On Monday (May 14th) I did a five-minute spot at the Comedy Store in London for the charity Games Aid. I found it unsettling, exciting and filled with a level of pressure which I haven’t experienced for a long time. I’m still processing the whole experience, but here’s my preparation process for you, plus a few things I learnt:
- From the point I get booked to do the gig last Autumn, I write various ideas for material in a memo on my phone. Everyday problems, stupid things I do, anything that I think might be the source of something funny. The event seems a long way away.
- A month before the gig I draw together all the bits that I think will work, and join them together into sections. The event suddenly feels a lot closer. Because it is. That ‘thing in the future’ is becoming a reality. I feel OK, though.
- I rehearse it all as one piece, and time it. It comes to roughly five minutes (the length of my ‘spot’), so it’s ready for a review. I video it and sent it to a trusted friend, an experienced stand-up comic. He gives me feedback with possible ideas to develop the material. I feel OK about the whole thing; at this stage it’s excitement rather than nerves.
- I re-write the material using some of his suggestions, rehearse it again a few times, record a new video and sent it to him again. He gives me a few more ideas, and some encouragement in response to my fears about what will work and what won’t; I write a final draft of keywords for each section. It’s now a week before the gig, and at this point that I experience fear on a level I haven’t felt for a long time: this is different to all the speaking I’ve done for the past five years, where I’ve been the expert on the subject, using performance skills that were generally higher than anyone else in the room. However, this situation is very different; I’ll be in a scenario where the objective is to be funny, with professional funny people on the bill – I’ll be one of the least skilled people on the bill. It may only be five minutes, but there is a lot at stake here (and at the same time there isn’t). I have a cold, hard realisation that it’s possible and likely that some of the material won’t work, and any moment of silence from the audience following one of my lines (instead of being filled with the sweet sound of audience laughter) will be very uncomfortable, which is my big fear. However, I know that rehearsal will give me the links I need, and fear will give me the energy to power my performance. One without the other won’t be enough, but together they’ll give me the best chance of success.
- I rehearse it a few times during the week. On Monday (the day of the gig) I rehearse it back-to-back for about half an hour in total, making the links between each section flow as naturally as possible. I’m nervous and excited.
I go to London. I remember the Comedy Store from when I was last there about twelve years earlier; it still has that magic, with a hall of fame as you descend the stairs from the entrance. But at the same time is the nagging doubt, from the moment I enter to just before I go onstage: what if I’m rubbish? This is a test and I want to do well. I step out and grab the microphone.
To be honest, I don’t think I can accurately judge how well it went; I got laughs in the right places (tick), I managed to remember all the material and deliver it in the right order (tick), and I came in at the five-minute mark (tick again, but not that important). Until I see the video, I won’t be able to confidently say how I did, because a speaking experience with a lot of pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) messes with your mind; it changes your perception of what actually happens (including the passing of time), and is inevitably tainted by the constant self-analysis which everyone seems to do. In most speaking situations I don’t feel this level of fear because of my frequent experience; however, this was easily the toughest I’ve found the speaking experience since I became a coach.
Here’s what I learnt:
- Preparation is your friend. Write, rehearse, and test your piece out for feedback, on someone you trust.
- Performing under pressure can be overwhelming. However, you’re creating the pressure (on the night itself it may not have been noticeable, but I was in a strange place; I’d rehearsed the five minutes repeatedly so it felt surreal to actually be there. I’d also probably built the event up to be something more significant and risky than it actually was. All self-imposed).
- Fear can drive you to do your best. It’s an instinct which can be very uncomfortable, but get used to it; it can supply you with a lot of very useful energy.
The greatest demons are all in your head. Remember your structure, the fact that you’ve been asked to speak, and that it’s not actually a life and death situation, even if it feels like it.