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Associate Conundrums: What comedy can teach us about presenting

Written by: Luan de Burgh
Published on: 8 Nov 2016

Sitting through the first half of the stand-up gig listening to the audience in a London comedy venue react to each act with varying levels of enjoyment ranging from genuine hilarity to heartfelt pity, I wondered whether it would matter, really matter, if I just left the room, made my way back home and pretended it had all been a moment of madness. No one would really care, I’d never have to see anyone there again and it would all be forgotten by last orders.

Except, people would care and it wouldn’t be forgotten – not by me at any rate. I was due to open the second half.

For starters, the act on after me would care as it would mess with her mental preparation to suddenly be called up. It would have been a fall at the final fence of the whole course I had chosen to go on, and I would always have the fact that I bottled in the back of my mind.

It was, of course, fear that was leading me to think I could just do a no-show. Not fear like no other fear – it would be gross hyperbole to say that stand-up comedy is the most terrifying thing I have experienced, but as someone who has made a living for a long time from speaking in front of audiences large and small, day in day out, I was by far the most nervous I have ever been in front of a crowd of people.

There is no hiding behind a lectern or a laptop. There is no factual data to rely on to fill the minutes. There is no visual media or audience discussion to engage people. There is only a bare stage, a solitary microphone and an intoxicated audience with the expectation that you will make them laugh; ideally every twenty seconds or so.

So, how did the experience remind me of presenting in the world of business?


I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Mine was a five-minute set. Each thought, each word, each pause was agonised over, scribbled down, crossed out, scribbled again and rehearsed to a long-suffering (and very good) friend for hours on end.

But it paid off and, unlike some of those on stage that same night whose level of preparation was possibly not as comprehensive, I didn’t forget where I was in my routine and crumble. A presentation at work is not the same as a stand-up routine, but to quote Benjamin Franklin, ‘by failing to prepare, you prepare to fail.’

Slow down

Just because you may be nervous and want to get off ‘stage’ as quickly as possible, remember that your audience actually wants to hear you say something that might interest them. If you speak too fast, they will disengage. It is also worth noting that the faster you speak, the more information you need to have prepared.

Silence is golden

In comedy it is often the silences that are the moments of greatest humour. In business presentations, the pauses can add real weight to a message and demonstrate confidence. Embrace those pauses but make them appropriate.

Don’t judge yourself by your audience’s reaction

On occasion you will look out at your audience and see a variety of facial reactions ranging from fully engaged and hanging off your every word to utterly disconnected and close to death. As with comedy, just because someone isn’t rolling about on the floor clutching their ribs in hilarity it doesn’t mean that that they aren’t enjoying the routine. People listen and react in different ways.

Less really is more

You don’t have to tell your audience everything you have ever learnt on your topic. Better to have a few great points and nail those than bore people with your encyclopaedic knowledge. To coin a phrase I recently heard New York law firm, don’t ‘show up and throw up!’

I didn’t make a bolt for the door but rather put all the techniques to control my nerves I tell other people to do in to action and delivered my set. The audience laughed and at the places I wanted them to.

I highly recommend stand-up comedy to anyone who is thinking of challenging themselves, having fun in the process and boosting their self-confidence.

Luan de Burgh of the de Burgh Group is a professional public speaker and presentation coach.  

Previously: Speaking with confidence