Saturday 18 April 2015

What you learn about content by dying in stand-up comedy

The importance of being misunderstood

Doing stand-up comedy is a great learning experience. One that I'd recommend to anyone in content, marketing or communications. But I wouldn't recommend it because of what you learn from doing it well.

It's because of what you learn when it goes badly.

Comedians refer to it as 'dying'. And it's pretty apt. The first time I performed a routine that absolutely died in front of an attentive audience, it was like time slowed down and I was looking out at a growing chasm between me and the light at the back of the room.

It's odd, especially if you're used to doing reasonably well. The first time it happens, your response while it's happening is utter confusion. You had them a moment ago, but something disconnected and stopped working. You assume, at first, that a single punchline work, but then the next one doesn't work. Briefly, you might assume that you've briefly forgotten how to speak English. And, worse, you still have to keep going, because you don't want to walk off-stage and give in. So you try everything you can, and you try to get them back. Sometimes it even works.

You often hear about comedians blaming the audience. "They weren't listening." "It was just the wrong room." "They didn't get what I was trying to do." And sometimes it is their fault. But most of the the time, it isn't. It's your fault.

And this is where it becomes useful from a content point of view.

Content is all about communication. Taking a product, service, idea or message and explaining it to an audience. If you explain it well and the product is good (or even if it isn't, sometimes), the audience will respond. If you don't, they won't.

Let's take a hypothetical. Johnny's tasked with selling a new perfume. He can see the idea in his head clearly, and he's worked on it. He's got the story, the message, the core of the idea and it all makes sense from beginning to end. And the distribution is good. But once it's out, it just doesn't connect at all with an audience. The next day, Johnny realises he has mysterious powers and becomes a supervillain because of his anger at his failure. Obviously, this has to be avoided.

My belief is that a lot of the time, this happens because the person or people behind the message haven't been able to make the leap between what they think works and what actually connects with the audience.

Often, this happens because of ego. Someone thinks the way they've defined something is the right way for it to happen. And that's understandable - when it works for you, it works for you, and it isn't necessarily intuitive that it only works for you. Or it may be that you've left out an important part of the information at some point during the process, and without it, it doesn't fully make sense. And because everyone involved in the process knows the information, they don't realise. Or sometimes, you just become so bogged down in the whole process and so many people get involved that you stop seeing the wood for the trees.

With comedy, you're getting instant feedback. If what you've got doesn't work, there aren't too many ways to deny it. You can have put together something that you absolutely love and find absolutely hilarious, but it just doesn't connect.

At that point, where you learn is when you start to try to work out why you didn't connect. When you look at it from the audience's point of view and try to figure out what caused the gap.

That first time I died, it was because I'd assumed the audience had information that I had. I missed it out, so the basic context for the routine didn't connect and the routine didn't work.

You can't force something to work. But you can fix something, assuming the basic idea actually works. You have to listen and react to feedback. And, ideally, you have to get that feedback before what you're working on goes out to an audience.

It's no coincidence that the best writers I know never assume they've got it right first time out. They look for feedback, assuming that it's probably broken in some way that they can't see, and they look for fresh pairs of eyes on it, to make sure they're not assuming knowledge.

And it's no coincidence that the best comedians I know listen to their audiences, working out what connects and what doesn't. They test and test and test.

You may be good at communicating, but it really is worth trying some stand-up at some point. Can you communicate what you think is funny in a way that other people will find funny?

When you stand in front of a room full of strangers, with no real way to spin the results, trust me. You'll know if you're not communicating.

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