I typically think of Tina Fey in connection with "30 Rock" or "Saturday Night Live." I would not expect her literary skills to show up in an article in the March 14 The New Yorker, but it's there, titled "Lessons From Late Night."
When looking for material for your next presentation, read what comedians write. For example, she begins the article with, "In 1997, I realized one of my childhood dreams. (Not the one where I'm being chased by Count Chocula.)” That is a good example of how to start a speech—a startling statement that prompts both interest and laughter.
Later in the article she refers to lessons she learned from her boss, Lorne Michaels, at “Saturday Night Live.” One principle she learned was, "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's eleven-thirty." Wow! I wish I'd thought of that when illustrating how important deadlines are in being present when you are present. Well, it doesn’t have to be original with me for me to use it. I just give credit for the source and quote her. Another important presentation principle: quote others who say it better than you can!
That is just one example from her fascinating article. She can write funny as well as be funny—two skills that don’t always go together. And her book just released this week, Bossypants, is destined to be a hit whether or not you agree with her opinions or attitude.
We can also get material from reading funny authors and columnists. Dave Barry often deals with current events and family matters in a humorous way. We don't usually think of Alan Alda first as a comedian, but his writings have a huge amount of humor. One of the funniest stories I have ever read is his description of having the family dog stuffed after its death. Thus the title story from his book, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, in which the story appears. He describes what Rhapsody looked like when they brought him home from the taxidermist. "The dog had a totally unrecognizable expression on his face. Nobody in our family knew who this was. He sat on his blue velvet board, looking up at us like something with rabies. We were kind of afraid of him…it became difficult to walk into the room without feeling that a wild animal was going to spring at you." What vivid description! You need this vividness in a speech when describing what you want the audience to do or how you want them to feel.
Comedians have a sense of audience that we can learn from to improve our speaking. They know what an audience will respond to, whether it is standup comedy or the reader getting hooked on an essay or a book they have written. They are experts at timing as they speak or write. They know just how to place the "punch line" where you will get the greatest response, and this shows in their writing.
One of my all-time favorite comedians was Red Skelton. His thoughts were both funny and thought-provoking, such as "I left home because I was hungry." And for speakers considering the importance of delivery: "It is not what you say that is funny, but it is how you say it."
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Visit his site to read other valuable articles on effective speaking and listening.