WATCHING your favourite comedian with the audience in the palm of their hand, it’s easy to imagine that supreme confidence is something they were born with.
But actually it’s very much a skill that can be developed – and lots of stand-ups are, in fact, quite shy.
So we’ve asked four performers for their tips when it comes to winning round a tough crowd, gaining people’s trust and dealing with setbacks.
Are your knees knocking and your palms sweating? Do you have butterflies?
They can be a product of fear, but you might feel similar sensations giving a work presentation or joining the dating scene again.
“Nervousness is a similar emotion to excitement, so when you’re faced with feelings of fear, you need to tell yourself you’re excited instead,” says seasoned performer Siobhan Phillips.
Trick your mind into believing you’re hyped about that interview, and you’ll perform better (and might even enjoy yourself!).
In fact, every comedian interviewed for this article shared that same piece of advice, so it’s clearly worked for them…
Do your homework
Whatever nail-biting event is causing you sleepless nights, a little prep goes a long way.
“Stand-up is all about storytelling and learning to persuade people,” says Zara Janjua.
“According to Aristotle, you need three elements to tell a good story. Ethos, which is how credible you are (a compere will big you up to the audience before a stand-up show); logos, which is about logic – try to have three facts that make you feel confident in an argument; and finally, pathos, which is about appealing to people’s emotions with a true story.”
So for a real-life situation such as a job interview, first get someone to hype you up beforehand – this could be a written reference from a former boss or a warm introduction.
Then make sure you know three great facts about what you do or the company you want to work for that you can mention during your interview.
And, perhaps most importantly, show your human side with a personal story.
Learn to improvise
When it comes to dating, confidence and impressing people on the fly is key. And that’s where the art of improvisation can come in handy.
“Improv teaches you a different type of confidence when you don’t know what’s going to happen, which is closer to real life than other types of comedy,” says Max Dickins.
“It lets you give up the idea that you need to be confident all the time, and instead gives you strategies to feel free enough to do the things you want to do.”
One lesson you can take from improv to up your dating game is remembering that conversations aren’t just about you.
“Often when we’re nervous, it’s because we’re obsessing over ourselves,” says Max.
“Try putting all of your focus on the person you’re talking to. A key part of improv is the idea of ‘yes, and,’ which is about accepting what the other person has said and building on what they’ve given you. The goal isn’t perfection, it’s connection.”
It doesn’t have to be complex — follow up your date’s comments with a question about how they feel, or try an improv technique called ‘labelling’, for example ‘you seem quite relaxed/happy/sad about that,’ to encourage them to keep talking.
“Always laugh at yourself,” says Siobhan. “Whatever you’re worried about isn’t life or death – it’s just a moment in time that will pass.”
“Don’t try to be interesting,” says Max. “Just go with the obvious – it makes you seem smooth, but it’s no effort.”
“Wonder Woman’s pose – hands on hips, head high, legs shoulder-width apart – tells the audience you’re confident,” says Zara.
Show and tell
If you’re shy but keen to make new friends, you can make things easier with a little stagecraft.
“I recommend ‘show and tell,’” says Zara.
“Whenever I leave the house, I have things with me that could be talking points — whether it’s an interesting object that I place in front of me at a table, or a funny badge, or funky nails. It leads to all sorts of conversations.”
Reframe the room
“I do an exercise in my improv classes where I ask people to imagine they’re doing a meet-and-greet at a new job, and it’s always really awkward,” says Max.
“I then ask them to pretend it’s Christmas Eve and they’re in the pub with their mates, and it absolutely transforms how they are, without giving them any new skills. It’s just a mental shift.”
Obviously there are boundaries that need respecting, but pretending you’re chatting to a mate over dinner when you want to explain something to your boss, or that a first date is someone you’ve known for a few weeks, might help curb those nerves, and allow you to communicate more clearly.
Take a reality check
In comedy, as in life, sometimes things don’t go to plan. But true confidence comes in having perspective when things get tough.
“People think that life is glorious, but it’s painful most of the time — that’s what makes joyous moments so joyous,” says Loyiso Gola.
“Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t. You can get something out of even a bad show – sometimes you’ll get a laugh in a part where you usually don’t.”
Siobhan agrees that the answer is not to worry too much about what other people think: “You can’t base how you feel on other people’s reactions.”
And this is a woman who performed in front of Simon Cowell, so she knows a thing or two about tough crowds.
“You can’t build people up in your head. Ask questions and get to know them on a human level, and they’ll seem less intimidating.
“Sometimes I picture people naked, too — I imagined Simon in greying Y-fronts!” she says.
As challenging as it can be, after an awkward encounter or missed opportunity, look for the positives — did you improve something small, or make one possible new connection?
“If you mess up, try to look for the lesson in the experience. Sometimes it’s as simple as: ‘It’s good to stay humble,’” says Zara.