In the early noughties, I nearly left my board level job working in television when I was told I was going to have to present to more than a thousand people on the stage of a West End cinema; public speaking was definitely not my thing. Fast forward a couple of decades and I make a living out of words – sometimes written, more often spoken. So what changed? I’ll come to that. What I didn’t foresee was 2020 rendering me speechless, and not just because Boris had fathered another baby. When I gave up life in the boardroom to become a full-time comic, host and public speaker, the one commodity I didn’t anticipate running out was ‘the public’.
‘Dying’ – sorry, not the best word to use during a global pandemic – on a live stage is bad enough, but there’s not enough therapy in the world for dying while you look into your own face, reflected back at you on a laptop screen in your spare room. Zoom. In February, who knew it existed? By March we were all using it every day, quickly adapting to being professional from the waist up (and consequently learning not to stand up during important meetings).
I used to train people in presentation skills, not so much because I’m good at it now (modest too), but because I used not to be. For me, there was a magic wand and it was simply focusing less on what I was going to say and more on how I was going to say it. That’s pretty much it. Hard to spin a whole book out of that, but I’m in the process of giving it a go.
It is also a bit more complicated than that. One crucial aspect is finding the courage to use your own voice, rather than feeling the need to imitate someone else’s. Oscar Wilde said it better than me: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”. My comedy writing formula is: premise + opinion = funny. The starting point is ‘what do I really think about this?’ and ‘what do I actually want to say?’. The bigger the gap between your authentic self and the self you are projecting, the more trouble you’re in.
As for tone: vary it. It’s smart to use humour, or at least the odd bit of levity, to keep your audience engaged (but no need to try to be a stand-up; in fact, please don’t – there’s not enough work to go round). One of the things you learn when you start out as an open mic-er is that your words won’t save you, but your onstage presence might. To quote Billy Connolly: “A good comedian is not a person saying funny things; it’s a funny person saying things.”
But what if you’re not a funny person? In the virtual world, it doesn’t matter. You can, at the touch of a button, bring in comedy from whichever source – a clip that’s gone viral, a meme of a cat falling off a wardrobe, a quote from someone who is funny. It’s as much about what people want to hear as what you want to say, and importantly, it’s about how you’re going to make sure they’re still awake by the time you say it.
I would tell you more but I’ve got to go – about to host a coach drivers’ annual gala dinner; their virtual annual gala dinner. Only last week I made £22 at a drive-in comedy night in a brewery car park in Leighton Buzzard; it was like a cross between a gig and dogging. Life’s great since giving up the day job. Je ne regrette rien. I am available via Zoom for weddings, bar mitzvah’s, online bingo, beer tasting…
Cally is a media business leader, coach & performer. To book her (or any other speaker) for your event, please contact JLA here.