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For a powerful presentation, you need to know your audience

21 Mar 2019 By Sam Carrington

To become a better speaker in the workplace, it pays to learn from the pros, says comedian Sam Carrington

I’d been a comic for a few years, but this gig was making me nervous. I was about to open a show with a 20-minute set in front of 200 rough-around-the-edges punters in a working men’s club in Luton. Places like that can smell fear from miles away, and I knew it.

One of the most common questions I get asked when I run workshops for companies is: “How can I get cut-through in my presentations?” It’s a fair question; as the number of presentations we have to make continually rises, it’s very easy to disappear into a black hole of homogeneity instead of basking in the sunshine of memorability. 

One of the reasons comedians are such good speakers is adaptability. What constitutes a gig for the likes of Michael McIntyre is pretty well set out, but you haven’t got to go very far down the rungs of the comedy ladder to find yourself in some pretty strange environments.

The truth is, any venue can host a show. A vet could book four comics to tell jokes in his surgery while he puts people’s pets down and it’d be a gig. Audiences can be posh, common, drunk, sober, attentive, distracted or a million other things. The skill is to read a room and work out what you need to do that night to make the show a success.

Anyway, back to my night with the cast of Shameless. The room was filling up. About 20 minutes before the show I went to the toilet and heard a bloke next to me say, 'butterflies' and I thought, 'ah, how nice. He’s realised I’m about to go on, seen that I’m very nervous and is making conversation.' I turned around for a quick chat, and saw he was actually struggling to do up his trousers. He hadn’t said 'butterflies' at all, but ‘button flies’ – that he’d told his wife not to buy him recently on his new jeans.

The show began and to compound my growing fears, the MC got off to what is politely known in the trade as a slow start. He’d gone straight into material as opposed to any crowd work and it hadn’t had much cut-through. A general rule in comedy, business or anywhere else is the less you expect a room to listen, the more you have to tailor the material (at the very least the start of it) to make it about your audience. 

People at this gig had began loudly talking among themselves and generally tuning out of anything that was happening on the stage. To talk throughout a band’s set is rude, but far less noticeable as songs tend to be loud enough for the talking not to be audible. This is not the case at a comedy gig, which is mainly made up of one person speaking. Comics obviously also pause from time to time, where the sound of a loud (and possibly more interesting) conversation can kill it for the whole room.    

Pretty soon I was on stage in front of them and I decided to change my opener; I found the guy from the toilet and told the room the story of the mis-purchased trousers and people nearly fell off their chairs laughing. I then went into my prepared material and the rest of the set went like a dream. My only regret was that I’d driven, as about a dozen people wanted to buy me a drink after, which I had to politely refuse.

The next time you speak, think: who’s there? Have they chosen to attend or was it compulsory? Is this business-centric or an add-on? Reference what’s going on around you. If it’s pouring with rain, maybe make a quick joke about building an ark before you start. That night, I’d read the room and put a bit of myself into the set and they loved it. It’s true what they say; people buy people.

Sam Carrington is the founder of Smirk Experience

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