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

Lessons from the stage

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