Comedian David Nihill shares his key techniques from his stand-up act that can help you become a better speaker.
- The secret to creating stories that stick
- How to use callbacks to delight listeners
- How to always remember what you want to say
David Nihill is a bestselling author of Do You Talk Funny, listed by Book Authority as the best book of all time on public speaking and storytelling. “One of the best speaking coaches out there” according to Forbes.com his work has been featured in Inc, Lifehacker, The Huffington Post, Forbes, The Irish Times, TED, and NPR. His videos have been viewed more than 40M times. David is a winner of the prestigious San Francisco Comedy Competition winner, runner up in the Moth’s largest US Grandslam storytelling competition and the first ever Irishman to have a special on Dry Bar Comedy.
- Book: Do You Talk Funny?: 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (and Funnier) Public Speaker
- TED Talk: Standing-up to Fear | David Nihill | TEDxManchester
- Website: DavidNihill.com
Resources mentioned in the show:
- Book: Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
- Book: The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen
- Book: The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of an American Hero by Scott Anderson
- Past episode: 356: Living Out the Wisdom of Napoleon Hill with Jeffrey Gitomer
- Personality: Jeffrey Gitomer
- Personality: John Medina
- Podcast: Snap Judgment
- Principle: Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours Rule
- Software: Trint
- TED Talk: Do schools kill creativity? | Sir Ken Robinson | TED2006
- TED Talk: Feats of memory anyone can do | Joshua Foer | TED2012
- TED Talk: The happy secret to better work | Sean Achor | TEDxBloomington
- Tool: Hubspot
- Transcription: Rev.com
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David, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Yeah, sure. Thanks for having me all the way from exotic Ireland.
Oh, yeah. Well, it’s great to have you here and it’s a late night for you a bit, but you say there’s not much to do right now anyway.
Yeah. It was a very early night at 8:45 P.M. back in the days in Ireland before this COVID carry-on but now, with no pubs or bars or alcohol on tap, really, it is a much longer evening with a much earlier bedtime. The time just doesn’t go by as faster or as fun.
Yeah, understood. Well, you’ve got a lot of fun stores. In fact, you’re award-winning at storytelling. We’re going to learn some of your wisdom there and when it comes to being engaging and funny. But, first, could you open us up with the short version of your story of being an impostor?
I did impersonate a business fellow called Irish Dave who just happened to be an established comedian in Ireland, albeit with possibly the worst stage name in history, but nobody seemed to question that when in America so I did pretend to be a comedian called Irish Dave for a full year to try and get over a fear of public speaking in the worst way possible, which was to do standup comedy every single night multiple times a night. And I had a fake website, and I had fake Twitter followers, had Facebook fans at one stage. I was really big in India there for a while, which was slightly interesting despite, sheer of the fact, that you could go on Fiverr.com and buy fans from India at a very discounted price, which is ethically questionable, but definitely it was done. And that’s how we get booked in…
It’s forbidden in some contracts I’ve signed.
It is forbidden, yeah. Well, I faced no such legal technicalities, thankfully, a few years ago, and it just allowed me to get booked in a bunch of places. I really shouldn’t have been with very little experience and it snowballed and got a little bit out of control.
What’s so funny, well, in the US, it’s like, “Okay, your name is Dave and you’re Irish so you might be Irish Dave, so.”
By default, yeah. But there’s no way you’re going to turn up in Ireland, where like, “Oh, my God, it’s American Pete.” It will just seem too obvious. But you guys love that stuff.
Oh, yeah. That’s fun. That’s fun. And I love, I saw some of your YouTube videos. I love how you make fun of Americans, playfully. The majority of our listeners are in the US but you have people from all over the world, so feel free to let her rip. I love it when folks with accents do an American accent. Can you lay one on us?
Oh, they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve been doing it recently because in Ireland we have a requirement that you can’t drive more than five kilometers from your house, but technically I’m on vacation from San Francisco right now,” whenever I get pulled over, and it goes horribly wrong because they’d be like, “How many weeks are you here for?” And you’re like, “Three.” And Irish people just cannot pronounce the number three and the police obviously know that, and they’re like, “An American would never nail the word three like that,” and I think that’s what gives me away every time. But, yeah, I definitely have a horrendous range of American people’s accents.
You know, I figured out the hard way that more people speak Spanish probably than English in America, so I was like, “Let me just get my Latino voice down in Spanish.” Actually, the best voice is an American trying to speak Spanish, where it’s like, “Yo quiero un harmbergeza,” and you’re like, “That is not Spanish. You just completely used an American pronunciation there to order a burger.”
Well, it might you get you a lot of burgers because I think of a guy, he’s name is Nick, in college, he was from the UK, and he’s like, “Hey, so what do we sound like to you?” He said, “I don’t know. It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, guys, want to grab a burger and fries?” It’s like, “Okay. Thanks.”
And, you know, I must say, I poke fun at America but always in a lovely way. I like it a lot and it’s kind of been my home from my home for like 14-15 years, so it creates some great opportunities. You can’t beat the positive in America.
Like, in Ireland, if I announce to my friends that I was going to try and do standup comedy to get over a fear of public speaking, they would quickly label me an idiot and tell me I was wasting my time, where in America, they’d be like, “You should do that, man. That could be a great learning experience.” It’s a very different approach, and you guys definitely lean on the positive where we lean on the negative.
All right. So, let’s talk about it. So, you learn some things the hard way, and you’ve captured some of those learnings in your book, Do You Talk Funny? So, could you just lay it on us, first of all, sort of what do professionals have to learn from comedians when it comes to public speaking?
I think everything because the scary thing is like if you dig into people who teach public speaking or training, you realize that they haven’t clocked up that many hours on stage themselves, so you’re like, “Where are you actually getting this information from that you’ve put together?” They seem to ignore. If you’re a big subscriber to, say, Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours Rule that he popularized that 10,000 hours it takes doing something to make a master, you’re really not going to find any other group other than comedians when you go down that research path that is doing the 10,000 hours and doing it in the most high-pressure environment possible.
Like, there is nothing more difficult than someone who’s paid money for you to make them happy when they’re having a horrible day, and just walking in, sinking a couple of shots, crossing their arms, and going, “Hey, idiot, entertain me.” That is horrendous. And imagine you do that night after night. Like, they estimate it takes comedians about seven years on average to be able to make a full-time income from comedy, and that pretty much pans out, in my experience, as accurate. That’s kind of putting two to three to four hours into your craft most days over a period of seven years. That is a very large amount of learning in a very painful way.
And the thing is, “What did they learn the hard way on that journey?” And most of the time it’s just a more succinct entertaining form of storytelling that you’re missing in the average world of any snooze fest corporate presentation, or even more so at the moment. Like, virtual meetings are scaring the life out of people emotionally where someone with an imaginary sombrero sitting in front of a background of a place they’ve never been to.
There was a guy on a call the other day with me, and he was sitting on a virtual toilet in the middle of the call, I was like, “That’s not good. Just make it stop now.” So, never on Earth have you had such an opportunity to stand out in such an easy way by doing something a little bit different and open the engagement in all your talks. Like, all you have to do, if you’re the average listener, is take four or five stories that you absolutely love to tell. They’re the ones that when you go to a college reunion or a work meetup with colleagues you just kind of forgotten about or haven’t seen in years, and they’re like, “Oh, Pete, you’ve got to tell that story. That’s the one. Tell it.” And you’re like, “Oh, come on, I tell the story every Christmas when we meet up for beers.”
But every one of us has those three, four, five core stories that we kind of forget about, that for some reason, when it comes to business public speaking, we abandon them. And we’d be much better off if we just rewrote them, change the word order ever so slightly, so we’d borrow something from the world of standup comedy which would be the structure to tell the story, i.e., start in the action, know what you’re going to say last, know the key point or the key funny bit and go your way to make that the very last word. That’s what makes your timing look really good. And, actually, try writing it out or listen to yourself giving that story and have it transcribed if you hate listening back to yourself, like most people do.
So, we use a tool like Rev.com and just put it on a script, and go. Well, I say a lot of waffle unnecessary words when I’m telling that story. Imagine I was a comedian and I only had a short time period to work with, “Could I tell that big long-winded story in one minute? And if I could, what would be the words that I use?” And just look at it because it just forces you to be concise.
Most people, like in business, where it’s like, “Let me share a story with you,” and most of us are like, “Oh, my God, I’m out of here because this is going to be terrible.” We love storytelling, but once they telegraph the intention to try and tell it in an environment where we’re not expecting it, we’re kind of go, “Oh, I’m out of here.” But it’s just little things like that. Like, a comedian never say, “Now, I’ve got a joke for you.” They just tell you a joke. So, it’s by telegraphing your intentions, you naturally change the expectations for something. And I think the world of business just gets so many of those things wrong in business presentations that comedians would never get wrong.
Do you ever go to a comedy club or like a business event? If you go to it, you’ll hear them do an introduction for a speaker. And most business speakers in presentations don’t realize that when you’re in a meeting, or you’re giving a speech, or you’re speaking at a conference, that your talk starts with your introduction. It does not start when you start speaking. So, a comedian knows that, and a comedy club knows that, so they use that to capture some sort of an anticipation and buildup and excitement and guarantee that they get everyone’s attention to get the speaker a round of applause and off to the best possible start.
So, if you go to…they’re around the Bay Area, there’s a conference called TechCrunch Disrupt, and they’d be like, “Our next speaker is Brian. Brian is a serious A investor in Call Comm. Brian has invested in capital stock. And Brian and me used to go skiing together. We were really early at this particular company. Brian is a really great standup guy. Welcome, Brian.” Everyone knows it’s Brian. We don’t care. We’re not really tuned in anymore. It’s gone on for too long.
But in a comedy club, you’re going to hear them, “Ladies and gentlemen, your next comedian just opened for Jerry Seinfeld. His comedy album has debuted number one on iTunes. He’s currently streaming on Netflix. Please welcome,” and the key word, which is the name is only said once, only said last, and that gets people’s attention because they’re asking, “Oh, who is it?” And then when you say the name, they’re naturally trained to clap. And then the whole talk gets off to a great start because you don’t have to sell yourself as the business speaker. You can give your introduction to someone, give them three key points, in that way your audience is like, “Oh, you can just come out and be yourself.”
In nearly every presentation you go to in the world of business, it doesn’t start like that because they just don’t know anything about the world of standup comedy and they ignore comedians as a source of wisdom. So, that’s what I went very deep into but it’s just the small things that make a huge difference.
Well, yeah, I love it. You’ve already dropped specific tactics that are right there in terms of what is at the very end and how you build some anticipation, and that’s really good. I’d love it if maybe we could zoom out a bit and hear sort of, I guess, maybe, fundamentally, what makes something funny or engaging? Like, it’s kind of hard for me to pin down, like, why is one thing funny and another thing not funny?
Yeah. Well, funny is a subjective one. When you’re trying to bake funny content, always start with fun and so you can turn fun into funny and then you don’t have much of a failure. Also, if you attach to it that you’re never trying to tell a joke, you’re trying to tell a funny story, and the key word, the key with the funny just happens to be at the end. So, by moving that to the end, you’re maximizing people’s chances of reaction to it.
Then you’re taking a bit of pressure off yourself to be funny because no one knows you were trying to be funny in any way. The engaging comes from storytelling. Number one, always start with a story but do one very key thing. Allow the listener to see themselves in your shoes. That’s what makes it engaging. So, the audience, whatever story you’re telling is not about you, it’s about the audience. So, if you’re talking about your own mother, they’re picturing their mother. If you’re talking about the car that you had that was a beat-up car, that was your first car, and it was red and the exhaust pipe was hanging off, and it was a 1979 whatever it was, the minute you start talking about it, they start picturing their own car in their own head. So, you’re automatically trying to make the storytelling process visual, and your job as an engaging storyteller is to make that easy for people.
So, any of the key details, if it’s a nice one, it has a color. If it’s a person, it has a name, and that gives the signals that, “This is important. Pay attention.” You have a couple little twists when you’re trying to be engaging. You have to keep people hooked and you do it CSI-style. Remember that TV show? It was a bit scary back in the day. The minute you turned it on, you know, there’s a police investigation. The minute you turned it on, someone was dead, and in 10 seconds somebody was on fire, there was like a cat and a hippo, and you’re like, “What is going on in this thing?”
Something falls out of a window to their…
Exactly. They’re dead. “Who killed this priest and why is he dead within 10 seconds? Well, I better hang around and find out.” And that’s the natural curiosity with engaging stories that it does not start chronologically. You’re not walking through somebody through your LinkedIn bio or your resume or your job experience. You got to grab them right in the middle in the action. So, you never start off by, say, you’re climbing a mountain, you never want to talk about your mental decision to climb that mountain. You want to start near the summit of the mountain. Is there a chance you’re going to make the top? I don’t know. And then you change some of the key words when you’re telling that story to make them into present tense.
So, you never want to say, “I was on the side of the mountain, looking at the top.” It’s like, “I’m standing looking at the summit of the mountain and I can’t feel my feet anymore.” People are like, “Whoa, what’s happening?” And this changes the dynamics of the story instantly. So, if you listen to Snap Judgment, or NPR, or some of the award-winning storytelling podcasts, you’ll hear every one of those guys change the wording of the stories to the present tense because that brings it to life. And within it they’re going to be using a lot of comedic techniques like they will try and build in triple sets anytime they can, which is just basically coupling elements into groups of three, that number that Irish people cannot pronounce.
But three is the smallest number of elements that your mind needs to create and recognize a pattern. And all comedians and great gifted storytellers are doing is usually just breaking that pattern and that makes content memorable because three is easy to remember. But if I say, one, two, four, it’s only retrospectively that you can figure out that I was multiplying the numbers. So, it appears that I’m ahead of you a little bit. So, I always would give an audience apples, apples, oranges. When Chris Rock was talking about…he had a joke that’s a bit dated now, but it was like, “Women, all they need to survive is air, food, and compliments.” I mean, that’s not hugely amazing stuff and it’s dated now and it’s referenced, obviously, but it does demonstrate clearly that pattern is one, two, four.
And when you’re storytelling, people who incorporate those things, link the start to the finish, put the key words at the end and start in the action, use key details, colors, and names, people just see themselves within the story, and that’s what makes it engaging.
All right. Wow, this so much good stuff, so fast. I’m loving it.
Yeah. Sorry, got excited there.
No, bring it more.
That’s kind of the tactical side of it. But there isn’t much more to it than that. Like, people have courses on storytelling, and you’re like, “Stop with your four-day seminar on storytelling.” This is an innate human thing that we all know how to do. We just don’t all know how to do it in the most succinct form possible. So, it’s just consciously editing out all those details that don’t need to be in there. And you, yourself, identifying the key point of the story, and go, “I know this one.” I tell this in a pub. Friend of my friends laugh. Like, when I tell this at the dinner table, “Where is the biggest reaction moment and what do people remember or what can they say back to me?” And you just need to take out words to get to those points quicker.
Well, all right. So, now, in your book, you lay out seven principles. We’ve already kind of hit a few of them here in terms of having it start right in the middle of things with a story. Can you walk us through some of the other key principles that we haven’t touched on yet?
Yes. My favorite by a mile is to build in a technique called a callback. And the beauty of a callback is, and this is for job interviews, for meetings, a callback is killer. It is simply a reference to something that was said in the moment that couldn’t have been pre-scripted or planned. It was enjoyable between you and that other person, and it looks extremely spontaneous.
So, in the world of storytelling or comedy, a comedian, Dave Chappelle is known for using a lot of callbacks where he’ll drop something at the start and he’s always going to come back to it later on. And a great story will always have the same thing. In the book, it’s called bookending technique. In a movie, where they drop something at the start, they put in some clues, and they’re always going to come back to it.
And just in the world of general presentation, you’re in a meeting, you’re in a job interview, you’re on a sales call, you can use this stuff daily. I was on a call the other day trying to pitch someone from Salesforce, and I knew through research, we had mutual friends who organize a pretty wacky party in San Francisco where they all dress up around Christmas as elves. All parties in San Francisco are kind of wacky, in fairness, given they’re half naked going around in a bicycle from some Burning Man calls that you didn’t really know. Now, I remember all of a sudden. I definitely have those nights up.
I was chatting to them and they knew about this elf party organized by one of their colleagues. So, at the end of the call, I’m like, “Well, listen, I look forward to speaking to you next week. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll shoot you an email. Worst-case scenario, I’ll see you at an elf party.” So, even in that conversation that would’ve taken place on a call, you know it’s got the rule of three, it’s got the triple set, it’s got the flip at the end of it, and it’s got the callback, the reference to the joke that was already shared between a couple of people.
So, I had to give a TEDx Talk, a very short notice, about a year ago and it ended up in front of like 2,400 people. And I’m sitting in the audience, which is a key cool thing a comedian can do sometimes, and any business speaker should do is watch the people before you. How many times in life have you seen a business speaker go on and talk about and referenced something that somebody else just talked about? And you’re like, “Well, you’re not even listening to the last person. Like, they already said this.”
So, I would always sit in the audience and just watch what’s happening before me. And I remember this lady standing there, and she’s just come on the stage, and she hasn’t got much of an introduction, nobody really knows her background. And there’s a smoke machine and it’s clearly broken because there’s way too much smoke in this theater. There’s 2,400 people and she’s the very first talk of the day kicking it all off. And she says, “I’m going to start this talk when I feel an earthquake,” and then she just stops and stands there in dead silence, and just the tension is multiplying by the second. And we got to about 40 seconds and people are vocally shouting out the words “Earthquake!” They haven’t a clue what’s going on.
And then, finally, she stops and goes, “Right. I felt one.” And up on the live feed pops a magnitude earthquake in Guatemala or somewhere, and she is actually a human cyborg, and she’s had these sensors fitted in her body that allowed her to feel any seismic plate shift anywhere in the world, and it’s one of the craziest things you’ve ever heard, but that wasn’t really said in the introduction. The audience didn’t know this so they just thought she was nuts for 30 to 40 seconds. But I’m sitting there and I’m like, “This is a perfect callback. This is something that I couldn’t have planned for,” so I’m super nervous, and I don’t have butterflies in my stomach. I have pigeons. Like, I’m sweating bullets, all the usual nerves that you’re getting ready when you’re going to do a talk. But rather than focus on that, I’m like just trying to remember what she said.
So, I went up, I’m standing on stage, and the same two thousand and three hundred, four hundred people are staring at me, and I was like, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m a bit nervous to be honest. I’m put off because I don’t know how to start this talk. I had initially planned to just stand here and wait for an earthquake but that’s been done already.” And they just cracked up, and this applause just keeps building and building, and I was like, “And you’re obviously a great audience because when she said earthquake, I left the building. Like, you didn’t even budge from your seats. How much did you pay for these tickets?” And now, they know, I couldn’t have planned for this. This is obviously in the moment.
And, again, it’s a technique that you’ll see in a lot of great stories and a lot of great live performances, and even just great job interviews where whatever the other person says, you got to listen enough to give it back to them. And in the world of comedy and storytelling, it just shows that you’re not separate from the audience; you’re actually one of the audience.
Yeah, that’s powerful and a great example to bring that to life in terms of it’s clear that that was not pre-packaged, it’s in the moment, it calls back to something unique because, I guess, if you called back to something, I don’t know, not that noteworthy.
Well, you don’t want to reference something not funny.
Like, “I was going to red shirt but the last speaker was wearing a red shirt, huh.” It’s like, “Okay, none of us care about that. Like, we’re not at all moved by what you’re saying here.”
But then if you…Here’s an example of stuff that isn’t wildly exciting. I spoke at a Google conference recently, and it was a developer’s conference, and I sat in there watched the three speakers before me, and someone told the story about Indonesia, and they’re like, “Oh, my grandmother in Indonesia is kind of crazy.” And I was like, “All right. The audience laughed a bit at that. Noteworthy.” And then someone started talking about origami and linking their passion for origami to coding. I’m like, “All right. That’s a bit unusual. Noteworthy.” And then the biggest cheer of the morning, by far, was when someone gave a talk, and they said, “We need more Google credits.”
Now, I have not got a clue what Google credits are but these people were going wild for Google credits. So, like about doing my talk, and a comedian will do this all the time. They’ll get up in the first 30 seconds all pretty locked down unless they’re going to do the callback and go. So, what I did in the TEDx Talk was a bit risky because I haven’t established any relationship with the audience that I’m clearly going off script. So, the payoff is huge but the potential for failure is a little bit high unless you know a key thing. So, a smarter way to do that is prepare the first 30 seconds of your talk like a comedian would do or a great storyteller. Make sure you get off to a good start and then try the goofing around just a little bit so if it doesn’t pay off you can just go seamlessly back into what you’re talking about.
So, I get on stage at this Google event and I started my talk as I normally would, and I just stopped for a second, I’m like, “It’s an interesting day-to-day, I tell you. I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t know anything coding but now I know a lot about Indonesia and I’m scared of grandmothers over there, and origami and coding are linked. Who would’ve known? And, most of all, my biggest takeaway is what’s clear that everyone in this room should get immediately more Google credits.” And they go wild and it’s an applause break for someone they don’t know, who’s a stranger and an outsider, and definitely has impostor syndrome because what do I know about developers or coding. But they’re reacting to a technique.
Again, it’s the callback. It couldn’t be pre-planned but it is. It’s put into a structure that just allows you to move along seamlessly. And it’s nearly, like, a magician pulling back a magic trick, someone showing you, “Oh, actually, I’m using this structure where I just need to pick different elements every time.” But those elements are quite important. The biggest reaction has to be last. It’s the same as the rule of three. So, normal thing, normal thing, biggest thing. And you want to build recency into that as well. So, you want most recent mention, second most recent mention, third most recent mention, because then they know what you’re doing. Whereas, if you do it the other way around, they don’t catch on as quickly.
Okay. Well, there’s so much good stuff here. So, again, to have rocking, engaging stories, we want to have the good or funny bit to be last; patterns and threes are great, are as callbacks; it’s absolutely critical that it is relatable, like, “I see myself in your story, in your shoes”; and it’s succinct in that we’re getting just the most relevantly excellent bits and stripping away excess words and sentences and details that don’t need to be there; and some details like colors and names. Tell me, any other critical ingredients for a great storytelling?
Yeah, you’ve hit them all. I just think you have to love the story you’re telling is the probably the most critical one. Like, you actually have to dig it yourself and you actually have to get a bit excited when you’re telling it, and it has to be just from the heart. And the more personal it is, the better, the more unique to you. And you may be like, “Oh, that story is inappropriate.” It’s not if you make it appropriate. You can tell a story that is not as you.
I remember doing it. It’s the transition line that’s the key thing. So, once you plan the story and you’re building it into some form of talk or some part of learning point, once you write the story, go back and then write a transition line that makes it pretty fine and pretty obvious and unquestionable why you’re sharing that particular story.
So, I was speaking at a conference recently in Portugal called Web Summit, it’s the world’s largest tech conference, and they had me hosting a session on innovation which I know nothing about whatsoever, unless I find a new way of washing my underpants. That’s about as innovative I get most of the time. So, normally, I don’t really know how to start it off because they have 100 of the world’s most innovative large-scale companies in there sitting around, and I just start off telling about my mother.
And I was like, “Geez, you know, my mother came over to San Francisco to visit me recently. And she’s a bit older, grew up pretty Catholic and conservative, and we’re just sitting there on the couch. And out of nowhere, she’s like, ‘David, do you have any of those cannabis cookies?’ And I was like, “Cannabis cookies?” As it happens, I actually have a whole fridge full of them, thanks to San Francisco for legal medical reasons, obviously, so I fed her a few of them. And it was life-changing. We were making roast potatoes, which is basically caviar for Irish people at the time, and she was over-staring at the oven like a puppy just waiting for these things to be done. We nearly had to drag her away from it. The odor was kicking her up because it’s her first time in life having the munchies and she was basically snorting potatoes as they were coming out.
To only change her life, she went off walking to the Golden Gate Bridge the next morning, like this lady hadn’t been walking in years, came back with a pair of Lululemon pants on her, I couldn’t believe it. She’s like, “All the girls are wearing them,” and corrupted my auntie when I went home, just like weed smell coming down from the house in Ireland, I was like, “Geez, what is going on here?” And the thing is you think, “Oh, that story is not relevant to anything.” It got more bonkers, long story short. Like, one day she’s like, “David, what do you think of that gay marriage in Ireland,” because Ireland was the first country in the world, by popular vote, to legalize gay marriage, which is quite a turnaround for a place that’s seen as backwards in the eyes of a lot of people to be very forward that quick.
Before I could answer, me Ma says, “David, nothing new to me. I was the first lesbian in Ireland to get married back in 1970.” And I was just sitting there dumbfounded, I was like, “Does Dad know about this? Like, what’s going on here?” And she’s like, “Well, when your dad and I were going to get married, he got a bit drunk the night before, lost his birth certificate, we couldn’t find it. But, luckily, he had a dead sister, Patricia, she died when she was two.” And I was like, “Dad had a dead sister Patricia? You never mentioned this to me before.” She’s like, “Well, it’s not central to the story. Don’t worry about it.” I was like, “This sounds pretty central to me, mom.” And she goes on, she’s like, “Well, the priest didn’t have the best eyesight, your dad’s called Patrick, his dead sister is called Patricia, so we just went ahead and used her birth certificate, so technically I’m married to your dad’s dead sister.” Delighted with herself.
And I’m at this tech conference and I was telling them something similar, I can’t remember how much detail I went into the weed, but I was like, “We’re all in here in this room focused on innovation, but how well do you know your own family members? You assume that your customers, you know them, that you know what they want, that they desire, but I didn’t know my mom was into munching weed cookies and was experimenting with lesbian marriage on the side. Sometimes we assume we know things, and we shouldn’t. There’s nothing that research can’t solve that we could get to know our customers better and drive further innovation.”
And then whatever waffly section you put in there off the top of your head, it will come out better than what I just said off the top of mine. So, off the top of your head, then script it and write it, and say, “How do I get from this story to illustrate a point that I want to make?” So, the core point there was like, “You don’t know your end users as well as you think you do, and I’m going to substitute my parents for them in that story.” So, a big skill in the world of storytelling, I think, that’s overlooked a lot of the time is, “What is the transition line? Or what is the excuse you need to give yourself to make that story make perfect sense for your audience?”
And so, in the sequencing, the transition happens after the story and not before the story?
Yeah, usually, unless you say you kick off…a lot of TED Talks will start in this way as well or you’ll notice a lot of good effective talks will start with one very generic statement and then they’re into the story. And the statement is generic for a reason because they don’t want to get people to argue with them off the bat, so they’re not like a lawyer. When you’re doing storytelling or you’re doing any form of live performance, you’re trying to win over the audience. So, if you have an argument, you’re not going to make it at the top. You’re going to hide it.
So, say I got up there and I say, “Oakland is a crazy place,” and I’m in San Francisco, pretty close to Oakland, someone will cross their arms, dead stare me, and go, “I don’t agree with you. I live here. I love the place. I don’t agree with that statement.” But if I say, “Oakland can be an interesting place sometimes,” pretty much that statement would agree to everybody, agreeable to much more people, and it allows me to tell my story. And so, I haven’t made my point of view clearly on it so it’s a bit more intriguing, “Oh, what does this guy think about it? What’s he going to say?” Whereas opposed to, “I hate this. Let me tell you why,” which you don’t want to make.
So, it’s nearly the anti-lawyer’s approach to public speaking where a lawyer will make their argument really quickly because that’s their job, they’re on the clock to do it. As a public speaker, you really have to walk people into it, win over the room to get them on your side, and then you’re closing argument kind of sneaks up on them. So, your full license to tell the story.
There’s a TED Talk by Shawn Achor about happiness that’s one of the best you’ll ever see. I think it’s the eighth or the ninth most watched in the world. But if you watch it, it’s 11 to 12.5 minutes long, and the first 4.5 minutes is a story about him playing with toy soldiers.
With his sister.
Yeah, with his sister and breaking her arm. And it has nothing to do with anything, and you’ll see the same thing in Ken Robinson’s TED Talk. It’s “Do schools kill creativity?” It’s the most viewed and popular TED Talk of all time, and he tells a million stories, well, not a million, a slight over-exaggeration but there’s at least four to five stories in there that have absolutely nothing to do with that topic, but they’re beautiful stories that you can tell he loves telling, and they loosely are connected to the topic.
So, if you’re giving a talk about technology, your parents’ struggle with sending you emojis in an inappropriate basis, or whatever you’re getting eggplants from your mother in the middle of the night, who literally thinks they’re just eggplants and nothing else, well, that’s mildly entertaining to an audience, and you can use that to support a transition line that might be the struggles of a certain demographic to adapt to different features of user design.
Oh, yeah, this is really rich stuff. I guess I’m thinking about there’s very different modes of communicating. Like you mentioned a lawyer, I’m thinking about consultants. We always talk about answer first, or the executive summary, I’m like, “All right. David, you need to sell this division for four key reasons. It’s unprofitable, it’s shrinking, and whatever.” And so, then it’s sort of right from the get-go. And so now our, like I speak for the consulting industry, the consultants’ perspective on the matter is that that is an efficient use of time for busy executives who don’t want to guess as to what your slide means. They want you to lay out the argument.
And so, I guess that’s how I’m thinking about the tradeoff there is it’s less fun than what you’re talking about, it’s less engaging unless you have a really strong vested in that position on either side, but it may be faster. How do you think about this, like, the different approaches?
I think that’s fundamentally the reason why many of us live and are subjected to so many boring meetings because we feel…we take the emotion out of people and we assume that they want the highest value in the shortest amount of time illustrated with numbers and graphs. Whereas, realistically, our human brain is crying out for the story behind the numbers. So, you can show me a chart and a line, they’re like, “Oh, look at the way the line goes up and then it goes down again, and then it goes up. Bet you didn’t see that coming.” “Woohoo, amazing. Please share your slide deck with me.”
By way of interest, next time you give a presentation, give a link in the end and say, “Here’s a link.” Make it a bit.ly link so it’s trackable and give it to people because they always ask for the slides. They love asking for slides, “Oh, I’d love to get the slides from that presentation,” and just see how many people actually click on that because. Like it is miniscule. I do it at big conferences where there’s like 2,000 people, people don’t care. They like the story, they like relating to you as a human. They’re more likely to buy from you if they learn something about you.
And if you have that kind of…it’s very hard to like someone that just leads with the numbers and just says, “Here’s the four things you need to do to turn this business around today.” Where if you could illustrate one of those things for me, I’m much less likely to give you resistance in following your advice in it if the story is so clear as to why I should do it.
Okay. Understood. Well, tell us, we got a lot of good stuff, you’ve got something I can’t resist. You’ve got a secret for finding the funny: preparation, anticipation, punchline. We touched on some of this. Can you expand on this approach?
Yeah. I don’t know if that…it’s definitely not a secret because you’ll see it all over the time. But, yeah, it’s just, “What is that little bit of buildup that you need there to flip it?” I think it’s most easily repeatable in the world of visual presentations. So, if you have like a whole bunch of data and words on a slide or some form of presentation in your job, just take it off and put the key word or metric, or break it down to five words. And if you want to have a bit of fun, and you want to get funny in there, just don’t take a picture that’s funny and throw it up there and point at it like a lunatic, and be like, “Look at that dog. I found it on the internet. It’s nice, isn’t it?” And they’re like, “Yeah, okay. You’re a weirdo.” But if you build some anticipation to the image and use the misdirect, like the one, two, four, basically, you’re setting up the sequence where you’re not going to give them what they expect.
“I’d like to share with you our new mascot, the marketing team has been hard at work for months finding just the perfect brand…” and then the ridiculous dog goes, like, “Ha, ha, ha.”
Exactly. Or a three-legged hippo or anything, and then they always react. I had a friend, she was speaking at a conference in Australia, and she was the head of growth for Airbnb at one stage when they were in pure hybrid inflation mode. And she’s like, “Here’s a picture of me. And what I love is that I look so calm and calculated at this, my desk is organized. But the inside, I actually feel like this,” and that’s the moment that builds the anticipation because they’re like, “Well, what’s this look like?” and then the image becomes the flip. So, the timing on that is quite important to build up the expectation, then reveal the image, and then comment on the image.
So, she showed them a picture of a little girl getting sprayed in the face by an out-of-control fire hydrant for what she was then, and they cracked up laughing. But it’s not the viral hilarity by any means, but it just gives that anticipation, and it’s a very clear and simple misdirect. And I would say just bear that in mind when you’re presenting any form of information from wherever it may be to a job interview or anything. Just try and not do what they’re expecting you to do.
Yeah. Well, maybe a final question before we hear about your favorite things. If folks, they think, “Okay, this is good stuff or good content and it’s funny but, hey, I think I may be just too nervous to deliver at this kind of high level. It seems intimidating to go. It’s like advanced ninja skills in presentation is what you’re asking. And I’m nervous already right now with my not-so-funny presentations,” how do you recommend folks overcome stage fright?
Yeah. Well, I think, number one, we get sold on the belief that we can overcome it, which I think is mostly false. I never overcame it but I got really good at managing it. And everybody else I’ve talked to over the years got really good at managing it. And I would add to that by saying when you were talking about advanced ninja skills, it’s a funny thing. And in the world of public speaking, they’ll try and sell you a beginner course, advanced, intermediate, whatever it might be. We’re not learning a language here. There’s no intermediate or advanced level. We’re just speaking. And the people who get paid 30 grand to talk, they make the same mistakes as someone who’s doing it for the first time. They just don’t know it because they have a bit of a false confidence that goes with the title they have.
But just recognize that the little things that make a big difference are not advanced, so outsourcing your introduction is super easy so that you don’t have to start off listing your own achievements and building your credibility, do that every time. Use an app like Perfect Timer, which is totally free, to track the timing of your presentation and go short before long. Never talk for an hour if you don’t have to. Like, the brain taps out.
The maximum human attention span, according to John Medina, who’s one of the world’s leading brain psychologists, is 9:59. Once you’re over that, you’re in a little bit of an uphill battle to keep people’s attention. So, realize that no one’s ever going to come up to you after a presentation, going, “That was amazing. I just have one problem. I wish it was longer.” Not even your family, your loved ones, that granny you haven’t seen in years, none of them want you to go for longer. So, go short before long. Let’s say never finish on a Q&A. Like, these are just simple things.
Like, when it gets to the end of your talk, say, “I’m going to take a few questions before I make my conclusion.” Ninety-nine percent of the world’s speakers don’t do that and they stand there like an absolute lemon while nobody asks them questions. They feel mildly embarrassed and that they don’t get an applause because nobody knows it’s over because you didn’t get asked that question anyway. And every speaker in history has been in that scenario, and they stand there, and the host is like, “Ooh, has someone got a question? You down the back?” And that person is like, “Hell, no. I don’t have one thing,” nearly going under the table. And you, as the speaker, go to walk off, “Okay, we’re finished here.” And then someone shouts a question, “Oh, actually, I have one,” so now you’re back on again. Now people are like, “Oh, God, how long am I going to be here?” so they start leaving.
So, it’s like this takes on like your favorite band. Like, U2 would never go around the world with their new album. Of course, I’m going to take an Irish example here and be stereotypical. But they’re never going to go Madison Square Garden and debut their new album, play 10 songs, get to the ninth song, and they only have one left, they planned it, it’s the best song, it’s the one that’s going to bring it home, but they’re like, “You know what, we were going to play that but how about, does anyone here in the audience sing? Anyone want to bring this home? Anyone want to bust out a ukulele?” That will be insanity, but every speaker does that, and they’re like, “Hey, audience, say something crazy to me.”
So, just using that sentence, “I’m going to take a few questions before I make my conclusion,” tells people that there’s more to come, their questions have to be short and sweet, and, of course, you’re going to save a slide with learning points on it to remind them what you’re actually talking about. And how many are there going to be? Three. And those things aren’t focusing on funny, they’re not focusing on humor, but they make you look way slicker, all of a sudden, as a speaker, and maybe you weren’t the most confident.
It’s like me with shaky hands. Like, my nickname in college was Shaking Stevens. When I gave a presentation, I shook so much that I turned into an Irish salsa dancer, like my whole body was going in places that I didn’t wanted it to be going. People would come from other classes just to see me falling apart in front of people. And it’s not a matter of, “How do I stop shaking?” I can’t because that’s adrenaline. I’m never going to convince myself to go.
So, to this day, that happens where you just identify, “Well, what are all the things that are going to go wrong? Someone is going to give me a glass of water and there’s no way I can drink a glass of water with a shaky hand. I’m going to have a bottle of water and my mouth is going to be dry. Well, geez, I’ll never be able to open a bottle of water. And if it’s a full bottle of water, I’m going to squirt it all over me. My hands are shaking so much.”
So, it’s a matter of little things like that, like no glass, get rid of that one, make sure the bottle of water is three quarters empty and already opened, and safe distance from you to knock it over. If you’re more comfortable, start with your hands in pockets. Don’t show people shaky hands. Use a technique called The Memory Palace that was popularized by Joshua Foer in his book, Moonwalking with Einstein, and he has a killer talk on that as well on TED, and it’s just a memorization technique that allows you to visualize key points so you’re never going to hold notes in your hands. So, now, if you shake, you don’t have to hold notes. You’ll look way more professional. And then if something happens, The Memory Palace, you will never ever go blank. And nearly everyone’s biggest fear when it comes to public speaking is going blank on stage but nearly nobody teaches it which is insane.
So, like, if I want to teach you the word in Spanish for “to fit,” the word is caber. It’s super hard to remember that tomorrow. But if I asked you to picture a New York City taxi cab, a yellow bubble one, and it’s pulling up downtown Manhattan in front of Trump Plaza, and a bear runs out of this taxi, or bumps out of Trump Plaza and tries to get into a taxi, and, of course, the hairy bear doesn’t fit, he’s huge, and his hairy legs are kicking out the windows as he tries to squeeze his body in the window, and his hairy bear bottom is in the air. And you’re visualizing that, and you’re visualizing that the cab, the bear does not fit in the cab, caber is the word for “to fit.”
So, you have this whole little trick of remembering information and making it visual. And, for the rest of your life, you’ll never forget the word for “to fit” in Spanish, and it’s because you’ve used something called The Memory Palace, which is visualizing, creating a crazy that only makes sense for you for everything you need to remember, and then The Memory Palace just means putting that, picturing it taking place somewhere that’s familiar to you.
So, instead of having a bullet point list for your talk, you picture your talk taking place in your house, and all you’re doing is walking around the lap of your house encountering crazy images that you’ve created, like a bear trying to get into a taxi cab. So, when you put that together, you become very spontaneous in public speaking because you’re never going to forget what you’re talking about. So, if someone falls off a chair, or farts, or burps, or screams, or interrupts you, you’ll react to it, and you don’t go into panic. If the fire alarm goes off, you don’t try and keep going, you just say, “God, the fire alarm has gone off.” Everything becomes an opportunity for some form of entertainment because at any moment you can get back on track.
So, I wouldn’t think of it as trying to be funny or off the bat. I wouldn’t put it as advanced level stuff. It’s just the techniques that can make you look advanced, that if you know 10 or 15 things that most people don’t, no matter how many years they’ve been doing speaking, you can normally look better than them really quickly. I have all people all the time writing me messages, and they’re like, “Dude, I give the exact same presentation as I did a year ago. I put in a couple of GIFs, some funny images, told one story and I got voted the best speaker. No idea. Night and day the last time.” And that’s the kind of stuff that happens all the time. So, it’s not as complex as people who are trying to sell you stuff make it out to be.
Okay. Well, now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
You know, I think I heard him on your podcast, Jeffrey Gitomer, and he has a lovely quote called “The end of laughter is followed by the height of listening.” I just thought that sums up the world of public speaking, timing, and delivery in one sentence. Because the most attention you’ll ever have from anyone ever is the moment after you make them laugh because their just brain says, “Give me more of that.” So, the dopamine spike lends itself to grabbing attention from an audience.
So, if you have to say something serious, the best time to say something serious and memorable and impactful, or ask for money, for example, or whatever you’re doing in your pitches, to make people laugh a little bit before that. But, yeah, “The end of laughter is followed by the height of listening.” That one I love and, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all,” but that’s not really…Helen Keller gets attributed to it sometimes but I’m not sure who actually said it.
Okay. And how about a favorite study?
Favorite study. You know, Stanford did one once where they had people locked in a room staring at babies all day, and that was a good few years ago. I don’t think you could get away with that today, where all these researchers are like, “We’re just going to borrow your babies.” But the study was to show that babies, on average, laugh about 300 times per day, and grownups laugh about 15. So, for anyone who tells you, you don’t need a bit of laughter in your life, you definitely do, and you need more of it.
Okay. And a favorite book?
Oh, a toss-up. I like The Man Who Tried to Save the World, the Fred Cuny mystery, and The Fish That Ate the Whale. And I like both of those because they’re just stories of these individuals that did things that you didn’t think was possible just because they thought they could do it. Like, the Fred Cuny mystery is a guy who decided to declare himself the world’s expert on humanitarian aid relief. So, if a tsunami hits tomorrow, he’d be the first person who got the call from all the world’s leading agencies. And he had no skills or qualifications to get himself that job, and he got to the point where George Soros was writing him cheques, and saying, “Go fix Chechnya. That’s your job.”
I don’t even think there’s an audiobook version of it. I learned it from a girl who’s a journalist, and she’s like, “This is the best book you’ll ever read that no one’s ever told you about.” So, yeah, it’s The Man Who Tried to Save the World, the Fred Cuny mystery. And The Fish That Ate the Whale is about the guy, Sam, the Banana Man, Zemurray, who basically all the CIA manuals for taking over a company, err, sorry, a country and putting out puppet president in place were based on what this guy did to take control of Honduras just so he could sell more bananas. They’re brilliant stories. You’re like, “Okay.” They’re kind of things like, “I can’t believe I never heard of these stories before.”
Well, thank you. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
I like HubSpot a lot. I don’t know if it makes me awesome at my job but it definitely improves me a bit, even the free version of HubSpot. I think if you’re selling anything online, I think, just to be able to track emails and know that somebody actually opened your email, forwarded the links in your email, or just activated, or looked at it, or was interested in it, that makes a big difference. But I use Rev.com a lot for transcribing stuff. Probably the easiest way you can improve your public speaking is to watch yourself or listen to yourself back, but nobody ever wants to do that because it’s painful, and they will avoid it at all costs. But if you put it through something like Trint or Rev.com, it does the transcriptions there that turns your work into a script, and it’s really easy to see where you need to improve when you do that.
So, I use that a lot. That and Perfect Timer, which is basically just a countdown timer on your phone that you can’t miss. Because if you do public speaking in meetings and conferences, usually you’re so distracted you’ll lose track of time, or the event organizer tells you, “Oh, we’ll keep track of the time. We’ll have a clock on the stage,” and then everything breaks. So, it’s saved my life a lot. And that app is free. I think it’s called Perfect Timer.
And a favorite habit?
Favorite habit, kite surfing by miles. I nearly get killed on a weekly basis and I still love it so it must be good for something.
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?
You know, funny enough, Jeffrey Gitomer’s line is the one that I built into my talks over the years that I love the most, and it’s probably the most quoted. So, I wish it was something that I said but, honestly, I think that sums up the whole argument for using humor the most, that, “The end of laughter is followed by the height of listening.”
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Towards DavidNihill.com. I think I have everything there. And in the world of public speaking, I put under a course name called Hacking Public Speaking. So, that was my bit of marketing experimentation. I was like, “I wonder if I offered 50% of their money back for a completion within 30 days. Would they actually do it?” You know, you take online courses. I signed up to Master Class and I’m not cooking like Jamie Oliver yet. I’m just blowing up microwaves for survival. I’ve blown up hotdogs in the microwave. So, everything I know I learned the hard way is there, or you can read a lot of it for free. And I think I have a talk on Google, an altar talk with a lot of the content are on public speaking if you just want to improve for free.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Yeah, I would say to put more of your own personality out there in the world of business and you will get more clients from it. And don’t give them that little bit of amazing new miracle thing that you have in your presentation, and be like, “Oh, that number is going to resonate with them.” The personal story and the something that allows them to see themselves in your shoes and come up to you after a presentation, or just relate to you on a one-on-one level, that’s going to be a story, something for your own life that you normally wouldn’t share. And if you think you have nothing funny, the magical recipe for that one is, if it’s embarrassing for you, it’s funny for me.
David, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck in all of your fun adventures.
Thank you very much.