i was asked to write for a website... the topic is: What communicators have influenced your preaching / teaching? Why did they influence you and make a difference? Here is a rough, rough draft of what i wrote...
This may sound strange... but I study stand up comedians.
Last night I settled in for one of my favorite Tivoed television shows, "Last Comic Standing". Basically, it's a reality show where week by week comedians are voted off until only one is left and crowned the funniest. Last night during one of the challenges the comics were give a random obscure magazine and twenty minutes to come up with a one minute schtick for a radio program. Most of them bombed on this task, but there were a few funny moments. Towards the end of the hour two comedians take the stage to battle each other with the winner surviving another day and the loser sent packing.
There is almost nothing to compare to the proposition of standup. My wife and I often attend a comedy cafe and it strikes me every time how weird the entire transaction is. I pay money to see two or three people go on stage and grab a microphone then they proceed to basically talk to me for over an hour... and I like it. Sometimes there are props, but mostly it's just one person, a small stage, a microphone and stand, sometimes a stool, bottle of water... and the pseudo brick background... that's it. There is no point to the presentation, nothing to apply, it doesn't make me better to have heard it but somehow I just paid to hear a person speak for an hour and a half.
Here are three of the things I have learned...
Preparation. When those comics on television had only twenty minutes to prepare we found out real quick who was good on their feet. Student ministry tends to attract the people who are witty and quick thinkers but this often leads to a failure to properly prepare.
I tend to be good on my feet... I like to say that I like the pressure, but the truth is although many of my best messages have been spontaneously created, I need to work the material and when I cheat the process I often regret letting a great (holy spirit led) idea slip without properly seizing it.
When you watch an HBO comedy special that is not the first time that person has gone over that material. I once heard that Chris Rock did twenty or so small clubs before doing his HBO Special. I like to run all my stuff by a team of people and use them as a sounding board. I will ask the team, what hit you? What did you hear me say? Did that make sense?
Words. Comedians understand that some words are just more funny than others. I'm not talking about the ones who use foul or abusive language to try to get a cheap laugh (in fact, the best comedians don't need to use fowl language... they don't need to). They understand that the best word choice can lead to a clearer word picture. Often times this means cutting out many words that are semi-descriptive and replacing them with one that is super-descriptive.
Sometimes I transcript my message out... but most of the time i work from an outline. But, no matter what I talk my message out... not just think it out. Believe me, there is a difference between what you think and how you say it. When I talk my message out (which is usually in the car because I have a long commute) I tell the story out-loud. I don't just think about it in my head because there is a type of muscle memory that happens with my tongue. Sometimes I work a story of illustration ten times before I feel like I've maximized it. The point is written word is different than spoken word. At times a sentence on paper, in an outline or in your head needs to be changed or reworded to fit when spoken in a message.
Feel the audience. We've all sat through talks where the person goes a little too long. Everyone is tuned out, but the speaker still has three pages of notes and 26 PowerPoint slides to get through. This doesn't work for a stand-up act. Comedians try to feel the crowd, they gage feedback... simply put they are asking, "Are people laughing?"
I always look for eye contact. If I see that students are overwhelming looking at their shoes, talking to their neighbor or shaving their cell group leader's legs I need to do something. I often ask rhetorical questions when I'm speaking just to gage where the students are at. I bring students on stage to act as props, to read scripture or write on the board. This has all been said before... but the only point is that when you watch a comedian, you see someone who really "gets" their audience.
I've studied Richard Prior, The Blue Collar Guys, Jerry Seinfield, Robin Williams and local talent. I tend to learn something new each time... the practical lessons are there.