David Nihill and Nir Eyal Talk Funny Business: What Stand-Up Comedy Can Teach You About Public Speaking
“You’re always going to feel nerves. I wish someone told me at the start of all this lunacy, ‘Oh actually, you never get over fear of public speaking. That never happens.’”
David Nihill is on a mission to help public speakers be less boring. Nihill is the author of Do You Talk Funny?and founder of FunnyBizz, a community that links content creators with comedy writers. He recently sat down for a Heleo Conversation with Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, to discuss what makes us laugh, why, and to offer tips for anyone who wants to be funnier.
Nir Eyal: Why do humor, stand-up comedy and public speaking matter for the business world?
David Nihill: They matter because there’s a lot of content out there that people are taking a lot of time to create, and they’re trying to market it in places where people are going to consume entertaining content. If you put that snippet of your talk on Facebook, and I’m digesting it at high speed between other entertaining information, by hook or by crook you have to become entertaining to grab people’s attention.
We’ve gotten to a stage in business where people are sick of the hook lines that suck you in and don’t have much pay-off. There’s a lot that can be taken from the realm of comedy and storytelling and improv that can be applied to creating your own content and really grabbing people’s attention, hooking them into read it. I mean, you know more about hooking than anybody else.
Nir: I love it, absolutely.
David: It is a mental trigger. It’s just like, “Whoo! I like this. I want more of it.” In the world of public speaking, we go to conferences, and let’s face it, the standard is pretty low. Most people are just putting people to sleep. They really have no way to grab people’s attention, and there’s a lot that can be taken from the world of comedy that allows you to do that. I’m not saying, “Go out and be a comedian,” because that can be painful. If you watch Chris Rock do stand-up comedy, and try and copy him, you’re going to get thrown out of your next business event. But if you know the techniques that he’s using, and can apply those, then all of a sudden, you stand out really quickly.
Nir: You did this chart where you show the top TED Talks’ laughs per minute, compared to laughs per minute in famous comedy films like Airplane!. It’s amazing how the top TED Talks have more laughs per minute.
David: That blew my mind. I thought, “Why has nobody ever correlated all the top TED Talks for humor? Clearly it’s a factor.” There had been a couple of guys that did studies of the elements that make a TED talk really great, what makes it go viral. There’s an arc, there’s a story, there’s a certain tone, there’s key points—and I was like, “Well, why didn’t you study for humor?” They’re like, “Well, we don’t know how.”
I was like, “Let’s go back to basics. I’ll just watch the leading 100 TED talks, and we’ll see what ones are funny, and then let’s look at the top 10. What do they have in common?” Sure enough, they’re all funny. Every one of them make people laugh. But the ones that were the most viewed, for the most part, got huge amounts of laughter, literally more per minute. It was a matter of me watching them and marking down every time they made the audience laugh and figuring out what’s the laugh per minute score, which is quite common in comedy.
Granted, you watch a TED Talk done by a researcher, you might not laugh as big as you did watching the movie The Hangover, but you will actually laugh more times, which is crazy. You’ll laugh more times watching Ken Robinson or Mary Roach or Shawn Achor, researchers presenting their work, than you will watching the movie The Hangover or Airplane!. That blew my mind.
Nir: That’s amazing. You dive into the psychology of laughter and why humor is so effective. People want to laugh to relieve tension that you’re building up during your talk. And it’s as applicable in a business presentation as it is onstage at a nightclub.
David: It depends on the topic. If it’s really serious, they’re expecting a release of nervous energy at some stage. The best business presentation advice would tell you, “If you make a mistake, ignore it and work through it.” Whereas in comedy, they’d be like, “Do not ignore it. Acknowledge what the audience is thinking. Release the tension.”
I was watching a great talk by Dave Eggers, the founder of McSweeney’s, who set up all these wonderful non-profit schools around the world. In his TED Talk, he comes out and he’s doing this thing with his hands. He’s like, “Oh, I’m really nervous. I didn’t know I did this when I’m really nervous, but now I do, I guess,” and everybody laughed. If he ignored that, everybody wouldn’t really warm to him, but the fact that he acknowledges their likely thoughts, it releases that tension and he becomes more likable as a speaker.
That tension is always there. We want to be drawn into the story, and building anything up allows people to laugh a little bit. It can be as simple as structuring a sentence so the most important word is at the end of the sentence.
If I have a company with a growth rate of 80% year on year, and I’m pitching that or presenting that to investors, the thing I want them to write down and take away is the key metric, 80%. But if I hide that in the story, it doesn’t allow their minds to latch onto it because there isn’t a natural pause. If I’m like, “Year on year, we had a growth rate…of 80%.” Even that little pause creates a little bit of tension in your mind to go, “What was the rate? What’s the next bit?” Comedy lives or dies on that. It’s the key word.
It’s the same when you go to a conference and they introduce the speaker, and they say, “Oh, John is next, and John is a really good speaker. John’s a friend of mine. John invested in this company.” We all know John’s coming on next. It’s not exciting anymore.
“Comedy is fantastic at building that tension to reveal. They have a very clear format that uses that tension to grab people and hook their interest.”
When you’re like, “Ladies and gentleman, our next speaker has been featured in Forbes. He is the best-selling author of… He has spoken all over the world, and we’re lucky that he is here today. He is…” All you can think is, “Who? Who? Who’s this person?” You’re really at the edge of your seat.
You’re more likely to applaud when this person comes out. You’re more likely to engage. Comedy is fantastic at building that tension to reveal. They have a very clear format that uses that tension to grab people and hook their interest.
Nir: Let’s do a little consulting session about comedy format because I need some help. I’m passionate about the topic I study. I wake up every morning and I want to learn more about how products change people’s behavior. But every time I try to make a joke on stage, it does not work. Nobody gets my joke. So what should I do if I’m trying to add humor?
David: If I ask people in the States if they’re funny naturally, they’ll say, “Oh, no, no.” If I go back to Ireland, they’re like, “Oh yeah! Absolutely.” Number one is realizing that you have it within you to produce something funny all the time.
But you don’t want to use a joke to do that because a joke has a chance of failure. The reason is that you telegraph your intentions. It’s like when your boss calls you into a room. He’ll be like, “Oh, I got a joke for you,” and you’re like, “Oh God, get me out of here. This is going to be terrible.” If you make clear your intentions, there’s no tension anymore.
Nir: Because you know there’s a punchline coming, therefore it’s not funny any more.
David: If you walk out on stage and you’re like, “I’d like to start by sharing a story,” then I have a moment to decide, “This story is probably going to suck. I’m not going to listen.” But if you just start telling me the story naturally, and I don’t realize I’m being drawn into something captivating, it works way better. But once you telegraph your intentions, you’re screwed.
One of the biggest advantages comedians have over the average person is they’re looking for humor at every opportunity. In your case, there is a gold mine of weird behaviors about irrational behavior that you’re able to tap into.
Make a list of stories that if you told someone, naturally they’d laugh anyway, when you’re not trying. Now you have something that doesn’t seem like it’s telegraphed. And what happens if nobody laughs at the end of your funny story? Nothing. You just told them a story.
When President Obama goes onstage, he’s funny intentionally. A lot of people say trying to be funny is risky, but it’s not if you know what you’re doing—or it wouldn’t be being used by the most powerful man in the world. This guy is using humor in a very high stakes environment, and they know it’s going to be successful because they’ve done it in a way where it’s using certain structures. Granted, it’s being written by comedy writers, but they know their stuff.
Nir: You really break down the nuts and bolts of a great story. You have these four steps: a relatable setup, a specific-to-me, a punchline, and the tag. Walk us through those.
David: If you start telling me a story about this time you went to Mongolia, I don’t care. As the average person, I’m like, “That’s great. I don’t know you,” so if you started your presentation talk with this wild story about Mongolia, it’s not very relatable to me. A much more relatable statement to try and draw as many people in is “Being in a new place can be challenging.” Now you’ve made a statement that most people agree with. That’s the most important thing before making it specific to yourself.
I’m from Ireland. If I said, “Oakland is a crazy place,” at the start of my talk, nearly everybody from Oakland is going to go, “No it’s not. I live there.” But if I say, “Oakland can throw up some crazy things sometimes,” people from Oakland would say, “Well, that’s an agreeable statement. What is that thing?” It just speaks to curiosity.
The punchline within your story is the funny bit. Try and put that at the end of the sentence. That makes your timing look awesome, and that allows people time to react.
A tagline is anything funny you say after-the-fact. It doesn’t have to be used all the time. It’s very much just forcing you to be concise with your own stories. Identify the key funny part, and then get rid of everything that’s unnecessary.
David: When I wrote my book, I was trying to do a fundraiser for a friend of mine who’d suffered a severe spinal cord injury. When I was sending out the emails for this, a pretty serious topic, I was ending it like you normally would with emails, “Kind regards.” I’m dyslexic, and I didn’t realize until two months after the fact that I was mixing up the “G” with a “T,” and I was ending every single email, “Kind Retards,” trying to raise money for people with spinal cord injuries, and sometimes I’d try and be office-cool and I’d just leave out the “kind” part, and just ending these emails, “Retards.”
If it’s embarrassing for you, it’s funny for somebody else. The audience never wants to know how much you were rocking it or how great you were doing.
Nir: It’s amazing how in a lot of talks that are funny, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny. It’s almost like the audience wants to laugh for you when you’re on stage.
David: If you go to TED Talks or a business event or a conference, now we go expecting to be bored. Our expectation has nearly flipped. So when someone comes on stage and says something relatable or captivating or funny, it’s not hilarious, but it’s so much better than all the other speakers that the audience just turns into a bunch of happy dolphins going backwards like, “I want more!”
“To stand out these days, just a little bit engaging is totally fine, one or two little stories. It is the lowest bar I’ve ever seen.”
David: It’s about flipping that expectation. It doesn’t have to be viral hilarity. To stand out these days, just a little bit engaging is totally fine, one or two little stories. It is the lowest bar I’ve ever seen.
Nir: I actually like that I can see people in the audience on their phones or not on their phones, because it’s real-time feedback. Before, if people were bored, their eyes would just glaze over, but now I can always know if I should step up the energy level.
David: Engage the audience. Whereas a lot of people just keep going. They’re like, “They’re not paying attention? But I’ve got 30 slides left! I better get through this fast.”
You can stand out really quickly by just doing anything that will engage people. It’s nice when it’s mutual. You’re having fun, the audience is having fun, and nobody’s bored out of their brains.
Nir: Well, it’s a lot more work. Putting up a bunch of slides with text on them and reading through them, that’s kind of easy, but the techniques that you describe, they’re thoughtful, and I think the audience appreciates when we take some extra time to be thoughtful around the presentation.
David: And if you interact with them in any way, we’re showing them, “Hey, this is not television. I can see you. If you take out your phone, I’m going to react.” So if someone does that in front of me, I always will acknowledge it.
Nir: What do you do?
David: Oh, I’d be like, “Are you sending dirty text messages right now? I hope they’re not to me because I’ve had to address this issue before, and that escalated quickly, you know? The wife won’t like it,” just anything to play on that moment. They’re non-passively consuming something, and at any moment you could say, “Hey, what do you think?” All of a sudden, that changes the dynamic because you’re making it engaging, and they’re sitting back and going, “Okay, this person could ask me questions at any moment. I better pay attention.”
Nir: One of the techniques you talk about in the book addresses remembering what you’re going to say. I think a lot of speakers rely on their slides, and they literally read word-for-word what’s on every slide. You use this memory palace technique.
David: I figured a lot of people were like me, that their single biggest fear was going blank. If you’re not super comfortable with what you’re going to say, and you think at any moment you could forget it, then it’s very hard to acknowledge the audience. It’s hard to go into a story because you’re so nervous. So the memory palace is basically taking a building you’re familiar with and realizing that your brain works in stories. The way you can best retain information is if you put that story in a physical location. The memory palace is you drawing out your talk as the floor plan to the house you live in.
Nir: Like literally on a piece of paper?
David: Literally. As a house you grew up in. I’ll start with a list of bullet points, of all the key things I want to say, and then I’m going create a really weird story in my mind for each bullet point. The more naked people, the more celebrities, the better. The stranger, the better.
Granted, these are just wacky memories that I’ve created. If you share them with somebody, the outline of your talk, they’re going to think you’re nuts, but to you, the lewd details help you to remember each element. Then when you’re on stage at any moment, you’re never searching for a word, which is really hard for your mind to remember. You’re searching for a location, which is super easy.
The memory palace is a technique that takes advantage of that layout and structures your talk as a sequential walk through your house, so it’s either clockwise or anticlockwise, and as you’re walking you’re bumping into certain characters. Now when I’m onstage, I’m just like, “Where am I in my talk? I’m in the kitchen. Who’s in the kitchen? Okay easy,” so it’s very easy to remember the characters that you’ve created.
“You’re always going to feel nerves. I wish someone told me at the start of all this lunacy, ‘Oh actually, you never get over fear of public speaking. That never happens.’”
Nir: So that’s how you’re navigating and piecing everything together. But how do you remember the word-for-word parts?
David: I don’t. The only word-for-word parts I would recommend memorizing are your first 30 seconds and the last line you’re going to say. If you don’t know what you’re going to say first, you tend to improvise if nerves get the better of you, so you’re on stage, and all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, it’s great to be here today. There’s so many people here today. There’s so many of you,” and all stuff we’ve heard before in conferences. If you haven’t really memorized that first 30 seconds, you’re susceptible to doing that. Plus, if your time gets cut, as happens a lot with speakers, they’re like, “Oh, we said 25 minutes. Actually, we only have 15. Can you finish up?” Then at any moment, you can cut to your closing and say with confidence a line that you know is the place you wanted to bring the audience to.
You’re always going to feel nerves. I wish someone told me at the start of all this lunacy, “Oh actually, you never get over fear of public speaking. That never happens.”
Nir: I think that’s the fun part, actually. It tells you it’s exciting.
David: It’s just a matter of turning your mind to recognize that, “Oh, I’m excited. This is what happens every time, the stakes and this pressure, I’m going to sweat like a madman, so I need to wear dark clothes. I need to hide it.” As you speak more, you figure out all the shortcuts to hide your nervousness, and if you’re telling your own stories, you end up looking fairly competent.
Nir: You tell business speakers to actually go to stand-up comedy clubs and practice?
David: No, I tell them to take the principles, to be aware of what stand-up comedians are doing. How are they doing it? If you look to some of the best business speakers out there, like Jon Acuff, Gary Vaynerchuk, they’re very vocally saying, “I copy comedians.” Gary Vaynerchuk is like, “I copy the styles of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock. They’re my inspiration for business speaking.” Jon Acuff said he watches 100 comedians for every business speaker that he watches. He said, “They’re my influence. That’s how I structure my talks: in short, relatable, funny stories, and I love doing it. It makes it more enjoyable.”
I would say, learn from what these guys are doing differently. What you can replicate is taking stories that are natural to you, telling them in the same format that a comedian would tell them, making them short and concise, and shoehorning them into your business talk. You’re like, “This has nothing to do with my talk, but I’m going to put it in there anyway,” and the magic is you just need to find the line that’s like, “I told you that story because…” There’s always a way to link it.
Ken Robinson has the most viewed TED Talk in the world at the moment. 40 million views. The stories he tells about relocating with his family have nothing to do with the topic, which is how schools kill creativity, but they’re very visibly stories he likes telling. He knows where the funny bit is, he’s structured it, he allows people to laugh, they become memorable, and everybody loves it. He’s using the same principles from the world of stand-up comedy. So yeah, don’t go do stand-up. That’s a good way to lay an egg and have it end badly.
That’s the beauty of doing a business talk. There’s no expectation for you to be funny, so when you are, everyone tends to appreciate it.
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