Experience Is Great – But Only If You Learn From It

Experience Is Great – But Only If You Learn From It

If you thought my last speech was great,
wait until you hear my next one!

By Gene Perret

At a tennis seminar I attended several years ago, one of the students complained to the pro: “I’ve been playing tennis for 10 years. I have 10 years of experience, but I don’t seem to get any better. Why?”

The pro answered simply, “Because you don’t have 10 years of experience. You have one year of experience ten times.” In other words, experience doesn’t do you any good unless you learn from it. If you’re playing a flawed game of tennis and you keep playing the same way, you don’t improve. You are getting better, but not at tennis. You’re getting better at making the same mistakes.

To relate this more to the speaking world, I once asked a very successful comedian a similar question. At that time, an abundance of comedy clubs were opening around the country where aspiring comics could try out their material and acquire some stage time. I asked this comedian if he thought this proliferation of comedy venues was a benefit to wannabe comedians or a hindrance. He hesitated a moment then said, “They benefit the smart comics.”

Again, they were a help only to those who used the stage time to improve their act and their performance. The experience was valuable only to those who learned from it.

As a speaker, you make many presentations. Sometimes your speech goes over beautifully. The audience is enraptured with your skill. Other times, (be honest) you’re less than sparkling. There are lessons, though, embedded in both occurrences. When you’re great, you should know why you’re spectacular. When you bomb, you should figure out why you failed.

Let me offer you specific examples of how I learned from both good and bad performances.

One time, I was giving a humorous speech. It was going well, the gags were working, I was a hit. At one performance, though, I told a joke that got a big laugh from the audience. I stepped back from the microphone to let the laughter ring. When the laughs were dying down, I was about to step back to the mike. However, I got a slight frog in my throat. I paused, put my hand to my mouth, and let out an almost inaudible cough. The audience thought I was laughing at my own joke. They began to laugh again, and in appreciation gave me a round of appreciative applause.

I was stunned. It was an accident – a fortuitous accident, of course, but an accident none the less. After the performance, a friend said, “That was a wonderful move you made tonight. It got a big laugh and applause.” I confessed it was not planned, but added, “I guarantee it will be in the act from now on.”

It was, and it worked just as well each time.

Another time, I was writing for Bob Hope and he had a self-deprecating line in the show. He said, while talking with another performer who had just graduated from college, “I remember how proud I was when I graduated from the sixth grade. My wife and children were in the audience and they were proud, too.” It was a nice line that always received a welcome laugh.

However, Bob Hope said, we need a laugh line for the guest star right there. We writers had a hard time topping this one, but Hope desperately wanted a laugh line for his guest. Finally, someone suggested that we give the punch line to the guest.

The revised script read:

BOB HOPE: I remember how proud I was when I graduated from the sixth grade.
GUEST: Yes, I know your wife and children must have been proud of you at that time too.

This got a much bigger laugh from the audience. We learned that the laughter is magnified when the guest star puts down the big star. It was a lesson that we subsequently used in many scripts to pump up the response.

The lessons you can learn from your own speaking can be just as valuable and useful. If your talk is uninspired, it can be improved. If it is fantastic, it can be even more so.

Learn to analyze your material and your performances. Listen to yourself, listen to your audience, listen to your advisors. Make minor changes. Make major changes. If they work, keep them in. If they don’t, drop them and perhaps try others.

Here are a few tips that may help you analyze each of your performances: 

Review your own reactions. Speaking is a two-way communication. You talk to your audience, but they also relay their emotions back to you. It’s almost impossible to give a speech and not feel how you’re doing.

Recall which segments of your presentation made you feel good. Note those moments when you felt the audience slipping away. Record any parts of your speech that could have worked better.

These lessons are especially valuable because they are gut reactions. They represent pure interaction between you and your audience. 

Listen to audience comments. After most speeches, members of the audience will offer comments or ask questions. It’s fairly easy to recognize the sincere compliments and the polite, courteous comments.

How many people approach you after your presentation? How eager are they to meet and talk with you? How long will they wait to shake your hand and tell you what they thought of your speech?

Also, if several people comment on a specific anecdote or segment of your talk, then you know you’ve got a winner.

It’s important to pay attention to your audience during your speech, but it’s just as important to listen to them even after it’s over. 

Review any evaluations. Many speakers hand out an evaluation sheet of their own for the listeners to fill out and hand in. Other times, the organization that booked you may have its own evaluation forms.

Review them for recurring comments. Use them to help you make your speech more appealing to your listeners.

Note the positive remarks as well as the negative. An advisor once told me that my question-and-answer period was gimmicky and should be dropped from my talks. I enjoy the interaction with the audience, so I was reluctant to eliminate the Q & A session. I discovered from several evaluation summaries that people enjoyed the fun of the questioning, so I kept it in. 

Tape and listen to your presentation. As mentioned earlier, you should learn to judge the effectiveness of your speech while you’re on the podium. However taped feedback can be useful too.

It can often reveal some startling flaws that you’re not even aware of. For instance, if you use the phrase “you know” 817 times during a 20-minute speech, maybe you should work harder on getting rid of it. If your club’s grammarian has tried to warn you, this may be the proof you need.

Recordings of your performance can also highlight positive elements. Noting these, you can often reformat your speech to use them more effectively. 

Study an assistant’s notes. To get a fairly dependable second opinion – one that can corroborate your own evaluation of your presentation – have an assistant sit in the audience and take appropriate notes. When I worked for a comedian who did an opening show monologue, we would have one of the writers grade each joke for audience reaction. A big laugh might get a “5.” A weak laugh would earn a “1”

After the monologue, we all reviewed the scores and decided which jokes to put where for the next taping – or which gags needed rewriting or killing.

By studying how various elements in your own presentation are graded, you can see at a glance where your talk needs to be reinforced.

Each talk you give will tell you something about how to improve your platform performance. With a little bit of study and analyzation you can say, “If you thought my last speech was great, wait until you hear my next one!”

Gene Perret was Bob Hope’s head writer and is a three-time Emmy Award winner on the Carol Burnett Show. He teaches an e-mail course on using humor in speaking and has written many books on that subject. Contact him at Gper276@sbcglobal.net or visit www.writingcomedy.com.