What could a late-night comic teach a beginning public speaking? As it turns out, quite a lot.
I had a hard time getting started as a public speaker.
I was terrified, stiff, and awkward. I made embarrassing verbal blunders, which made me more terrified, stiff, and awkward.
I would prepare and rehearse — over-prepare and over-rehearse — my speeches.
I would deliver them from memory. And I was happy if I got through the whole thing without some major mishap.
At the time I thought a speech was a transfer of content from me (the person who knows) to the audience (the passive recipients).
As long as I had good stuff to present and got it all said, I thought my speech was a success.
One of my speech teachers turned my thinking around.
He helped me realize that my saying that I thought needed to be said wasn’t as important as the audience hearing what they needed to know.
And he taught me that lesson in a strange way.
He asked me who my favorite comedian was. I said Johnny Carson. (Obviously, this was many, many years ago.)
He told me to watch Carson’s opening monologue on The Tonight Show for a week, and see what I learned.
What did Johnny Carson do that made him so funny?
Here’s what I learned: It wasn’t his material. His jokes were sometimes very funny, sometimes not.
What made him funny was his interplay with the audience.
He’d throw out a joke. If people laughed, he smiled. If they didn’t laugh, he’d look pained. If they groaned, that’s when he would come into his own.
Carson played with the audience. And together he and audience often created something much funnier than before.
Johnny Carson taught me the importance of interacting with the audience. He taught me
- To present an idea, one piece at a time.
- To watch how my audience reacted to what I said. Did they get it? Were they with me? Did they smile and nod, or cross their arms and crease their foreheads?
- To respond to their response. If they didn’t get or didn’t agree with what I said, I couldn’t simply plunge on with my prepared remarks. I had to acknowledge and engage them.
- To treat a monologue (i.e. a speech) always as a dialogue, and to keep it lively.
A speech isn’t the content you deliver to the audience. A speech is how the audience interacts with you and your ideas in order to come to their own understanding.