 

This situation is not unlike a speaking or performing situation when something goes astray.  Your mind goes blank, a prop malfunctions, or you tell your best joke and nobody laughs.

Time is Relative
Time is measured differently by someone facing a problem during a performance.  When you’re speaking and your mind goes blank for five seconds, it will seem much longer.  That five seconds may not even be noticed by the audience…especially if you don’t draw attention to it.

It’s Your Secret
The torch bearers were wearing ear pieces.  They were told about the pillar problem and to “keep smiling and keep waving.”  It’s the same thing with an issue during your speech.  Keep smiling and the audience may never know.

Avoid Making the Problem Worse
A stage-wait, or an unintentional pause during a performance, demands that you improvise and go with the flow.  Make a “command decision” and move on.  The longer you wait, the more attention it draws to the problem, the more tension it creates, and the more you wait.  The quicker you move forward, the more invisible the problem becomes.

At the Opening Ceremonies, the audience at home with high-definition TVs might see you sweating…but most of the audience in the stadium will never notice.

During a speech when your mind goes blank, if you accept it and move on, most of the audience will never notice.  It’s OK to be human.  Sometimes we forget.  Being honest with the audience is often a good choice.

Throw out the script.
Don’t fall into the trap of being a slave to the script.  If the script calls for four pillars, don’t knock yourself out complying with the script.  If a speech calls for a third point, and you can’t remember what that point is…skip that part of the speech.  The reality is that the audience doesn’t know what’s on the script.  When something happens (no matter what it is), that is what was supposed to happen (from the viewpoint of the audience). 

Improvise and go with the flow.  The improv principle is called “Yes…And.”  Here’s how it works.  You receive an offer (one pillar isn’t working).  You accept the offer and you add to it.  “Yes…we have only three pillars…and we will light them!”  The quicker you “Yes…And” the offer the more seamless will be the performance.  By applying “Yes…And” to a problem, you help to make it a non-issue.    Plan B will appear to be Plan A to the audience.

Learn From Every Experience
Every time you make a mistake, learn from it.  When you see someone else stumble in a speech, learn a lesson from their experience.  And when you see something at the Olympics deviate from the script, be a student.  Ask yourself, what can I learn.  You’ll be wiser and better prepared the next time you take the platform.

Public Speaking School

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Hot Tip!  Patricia Fripp’s Speaking School is in Las Vegas in just two weeks, November 14-15, 2009.  Fripp is one of the world’s best public speaking coaches.  I’ve heard Fripp speak more than 20 times.  I always learn something new.  Attending her school needs to be on your to-do-list!

The Power of the Story

Monday, October 19th, 2009

People love stories.  Throughout time, stories have been a powerful tool to communicate points and make them memorable.  This is illustrated time and again in almost everything we see on television.  We care more about a person when we know his or her story.

It will soon be time for the Winter Olympics.  The TV coverage of the games is so much more than just the contests and the results.  They work will work overtime to give us the back-story of the competitors.   They will take us behind the scenes.  They will take us to the competitor’s home town.  We will meet the competitor’s family.  

We’ll care more about the speed skating event if we know the story of at least one of the skaters. We’ll enjoy the skiing events more if we feel we know the skiers.  We might even watch curling, figure skating, or a luge event that we might otherwise skip, if we learn enough about a competitor to get excited about who will win. 

The same is true of most of the reality-based shows on TV.  On America’s Got Talent, it seems like we spend at least half our time getting to know the history and personalities of the competitors.  We get attached to them.   As a result we tune in, week after week.

Even classic game shows, like Jeopardy, use stories to hook you.  Notice where Jeopardy places the stories.  Not at the start of the show.  They want to grab you first with what you tuned in for.  At the opening, they jump right into the game.  It’s not until the second half of the “first board,” and after the commercial break, that they interview the contestants and introduce their stories.  It’s brief, but it’s definitely story time. As we learn more about the competitors, we like them more.  Maybe we pick a favorite to cheer for.  We keep watching.

So it is with any speech you might give.  The audience wants to know your story.  They want to identify with you.  They want to like you.  In addition, if you introduce other characters into your stories, the audience wants to hear their stories too. Characters are richer when the audience feels like they know them and cares about them.  And because of the magnetic power of stories, the points you make will have more impact and will be remembered longer.

That doesn’t mean you have to open with a story.  You could.  Or you might open with music, humor, a or a question that pulls the audience in.   There are many choices for opening a talk, it doesn’t have to be a story.  But eventually you should share your story to personalize and humanize your talk.

A story helps bring your talk to life.  It turns a lecture into a feature film.  It turns a book report into an experience.  It turns a speech into entertainment.  Are you breathing life into your talks with stories?  Do your stories make powerful points?  How could you enrich your stories?  Spend some time looking at every speech you give to see how you are enhancing your talk with story power.

Gap Analysis — Add Impact to Your Programs

Monday, September 28th, 2009

I had dinner on with my good friend Peter Pizor.  I was sharing some of my notes from an NSA Convention.  We talked about Giovanni Livera’s concept of adding Audience Impact Moments.  AIMs are those elements you can add to a presentation to add impact, texture and WOW to a performance:  Stories, Juggling, Humor, Poetry, Cartoons, Music, Dance, Gymnastics, Magic, Sound Effects, etc.  The audience at the convention brainstormed a list of over 40 such elements.  You could probably come up with dozens that we never thought of.

I told Peter I had a process which would help prioritize our efforts to most effectively add these elements to our talks.  It’s a process I taught in my Time Management Workshops 15 years ago.  Since Peter is one of the smartest guys I know, and has PhD, I asked him if my process was fresh thinking or old news.  He told me that the process was known in the business and economics world as Gap Analysis.  Since I do have an MBA, I most likely learned the technique back in the stone age and had internalized the process, totally forgetting when and where I studied it.  Sometimes a flash of brilliant insight is nothing more than a cloaked memory.

Here’s the way the business analysis process of Gap Analysis works, in relation to improving your Public Speaking. Let’s say you have a list of performance elements, like the ones listed above, that could add more zip, more pizzazz, more variety, to your talks.  Since you can’t add everything at once, which ones will give you the most desired impact by developing them first?  Let’s look at a three step process.

First, look at each element and ask yourself, “Where do I want to be?  And how important is it that I be there?”  For example how important is it that I have HUMOR in my talks?  The answer is not the same for every person.  Rank its importance on a scale of 1-10.  For most people, I think that this element would rank rather high.  Probably an 8, 9 or 10 for many speakers.  For me it’s a 10.  Let’s look at another element.  How about GYMNASTICS?  At the NSA Lab in Las Vegas, Speaker Dan Thurmon opened with a gymnastics tumbling pass across the stage ending with a flip.  Very impressive.  Wouldn’t it be great to open MY programs that way?  I’d try it only if I could figure out whether I or my client should pay for the ambulance.  As cool as that would be, my potential to add a flip to my talk is zero.  So gymnastics, for me, gets a zero as a ranking of “where I want to be.”  MUSIC, on the other hand, is something I could add to my talk and would like to add to my talk.  So I’ll give that an 8.  You’d go through your entire list of elements and rank them on your “where I want to be” scale.

Second,  you revisit the list of elements, and rank each one on a scale of “where am I now.”  This is not a desirability scale.  This is a status quo scale.  Let’s look at the three elements we rated in the previous paragraph.  Humor.  I give that a 9.  I rank that highly because I’ve studied it for over 30 years.  I’m pretty good at using humor.  But it’s not a 10.  There is room for growth.  Gymnastics.  I rank that as a zero.  I don’t do any gymnastics in my programs, I never have and I never will, unless I accidentally tumble off the stage.  And last, Music.  I rank that as a one.  Remember, this is a ranking of WHERE I AM, not where I WANT TO BE.  In the past, I have occasionally used music as part of my magic (I am a magician), but never with my speaking.  And I haven’t used music in any way for almost 10 years.

Third, you analyze the distance from where you are to where you want to be.  This is the Gap Analysis.  For Humor, I’m currently at a 9 and would like to be at a 10.  The gap is one. For Gymnastics, I’m at a zero and would like to be at a zero.  The gap is zero.  For Music, I’m at a one and would like to be at an 8.  The gap is 7. 

This analysis tells me that the gap, between where I am and where I’d like to be, is the largest for Music.  Perhaps devoting time to developing this element in my talks makes sense.  Perhaps the payoff for my efforts would be maximized.  You analyze the gaps for every element on your list. You can then numerically see which elements need the most attention and might have the greatest rewards in time and effort.  A rank listing based on your analysis will give you a priority list for adding or improving elements for your programs.  You then apply the process of reverse engineering to figure out where you want to be and how you’ll get there from where you actually are right now.  This will give you a task list of how to get to where you want to be.  A simple lesson from the world of business and economics applied to the art of public speaking.

My Toastmasters Club

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Darren LaCroix, the 2001 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking, is a member of my PowerHouse Pros Toastmasters Club.  We’re fortunate to be members of a club with many outstanding speakers.

Darren captured a recent club meeting on video and posted 10 minutes of highlights on YouTube.  He included one joke from my Observational Humor monologue where I define the “sandwich technique” for speech evaluation.  The sound isn’t perfect but if you turn up the audio it can be easily heard.

If you’re ever in Las Vegas, visit our club on Monday night.  We usually have about six guests at a typical meeting and we’d love for you to be one of them!