Can Standup Comedy Make You a Better Public Speaker? An Inc. Investigation

After eight minutes of watching Matt Ellsworth’s standup routine, I knew what we were in for.

Before Ellsworth stepped down from the stage to rejoin us at our table, his comedy coach, David Nihill, turned to me and smiled. “We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Let me back up. Nihill had sworn that he’d used open-mic nights like these to become a better public speaker within weeks.

Doing standup comedy to overhaul your presentation skills is not a terribly new idea. But Nihill so believes in the idea that he’s built a company, FunnyBizz, around training businesspeople to be more entertaining.

Getting better at presenting in front of groups is one thing. But how much can comedy training–and a crash course in standup–help you become a truly entertaining speaker? I was putting Ellsworth to the test.

The guinea dumb

I first met Matt Ellsworth at a coffee shop in downtown San Francisco.

He texted me this picture along with this message:

“Hey Laura — Just got here.”

Nihill had suggested that Ellsworth, his friend, be our guinea pig. Ellsworth had been the vice president of growth for Storefront, a company that helps businesses find short-term retail spaces. But, burned out from the startup lifestyle, he left his job last May and began consulting with startups.

Very soon I learned that Ellsworth’s journey was definitely not going to be a case study in getting over the fear of public speaking.

“The way I knew I wanted to do standup and keep doing it is that I do a really ridiculous ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ karaoke,” he told me at the coffee shop.

You feel like you’ve known Ellsworth for a long time after you’ve just met him. He’s personable, enthusiastic, and energetic, with more than a touch of the class clown. He looks for places to crack a joke–and with me, he found one almost immediately.

“A mechanical pencil! What’d you do, visit an antique shop?” he asked as I started taking notes. From this it would have been reasonable to conclude that Ellsworth was not going to be the best guinea pig for the experiment.

But he was a lousy public speaker. Ellsworth sent me a recording of a presentation he did for GrowthChats, a Meetup group for marketing professionals. It’s an hour-long talk, in which he details how to use web-scraping techniques to generate marketing leads. (Granted, that’s a pretty tough topic–and a daunting chunk of time to fill.)

Ellsworth begins his presentation standing in front of a projector screen, looking relaxed. But he’s holding his phone, frequently looking down at his notes on the tiny screen, and almost immediately he slips into the kind of drone all conference-goers dread.

“I’m just going to walk you through the stuff that I did while I was at Storefront,” Ellsworth begins. “As it relates to kind of like a takeaway tonight, I think the number-one thing I’d like to have you guys realize is there is like, like so much at your fingertips with a Google search. A lot of this stuff isn’t like incredibly difficult.”

The most noticeable thing about Ellsworth the presenter, besides how “like”-happy and generally monotone he is, is that he’s so different from his regular self. He rarely jumps on the chance to be funny. And, in that recording, his energy levels unfortunately reflect that it’s 7 p.m. on a weeknight.

This comes as no surprise to Ellsworth’s other comedy mentor, Sammy Wegent, an actor, comedian, and former instructor at San Francisco Comedy College. For novice speakers, conveying their true selves is one of the hardest things they struggle to do, he says.

“That’s a thing I see that, strangely, the business world and the comedy world have in common,” he says.

Currently, Wegent works as a game writer at Zynga. On the side, he trains Zynga employees to be better presenters. “A lot of people have this idea of what they should sound like or what a presenter or a comedian is or isn’t. And they kind of almost perform to that notion as opposed to just being themselves,” he says.

So Ellsworth had a lot of room for improvement. But he needed to work quickly. He had been invited to present at a data summit on October 30, about seven weeks away.

We had our student. Nihill and Wegent were committed to coaching, and the final exam date was set. The only thing left to do was to get Ellsworth on stage as often as possible over the next seven weeks.

Lesson No. 1: You can’t force funny.

There was a precedent for what we were doing. Today Nihill, a 35-year-old Irishman, appears to be completely at ease onstage. But for most of his life he was anything but comfortable holding a microphone. While pursuing his undergraduate degree in Ireland, one speech he gave at school sticks with him.

“I drank six bottles of Corona beforehand because I was so nervous. And I introduced myself as an exchange student called Mustafa from southern Yemen because I was just totally drunk.” In other words: It didn’t end well.

Then, in 2013 Nihill needed to host a benefit comedy show for a friend. Reasoning that the best way to get better was to speak in public as often as possible, Nihill looked for opportunities. He discovered that there are an incredible number of standup open-mic nights–three to five each night–in San Francisco.

This is what led him down a “wacky road of experimentation in comedy,” he says. Over the next seven weeks, he studied joke structure, storytelling, and improv. He read as much related literature as he could find. He also watched dozens of TED talks. Then Nihill took what he’d learned, drafted a routine, and got up on stage to test it out before an audience. He repeated the process until it was time for the real show.

So did it work? Arash Bayatmakou, Nihill’s friend for whom the benefit was held, thinks so. “Most of the crowd told me in rather emphatic terms that David was the funniest person of the evening,” Bayatmakou recalls. “Which is impressive, considering he wasn’t even one of the comedians.”

Sammy Wegent, a game writer at Zynga and a presentation coach, gives feedback during a practice session.
Today public speaking is a big part of Nihill’s job. I met him through FunnyBizz, that business he founded. FunnyBizz aims to teach companies how to make their marketing better–and funnier. He’s hosted two conferences in the past year, in San Francisco and in New York City, and each had about 200 attendees. He also makes money through consulting jobs in which he takes brands’ (boring) content and uses a team of freelance comedians to spice it up.

Nihill tells his story to other entrepreneurs because he maintains that anyone can use standup to become a better public speaker–provided that enough time and effort are put into it.

That idea intrigues me for two reasons. One, it suggests that over time, there’s a way to cure the stomach-knotting, armpit-sweating, and blank-stare-drawing that make public speaking so miserable–and that it can be done in the dimly lit, poorly attended basement of a bar rather than in the high-stakes setting of a business conference.

Two, it suggests that business presentations can actually be entertaining–and more effective–if they incorporate a few comedy techniques.

Since starting FunnyBizz, Nihill has pored over the literature and conducted his own research to make the case for humor in business. He’s even written a book on what he learned. One of his key influences is Carmine Gallo, a communications coach and public speaker who analyzed 500 TED talks for the book Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. Gallo found that the best presentations tend to use humor–but he cautions that “to force humor, I think is the wrong approach.”

Still, he agrees with Nihill that, given some clever scripting and rehearsal, everyone is capable of being entertaining. “I’m not a joke teller. I can’t even remember jokes,” says Gallo, who speaks in public roughly once each week. So instead of delivering punch lines, Gallo collects funny pictures, quotes, and stories and weaves them into his presentations.

“If you laughed at it, or you found it to be funny, chances are that other people will as well,” he says.

Lesson No. 2: Sounding unrehearsed requires a lot of rehearsing.

It’s just before Ellsworth’s first open mic, in the basement of San Francisco’s Murphy’s Pub, but I’m the one who’s nervous. It’s cringe-worthy enough to see a stranger crash and burn on stage. It’s far worse if it’s someone you know.

But I was surprised that night. Ellsworth started his routine by doing something a lot of good stand-up comedians do: He referenced something that had happened to him recently.

Good business presenters do this too. Opening with something that feels off-the-cuff to the audience, whether premeditated or not, is a great way to humanize a presentation and make it feel less robotic and rote.

For example, in the most-watched TED talk of all time “How Schools Kill Creativity,” Sir Ken Robinson starts by saying, “[The conference has] been great hasn’t it? I’ve been blown away by the whole thing. In fact, I’m leaving.”

Ellsworth didn’t quite do the same thing. But he did mention he’d just seen Drake perform, and imitated the rapper’s robotic, nasally voice. “Ohhh, I’m just looking for love in the Bay Area to-niiighttt.”

A lot of his other jokes fell flat. But overall, he didn’t flop. I wasn’t bothered by the awkward silences that followed some of his lines because Ellsworth didn’t seem to be unnerved by them. He looked like he was having a lot of fun on stage.

Over the course of the experiment Ellsworth got in a lot of stage time–he performed at open-mic nights three times a week before his final talk. Nihill, Wegent, and I didn’t make it to all of the shows but we watched videos of the shows we missed.

Once terrified of being on stage, Nihill now hosts a quarterly charity event called Comedy for a Spinal Cause.

In the end we evaluated five of his appearances using a special scoring system Wegent had devised for his comedy improv competition called FUTILE. (Because “at the end of the day, it’s a comedy show, and it doesn’t really matter,” Wegent explained.) It stands for Funny, Universal, Transcendent, Inspiring, Legendary, and Entertaining. Our guinea pig would get a score from one to five in each category.

Lesson No. 3: Write, edit, perform, repeat.

Ellsworth’s comfort on stage, while one of his strengths, underscored one of his biggest weaknesses.

At every show, he’d burst on stage–a bearded ball of energy–with the confidence of a pro. But what the audience saw wasn’t what they got: His material wasn’t up to that standard, and so his five-star stage presence actually worked against him.

And Ellsworth knew it. During one coaching session, Wegent asked him to assess his own strengths and weaknesses. Here’s some of what he said:

• I don’t have stage fright
• I’m not good at rehearsing
• I need to work through bits
• I think I’m a creative writer
• I’m too ambitious with writing
• I need to improve the punchiness of my jokes
• I don’t know my voice yet
• I need to get better at editing
• I need better writing

Of course, most comedians don’t get their material right on the first, the second, or even the third try. Jerry Seinfeld famously told the The New York Times that it took him two years to get a joke about a Pop Tart just right: “If it’s too long, if it’s just a split second too long, you will shave letters off of words. You count syllables,” Seinfeld said.

Ellsworth’s main problem wasn’t the worst one to have. But that didn’t mean it would be easy to fix. Standup comedy is an ongoing lesson in editing. Thanks to open mics, comedians are never at a loss for feedback, however painful it can be to hear. The key is to use that feedback to tinker with a joke, both on paper and in delivery, until it’s as succinct, clear, and funny as it can be.

I was out of town for two weeks’ worth of performances, but when I got back, it was evident that Ellsworth had learned how to edit. Each individual change was subtle. Cumulatively, though, they had a huge impact.

One of Ellsworth’s bits is about weight loss. “I took some time off of work to get healthy and lose some weight. So I recently lost about 27 pounds,” he said the first time I saw him perform.

At some point, Ellsworth figured out he was missing an opportunity for a quick joke there. An updated routine includes this addition: “Don’t worry! I know you guys see,” Ellsworth says, running his hand over his torso. “You’re like ‘Shit, don’t stop, dude, keep going.'”

It gets a laugh every time.

How to tell a good joke.

  1. Set up the story in a relatable way. You want everyone in the room to think: “Yeah, that has happened to me.”
  2. Get specific and make it about it you. Start telling them about your own funny experience.
  3. Deliver the unexpected. At this point, listeners assume that they know where you’re going with this. But you’re most likely to get a laugh if you can surprise them.
  4. Keep testing it. Getting a story to its most effective form is a process of continuous testing and refinement. Tell it, record it, and review it to see what worked.

Lesson No. 4: Keep the audience guessing.

The day of Ellsworth’s final talk arrived and I didn’t know what to expect. The material he had been rehearsing at the open-mic nights had nothing to do with business. Now he was about to get on stage and entertain the audience with a talk about “humanizing” data. The venue was a conference put on by the startup Import.io.

On top of that, he had the 12:40 p.m. slot, right before lunch, and the irresistible aroma of bacon was already wafting in from the food trucks outside, making me nervous all over again. Bacon scent and empty stomachs are a combination no speaker wants to face.

But if the dozens of attendees were feeling distracted, Ellsworth didn’t let it faze him. Per usual, he bounded forth, giving out high fives. “Session right before lunch, guys. It means I have all of the power, and you’re not listening so none of the pressure,” he said.

Then he made the audience applaud for all of the speakers who had just presented. I’d seen him do this before–it’s his very effective way of bringing the audience up to his formidable energy level.

Ellsworth’s talk was filled with jokes, most of which I had never heard him rehearse before.

One of first used a very basic joke-telling strategy: Surprise the audience. Make them think they know where you’re going, and then do a 180.

“Show of hands, who wants to hear me talk about personalizing email today?” Ellsworth asked, counting. “OK. Ten.”

“Wrong talk, guys. That’s not what I’m going to cover.”

The man on my left and the woman on my right dissolved into laughter and I thought: This is actually working.

Matt Ellsworth’s Presentation Scores
Scores represent the average of judges David Nihill’s and Sammy Wegent’s ratings. Each category is evaluated on a 1-5 scale.
Criteria Base talk Aug. 12 Sept. 18 Sept. 27 Oct. 9 Final talk Oct. 30
Funny 1 2 2.5 3 4
Universal 2 3 3.5 2 3.5
Transcendent 2 2.5 3 2.5 3.5
Inspiring 2 1 2 1.5 3
Legendary 1.5 1 2 2.5 4.5
Entertaining 1 2.5 3.5 3 4.5
AVG. OVERALL 1.6 2 2.75 2.4 3.8

The verdict.

“The boy did good!” Nihill said when we regrouped after Ellsworth’s talk. Conference attendees seemed to agree. One emailed the conference organizers to say that Ellsworth’s talk was “inappropriate, witty, awesome, datalicious.” A post-summit survey revealed that he was the fourth-best presenter out of 18.

Wegent was equally impressed, saying that Ellsworth had made a lot of progress in a very short time. He thinks this is because Ellsworth had trained for a marathon and then run the half, so to speak. “He seemed to really enjoy the actual performance,” Wegent said. “He was being very much himself.”

And what did I think? Our guinea dumb did not nail every aspect of public speaking. Ellsworth himself admitted in his self-assessment that he could have offered attendees more concrete tips and takeaways on how to effectively use data. “In terms of its being a very educational presentation, that’s where I fell flat,” he said.

But relatively speaking, that’s small stuff. Beefing up the information part of the presentation is easy.

When it came to the performance–the part where Ellsworth needed the most work–he was essentially a success. After seven weeks of standup training, he was genuinely funny on stage. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. The humor and energy he injected into the data summit were sorely needed. (I’d welcome both at the dozens of other soporific events I go to each year.)

I pointed out to Ellsworth that, while I had watched him remain largely unrattled by criticism throughout the whole process, he seemed to be just as unmoved by all of the positive feedback from Nihill and Wegent.

“I’m glad that I did it,” he said, “but I’m excited for the next time that I can do it.”

Already there have been many next times. Since the conference, he’s been back on stage regularly, doing everything from running charity comedy events to emceeing a huge holiday party. And on weeknights he’s still a regular at open-mic nights in San Francisco bars–tuning up the skills that will make him an even better speaker, and still stalking the perfect ways to tell a joke.

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