Entries in speech structure (9)


Structuring a topical comedy monologue within a speech

How to construct a logically-sequenced and effective short topical comedy routine for public speaking

In my previous post I wrote about adding topical jokes to a speech or presentation. If you have a number of these then they can either be inserted at various points in your script if they can be introduced naturally or, if appropriate, you may wish instead to link several of them together into a 'what's-been-happening?' routine.

If you choose the second option then you will find it much easier to remember your material (even without notes!) and your audience will find it easier to follow if your topical gags and observations flow in a logical sequence rather than just delivering jokes in a scattergun fashion. I learned how to do this during my many years writing one-liners which were used in BBC Radio 2's hugely successful News Huddlines. The opening monologue was put together each week by the late Peter Hickey who I posted about here and in my other (occasional) blog Freelance Comedy Writer.

As an example of this, let's look at a topical monologue I delivered last autumn as part of my talk My Life As A Freelance Comedy Writer at a ladies' luncheon club in Hampshire. The routine was introduced after the part where I spoke about writing topical comedy for radio.

The first gag was one about 
Katie Price. The story was a few weeks old by then but gags about smaller news stories have a longer shelf-life. The audience sometimes won't even have heard that news item so they won't have had a chance to get tired of it! It got a good laugh (and this is important: your topical monologue, like any comedy routine, should open and close with strong material).

The mention of silicone led into a joke about technology, in this case 
the estate of Winston Churchill joining Twitter and Facebook.

The mention of social media and communication was followed by a gag about a British tabloid newspaper being accused of hacking the phone of a celebrity chef.

So I was onto food now and this was the obvious place for material about supermarkets under fire for using excess packaging and a survey showing that a very high proportion of pets are obese.

And both the mention of animals and health led perfectly into to my closing gag which concerned a news story aboutNHS patients working with farm animals as a cure for depression.

The routine went very well.

Here's another example: just a couple of nights ago, I delivered some topical one-liners at a Rotary dinner  in Surrey as part of the same talk. I often mention a sketch I wrote years ago about a spacecraft and so, following this, I delivered a line which I have using very successfully for a couple of months which is about a 
the net which is being launched to collect debris floating around in space. This won't be happening for a couple of  years so this is a joke I can use for quite a while yet!

From there I went into a gag about a cheap, non-surgical facelift which had been featured in the papers. Why this one? Well, I went from hi-tech to low-tech!

And the mention of something inexpensive obviously sequenced nicely into the rest of my gags in that section which, were all about the economy (taking in supermarkets, comparison websites and budget stores) and thus particularly suitable for an audience with a high proportion of business people.

Don't include weaker humour just because it fits perfectly into a sequence - you don't want to drag the whole monologue down. You may also have some material which has no link to what went before it. Don't let that put you off including it if it's good. And don't make the routine too long; both of the above consisted of just half a dozen gags. We are, after all, talking about an addition to a speech - not an entire stand-up act.

Public Speaking Tip #362: A short topical comedy routine can be an effective addition to a speech or presentation if it has a strong opening and close and the material inbetween flows logically.


Can you lose a visual aid but keep your audience's attention?

Bitterne Park Pensioners Club, Southampton

My fellow public speaking blogger Lisa Braithwaite recently posted about a presentation which was very successful despite some major problems with the power supply.

Her post reminded me of an evening back in the late 90s when I was booked to speak to a large group of lady diners here in Bournemouth. The hotel suffered a power cut just as the meals were being served (forunately it happened after they had been cooked!) We ate by candlelight and I was quite prepared to deliver my after dinner speech in near-darkness. I wasn't using slides and the lack of a microphone would not have been a problem because I knew the size of the room and where the audience members were sitting so I would be able to project my voice sufficiently. But I would have missed out on making eye contact with them and so it was a good thing that the lights came back on just before I was introduced.

However hard we work at preparing and rehearsing our material, we still often rely very heavily on physical objects, be they projectors, microphones or even smaller, non-technical props.

As I was setting up ready to deliver the talk My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer for Bitterne Park Pensioners Club in Southampton on 8 September I was unable to find one of my props - an old identity badge. It's a small object but very important for this talk. It sets up a humorous observation relating back to two other props I have shown the audience earlier (any comic knows how effective this 'reincorporation' of  previous material can be), it leads into the anecdote about how I came to be known as 'Nickar' Thomas and this then gives me the opportunity to mention my booklet 'Nick R's in a Twist!' 
This is then followed by a true, very funny story about names. 

I had two choices: to omit this material altogether or include it and simply describe the missing prop to the audience. I certainly was not prepared to sacrifice the laughs or the opportunity to naturally introduce my booklet so I took the second option. It worked. The 35-or-so ladies enjoyed my talk and I sold a decent number of books afterwards.

As I mentioned last year when I was stranded due to travel problems caused by heavy snow, it can be possible to get through a presentation without all your usual visual aids, etc.

But I missed that prop and was really concerned about what might have happened to it. (I found it later and now take a great more care of it!)

Public Speaking Tip #351: A unique visual aid lends so much impact to a speaker's presentation. In return, we should really look after these (often irreplaceable) props.

An excellent communication seminar: part 2

Geoff Burch at the Communicate with Clarity seminar, Barnet

About a decade ago, I bought a book entitled Go It Alone: The Streetwise Secrets of Self Employment  by Geoff Burch . I could see immediately that it was unlike other business guides in its humorous, no-nonsense approach.

Some years later, it helped me out of a difficult situation when I was asked to deliver a speech at a civic function - but not in my home town. I had a few anecdotes but not enough for me to feel that I had a rounded speech. I was actually on my way to the venue when it occurred to me that the town had the word 'time' in its tourism slogan and I remembered a great metaphor concerning time which was quoted by Geoff Burch in that book. I linked the two together in my speech (quoting the source, of course) and the whole thing worked much better. It wasn't the best I've ever given but an audience member came up to me afterwards and said how well it dovetailed together so thank you, Geoff!

During the autumn of 2008, Geoff Burch presented an eight-part BBC2 series, All Over The Shop, in which he visited failing small retailers and suggested ways for them to turn their businesses around. Most were sensible enough to follow his advice (although, for some reason, those in the West Country seemed to be the most resistant!) I really enjoyed the programmes.

So when I learned that this business guru  and author  was to be the guest speaker at the Communicate with Clarity  seminar run by Jeremy Jacobs  at Barnet Football Club  on 2 December, that was one more reason to jump at the chance to attend!

He arrived well before he was due to speak and took part in the group exercises set by Jeremy during the first part of the seminar. It is always a good idea for guest speakers at training days to take part in other activities besides their own presentation - it makes you more memorable. When I have spoken at training days, for example, for the Home Office and Siemens, I have joined in with activities before/after my own time slot.

Public Speaking Tip #271: If you are speaking during a training seminar, try to participate in other exercises during the day. You will make more of an impact overall.Of course, if you can do this before you speak, you will also gain some valuable insights into at least some of your audience.

Geoff spoke for around 50 minutes and was funny and inspiring. He is a great storyteller and very good at accents. He took questions and continued what Jeremy had done in the first part of the session: taking much of that fear and mystique out of cold calling. There were also points where he deferred to Jeremy who had a long and successful career in sales before his TV, radio and speaking career.

You rarely get the chance to hear a well-known speaker when they have a TV series that is currently running and they are able to say 'If you watch tonight's edition, you will notice...' but this was the case here and it gave extra relevance to Geoff's excellent presentation.

Afterwards, he stayed to chat to everyone (I told him how his book had helped with my speech that time and he signed my copy) and his books sold well to other audience members.

This was a great seminar, inspiring, entertaining, well-attended, expertly-run and backed up by some excellent written materials to take away. I know Jeremy Jacobs  plans to run more of these events and I can thoroughly recommend them to anyone in business/sales. You may also be very pleasantly surprised at the cost!

Public Speaking Tip #272:
 Even if you are a trainer yourself, there are still great opportunities to learn from seminars run by others - and they don't always cost a fortune!

Afterwards, I shared a Tube journey back to the West End with Steve Beer,  Jeremy's cameraman from Leicester Square TV , who had some fascinating stories.



Extra gag-writing + extraordinary preparation = a successful social speech

A speechwriting client's remarkable rehearsal

Through June and July I spent some time adding humour to a client's speech. Although many people come to me for a complete speechwriting service , from writing the introduction through to selecting an apt quotation to finish on, others simpy want me to draw upon my 25+ years of writing original humour for numerous markets and add tailored jokes and observations to the speech they are writing and then offer my suggestions for editing the whole script.

This speaker was preparing for a significant birthday and was going to great lengths with the construction, reworking and rehearsal (one hour for every minute of delivery). He had in mind a highly successful speech he had given many years ago and wanted to try and match this.

I was highly impressed with the speech he put together, in particular the natural and logical way in which the one-liners and anecdotes were introduced and sequenced (so important for helping him learn the script and for the audience to follow and therefore fully appreciate it). I mentioned that I thought it might take 12 - 15 minutes to deliver on the day (he had originally been aiming for 10).

After the event, he emailed to say that the speech was fine. He added that he felt it had been 'about three minutes too long but this was not a disaster!'

And I'm sure it wasn't (although my estimate of the running time had obviously been correct!) It was a friendly event and I can't remember when I have ever had a client who has put so much preparation into a speech; I think this perfectionist speaker was perhaps being a little harsh on himself.

Public Speaking Tip #237: There are no guarantees with any public speaking - it would be a far less exciting activity if there were - but a good script and thorough preparation are as close to one as a speaker can get, especially for a social speech.


A presentation and a pasty - an unbeatable combination!

Bournemouth Cornish Association

My second speaking engagement last Wednesday was a talk, once again My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer, for one of my home town's oldest clubs: Bournemouth Cornish Association (founded 1921).

They were all extremely friendly and I decided to speak from up on the stage in the Charminster Moose Hall. Once again, I was asked to use a microphone. This was a good one, detachable from its stand and not battery operated - for once!

The agenda for their meeting is a little different from other clubs, in that I was asked to do a spot of about 30 minutes and then stop as the food would be ready by then. There would be a raffle after the meal and, if there was time, I could speak for a few minutes more and take the odd question - but they had to be out by ten o'clock!

I have often done 'two-parters', especially at literary festivals, but for those bookings, I have known that there will definitely be a second section of my talk. 

In the end, I did about 35 minutes, picking a good cross-section of my usual talk but leaving out its longest anecdote, the story of my appearance on What's My Line? I finished with the usual quotations I end with just in case there wasn't time for a second segment of the talk later.

Public Speaking Tip #177: You may sometimes be asked to deliver a presentation in two parts with a break in-between, perhaps for refreshments. You should try to make both sections as self-contained as possible and try to time the first so that the  break is a natural one.

Then we had the food...

It is quite possible that at some time in your life you have eaten an item from a service station, supermarket or baker's which was described as a Cornish pasty. All I can say is that unless the bakery was actually in Cornwall, it probably was nothing like one. The pasties served at this club had been made down in Cornwall and collected especially for this meeting. They were being heated as I spoke, hence the time limit on my talk! No 'pasty' I have eaten anywhere else ever tasted like this! Nothing in a corner shop chill cabinet could ever compare from now on!

There was also a large selection of desserts. I chose rhubarb crumble (I was encouraged to have two helpings and I have to admit that I put up very little resistance!) I'm not sure whether this was a traditional West Country dish - but the clotted cream with it certainly was!

Chatting over tea, I found that I knew a couple of the 41 people there but had never realised that they were from Cornwall. I was told that there are Cornish Associations all over the world, with flourishing branches in countries like the United Stated and Australia.

The raffle came next so I found myself drawing tickets for the second time that day (no problem!) and there was actually time for me to do about another 15 minutes so I decided to do the What's My Line? story as a self-contained anecdote. There is a certain humorous way in which I usually end this tale; I point out the great achievements of all the other contestants who appeared on that same edition of the programme as me and then say, in a rueful, from-the-sublime-to-the-ridiculous manner, '...and I've been booked to speak to - ' and insert the name of the club or venue. It always gets a big laugh but as I was reaching the end of the story, I realised that I could deliver these same words but in a totally different, non-self-effacing, warm style that would convey my gratitude for the super evening I'd had and would also be a great way to finish as I had already used my usual 'closers' during the first part. Sometimes you get an idea of how to adapt existing material seconds before delivering it!

Public Speaking Tip #178: Over time, you will find that ways to improve the section of material you are just about to deliver will suddenly suggest themselves to you. When you have the experience and confidence to deviate from your prepared script a little, you will find that acting on these instincts can make your presentation even more effective.

I took the odd question, had a very interesting chat with a member who speaks on cruise liners (a market which I am very interested in exploring) and was given a lift back by their President.

What with the NSPCC lunch earlier, it really was one of those days when there was nothing in the world that I would rather do than be a public speaker.