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Funny Business: What Standup Comedy Taught Me About Pitching Work to Clients


We've all been there. Walking out of a client meeting with a sick feeling in your stomach. Seething silently as you try to figure out how the client didn't see the brilliance of the idea that seemed so obviously perfect to you and your team. Throwing all the blame for the dead campaign squarely at the client's feet, and heading to the bar to drown your sorrows.

Meanwhile, across town, a young standup comedian is on stage at an open mic. She's been rehearsing for weeks on a new joke she's sure is great. And yet, she hasn't yet gotten the laugh she expected from it. She's tried delivering it with different facial expressions, inflections, gestures, attitudes and still no laughs. But finally, today, she adds a slight raise of the eyebrow, a slight roll of the tongue, and rips into the punch line with a newfound sense of gusto. The audience explodes with laughter.

I, myself, started doing standup comedy a little over a year ago. I'm no expert. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that the more you rehearse and experiment with a joke, the better the reaction you're going to get. This realization has forced me to confront some hard truths about the way I present my advertising ideas. I've realized that many of us have been shooting ourselves in the foot for years by putting way too much emphasis on our presentation decks and leave-behinds, and way too little emphasis on how we actually communicate our ideas as human beings.

So, what ideas can we take from the world of standup comedy and apply to pitching our work?

Delivery Is Everything
Try something. Go pick out one of your favorite standup comedy bits. One that's just so hilariously insightful and perfectly attuned to the cultural zeitgeist that you're sure no one could deny that it's genius. Now, transcribe it. Write down every phrase, every "umm," every pause. Now record yourself reading it out loud. How did it sound? Was it funny? Was it even good? Some of it will be, and some of it won't.

The truth is, some of the best comedy bits aren't much on paper. They're great because of the skill and practice and personality that went into presenting them. Imagine Lewis Black's material read without his seething rage. Imagine Amy Schumer's latest standup special if your next-door neighbor did it.

Now imagine Dave Chappelle reading the ingredient list of a frozen pizza. Or Wanda Sykes reading from a legal textbook. I'm laughing right now just thinking about it.

Delivery matters. The most famous creative directors I've encountered over my career have all been masterful and charismatic presenters. These guys all know that we cannot expect our clients to understand how compelling and entertaining our ideas are just from a bland and half-hearted reading of a script. Like it or not, we have to be great performers to sell great work.

Practice Makes Perfect
I used to make a point to NOT practice my presentations too much. I wanted to seem natural, honest and authentic, not like some canned salesman spouting off talking points. I wanted the clients to sense my true belief in the ideas I was showing.

I took the same approach when I first started doing standup comedy. But then I saw myself on tape. I was horrified. My thoughts weren't expressed clearly. There was too much gobbledygook between the important bits. The paragraph that on my screen seemed ready for publication in The New Yorker felt way too long and wordy for presenting as spoken word.

Then there was the most horrifying bit: "Ummm" "Uhhhh" "And…" "So, uhhh," "You know," "like." They were all over my first performances. And they just suck the air out of any room. They don't make you sound natural; they make you sound like you didn't care enough to rehearse. They distract from the idea. Now this might seem obvious, but I personally shudder to think about how many of these have been in my presentations over the years.

Serious comics who truly want to make a career of it usually hit the stage 25-30 times a week. They're doing the same material, saying the same words, over and over. Little by little, they hone their delivery. They get better and better. I've had the privilege of watching one particular comic, Craig Fox, go from slightly awkward and nervous on stage when I first met him a year ago, to absolutely confident and hilarious today. How? By experimenting with his delivery, developing his persona, and most of all, repetition and practice, 25-30 shows a week. It works.

It's Not the Audience, It's You
Every once in a while, I'll watch a comic bomb, and then blame the audience. It's horrible to see. And it's generally clear to everyone in the room that it's not the audience's fault, it's the comic's fault. The audience didn't show up hoping to see someone they didn't laugh at.

And yet, as ad guys, we blame our audience constantly. We rarely look in the mirror and evaluate how we presented our ideas. I'd bet if we were watching our presentations from the outside, we'd shift a heaping helping of that blame back onto ourselves. Now that's not to say there aren't terrible clients who just aren't interested in great work. There are. But blaming the clients for not understanding never leads to better results in the future. Working to present our work in the most compelling way possible does.

Clients Are the Toughest Audience There Is
When I tell people that I've started doing standup comedy, their first reaction is usually something like, "Oh, that seems so scary." "I admire your guts for doing that." Well, thanks. It can be scary, because you never know what reaction you're going to get from an audience.

But if you compare standup comedy to presenting in front of a group of clients, the client presentation is by far the scarier and more difficult proposition. First of all, a comedy audience wants you to be great. They are there to laugh. They've got a few drinks in them. They're there to have a good time.

Your client is not out for a night of fun. Their job is on the line. They've been in boring meetings all day. Their boss is in the room. They're frightened of what you might say. Because the more you've done your job of being innovative and groundbreaking, the more they feel their security threatened. If your work does well, you and your agency get the credit. If your work does poorly, they get the blame from their stockholders, supervisors, etc.

Based on that, I'd say presenting work to a client is far scarier than joking about one's genitalia to a room full of drunken strangers, and requires at least as much presentation skill.

Be Ready for Anything, and Plow Through With Confidence
I once started talking to an audience member from the stage, only to have him pass out mid-sentence. I once had a waitress drop an entire tray of full beers onto the front row in the middle of my punch line. And I once had the CMO of a Fortune 500 company start snoring loudly in the middle of my pitch presentation.

None of these things can be controlled. What I can control is how I react to it. Any comedian will tell you the best possible course is to stick to your guns and keep moving forward with confidence, no matter what. There's nothing more uncomfortable that watching a nervous comic (except maybe being that nervous comic). And I'm betting it's pretty damn uncomfortable to be in the client's chair watching a nervous creative timidly read through a script.

OK, Craig, if you're so smart, what do you suggest we do about it?

I'm so glad you asked. I have two main suggestions.

1. Take a standup comedy class.
Trust me, it will entirely change your perspective on presenting the first time you get up there. Once you've stood naked with a microphone and stared into the abyss of a crowd of people waiting for you to make them laugh, client presentations will seem a heck of a lot easier. There's nothing quite like just getting up and doing it, and that's what most standup comedy classes are, just getting up in front of your classmates with a mic and going for it, then getting quick feedback on how you did. Improv classes are great, too. But to me, preparing and performing a standup routine is much more relevant to what we are asked to do as advertising presenters. For those in New York City, I highly recommend Rick Crom's classes at Comedy Cellar.

2. Stop obsessing over decks. Start obsessing over your presentation.
How many times have you pulled an all-nighter before a pitch, poring over every single word choice in a long PowerPoint deck, only to barely rehearse your presentation. Well, guess what? It's a PowerPoint deck. It's going to be boring no matter what you do. So instead, concentrate on rehearsing. Get some sleep the night before, so you can present with gusto and excitement. Your client will feel the difference.

None of this is revolutionary stuff. We all know it intrinsically. But unlike working comics who perform several nights a week and get constant feedback on how they're doing, we only have a live audience of clients once in a while. So, next time you've got a big meeting coming up and are poring over your deck to the detriment of your performance in the room, ask yourself, "What would Joan Rivers be doing?"

Or you can always drown your sorrows after the meeting at a local comedy club.

—Craig Miller is a freelance creative director/copywriter, director and amateur standup comedian. He's currently based in Brooklyn after stints as a creative director at Arnold Boston, VCCP London and CP+B Boulder, where he worked on Domino's "Pizza Turnaround" campaign among many others. You can catch him this Thursday (Sept. 22) at the Maelstrom of Comedy show at The The Village Lantern in New York.

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