PRO-TIP: Audience Well-Being
When you "kill" a public presentation, this doesn’t mean your audience dies. To the contrary. They are energized, motivated, and grateful.
PRO-TIP: Every time you make a presentation, treat it like it’s a kill or be killed situation for you and your audience. Too harsh? Wait. This strategy involves empathy.
(#oscars2022 Addendum: this was posted before the Academy Awards, and might help to understand the reaction to Chris Rock's joke, but it is not an opinion about the actions of Will Smith, or Chris Rock).
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In comedy lingo, when a set goes really well for a stand-up comedian, they “killed”. If the audience hated their material, the comedian “died”. Even your favourite comedians have died horrible deaths on stage. The key to success as a comic is to maximize your kill percentage. It’s an approach that can be useful in the corporate communications landscape.
I’ve lived and breathed the “kill” ratio as a professional comedian for over a quarter of a century. These outcomes are described with such harsh language because of the powerful emotional equilibrium that needs to be managed between the performer and their audience. I’ll use my appearance on the CBS television show “Star Search” to explain why and how this intel can help you sustain balance with your audience when presenting.
Metaphorically “killing” and “dying” are, of course, amplified in a comedy setting. But, communicating business content to people in other environments and situations should also inspire an urgency to your show prep, and concern for the emotional well-being of your audience every time you’re speaking.
In one of your recent presentations, if you didn’t get the response you were looking for, didn’t close the sale, felt people were drifting off, or the feedback was otherwise negative or even neutral, sorry - but, you may have “died a horrible death”. You likely didn’t adequately prepare for what was at stake emotionally for your audience, even if your content, visuals, and performance were executed as planned.
-a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. (Oxford)
This strategy applies to the boardroom, a Town Hall, keynote presentation, one-on-one performance review, team meeting, panel discussion, or any corporate presentation circumstances. People listening to you are counting on you to succeed, and when you fail, it makes them uncomfortable, or at best disinterested.
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The transactional exchange in the comedy club value chain for the patron is more than just the cost of admission. It’s also about their mental well-being, which is vulnerable to the success, or lack thereof, from the performers on the show. The emotional impact on the audience when a stand-up comedian’s material fails on stage is psychologically painful.
For the same reason, a great show has a powerful payoff and, which is why, even if they’ve seen comics die in the past, people still go back to comedy clubs. In the risk-benefit analysis, the endorphin-rush potential outweighs the cringe-worthy threat. (Plus, most shows are not dominated by horrible acts).
Like the comedian on-stage, when an executive fails miserably making a presentation, it’s a blatant betrayal of this delicate emotional economy. While people don’t “boo” lousy presentations in the boardroom, it’s the same unpleasant feeling nonetheless, (perhaps only subconsciously). People want you to do well, they don’t want to be distracted, or wish for your keynote to end.
It's crucial that you use your empathy skills and ask yourself,
“what is my relationship with my audience and how will the content I’m going to share make them feel?”.
This is the baseline consideration that will help determine if you “close the deal”, get “buy in”, or inspire the positive action you intend. When you kill it, this doesn’t mean your audience dies. To the contrary. They are energized, motivated, and grateful.
Mid-career, I made the rookie mistake of not properly managing the emotional equilibrium with my audience when I appeared on “Star Search” in Los Angeles. SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t win.
In front of a large studio audience, plus 14 million viewers on live U.S. network TV, I performed the exact material I had selected, exactly as planned. But, the reaction from the crowd and judges was flat, “meh”.
The reason: I didn’t prioritize my relationship with the audience and consider how my “bits” would make them feel.
For context, my set was at total of 1:50 seconds, and I was booked on the show based on a few of my “A” bits that the producers wanted in my set. Could I have changed them? It didn’t seem like an option. But, they were comedy bits that helped build my career to that point. Why should I abandon them? The impact on the audience was avoidable, however, if I had only heeded my own advice.
This was in LA, with an American audience (aside from every, living, breathing relative, friend and acquaintance I knew back in Canada). In a one minute and fifty second routine:
-one of my tried-and-true bits had “Inuit” in the punchline, so that had to be changed; and
-and another was about how the U.S. military is so violent.
I was a dead man walking and didn’t see it coming.
You might argue that I was thinking of my audience by taking out the word “Inuit”. But, that wasn’t an adjustment to accommodate their feelings, just their point of reference. As a headliner, with over an hour of material that was club tested for more than a decade, these were fatal flaws in my set list. It didn’t help that the other comic that night was born and raised in LA.
I would not describe my performance as “dying a horrible death”. But, for me, inspiring indifference in a critical opportunity, when it could have been avoided, is still excruciatingly painful. Unlike the relationship a comedian has with an anonymous comedy audience, your business relationships are not fleeting.
So, practice using your empathy muscle in every opportunity you have to make a presentation, even when the stakes are low. You'll be poised to kill it when the critical opportunity arises. And for the love of Betsy, if you’re inclined to change the punchline to a joke you’ve used for years, it’s not the right joke for your audience!