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I have become a fan of Jerry Seinfeld’s popular new vehicle, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The show features Seinfeld driving to pick up a fellow comedian to get coffee – all the while having an interesting conversation about the nuances of comedy.
As I was binge-watching a bunch these episodes, I came across one with Howard Stern where the conversation veered into discussing the differences between actors and comedians. Seinfeld comments that actors work full time at becoming someone else. The actor studies other people. The actor wants to be anyone but himself. The comedian, on the other hand, studies himself. The comedian wants to be fully himself. His craft is to study his nature, his perspective and how he reacts to what he sees in the world. A comedian is funny because of that hyper-awareness. He ends by saying that comedy is the closest thing to justice – because if you are good, you survive, if you aren’t you don’t. And you know it in the moment – real time.
OK, so what does this have to do with being a better public speaker? My experience as a speech coach in Chicago is that one of the biggest mistakes aspiring speakers make is that they try to be someone they are not. In everyday life they may be casual and light-hearted but when it comes to presenting in front of senior management they adopt a new persona that they think will be more effective with their audience. Perhaps they adopt a more buttoned down, formal image they hope will impress. I notice in a training session where folks are interacting at their table spots in an animated, natural way, maintaining eye contact and gesturing for emphasis. However, the minute their name is called to get up and speak, they become “dead man walking” as they enter the presentation space. They are suddenly stiff and robotic bearing no resemblance to the friendly person at their table a moment ago.
What can you do?
There is a similarity between stand-up comedians and presenters. You are alone on the stage getting feedback in real time. Move toward presentation mastery by learning from the craft of comedians – be more of who you are. The more comfortable you are – in the skin you are in – the more relatable, accessible and likeable you will be to your audience.