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Do You Talk Funny?: 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (and Funnier) Public Speaker

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Do you talk funny? David Nihill, founder of FunnyBizz, talks all things comedy with WriterAccess CEO Byron White. Find out the key principals of comedy that can be applied to public speaking, and why you should hold the funniest part of your story until the last possible moment.

Byron:                                   Welcome back to the WriterAccess podcast everyone. I’m here with David. David, welcome.

David:                                   Hey, how are you?

Byron:                                   Fabulous, thank you. We’re catching you right before your big conference, FunnyBizz. I hope things go well for you.

David:                                   Yeah, me too. I probably should be organizing right now. What do you do though…With that event, is it looking good, I’m not sure.

Byron:                                   Well, from what we’ve read about and what we can learn about it’s an absolute smash hit. You’re really a….You’re pioneering some great ground there, so hats off to you. But today we’d like to talk about, ‘Do You Talk Funny?’ there’s a nice name for a book, ‘7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better and Funnier Public Speaker.’ Tell us a little bit about how you chose to take on this concept of, let’s call it talking funny, if you will?

David:                                   Yeah well, I think I talk funny already, just due to the dodgy Irish accent here that your listeners are being subjected to at the moment. So I had a little bit of an advantage. Yeah, it wasn’t something I took on by choice. It basically ended up with me pretending to be a comedian to get over the fear of public speaking for a full year, which sounds like an absolutely terrible plan, and it definitely was. But there was a lot of trouble by far and learning along the way. It wasn’t something I did voluntarily. I had a friend suffer a severe spinal cord injury and we were looking to do fund raisers to fund his continued therapy and I suggested a comedy show. What I didn’t anticipate was my friend saying, “Oh, you have to host it, it was your idea.” And I figured well, who better than to study to try and get over the fear of public speaking than what appeared to be the true masters. If you really buy into Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule and taking the people that spend the most time and advert conditions that was comedians. So I did it and the show went really well. It went so well the guy asked me if I want to open a major comedy club for him even though I had no idea what I was doing and I was like, “You know what, how far could I get with this if I did it for a year?” So if I set up like a fake profile and a fake website and had myself some fake Twitter followers to make it look like I’ve been around for awhile, and I just happened to be in America in theory on-tour as this comedian called Irish Dave, I was like, oh what could I learn along the way, and from that learning, could we break down some of it and replicate it on a way that might help other people out, because there’s an awful lot of people out there who believe that humor is something that you’re either born funny or you’re not. And we very much…I guess I was of the perception that it’s skill. And if it’s a skill, it can be learned and improve upon.

Byron:                                   What did you learn about not being funny that helps you understand being funny? Because I am guessing you were not a funny guy at one point in your life.

David:                                   I don’t know, it’s a tough one. If you ask people in America, are they not funny or funny a lot, that term, it kind of splits the room. But if you ask people in Ireland “Are we funny?”, we’re all like “Oh yeah, absolutely. We are kind of funny.” I think culturally…

Byron:                                   We’re all hysterical in Ireland.

David:                                   I think there’s a lot of us that certainly think we are. It’s definitely part of the cultural fabric of the place. Was I not funny to start with? No, I think I was fairly funny. I just had no idea how to be funny on stage until and unless I perform.

Byron:                                   I see. I see.

David:                                   I went to pieces. My nickname in university was “Shaking Steven.” It started with a piece of paper in my hand shaking and somehow it transferred to my whole body until like the hips and the legs were going as well. Oh, it was a disaster! I knew I could be funny if wanted to be or I felt like the energy was there. I didn’t know how to do it in a structured repeatable manner. And I had no idea how to do it in front of an audience.

Byron:                                   What are some of the key principles of stand-up comedy that you can apply to speaking that you’ve learned and that you talk about in the book?

David:                                   Yeah, I think the single most helpful thing is that a lot of us when growing up, become accustomed to keeping a diary of some sorts and then you kind of grow out of the habit of doing it, because it becomes like, “Oh, last Tuesday, I was emotionally traumatized. I had ice cream and nobody likes me. I feel like I’m not…” I don’t want to go back and read that. It becomes a bit of like a pile of sadness. But I think the advantage that comedians have over the rest of the world for content creation is they’re actively searching for and documenting, which is the key difference, everything they find funny. So it’s very much to start on a Smartphone or on an app that you have; a funny story foil and literally you log everything that makes you laugh. You log everything that peaks your interest. You log everything that you find funny and that you’d like to share with somebody else. You can write it down word for word. But it just lets you make a note of it and you keep adding to that. So when you need to write a certain piece of copy or you need to write a book or you need to do some form of interview, or anything where you’re struggling for something to build engaging content around, you start with stories from your own life that you witnessed or observed so you have a bit of a feeling to it, and then you rewrite those using comedy techniques. So I think if you wanted to start from somewhere, the single biggest thing is rather than trying to have witty observations and rather than relying on the talents of your writing, just get a little bit better of really actively looking for, and noting and documenting those funny moments you do yourself enjoying life and then work on sharing those with others.

Byron:                                   Where can this go wrong? What if you think something is funny but in fact in a public setting it is not funny? By the way, that has happened to me all the time.

David:                                   Oh, really? Nicely done. Well I think number one I’m like if it’s below the belt, rule it out. So if it’s anything sexual, anything that targets anybody that’s not in a position of power; that can get you in trouble pretty quickly. If it made you laugh, chances are there is a way to make other people laugh at it. If you really just believe in it enough and you get excited enough about it as you’re telling it, real life tends to do that and break down targets but just realize if there’s a weak target involved in your story, it shouldn’t really have a target. It should just be a story. And I think the times that humor goes wrong for people, or when people don’t really enjoy it, is kind of that awkward moment when your boss calls you into your office and he’s like “Oh, I’ve got a great joke for you.” And your brain is thinking, “This is not going to be funny.” They really telegraph their intention to try and make you laugh first. The secret to humor is knowing…and for the most part, without the risk to it is pick a clean story, one that you enjoy, tell it and structure it in a way where the funny part is hidden until as late as you can in the story, the key twist, and literally just let people…give them time to react,  and if they laugh great, and if they don’t, well then you just tell the story and that’s still a lot more engaging than a pie chart regardless of the setting.

Byron:                                   How do you practice storytelling and comedic…potentially funny stories? Do you practice with just a few people and then expand that? Are you constantly testing these stories that you perhaps write down? Are you going to comedy clubs and jumping on an improv stage, and testing ideas and scrapping the ones that are failures? How are you testing humor?

David:                                   Yeah, it’s funny. I would say a combination of all of those, but if you really want to shortcut it, to like I don’t want to go down the traditional comedians route which is the dedicated ones will write it out and seek every opportunity to practice it. The ones who are not so dedicated will just go out and practice it, will audio record it and see what works. What I tended to do is just take the stories I already enjoyed telling to my friends and family, that had never been written in any form, but I had a very good idea where people were likely to laugh. And then I just tried to play around with the sequence of telling them a bit. So ironically, the very first thing I did when I was given a comedy stage, I told a story that I enjoyed telling and that story was something literally in its rarest form and without writing it out, without adjusting it, it was something that worked also very well in the comedy club and won all sorts of story-telling competitions and got me into lot of messy scenarios where I had to go and tell it to 1400 people all of a sudden. And it’s just the same story I enjoyed telling to my friends.

I think what…It’s a funny sequence because in the US, comedians…their styles are often dictated in success, the metric they are aiming for is to get a five minute television slot. And the attention spans are so short in late-night TV that you really need to making someone laugh every 10 to 15 seconds. You can’t do that a lot with one long form story, so until they get really famous, until they break that first TV spot, most comedians don’t tend to write a lot about their own personal lives in storytelling, and they don’t really tend to find their voice until they’re forced to that for a longer set-up. I think you can avoid a lot of that testing just by literally taking stories, crafting all your material based on stories, telling them to friends and family and just being very conscious of where people react, where’s the key funny part and how do I know to structure this, how do I ruthlessly edit it to get to that funny part within three or four lines and make sure it’s at the end of the sentence.

Byron:                                   Do you have stories that are so successful and worked so well you’re repeating them on stage and feeling good about that, and that connection you have with the audience? Do some stories stick and are you repeating them?

David:                                   Yes. Definitely. I think that stories, they all stick, but some just have a naturally better arc than others because that’s just the way it happened. You wouldn’t believe if I told you. So the story I’m telling is about me getting injured and my mother coming all the way over from Ireland to the US. You know, conservative Irish lady, they grew up in a farm but by the time she went back home she was eating cannabis cookies and wearing a pair of Lululemon pants, yoga pants, and this changed for life. And now she has my auntie who used to be a non-smoking weed back in Ireland, unofficially of course. There are so many kind of wacky things in there that you can tell it, and as long or shorter form as you like, and I think they all become sticky. Like last night, I was telling a crowd of people how I learned basic Chinese using Irish dirty words by creating a funny story that just stook in my mind quite easily and it allowed me to rapidly pick-up other languages including Chinese and I did the same thing with Brazilian Portuguese. It’s just crafting a story that’s going to be memorable and making it a little bit funny because the funny actually helps your memory remember it.

Byron:                                   Now how did you concoct that story? How did you put those concepts together? Was it something that just occurred to you as you were reading or browsing something that you could put two pieces of a puzzle together and create a funny story that had some wit and humor and insight and intelligence to it?

David:                                   Yeah. It’s kind of a mix. It was stuff I stumbled upon and then the more I read about it, which was a mix of Joshua Foers New York Times Bestselling book “The Memory Palace” and Benny Lewis had wrote a book called “Fluent in 3 Months” which is rapid language study. And they both stress the power and the benefits of creating a funny story around a word, and creating a sticky memorable story around words to learn things rapidly. And it was something that we’ve known since the dawn of time, we just kind of forgot along the way to put as much emphasis on it. But when you do it, it just makes so much sense and makes your life easier as a storyteller, and makes your life easier as a presenter, and that makes your content more memorable for your audience in no matter what form you deliver it in.

Byron:                                   How would you coach writers to make…to add what I call snap, crackle and pop to their content? How do you that? Do you write the boring version first and go back and add snap, crackle and pop? Or do you take the other approach, start with snap, crackle and pop and then fill in the details, the informational content that is perhaps the purpose of the story?

David:                                   Yeah, that is a tough one and it’s a big question. What I did was, because I am not much of a writer to be honest, even though I ironically have a book…I don’t know how…I dictated most of it and I just talked as if I would normally talk and then I had that typed down, and I went back and tried to reorder the bid and sequence, so I was making sure I followed the rule of three that that funny part would be the breaking sequence on the third element within writing, that it was a story arc or had a story format and that I was really ruthlessly editing my own words, so what did not need to be in there. So it was often a mix of just writing out in serious, and then going back and trying to put on my funny hat on somewhere else and trying to lighten it up a bit, Or just dictating that content as I would say it or as I would tell it in a story and then go back and try to put on some writing techniques around it. But I think everybody has their own individual style on that. Some people like to have fun from the get-go and some people are very good in just going in and building on humor opportunities. I don’t think there is a best way to do it. If there is, I haven’t found it.

Byron:                                   Can humor work when it comes to increasing your sales of a product or a service, and if so, why?

David:                                   Oh, a hundred percent. It’s just for engagement. I think a lot of people’s default marketing portal at the moment, or advertising portal, is Facebook. And if you are going to Facebook a place where traditionally people are scrolling at high-speed looking for entertainment, then you’re forced in some capacity to be the entertainment. And regardless of what the company is, whether it’s B2B or B2C, at the moment they’re beginning to realize that although they have a certain brand image to keep up, that they’re able to produce different content for different [0:13:31 inaudible] or different segments and they’re able to experiment with that, and what they were seeing was that when they build in humor, that the engagement rates were going up.

Essentially the conference I run, we basically showcase people behind a lot of those campaigns. We get them to pull back their curtain a bit on what they did, how they did it and the results it generates. But the common theme of all these guys is that humor works. We’re living in a society at the moment where the President of the United States is using humor very, very frequently. A lot of people will say well, my topic or my job or my career is too serious to use humor. If the President is using humor, you’re probably okay too.

Byron:                                   Could you see a day David, when if a company doesn’t have some wit and humor and introspection of realness, that they will no longer be in business and no longer connect with customers?

David:                                   No. Honestly, I don’t think so because there’s just some staples that you do absolutely need, there’s some services out there where you don’t expect to see or find any humor. But what we aren’t seeing is the move to nearly all these traditional companies that may be very product oriented becoming media companies all of a sudden. I think a great example of it is Casper, the new mattress provider. Well, they basically deliver them to your house in a box, and it looks very cool and it looks very fancy, but they actually have a very large media component in that company as well and it’s not something you would have traditionally expected from them. I think everybody all of a sudden is having to think about themselves as how do we interact with people as a company. Even if we’re a product, even if we’re just mattresses, what media do we put out there…But I think there’s some guys that definitely…There’s no pressure to be funny but there is a pressure to be more engaging. So I think a lot of companies don’t have a pain point or don’t feel the need to be funny but they do have a pain point around engagements rights, because a lot of the stuff they put out when they are super serious that isn’t in a conversational tone doesn’t really resonate with people anymore, and they’re not seeing the engagement rights that they’d like to.

Byron:                                   Can funny backfire if you’re not funny, or if you execute it poorly, or if you offend? I think we talked about that a little bit, but could you give us any examples of where you can go wrong?

David:                                   Yeah. You can definitely go wrong if you target someone in any weak position and you are in a powerful position; that can go wrong. That’s like the bully picking on the little guy. Everybody is going to take the little guy’s side in that scenario. Anything risky you want to stay away from. But you know, risky and humor guys that are professionals at crafting humor or writing humor or writing copy, they don’t really take risk. They test it. They are able to beta test it before they put it out. So I think there’s always expertise you can tap into before you put out something. You’ll see President Obama using humor in a speech is a very, very high pressure situation. You can bet that they have tested that content and they know it resonates with people, and they know it’s not likely to offend. They do that by tapping into some expertise in it. That expertise is available whether you actually go and talk to people, hire someone, or you put it out socially under a social platform that isn’t quite under your name that you have an account generated so you can just put stuff out, or write it on a platform like medium where it’s just in someone’s personal name as opposed to your company first to see if anybody picks up on it or how the reaction is to it. There’s always a way to test it so you can avoid that. Because humor certainly when done by people who don’t know what they’re doing can go wrong.

Byron:                                   How long do you think it takes to get stage-ready?

David:                                   Good question. It really depends on the person. Some people loathe being on stage. For me, I’m never stage-ready. Like last night if you had touched my hand before I got on stage you would’ve felt like you were assaulted by a fish. Sweaty hands…But I just get very good at hiding it. So to everyone in the audience, they don’t know that I know that my hands are trembling so I’m not going to hold a bit of paper or a ticker for the first 30 seconds. My hands are trembling because I’m not…I don’t want to take the microphone out and try and hold that in any way that people will notice it. I’m wearing clothes that are very much sweat-proof. I’m starting with a story and that way it’s my story and if I mess it up, there’s no real consequence to it. So I’m doing a number of things that allow that I look stage-ready but I’m really not. So I guess the key question is how nervous the person is about being on stage and speaking. But there’s certainly a lot you can take from the world of comedy to prepare you for that. Hiding those things that you know might go wrong certainly is a big portion of getting stage-ready.

I think the most valuable thing I learned in the whole way about getting stage-ready was to use the same memorization technique that I was using for rapid language acquisition with preparing a talk. So rather than have a series of bullet points that you’re backstage trying to memorize before you go on, you draw a floor plan to the house you live in or the house you grew up in or the apartment, basically a place you are extremely familiar with, and your series of bullet points get transitioned to a series of short stories around key words that are each located in a room which you walk through in a sequential manner. And all of a sudden, when your mind, when you’re on the stage now, you’ve eliminated the biggest fear which is the fear of going blank. Because you know, okay, I’m not looking for a key word, I’m not trying to memorize something word for word; I’m just trying to remember where I am in my house and who is in that room. And as you’re giving your talk, you’re literally sequentially just meeting characters of memories and stories that you’ve concocted to help your mind remember. Using that technique or anyone I’ve taught it to has never ever gone blank on stage.

Byron:                                   Interesting. Very cool idea. Do you think that kind of works for writing as well?

David:                                   Yes. That works for absolutely everything. Any form of memorization and memory palace. It got popularized by Joshua Foer, he was a New York Times best-selling author that went to watch the US Memory Championships; it’s a competition. And he decided, “Well, that’s cool. What if I studied for a year intensively and came back. I wonder how well I could do as a guy with just an average memory.” And he came back and he won a year later and he became the 11th best minds in the world for remembering things. It’s highly impressive to say the least, but the techniques they’re all using is the memory palace and I’m always amazed how many speakers haven’t heard of it, how many performers haven’t heard of it, how many comedians don’t use it. Because if you picture somebody backstage going over their notes last minute which is nine out of ten public speakers in any format, and you think what word comes into my head to describe that person right now, it’s always nervous, or it’s always unprepared, or it’s always freaking out! That’s not what you want to be experiencing a couple of seconds before you go on stage. So it has a big, big impact. And I think the single biggest difference to me in life and for my friends who are nervous about public speaking is using that technique.

Byron:                                   How do you construct the memory palace, if you will? Do you write things down about the room? Do you start with a written word and a story…Obviously you’ve written the story down, you have it in writing, right, but how do you assemble it…

David:                                   I don’t, actually.

Byron:                                   Oh really?

David:                                   No, I don’t. I have the key points to it and I don’t tell it the same twice or I’ll get bored for the most part. So I have the key points I want to walk through, but I don’t write it out word for word because I like style-wise to appear very conversational, as if this guy just happened to be telling me this, it’s not a performance, any moment he could bring me into it, and he’s just kind of chatting with me as if we’re in a living room, as opposed to being scripted. But the technique I use for drawing out the memory palace is basically to take the key points, write them down as bullet points as a lot of people normally would prepare a talk, and then try and concoct a story around it. So if I’m talking about the Gross Domestic Product in Mexico being 10% a part of the business talk, when I open the door to my house and I will take the house I’m  most familiar with, I’ll actually draw out this floor plan. I’ll draw it out very loose, like not architecturally savvy. We’re not going to build anything out of this in anyway. It’s actually just squares on a page as my house would appear, just by rooms. When I open the door to my house, and to start I need to talk about Mexico, I’m going to picture a Mexican guy like on a donkey for no apparent reason with no pants on just to make it more memorable, a little bit crazy, and he’s got a [0:21:51 inaudible] in his hand I have no idea why, maybe he’s just trying to be friendly, and he’s wearing the soccer jersey of Mexico, and it has the number ten on it, or eleven, depending on the number you want to use and that’s the percentage I need to talk about. And then he turns around and runs into the next room and I’ve concocted the story where these characters interact with each other. So the more celebrities in there, the more people you know really well, the crazier it is, they’re actually easier just to remember. And all I want to do is log those key words and then I won’t memorize anything by heart apart from the first 30 seconds and the closing line. I want to know that it’s going to start well, because if I’m nervous I’m going to improvise and be like, “Oh there’s plenty of you people here. Oh it’s great to be here.” Same thing is with everybody when they’re nervous and then you don’t get off to that optimal start. So I’d say great memorization, every single word for the first 30 seconds then the memory palace for the structure of the flow of your talk, and then your closing line that you’re going to cut to when you know you’re running out of time.

Byron:                                   Fantastic. Now do you actually see a psychiatrist twice a week as well as part of this visualization process to not confuse the real world with the palace?

David:                                   I probably should, you know. For that and a host of other reasons Comedy will do that to most people. I think that is there from a psychometric when you get in front of an audience but it’s just…

Byron:                                   No, it sounds brilliant. Mnemonics of course is the buzzword that I remember from my definition class or something. What a great word, using visualization to remember things, and the power that mind clearly wants to tap into that because of pure factual statistics. One question I had on the memory quiz and that great story you told about the person who has been inspirational to you…

David:                                   You mean in the book?

Byron:                                   Yes, winning that competition…Did they use that exact visualization process? Because those memory tests are really, they’re kind of hard. You’re sort of making that up as I recall.

David:                                   Yeah. So just to clarify on your question, was this the technique I was using when I was telling that story?

Byron:                                   Say that again.

David:                                   I said just to clarify your question, were you asking if this is the technique I was using when I was telling that story about my friend?

Byron:                                   Yes. Exactly.

David:                                   Oh, a hundred percent, on the memorization. But I wasn’t when I told it the very first time. It was just a story that I like telling. And I tell it to friends and I didn’t change anything. I didn’t have any notes or any form of preparation. I just told it as I always did, and I paused exactly where I thought they would likely laugh, and it was just like talking to a group of friends. And to be honest, I only ever started doing the memory palace when the stakes increased. So when it went from a couple of people to 1400 people, a lot of big names would be there and I could be potentially quite embarrassed. I was like, okay, I’ve got to make sure I don’t go blank in any way, shape or form because I know I’m going to get super nervous.

Byron:                                   David, I want to thank you for joining the WriterAccess podcast today. I have two final questions for you. How can people get a hold of you, and what’s the best place to do that? Who would you like to hear from?

David:                                   Sure. Yeah. Well I’d like to hear from anybody who needs any help with any kind of…I’ve written everything out about…I learned the hard way from public speaking and you can get all those tips, you can get loads of stuff on the memory palace. Everything’s available at the 7comedyhabits.com. So there’s a whole wealth of articles and tips and guides you can download there. And to get a hold of me is pretty easy. Email at david@funnybizz.co and I’m on Twitter @funnybizzsf as well. Then we have a blog around using humor in business at funnybizz.co.

Byron:                                   David thanks for joining us today. Appreciate you being on the call.

                                           David:   Thank you very much.