What Dave Chappelle taught me about Public Speaking

I think faster through my fingers. This is how my brain works. Behind a screen, words flow through me. My stories become entertaining, my descriptions visual and apt, my ideas clear and concise. Post editing, even more so.

In person, I fear I’m not nearly as eloquent. My biggest failing is verbosity, which follows from my fear of awkward silences. But I have others. I make jokes and then spend hours afterward wondering whether they were truly funny or, worse, potentially offensive. I get passionate and repeat the same previously expressed idea without adding anything new. I say so many self-deprecating things in an effort to be entertaining that I start to seem like I am putting on an sad comedy performance. Queue pity claps.

These were more sarcastic than pitying.

Unfortunately, public speaking is a necessary component of all jobs, particularly that of a published author. There are book signings and readings, which no one attends to hear anyone simply read. There are engagements, like the one I will be helming on April 11 (shameless plug), in which I am supposed to be entertaining.

But I have learned a way for me to be better in these events thanks to stand up comics. Dave Chappelle, Jim Gaffigan, Trevor Noah, Tiffany Haddish, and Pete Holmes are some of my favorites. What they all have in common is they rely heavily on anecdotal comedy. They tell stories about their lives that feel honest and are filled with humorous observations.

Love Dave Chappelle!

They also work on their material. Trevor Noah once said in an interview with Jerry Seinfeld that he would craft his stories for months and then tirelessly work on his performances doing stand up set after set until he felt it was ready for prime time. Off the cuff charm alone isn’t what got him where he is–even if he has rehearsed enough so that it seems that way.

I now write the anecdotes that I intend to share before my speech. There are about 150 words in every minute of a speech–a bit more for me since I hail from the New York area, where we all speak like we are late for a job interview. A forty minute talk, followed by Q&A, means that I write between 6,000 and 8,000 words. Then, I memorize them. All of them.

I practice the whole thing until I can perform it. Afterward, I practice performing the speech in front of friends and colleagues. And, finally, I do it for an audience.

I also throw some jokes in there that have been crowd tested, to the best of my ability. A stand-up comedian tells 20 to 30 jokes in a five minute set, according to Steve Roye, a stand up comedian and blogger. I’m not aiming to have people crying laughing. But I do want some chuckles. I try to write one joke a minute.

Public speaking is work. It’s different work than being a writer. But it’s yet another skill that writers must learn in order to practice, and sell, their work.

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