This Episode Includes a Lesson from Great Comedians
“In 2001, I was invited to deliver the opening keynote speech at the Toastmasters International Convention. In this 10-segment series, you will view the anatomy of a keynote presentation. Enjoy segment 6.
“Now, think about that. That was a speech called ‘Opportunity Does Not Knock Once.’
“I also maintain that taking advantage of opportunities is what has gotten me everything I wanted in my life. One of the ways I took advantage of opportunities was by asking questions.
“You are an intelligent group. I saw it when I came down here. Let’s see if I can spot the distinguished Toastmaster in the front row. Just about everyone. Okay, sir, you have gray hair. You look like an intelligent person. Based on what I just did and based on my formula, what do you think the premise of my speech might be? Remember, the title was ‘Opportunity Does Not Knock Once.’ What would you think the premise might be? ‘You can create opportunities by asking good questions.’”
Lesson: This is the simple premise upon which the presentation is built.
Every professional CAN create opportunities. HOW? By asking good questions.
“Pretty good. You win a prize: Great Comedians Talk about Comedy. Thank you. Give him a hand.
“With that talk, I can give an entire speech just by asking questions. Asking questions in the form of reflection. Asking questions of people smarter than you. Asking questions of your customers. An entire speech on that premise. All the different lines with the circles would be different questions.
“The book I just gave him was written by Larry Wilde, one of my friends. Over 30 years ago, as a struggling comedian, he thought, ‘If I had the opportunity to ask questions of the great comedians, what could I learn about my craft?’
“A friend of Larry’s introduced him to Ed Wynn. Wynn then started introducing him to other people. Larry interviewed 30 of the greatest comedians. People like George Burns, Jack Benny, Woody Allen, Milton Berle, and Johnny Carson. And I had a seminar where I interviewed Larry about the process.
“I had to research his research, of course, so I listened to the tapes. I heard Johnny Carson. It took three years for Larry to get an appointment to speak with Johnny Carson. The Dalai Lama of late-night television was talking to an unknown comedian. I heard Carson walk over and call his secretary and say, ‘Hold all calls.’ It was because of the quality of Larry’s questions.
“I heard Jerry Lewis say, ‘No one’s ever asked me that.’ I heard Jack Benny say, ‘I don’t usually talk to people because they don’t interview me about anything I want to talk about.’ I heard Maurice Chevalier say, ‘I never talk to anyone this long.’ In fact, let us hear what Woody Allen and Johnny Carson said about material to Larry Wilde.”
“‘You see, it’s not the joke. This is the part that people over time, not just with me I mean, with anyone in the business is the great fallacy that turns out so many mediocre comedians and causes so much trouble. It isn’t the jokes that do it. The comedian has nothing to do with the jokes. It’s the individual himself that has it. It’s not the material. When I first started, the same jokes that I did at that time, that got nothing for me, will get roars for me now. And not because I’m more known. They started to get worse for me before I was known. When it’s the funny character emerging, that’s what does it. You can take the worst material in the world and give it to W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx, and it’s just something that will come out funny.
‘And the best material in the world, in the hands of a guy who is a hack or doesn’t know how to deliver jokes is not going to mean anything. I’m not saying that he won’t get laughs. You watch The Ed Sullivan Show, you find a parade of comedians that will get laughs all the time in a given situation. But the audience doesn’t go away with anything. And then suddenly Nichols and May will appear and will get as many laughs as the hack comedians get. Maybe less. You know, I’ve seen bad comedians break it up unbelievably, but there’s some intangible thing that the audience goes away with. It had nothing to do with the material at all.
‘First of all, it, the most important thing to me in comedy, and actually, it is tough to discuss comedy, I think is the empathy that you have to have for the performer. I think this is the greatest thing that a performer can have if he’s going to be successful as an entertainer, empathy with the audience. They have to like him. They have to like him. And if they like the performer, then you’ve got 80% of it made.
‘Bob Hope. People like him. They like him. They like Skelton. They liked Benny. They like these people as people. And if you don’t have that, it’s damn difficult to get the audience on your side. If they resent you, if they don’t feel any empathy with you or they can’t relate to you as a human being, it gets awfully difficult to get laughs.
‘Bob Hope could walk out on the stage, and people are laughing before he gets there. A lot of it is conditioning. There may be funnier men in the world who are quicker on the ad lib, who say funnier natural things in a given moment, but I feel like the most important thing is the likability, the rapport. And that, that, again, is that indefinable thing that you can’t . . . you don’t learn it. You don’t study for it; you don’t take a course in it. It is either there in the individual or it’s not.
‘And I think that to me is the most important thing when I see comics performing on a stage. You can tell very quickly whether the audience likes them. Not so much as what they’re saying. How they say it. How do they relate to the audience? Are they just throwing up one line after another and saying, “Hey, folks, here come the jokes”? Or does the audience really dig him as a guy?’
“What they were saying is that it’s not the material alone. It is the empathy and how the audience connects and likes the performer. It is exactly the same with speakers.”
Lesson: Much of your presentation success depends on the relationship with your audience and whether they like you.
“Roger Ailes, the media consultant for Bush and Reagan, said, ‘The silver bullet in business and politics is the like factor.’ How did they like you?
“The Once-upon-a-time technique is a timeline foundation. I started when I was 15, I went until I was 23, I went into business when I was 30. That is the logical timeline through one’s life.
“Consider another theatrical choice, ‘in medias res,’ which means, ‘starting in the middle.’ Excuse me if you are a Latin scholar. It’s what I call the Rambo technique. How many of you love Rambo films? The rest of you are very deprived if you don’t.
“In the opening scene of Rambo 2, you see the back of his head, long hair, and he’s tying on a kerchief. He’s in a monastery, he’s fighting, and he’s giving money to the monks. Now, what is the audience thinking? Answer the questions the audience has in its mind. What happened to him since the last movie? Then we go back to the end of the last movie. We catch up, we come to the middle, and then we go on with the movie. A great theatrical choice.
“This foundation, this outline, this structure is perfect for what I call the I’m from headquarters and I bring you good news speech.”
Lesson: Options to structure your speech or longer story: Begin at the beginning, or begin in the middle, and then go back to the beginning.
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