What an Aussie comedian can teach us about effective public speaking
by Korneliya Somuncic
When watching videos online, what makes you flick past a politician but stay to watch a comedian?
Comedians are one of the slickest public speakers there are, being able to quickly engage audiences and effectively convey their amusing, and sometimes deeply profound, messages.
Jordan Shanks (known as friendlyjordies on his Youtube channel), is a modern example of an Australian comedian who’s effective public speaking skills help him break down complicated topics like politics and history into an entertaining format that audiences can easily absorb.
This article is focused on showing you that there are many useful public speaking tips to be gleaned from this brazen comedian, that you yourself can take advantage of to be a better public presenter!
There’s more to a comedian’s performance than just their jokes. All successful comedians have mastered these three basic public speaking skills:
1. Clear and expressive communication
2. Creating meaningful connections
3. Timing and pauses.
SKILL #1: Clear and expressive communication
For all public speakers, clear and expressive communication is essential.
Humans have evolved to be hardwired from birth to actively look for and interpret verbal and body language cues. If you watch any good comedian on mute, you can easily understand the emotion they’re conveying and probably even the subject matter they’re talking about.
Now, not everyone who does public speaking will need to wildly flail their arms about or bend over squinting suspiciously at their audience, but the key here is that some good eye-contact, confidence and emotion both vocally and physically can go a long way in emotionally connecting with your audience.
Clear and expressive body language reassures the audience that you’re not a robot, and even if what you have to say isn’t that unique or riveting, it will help keep them engaged for longer than if you just stood there, eyes cast down, stiff as a board mumbling into your microphone.
Studies have shown that people have evolved to mirror those with desirable or beneficial traits such as confidence, curiosity and smiling. So, if you look passionate and interested in what you are talking about then your audience will be too!
Your audience will respond better to clear communication signals, and you, yourself, will feel a lot more directed and confident in your presenting. People often don’t remember what you said, but how you made them feel. Some of the most watched comedians don’t have particularly unique jokes, but the energy and clarity of communication is there, so people enjoy watching them anyway!
SKILL #2: Creating meaningful connections
After this, comedians have an even tougher job; once their audience is relaxed and receptive, how do they make what they say stick?
Stories are often used by comedians as a way to structure their shows in a logical fashion and connect on a more emotional level with their audience. It is a universally acknowledged fact that people retain ideas better if they are told in a narrative form.
Comedians use the same technique that memory champions use to memorise lists, but instead of applying it to themselves they apply it to their audience. Comedians take what is abstract - a single event, person or object - and create a memorable narrative for it, activating people’s imaginations through stories. This strengthens the association between abstract concepts, and promotes faster recall and a deeper understanding.
Strong associations are aided by:
colloquial language, or everyday language while presenting a story (how many times have you heard an Australian comedian use the words “fair dinkum”, “dunno” and “mate”, instead of “that is fair”, “I don’t know” and “friend”?)
and intertextuality, such as pop culture references.
These techniques make the unfamiliar more familiar, and ensure a more meaningful and easier connection is made by the audience.
While effective communication skills initially engage the audience, this technique of creating meaningful connections helps keep them interested.
SKILL #3: Timing and pauses
It doesn’t matter how clearly they speak, how expressive their body language is, or that their jokes are actually pretty funny. If a comedian doesn’t give their audience time to breathe and process their amazingness, they’ll just walk right out.
Comedians rely heavily on correct timing and pauses to give weight to their words and allow the audience to fully understand what it is that they have said. Pauses can be a dramatic pause before punch-line, a reflection pause or a breathing break.
To avoid frustration and disengagement, comedians provide specific breaks in between stories, paragraphs, sentences, words or even syllables, giving the audience time to absorb and understand the information. In doing so, the comedian also comes across as more trustworthy and genuine, and makes their presentation feel more like a real-life conversation.
As a public speaker, it also gives you the chance to calm your nerves if you’re getting anxious and time to quickly remember the next part of your speech if you’ve forgotten!
Shanks as an example
Now, let’s see these public speaking skills in action!
Shanks’s stand-up show, John Howard REALLY Sucked, is a good example of a presentation that is engaging and informative. Despite it being a longer format show that Shanks has rehearsed multiple times, it still feels fresh and authentic when he performs it for the first time to his audience. From the first five minutes, you can easily see all the three skills above in action. Watch the YouTube video here.
SKILL #1: Clear and effective communication
Shanks’ voice is clear, and he changes it to suit his body language. When stating a fact, it is balanced and consistent with him standing still, and then when he is mocking an entity he takes on an exaggerated voice and dramatic gestures. The audience is instantly engaged by the dynamic, if sometimes erratic, nature of his communication.
It also has a secondary purpose of providing verbal and physical cues, that tell the audience when to focus their attention and listen for relevant, factual information and when they can relax and laugh at a funny picture.
SKILL #2: Creating a meaningful connection
When explaining why a certain political party has a better track record of running Australia than another, Shanks gives the audience a quick history lesson:
“…all the Labor Party ever did was defend us from a full-scale invasion in WWII. While the previous Liberal prime minister, Robert Menzies, sold the Japanese the very iron that they then fashioned into bullets and shot us with. No wonder they win the second category of economic management because that’s 100% return on investment.”
This pun works well because it tells a short, sequential story that conjures up a very vivid nationalistic image which Australians can connect with. He takes the abstract concepts of war and political parties, and then joins them together in a meaningful way with an imaginative spin on an old financial phrase.
SKILL #3: Timing and pauses
Shanks after telling a joke or right before a punch line, will purposefully pause, giving his audience a chance to register the joke and then laugh. He attempts to go with the ebb-and-flow of the audience, only continuing when most of the laughter has died down. This ensures he is always in control of the performance and being heard.
Besides the Basics
Shanks uses pictures to reinforce his talking points, especially when he is just standing still and flicking through jokes. They are a quick and easy way to create meaningful connections with the audience through instant visual association.
Additionally, by having a lightning round of jokes and pictures, he is able to warm-up the audience and build up their engagement threshold, so that when he delves into his longer, more information heavy pieces they are satiated and more likely to stay engaged.
Another valuable aspect to note is that comedians compete in a slightly more unstable environment than that of the average public speaker.
The nature of their profession is more hit-and-miss, with comedy audiences’ tastes being more distinct and variable than that of a TED talk presenter’s. Also, audiences having no real vested interest in listening to comedians, besides paying for a ticket to be entertained, so having a thick skin is a must when performing.
It’s important to understand that not everyone will be spellbound by your public speaking and not everyone will agree with what you have to say. Within the first five minutes of his show, Shanks is interrupted, but he quickly turns it back on the rude audience member and confidently continues with the rest of his stand-up.
In the end, the key is that whatever you are presenting is understood by your audience, and that no matter what negative feedback you receive during your speaking you continue being heard.
Comedians sell their comedy by presenting it in a way that audiences can easily engage with and understand. They use the valuable public speaking skills of clear and expressive communication, creating meaningful connections, and clever timing and pauses to achieve this important goal.
Comedians like Shanks utilise these skills to tell colourful and entertaining comedy segments that not only amuse but also shine a light on essential topics and facilitate social discussion.
They also provide a valuable reminder that public speaking should be fun, something that often gets lost in public speaking seminars! You’re told to relax and focus, but often infusing a little fun into what you’re doing can do just that!
So, have a go and try out these public speaking skills yourself, and see the difference!