In my former life as a college professor, I entertained students every day.
And when I give live talks to corporate audiences, I use a lot of humor. But these are captive audiences who appreciate any diversion from the business at hand. Doing a live stand-up comedy performance would be the real test. It was the number one item on my bucket list.
Now, you have to understand I knew almost nothing about live comedy. I’d never even been to a comedy club. The class was a revelation.
First we had an intro. Then they challenged us to go find a friendly open mike (i.e., a place where anyone can sign up to perform for five minutes) before the next class. I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t so … I did. I descended some rickety steps of a dive-y kind of bar, waited forever for my turn, and (as they say in the business) killed ’em.
I was hooked. Since then I’ve done a lot of open mike sets and got invited to do some shows. And I learned some lessons that transfer to marketing in general and copywriting in particular.
I just came across a post about success factors for comedian Louis CK. And that made me think of what I’ve learned from my own experience as a “just for fun” open mic standup comedian. Even though I don’t aspire to professional status – I won’t even travel to North Philly – I’ve discovered some parallels between doing the open mics and doing my business thing.
1. Show up prepared and talk to lots of people.
The rewards of getting out there are huge. In comedy, you discover where the good clubs are and which ones are … well, a little weird. You learn what “8 PM signup” really means. And you get invited to be in shows.
That’s how I got to play a nun (“the swearing nun”) in a comedy show. The organizer had chatted with me while we were waiting at a club. When they needed a new actor I got the the Facebook message. One of the guys had a Halloween nun costume and I had a blast. I also got to meet some cool people in the comedy community. (I loved the costume. It hides EVERYthing.)
In business, if I were starting out today, I’d go to tons of events the first year and ask a lot of questions: what names keep coming up, what are the informal networks, and what are the hazards of the trade.
2. Recognize the signs that something is working.
When you work for somebody else, you usually get a sense of how you’re doing. When you’re doing well, you get “10” ratings on evaluations, fast-track promotions, and cushy assignments. When you’re not … well, you don’t.
When you’re on your own, you have to look for subtle signs that you’re following the right path: testimonials, referrals, repeat business, and subtler hints.
In comedy open mics, it’s pretty easy to tell if a particular set went well. People laugh. Loudly. But every audience is different and any gig can turn into a bomb. Our workshop instructor said, “At this point, it’s no big deal. It went well? Great. Not great? That’s okay too.
But you also get signs of how your reputation is growing, such as getting invited to be in shows, getting showcased, and getting moved up to an earlier spot.
3. Learn from the top people in your field.
Louis CK was influenced by some top comics and (on a lower scale). I’ve learned from watching the local faves at clubs and the internationally famous on YouTube.
And when I look back at the biggest mistake I’ve made in business, it would be this: not identifying the very top people in the field (see #1) and spending time with them. You don’t have to sign up for their mentoring programs to benefit from exposure. You can just pay attention to what they think is important, how they structure presentations, and their overall mindset.
(1) You become more creative when someone gives you limits. You get five minutes at an open mic. Sometimes you get three.
To my surprise, when I cut back to keep the time limit, my material got better.
It works for blog posts and sales letters, too. These days we’re seeing shorter, tighter content, which leads to livelier, more creative copy.
Challenge yourself to use specific structures. For instance, “Write 20 bullets using these 5 styles.” Or “Write a blog post without using the words ‘have’ or ‘get’ in any tense.” You can also challenge yourself to shorten your copy. When you have to cut words, you often become sharper so you get a stronger reaction.
(2) You need to listen for reactions and make changes. One night I got a late slot and realized I’d need to have an especially edgy set ready. Fortunately this is Philadelphia and my venues have been pretty much heckle-free.
In the marketing world I’ve heard people say, “I know my copy could be better but it’s already written and out there.” True, but it’s not that hard to make changes. If your audience is responding – terrific! If not, it’s rarely too late. You can read more in this blog post.
(3) You can’t expect to win all the time and that’s a good thing. So far my experiences have been very positive. But I’m also pushing myself to try different things, get more outrageous, and go out on the edge. Everyone says, “Sooner or later you’re gonna bomb. And then you’ll want to come back and get it right.”
There’s a saying in marketing, “If nobody ever complains or asks for a refund, you’re playing too safe.” And I’d add, “If you play safe and want the same old stuff when you develop your website or sales letter, you might keep getting business – but the breakthrough comes when you break your own mold.”
You have to get out on the edge where you feel uncomfortable and you make your audience just a little uncomfortable, too.
And then, as Joan Rivers used to say, “Can we talk?”
If you’d like to do more than talk about your own challenges with copy and marketing, let’s do it! We won’t just talk: we’ll focus on getting to solutions fast. Just sign up here.