Martin Waxman

What Standup Comedians Can Teach Us About Visual Storytelling

By: Martin Waxman | September 30, 2014 | 

What Standup Comedians Can Teach Us About Visual StorytellingBy Martin Waxman

I used to think standup comedy was all about the words.

And don’t get me wrong—the way a joke is crafted is very important.

But the delivery is equally important.

And for that matter, the character that delivers it is important, too.

Because a great routine that pushes boundaries—in the hands of the wrong person, no matter how skilled—falls flat.

Now, not all comedy is visual, but great humor often conjures up all sorts of crazy images in our minds.

Think about Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and Louis CK, whose routines are like mini-scripts.

You can see why they were able to make the transition to movies or TV.

Here are three things stand-up comedians can teach us about telling stories visually.

Don’t Overproduce

I’ve seen this in a lot of videos lately.

Production values are starting to emulate the conventions of TV and they don’t have to.

What I mean is people are relying too much on packaged formats.

It could be that off-kilter music video angle, needlessly alternating between black and white, making a fancy graphic opening for a one-off.

Instead of needless sizzle, pare things down to their essence.

Watch how comics stand in front of us with nothing but their ideas, timing, and performing skills.

Observe the subtleties of their movements, the pauses, a tiny smirk that appears just before a punchline, and the sheer enjoyment they get from connecting with a crowd.

They don’t rely on visual aids (prop comics excepted). You don’t need a lot of background noise either.

You can be your own best visual storytelling platform.

But I Wanna Tell Ya

That’s the standard Borscht Belt segue.

And no, it’s not the most creative thing to say, but it does the job.

Segues are like mini detours on a road-trip. You think you’re heading one way, then all of a sudden you look out and notice you’re going in a whole new direction.

You don’t care how you got there, but you stick around, just the same.

In too many infographics, the transition between topics is often abrupt or jarring. That’s because they’re nothing more than a shopping list of facts with a few graphics throw in for good measure.

Using visuals to connect ideas and turn them into a story will give your audience a much more memorable ride.

Leave ‘Em Laughing

A smart comic knows when it’s time to say, ‘Thank you and good night!’ and that’s a good lesson for brands embarking on multimedia or any kind of storytelling, for that matter.

Just because it doesn’t cost anything more to produce a 20-minute video, doesn’t mean you should let it go on and on and on.

Take a page out of a comic’s act and think about your audience first—what works for them, what truly captures their attention, and when they’re receptive to getting your stories.

And know when to turn on a dime.

Maybe your topic needs changing. Maybe it’s the length and visual platform. Or maybe it’s all of the above.

Whatever the case, get off the stage fast if you’re starting to bomb. And change things up. There’s always another day.

Comedians Know Visual Storytelling

Of course comedians show us how to make our visual stories more human by adding a touch of humor. Not taking our brands or ourselves so seriously.

Don’t think it works in business?

PR agency owner Steve Cody has developed the Peppercomm Comedy Experience, a workshop on how to incorporate comedy into effective communications.

Humor paints a picture that lets us see the world we know from a fresh perspective and that makes us listen, remember, and hopefully share. (Did you hear the one about…)

What have you learned from comedy and comedians? I’m interested to hear what you think—and don’t pull your punchlines.

photo credit: twm1340 via photopin cc

About Martin Waxman

Martin Waxman is president of Martin Waxman Communications and conducts digital and social media training workshops. He’s a and LinkedIn Learning author, one of the hosts of the Inside PR podcast, and past-chair of PRSA Counselors Academy. Martin teaches social media at UToronto SCS and Seneca College and regularly speaks at conferences and events across North America. Find him on Twitter @martinwaxman.

  • um…this is brilliant! The part about segues is something I haven’t ever really thought about, but is so true! I always love your creative posts! (so basically this comment was just a big Martin gush session….)

  • Such great tips here!!! “Don’t overproduce” is a big one, both in how much “stuff” you put into the production and it applies to words/timing as well. I gave what was supposed to be an “entertaining” speech at Toastmasters a few weeks ago and it was mildly received as entertaining BUT I gave a “speaking to inform” speech last night that was “explaining an abstract concept” and got a lot MORE feedback about how humorous it was. Maybe there’s something to not trying too hard. // The other takeaways I would add from having read various comics’ bios, etc., is a) what’s funny to to one audience won’t necessarily be funny to another and b) it’s all hard work — you have to keep plugging away, trying out your material (and failing), continuing to speak/write and hope that more rather than less of it hits the right mark. Now I’ll just revert to gushing along with Laura …

  • Generally speaking, I dislike the “what _____ can teach us about _____” blog posts, but this one really hits the nail on the head. I never thought about comedians and visual, but they certainly are, aren’t they?

  • martinwaxman

    ginidietrich thank you!

  • martinwaxman

    Thank you! lkpetrolino optimismlight biggreenpen ResnickLR clay_morgan bdorman264 EmilyKantner SpinSucks

  • ClayMorgan Thanks Clay. I usually try to shy away from those too – but in this case I couldn’t resist. Also – because there were so many great visual storytelling posts this month – I wanted to try something a bit off kilter…

  • LauraPetrolino Thanks Laura! I guess that would be the equivalent of clapping extra loudly – rather than booing…And that reminds me… (couldn’t resist throwing in an extra segue here…)

  • biggreenpen Thanks Paula! I always appreciate your comments and insights. You are so right about needing to read an audience – as they are all different. Thinking like an audience is another thing we can learn for all storytelling or storymaking…

    Funny about the two speeches – I find I sometimes never know how a talk is going to be received till after it’s done…

  • SEMeehan

    .freelancemike Thanks for the RT, Mike! Love how the article connects humor, honesty & authenticity to #Storytelling! What caught your eye?

  • freelancemike

    SEMeehan I liked the point on leave em laughing. Makes sense!

  • SEMeehan

    .freelancemike It does make sense! Gotta love a sense of humor! 🙂 Thanks for chatting it out! Let me know if I can help in any way!

  • ConceptoTotal

    SEMeehan good one!

  • SEMeehan

    .ConceptoTotal Thanks! Great article, right?! How are you sharpening your storytelling skills? Any current projects you’re excited about?

  • I like that you mention timing – it’s so, so important. All the best comedians have impeccable timing, and so do the best storytellers! I think it’s that elusive quality people refer to so often when they’re talking about “flow” in writing, too. 
    Great post, Martin!

  • JasonFararooei

    MarkSBabbitt ginidietrich Outstanding! Thanks for the insights!

  • Eleanor Pierce Thanks Eleanor! That’s something I learned early on – great material (stories) can only take you so far. And a story well told (delivered) – sometimes with less than stellar writing – can sometimes get more interest than it maybe should… I can think of a few speakers who fall into this category :).

  • Terrific insight about timing and knowing your audience. I admire so many of our late night show hosts who do their research and know where their audience is on a particular night based on current events, news of the day and yes, social media as a great barometer. So many of them know when not to overproduce in terms of newsjacking or bring too much levity into a tragic situation. 

    It would serve brands well to learn from their ‘visual acts’ in building a story to a crescendo rather than just bleating out infographics, blogs or newsjacking on an event just because it may be current in the news. I tend to think this is due to automation of posts by corporations and instead of thinking about the impact of the particular topic on a specific day (taking the pulse/temperament of the audience in real time) they just have the story in the pipeline without timing forethought and thus often leave the audience not laughing at all.

  • ConceptoTotal

    SEMeehan Estamos trabajando con SheffieldCo, ¿los conoces? En Londres estamos atendiendo a Lovis Company. Gran potencial!

  • SEMeehan

    ConceptoTotal SheffieldCo No los conocía antes.Parecen como una gran empresa. Estoy siguiendo ahora.¿Cómo son los negocios? ¿Puedo ayudar?

  • And boy can the delivery differ – yet work. Imagine the contrasts between Sam Kinison, Bill Cosby, and Steven Wright (am I dating myself here)?

    Find out what works for your audience – start by listening before determining your own “voice” and presentation style.

  • dbvickery Maybe you’re giving us a little bit of a date-stamp :). They comics you mention all so different and amazing and you don’t hear too many people talk about Sam Kinison these days. I was fortunate enough to see him perform at a club in Toronto and…wow… 

    You’re so right about finding out your own voice because not every joke (piece of content) works for the same for various people. I know that from experience. Thanks!

  • @JasonFararooei MarkSBabbitt ginidietrich Thanks!

  • annelizhannan Thanks! Great point about having your story build. You’re so right about that. It seems like a lot of content is a bit one-note, or maybe it’s the delivery that is. And brands could do more by looking at how a story builds over time and adding a bit of drama or a story arc to what they’re doing.

  • martinwaxman

    jendennis2000 Thanks! It’s funny how we sometimes think more sizzle makes a good story seem ‘professional’ when all it does is add clutter.

  • jendennis2000

    martinwaxman And it makes the video feel less human and relatable (and adds budget and makes timelines longer and….) Thanks for the post!

  • martinwaxman

    jendennis2000 Great point – especially about it feeling less real – so many old corp videos were wooden like that. Thanks.

  • Thanks Martin.

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