Guy Walks into a Board Room

How Leaders Can Stand Up and Cast a Compelling Vision

Comedians refer to an audience that hasn’t heard any jokes yet as a “cold room.” It is thus the job of the comics who go first or second in the night to warm them up. You tell some jokes, suggest a convivial mood for the crowd, and hope they’ve brought their funny bones.

I have been backstage at a local comedy club a few times now as an amateur stand-up comic. At this club, comics have a lot of say in where they perform in the lineup. And most of them don’t want to be anywhere near the icebox slot.

So on my first outing, I opened. And something unexpected happened: People laughed.

This bomb is a dud

Aspiring comics almost always bomb on their first or second outings, and often several times beyond that. Anticipated public embarrassment is one of the barriers that keeps many people from trying stand-up.

Folks who have been doing comedy long enough are philosophical about bombing. It’s seen as paying your dues, or, more constructively, as part of the learning curve. You see what works by trying a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work—in front of a live and unforgiving audience.

But I didn’t bomb that first night. The room warmed up and I was invited back. And then I took far more chances in my second set, and didn’t bomb yet again. Netflix special, here we come!

Now, I just purposefully dropped a semi-lame joke on you to prove a point: I’m not some comic genius. But I do have one thing going for me that could be of use to leaders as you work to communicate your vision to all-comers.

Wait for it…

“Great writing!” is the supreme compliment veteran comedians will pay to a particularly well-turned set.

The phrase may leave some folks outside of comedy scratching their heads. Sure, the comic is drawing on a trunk full of jokes and stories, they might concede, but what about timing and improvisation? Aren’t those things more important to bring the laughs?

But that’s the wrong way of looking at the problem. Yes, timing and improvisation matter, but it’s a lot easier to pace and punctuate and ad lib if you have written something solid that’s meant to be performed.

Start your pencils

You can use the same approach to putting together a short presentation to sell your vision that a comic might use in crafting a set. How?

First, you get many words out on paper. If your typing fingers aren’t accommodating, dictation software has gotten so good that even your pet parrot could manage.

Next, you’ll want to kill a lot of those words with extreme prejudice. If you want people to pay attention, cut needless verbiage, dial back the jargon, make sure the words you do use can pop off the page and into people’s heads.

Then, commit as much of it as you can to memory. This might sound difficult, but if so then you need to do a better job of writing it. Write things that you can remember because you want to remember them. Come up with hooks along the way to keep you on track.

Finally, rehearse what you have to say. You can do this silently or out loud, to yourself or to family, friends, or to small, hopefully non-captive audiences. Repeat individual parts that are giving you fits to file off the rough linguistic edges.

If the problem persists, rewrite it, or go see a word doctor.

The small talk can wait

One final thought about performance: How a comedian opens his set matters a great deal for setting audience expectations.

I once heard a comic go on a rant about what a waste it is to walk out of the door and open with “How are you all doing tonight?” or similar boilerplate. Do not do that, the comic cautioned. Instead, hit your audience with something that grabs them from word one and practically forces the reaction you're going for.

That seems to me like sound advice, not just for the comedy stage but for all presentations. So go forth and be memorable. Try not to bomb along the way.

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