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Become a Better and Funnier Speaker

Lesson 12 of 15

Avoid Going Blank on Stage

David Nihill

Become a Better and Funnier Speaker

David Nihill

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Lesson Info

12. Avoid Going Blank on Stage


  Class Trailer
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1 How To Watch This Class Duration:01:25
2 Class Introduction Duration:08:53
5 How To Replicate Top Talks Duration:13:41
7 How To Get Funny Fast Duration:19:40
9 Storytelling Tips Duration:18:04
11 Live Storytelling Critique Duration:27:12
12 Avoid Going Blank on Stage Duration:21:46
14 Managing Stage Fright Duration:11:08

Lesson Info

Avoid Going Blank on Stage

So the number one coolest thing I learned from performers that made the biggest difference to my life that I did not know about preparation wise to follow into your question, was how to avoid going blank on stage. And for me that was the most nervous thing I had. I was like I'm going to forget, I'm going to go blank. I'm going to look like an idiot. This is going to be horrible. How do I avoid it? So I'd be one of those guys with all the notes. I'm sure that's you sometimes as well. I literally had War and Peace notes, like a book on stage, and just like firing off the pages. And I was shaking nervously, so it just looked worse to the audience. Have you ever been back stage before you go on to speak anywhere, or in an environment where someone is there with their notes like two seconds before they speak, has that been you? By any chance? I bet it has for the guys at home. Certainly it was me. How would you describe that person? If you had to shout a word, say your backstage, there's a ...

person next to you, and they're rapidly writing or studying their notes before they step out on the stage. Any word that describes them? Frantic Frantic, very good. Terrified. Terrified, very accurate. Nervous. Nervous, all negative. Unprepared. Unprepared, 100%. And if they walk out with the notes, your mind says unprepared, same thing. So it just starts to get worse. There's no way you can relax when you're in that moment. Because you're literally frantically going through those notes. So to do away with those notes and be confident that I know what I'm going to say today, I know the order I'm going to say it in, and I'm going to leave a little room to have a bit of fun if the opportunity presents itself. I did all this using the memory palace. It's the coolest thing I ever learned. So there's an epic book you can read by Joshua Foer called Moonwalking With Einstein. And again I have the link to this in the notes for you guys if you want. But this is kind of short synopsis of those techniques, and they were taught to me by a San Francisco comedian called Richard Cervantes, so a shout out to him. He definitely made my life way easier. He's an engineer at Yahoo, so no surprise that it was very methodical at the same time. Because literally right your brain works in stories, we know that, your mind loves stories. Right, you can't remember a key word, but yet you can remember that little story to get to the key word. But the story only gets more effective as a form of memorization if we put it, we can only supersede stories para fold by using a geographical spacial location. So your mind remembers places better than anything else. So if I asked anybody got a favorite restaurant in San Francisco? Any foodies here? Foodies, anyone a foodie? Can we give the foodie the microphone for a second? Foodie, no, no, but here, catch her up, catch her up. So foodie, favorite restaurant, what's it called? Oh gosh, now you're asking me, I knew you'd ask me that. That's okay, you can throw it to the next person if they have a restaurant. Who has a restaurant? Jeff, you do. Foreign Cinema. Foreign Cinema, okay cool. When you walk into Foreign Cinema, what do you see, where is the server? On the left. Left, how many seats do you think? How many tables? Eight tables. Really, where's the bathroom? Uh, to the right. And it's really effortless that that information comes to mind. And if I ask you to do that with the worst restaurant you've ever been to, you're actually strangely able to do it. If I ask you to do it with Creative Live today on the floor plan you walked through, there's the little green room into the kitchen, upstairs area reception. You're like oh, cool, stairs, the way in, building, lobby, you're like no, I can actually picture all that quite vividly. So what Joshua Foer did, is he literally went to the U.S. memory championships, which is a real thing. And he was studying these guys and he said, geez you know I have a terrible memory, I mean it's kind of average. I wonder if I studied these guys for a year, came back, how good would I do? He came back and he became the U.S. memory champion within one year. And he became the eleventh best mind in the whole world. And he did it primarily by using the memory palace. So it's a technique we've known about for donkey's ages, but we don't really use it anymore. People in the day used to compete on intelligence on how much they could recite from a book because there was a limited amount of books. So they memorized everything. We have no need to really do that anymore, so we've kind of lost that part of our brain. Quite easy to get it back, is to take your talk, so it starts as bullet points, right. So you still write it out. I want to say all these things. You make a little story for every bullet point. So imagine one of those points in your talk is going to be cab bear. And then you have that crazy story. But now we get even more powerful, we make a crazy story for every component. The crazier, the dirtier, the more lewd, the more naked people, the more celebrities, the better. Easy to remember. So we're going to make a crazy story that only really makes sense to us, and we're going to put a component, each story, in a room. Ideally in a building that we know, bless you. Ideally in a room that we know really well. Right, so the house you grew up in, the place that you live at the moment, the apartment you live in at the moment. So when I'm on stage at the DuMont Storytelling, that story you actually saw. I took a picture of what I had in my back pocket. Now that was hidden. Nobody's every going to see it, and I'm not going to take it out. So you'll see quite sequentially I'm walking around my house, so this used to be my house. Now that San Francisco rental prices have gone up, it's more like just this room here. (laughter) I can't afford all of this anymore. But essentially you're walking in, jump, have the knee injury, Stockton joke. Quickly mother, 69, right, that's a couch for a 69. And I know that's going to weed cookies on the sofa here, I'm not looking at it anymore, and then I'm going to fireworks and the bridge and the Lululemon pants. And they're all little stories in my mind that I've created vividly for this moment. Right, so they're not the actual thing that happened. They're that in crazier detail. Right, big giant potato as I'm running around my kitchen in my mind, I've kind of exaggerated every element, so that when I'm on stage and if I have to think what do I have to say next? I'm not looking for a word. Because we know it's very hard to remember a word, right, like cab bear by itself, no context. So all I'm asking myself is where am I in the house? And I'm like I'm in the kitchen. Potatoes are in the kitchen, I need to talk about potatoes. That way you don't sound like a robot. So a lot of people memorize something word for word. You can do that totally, but if you don't want to do that, so if you're talking with Ted and we'll go through that in a second. But they will get you to memorize stuff to a level where you're comfortable singing it. So you're so comfortable at reciting the words you're going to say that you can sing them to the tune of happy birthday. And then you can change the song. So I was trying to do it just to be a weirdo here, in traffic on the way here, but there was a song playing, and I was trying to see if I could sing what I was about to say and then change it. So rap it and do it slower and do it a bit faster. When people are doing Ted talks, they get them to a level that they can change the beat and still say the same words. So if you're going to sing happy birthday, and I said give me a rap version of happy birthday. You could kind of do a version of that, it'd be a bit strange, but that's how many times these people recite the information. They have it perfect perfect word perfect. I'm not saying we have to do that. I've never done that because I feel a little weird about doing that, I do it for the first 30 seconds. Because if I don't, I walk out and I look at all these people and I'm like, oh my God, and words start coming to my mind. So I'm like wow, there's so many of you here today. I'm very happy to be here at Creative Live, and thanks for having me. And you guys are just like this guy is rubbish. Like what's he going on, he's wasting my time already. And if I don't have that 30 seconds prepared word for word, so that's the only thing I'm practicing religiously beforehand. So I'll do the first 30 seconds. I'll do the last word, the San Francisco, that sentence, because I know where I'm going to finish. And where I go in the middle, I don't know, something happens with the audience and they react to me, I'll acknowledge it, but I'm not tied to really any of these concepts. And the beautiful thing is with this, have you ever had this where you're given like 15 minutes to speak, and then they're like 15 minutes we said, oh actually everyone else ran over, we've just got 11. So 11, actually no, nine, do nine. And you're just like oh my God, I've got like 50 slides, there's no way I can change this whatsoever. The nice thing about this is you end up knowing the amount of time you're going to spend in each room. So if I'm in the kitchen, I do that Stockton joke, allowing for audience reaction about 20 seconds. If I start talking about my cousin Rory with the bong and the fireworks and the Golden Gate Bridge, probably a minute. So if I'm running out of time and there's a clock somewhere, I just leave it out, so I just don't go into a room. But then I still have the same structure and I have the same start, I have the same finish. I have the core points, but some little things doesn't really matter. And it allows me to adjust a talk on the fly even when they change the time. And that does and will happen. Just happened to me at a conference in London. They were like you have 45 minutes, and I looked at the clock, and they decided they made a mistake and when it said 28, they just changed it to six. All of the sudden like that's a bit of a difference. So I was just like, okay, and you just go on with it because it is going to happen. But you're like alright what rooms do I not go into and still close strong? I still have my finish to talk, still going to make sense. I'm attached to the content, but maybe they don't know where it's going on, so it doesn't really matter. Right, so you kind of have to curate your own stuff. So if this sounds crazy, I would like if you don't mind now, you have a bit of paper. What I would love for you to do, and for you guys at home to do as well if you have a bit of paper handy, is draw a floor plan of a building you're super familiar with. So no one's going to build it, it doesn't need to be architecturally sound, but just a floor plan, and one level. So maybe the house you grew up in or the place you live right now, the place you're most familiar with. So we're going to spend just one minute doing that. So we're not going to have to hold it up to the audience or anything, it doesn't have to be a beautiful picture, but just something that gives you a little bit of a flow. Because this talk is always going to be sequential, you come in one door and out the other. You go clockwise or anti clockwise. It's very important that you know which direction you're going. Cool, yeah, how we doing on the houses? You grew up in a sentence? That's not even a house, you grew up in a field. I use my body, rather than a house. Interesting, you can use your body, if you really like your body. I wouldn't be comfortable. I'm going to use your body as well. How weird is that? (laughter) David says walk around picturing Jeff. Jesus, that got sexy very fast. Okay, good, you grew up in a maze. Good, I like that one. No body grew up in a tent. There always somebody who draws something that looks like a tent. Do you find how easily that comes? It's pretty easy to do, right, strangely easily. Does that even make sense? Yeah? Yeah, yeah, please. We'll get it on the catch box, throw at you, aggression. So what happens when you have a different set of stories? Do you lay it over the same blueprint? Does that become confusing? Yeah, so you sit down and you picture the house as if you're walking through it with nothing. You picture it empty in your mind, and then you fill it up again, it's weird. But you can use multiple places and multiple spaces. And you can use anything, like a restaurant. Some people have used their commute, so just a road if I drove from here to Silicon Valley down to Palo Alto every day. I can just be driving and see things in my mind located on different corners on the way. The only thing is sequentially, but yeah I reuse this actually quite a lot. So if I'm planning anything, I'll just picture it empty, and then I'll fill it up again with weird things. So the past stories don't come back to haunt you? No, they don't. Well they do in real life, but they don't in this one, in telling it. Yeah, it's a very good question. But it's very important the sequential that you're doing, that you're not doubling back on things. And then you can start putting memories, like something is on the kitchen, certain people are sitting on the chairs, something is on the television. It's up to you. The only limit to this technique is your mind. Would you guys find that okay? Hopefully at home that's looking beautiful as well. So what I'd like to do just to prove it to you because it's quite a long concent, but I think it's the most useful one nearly out of this whole class. It's the one that my friends benefit the most from. It's the one I've benefited the most from. So I'd just like to, it's a tough one kind of to teach, and you could do a whole course about it, but we're 80 20 thing, so we're doing it as briefly as possible. So I think we're going to do a little wee exercise where we, between us as a group, are going to create a company, an app. Let's do an app that doesn't exist, but should exist. So if you could found a company or an app or you wanted something silly or something cool or something funky, this is what we're going to enter. So we're going to pretend like we're going on Shark Tank, and we're pitching it. You know when they have to go on there because it's quite nervous, you have to remember all that information in high pressure stakes. So what I'd like us to do, there's no wrong answers here. So if I was going to create an app that doesn't exist, so something that doesn't exist, it should. What do you think? Uber for dogs? I don't know, there's no limit to your creativity. Uber for dogs exists? God, oh no, sorry Wag. Wag, it was such an obvious thing that you should exist. Alright, well something that sounds ridiculous that obviously isn't to the Bay area. Public restrooms? Public restrooms. To be able to find them. To be able to, a public restroom locator. What do you think? There is? Oh, you guys, you're inventing things. (laughter) Alright only if we can come up with a cool name for it. What's it called? Potty Spotty. Potty Spotty. (laughter) Jesus that's good. Alright, Potty Spotty it is. What does it do, locates potties apparently. (laughter) Bathrooms, I was going to write toilets, can't write that in American. Excuse the messy writing. Who are our management team? So say we had three people who are the management team on this, what are their first names? Obviously there's no wrong answers here. So give me three random names, anybody, one. Zachary. Zach, alright, Zach, easy. Who else is with Zach? Diane. Diane, why not. In the interest of equality, who else are we going to have on there? We should probably have a dog being from San Francisco. (laughter) Who else? Jose. Jose, Spot, oh we'll go with Jose. We'll keep it mixed up, okay. Alright, so that's our management team. We've got Zach, Diane and Jose. What percentage are we willing to give away of the company? How much would we give away? We're on Shark Tank, come on, this is low stakes. It's an imaginary company. 15 percent. 15, cool, okay, and how much money do we want for that? Two million. 250 million, that's aggressive. 250,000. 250, 000, okay, cool. Alright, so now someone just gave us this presentation. We obviously know nothing about this mad, fictional company that shouldn't exist, but does exist. But doesn't really, I don't know, it's a bit confusing. But imagine someone just handed you this, and you're like oh I got to present this information. I know nothing about it, I just got roped into it. How are you going to remember what it's called? Potty Spotty, how are you going to remember that? So we want to create something weird, an image, what do we have? To me I have a dog called Spot sitting on a potty and going to the bathroom. And he's saying stop trying to shove those tacos there, I'm not ready for that. Just for your story earlier. But what could we have? Give me something, does anything grab your, potty, how do we remember that word? Potty Spotty, can we picture a spotted dog sitting on a toilet? Yeah, spotted dog sitting on a toilet. Oh now I have to draw a toilet with a dog. No it's not a dog, it's a hamster. I don't even know what that is. (laughter) Okay, what does it do? So Potty Spotty, the dog on the bathroom is saying something, what's he saying? Where is the bathroom, I need to find it. That's what he's saying to you, right, that's it. That's what he's doing. So now we're covered. How do we remember Zach? Anyone famous called Zach? Anybody you know, Zac Efron or something. Zac Efron Saved by the Bell. Right, so literally now we start to populate. We don't do this with my memory palace, we do it with your own. But sitting here is Potty Spotty. The dog is sitting on the toilet. The minute you walk in the door to your house there's a spotty dog sitting on the bathroom. And he's like, what are you doing here? I don't have a dog, and he's like listen, I'm just looking for a bathroom using this app. (laughter) Cool, and now you walk into the bathroom, right. The knee thing isn't relevant. And Zac Efron is in there, right. Zac Efron is Saved by the Bell. He's just running around the place. And he's with Diane who? Who's Diane? Diane Sawyer. Diane Sawyer, does everyone know who she is? You know who she is. NBC, right, I need to watch way more television. NBC, some abbreviation of three letters which we know it's three letters. Cool, and who else, Jose, who's Jose? Jose Aldo for me. Connor McGregor just beat him up in the UFC. You guys are obviously big fans, maybe not, okay, you get it. Jose Aldo for me, any other Joses? Jose Pociano, isn't that a singer? Okay. Jose Cuervo. Jose Cuervo, oh, I like that one, we have a winner. So Zac Efron is doing an interview with the lady Diane I can't remember from television and they're drinking Jose Cuervo. Right, and they're in this room here in the kitchen. It's a bit early to be drinking in the kitchen, but they are. And now 15 percent, how do I remember that number? 15, quinceañera, Jose, right, quinceañera. So they're going to a quinceañera party, all these weird people, 15 percent. And how much are they going to spend on that quinceañera party? And the dad is in there and he's like 250 grand on this thing. Bingo, so now it's gone. I don't know what's on the back of this, but it's about to get messy. But it's gone, so do you start to remember that. If you draw that in your own little memory palace at the moment as we were going along, you won't forget that story. Because even now you're like that was gobble de gook. Right, that doesn't exist, but Spotty Potty, sitting on a toilet, and what was the next question? Come on guys. What does it do? Exactly, what does it do? What's he doing, looking for a toilet? Exactly, so what's next? Zac. Management team. And they're drinking. Jose Cuervo. So they're with Jose, cool, what's next? Quinceañera. Quinceañera, why, because it's 15 percent. And how much are they spending on it? (audience mumbling) It sounds like gobble de gook, and it's ridiculous, but it has meaning to us in this room at this moment in time and we can remember it if we visualize it. So we visualize it, so Diane has no pants on, and that's a bit kinky, but I am happy with that. Because she's been drinking Jose. And I don't even want to picture what that looks like, but Zac is in there. He's the guy that was always mildly naked, the good looking one, Zac Efron, she's like oh yeah. She's already visualizing it. The ladies are coming behind, Jeff looks strangely excited with this scenario as well. (laughter) It's getting dirty in here real fast. I was just trying to be memorization, now it's kinky, but I'm fine with that. But you get the idea, the dirtier it is, the easier your mind is to remember it. Right, but you have to picture every little element of it. So now I'm on stage, this story makes no sense to anyone. Yeah, yeah, please. Question, what happens if you get words like confused. Like I'll say Squatty Potty instead of Potty Spotty or whatever it was. Yeah, well true, you just correct yourself. So you're like oh, Spotty Potty, I meant whatever. If you make a mistake, the audience will react. You'll see someone look at you weird and go what. And you're like oh, oh. So imagine you really were pitching this, it's probably written behind you somewhere. So just acknowledge your own mistake is fine. When you're memorizing this, you probably won't make mistakes. Like you got Diane, Zac and Jose. And they come really quickly in your mind. Your like hm, that was easy. You're not really going to screw that up I don't think. If you mispronounce them, just acknowledge it. People will laugh anyway. Especially if you say potty instead of spotty. I can't even say it for most of the time myself, so. Honestly if you screw something up, always have fun with it. I'm going to show you an example of that if you don't mind. But sound crazy, can you show me just because I know we're here, if you guys understand here then I'm happy that the guys online are going to understand it as well. So do you mind showing me from a sign of one to five, by show of hands, five I really understand this memory palace crazy Jose Cuervo naked people carryon. One, I haven't a clue what the Irish guy is talking about, which I probably should have asked you to do very early on in this session. Do you mind showing me by show of hands between one and five how you feel about using the memory palace? You can go three or four or five. Cool, so you'll experiment. It's the same thing they teach you about remembering people's names. 100%, so I had a meeting with a lady the other day from Sales Force, her name was Angela. When I think about Angela, I think of Angela's Ashes and Angela standing in front of a cloud and the cloud is on fire. And I'll never forget her name. So everyone who is like I'm not good with names, but for me everybody is a famous person or a person I've already met in the past. And that's super helpful, but you have to consciously actually try to do that. But it's a big one. I don't want to tackle all memorization because it's a whole different course. And you're like what's this got to do with being a funnier speaker? But when you know what you're about to say, you get relaxed enough to acknowledge the obvious, to go from the callback. In your mind, it's really where, do you ever hear someone like, oh it was an outer body experience. And you're like what kind of hippy dribble is this? But if you're on stage and you're using the memory palace, you're actively actively thinking about something else while you're talking, which is really weird. So you're like oh I'm analyzing data, but I'm still talking, how am I doing this, oh it's weird. Because I'm using a different part of my brain that's walking around. So that honestly is the single most useful, helpful thing. How do I prepare for stuff, which is a good question you asked. Starting point for everything. Bullet point list becomes the memory palace. I hide it somewhere, it's in my back pocket. It's written on a napkin, it's on a stool. You can get sneaky and write it on the back of a plastic bottle label, anything, if you really want it. You just don't show it to anybody. But have it on you. Yeah, one quick question. I'm wondering what room you're in right now. Oh I'm not, yeah, I wish I was that prepared. This one is so long that I would have been up all night staring at things and remembering it. But when I put together the book, I wanted to test it interactively online. So I originally taught a course to people, and they gave me feedback on what worked and what didn't. So what you guys are getting today is kind of a well trodden path, and I'm super into it as you might observe. I'm not into public speaking, but I do like teaching people this stuff, so for me, I did a memory palace for the first two minutes of what I was going to say today. And then to start with a story bit, I had two stories I wanted to do, so I did a separate memory palace for that. Just so that I'd hit three or four points that are key that I sometimes forget. So I did do it, but I didn't do it for the whole thing over all because I would have had to like, it would have been me to Palo Alto, hitting all this stuff, so it's quite an amount of stuff. But you can do it, I do do it most of the time. So I did a talk in here for the Creative Live staff a couple of days ago. I had a little memory palace drawn out just for a 20 minute talk. But it just makes me a bit more relaxed.

Class Description

Let’s just be real for a minute: most public speakers are boring. And aside from making your day a little less fun, dull presentations are bad for business.

Audiences have become conditioned to receiving information with a dose of entertainment, and that makes humor a critical tool for any professional communicator. We want our data with a punchline these days-- witness the success of The Daily Show or the stickiness of many of President Obama’s speeches for example.

It’s not just about getting some laughs to make yourself feel good; it’s about using humor to grab and hold your audience’s interest, making your message stickier and ultimately more persuasive. In a world full of bland, dull speakers, if you stand out, you win!

The good news is that humor is a skill, which means that it can be learned by anyone. The notion that we’re “born funny” couldn’t be more false: “being funny” is just a set of easily-replicated techniques (for example, the setup followed by the punchline) that anyone can pick up with a little practice.

Whether you are preparing for a business presentation, giving a wedding toast, defending your thesis, raising money from investors, this class will take you from nervous and sweaty to stage-ready.

Bestselling author, storyteller, occasional comedian, and Irishman, David Nihill will teach you:  

  • How top business speakers are using humor
  • One Sure Fire Way to Add Funny to any content
  • How To Replicate Top TED Talks
  • Basic Comedy Writing Techniques
  • Quick ways to get funny fast
  • How To Make Boring Things Funny (with guest Sarah Cooper)
  • Storytelling Tips that everyone can use
  • Advanced Comedy Writing Techniques
  • How to critique your own stories
  • Never go blank on stage with the memory palace technique
  • Content delivery tips for all levels
  • Manage stage fright  

As an added bonus, Sarah Cooper, a writer, comedian, and creator of the satirical blog, will be joining David to teach you how to make boring subjects more entertaining.

Learn more about David Nihill from his appearance on the “Profit, Power, Pursuit Podcast”!  



I always wondered why my favorite TED talks look so effortlessly off-the-cuff while commanding my undivided attention: Laughter. David's class taught me how "The end of laughter is followed by the height of listening." Applying stand-up comedy techniques to the art of storytelling makes information much easier to retain, and hence, easier to share with others. David handily makes the case for why the comedic structure is necessary and applicable in a variety of cases, ranging from business presentations to blog posts. After learning about the joke structure and funnel, I now hear/see them in action throughout my day. He also shares specific tips on how to "memorize" talking points while remaining totally flexible to last-minute time changes (e.g. "Your 20-minute talk just got chopped to 5 minutes. Go!") David covers specifically how to start your talk, end your talk, and where precisely to position your Q&A sessions to maximize audience reaction to the speaker. He supercharges this talk with so many actionable tricks and tips. Sarah Cooper makes a guest appearance sharing 4 tips that I found especially helpful for creating funny visuals. David's heartfelt honesty about the guts it takes to "get up on stage" - the vulnerability of it - really shines through. And now, I carry my "Funny File" with me at all times. This is a truly phenomenal class, both in content and delivery. Thank you for making me laugh, David and Sarah!

Kashif Rashid

Pretty brilliant. David is hilarious so he is definitely using his techniques. Its also easier to follow the class and want more when they are funny. I think most of the presenters on Creative live should be taking this class too . Make it funny so that learning becomes "fun"-ner

Philipp @PhotoAmmon Ammon

Brilliant lecture. David managed to keep me hooked, and I am pretty sure I will do so much better on whatever public speaking I have to do next As a photographer, I know this will help improve the way I look at talking about my work, and I think these kind of skills are vital to any artist. One little thing I didn't like about this was more of a technical issue. He uses videos as examples to the content he is teaching, but none of the CL links to the videos worked. I know its probably a copyright issue, but I would rather watch bad footage of the TV in the studio than nothing at all. Especially since I can't pause the talk and find the videos. Regardless, brilliant talk. Definitely watch it!