A Crash Course in Confidence
Stand-up comedy is for speakers what
extreme sports are for athletes.
By Nina L. Kaufman, ATMB
As a child, I was painfully shy. And old habits die hard. Fast forward 25 years – I was not long out of law school and newly minted as a business owner, having started my own law practice. I had to exert authority over employees in my firm and exude authority to clients and colleagues. But I still felt naïve and vulnerable.
I needed a crash course in becoming self-confident – or, at least, in playing the part.
I found mine in performing stand-up comedy.
Stand-up comedy is for speakers what Extreme Sports are for athletes. It’s not for everyone. Despite my experience giving speeches in Toastmasters, teaching classes, leading workshops and running meetings, I needed a higher level of skills and resources for comedy. It takes a certain intensity – insanity, really – to pursue it. But it’s not just a bizarre hobby; stand-up comedy has strengthened my business skills. Here’s how:
1. “Riffing.” Preparation is always crucial. But comedy, like business, can’t always be scripted. Like participating in Table Topics, your ability to win over an audience, whether of merry-makers or venture capitalists, often hinges on your ability to think on your feet. How well do you handle the curve-ball from the bank loan officer? The heckler at the back of the comedy club? The hypothetical during a job interview? Training your mind to be creative on the spur of the moment takes discipline and practice, but it can be done. Many of the most successful arguments I’ve made in court have come during a riff.
2. “Teflon” skin. Comedy is an exercise in irony: When you desper- ately need audience validation by way of their laughter, you don’t get it. And when you don’t try so hard, you get it – en masse. The key is to cultivate a sense of detachment, so that the outcome – a flat joke, for example – doesn’t affect your sense of self. With that detached attitude – not worrying about whether my colleagues liked me – I was once able to vigorously oppose an ill-conceived proposal by a popular board president and ultimately sway the board away from it.
“How well do you handle the curve-ball from the bank loan officer?
The heckler at the back of the comedy club?”
3. Timing. Step on the all-important pause before delivering a punch line, and you ruin your joke. Fail to pause after you’ve delivered the punch line to let the audience respond, and you show that you are nervously awaiting their mirth. When your pacing flows smoothly, both in comedy and in business, it reveals your confidence in what you’ve said. Timing is also important in the sense of “keeping to time,” as we learn in Toastmasters. Often in comedy, you’re limited to a five-minute routine. Exceed the limit, and you’re history. The same applies in business and in normal conversation. Hog the time, fail to listen, and you will not be appreciated. As a result, you learn to wring the most you can from however little time you have. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”
4. Keeping it tight. Words count. Comedy forces you to focus on your speech, because filler words cost you time and dull the impact of your punch line. You learn very quickly to cut the fat, choose the right word, and eliminate the crutches or “fillers,” such as uh, er, I mean, I’m like, and, so and ya know. As playing the role of grammarian in my Toastmasters club has taught me, clarity is key. Plus, you gain your listeners’ attention and respect through the substance of what you say.
I once attended a litigation seminar given by a trial lawyer. He “ummed” over 160 times in a 15-minute presentation (a rate of more than 10 “ums” per minute), which was distracting. All I could think about was, “Is he this bad when appearing before the United States Securities and Exchange Commission?” He got my attention, but for all the wrong reasons. And I can’t remember anything he said.
5. Perspective. Few situations are so dire that some humor can’t be wrung from it. Having a mindset of “would this make a good comedy routine?” allows me to stay focused on the silver lining (the zippy one-liner) instead of the cloud (the situation that inspired it). No criticism is so abysmal, no client so difficult, no judge so appalling, that it can’t serve as grist for the comedy mill. When an adversary’s bombastic approach whips me into a screaming frenzy, my business partner suggests, “Put him in your next comedy act!” So I’ve decided that if living well is the best revenge, mocking someone in stand-up is second best. The best part is, a humor-seeking disposition has a positive effect on others too. Customers, colleagues and friends generally prefer to be with people who laugh instead of complain.
Learning to perform stand-up comedy was like going through personal boot camp. It toughened my “skin,” sharpened my skills and helped me put things in perspective. Best of all – it made me funny. Which means that when the going gets tough, I can make ‘em laugh. And an audience that laughs with you will probably stick with you.
Nina L. Kaufman, ATMB, is a member of the SEC Roughriders club in New York City. She is a founding partner of the law firm Paltrowitz & Kaufman LLP. She can be reached at WiseCounsel@palkauf.com.