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Sales & Stage Presence in Stand-Up Part 1

September 13, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how stage presence in stand-up comedy is very similar to salesmanship. In fact, a lot of the vernacular is shared – when a bit is weak, a comic must “sell” it. Much like a good sales pitch, an act must have a strong “close.” Both jobs involve reading people, displaying a certain amount of empathy, and above all, unbridled enthusiasm for the product.

I thought it might be interesting to look at 5 classic sales techniques and see how they relate to stand-up comedy.

1) Reciprocation

This sales technique builds upon the powerful urge that humans have to “repay a kindness.” We’ve all felt this when a friend buys us a Christmas present and we didn’t think to get them one. We immediately run out and buy a gift in return, which is often much nicer or more expensive than the original gift. We feel a need to even the scales as it were.

In sales, you will see this technique at the Beer Store or LCBO. A friendly, smiling person offers you a free sample. While you enjoy your thimble of wine, they chat up the product. When you are done, you feel oddly guilty just walking away without buying.

This technique reminds me of how road comics connect with a new crowd. They reference something about the town that is specific, and shared by the audience. This investment in the character of the town is often reciprocated in their willingness to invest in the comic.

I experimented with this technique when I did a show in Alliston, Ontario. Before heading out, I chatted with a friend who grew up in that area and did a quick search on Wikipedia about the town. I cherry-picked a couple of tidbits that I thought were interesting – for example, Nobel Prize winner Frederick Banting (co-discoverer of insulin, what what!) grew up in Alliston, and the neighbouring township was called Beeton. Armed with this knowledge I began my set by giving some big ups to Alliston, then took a moment to throw out some generic disses about Beeton. It got some great laughs, but the most important part was the us versus them mentality that was created. From then on I felt as if the audience was on my side. They wanted me to succeed because I wasn’t just another random guy. In a small way I had invested in the town, and there was an urge to reciprocate by investing in my act

As a footnote, watch your step with dissing the neighbouring townships – I was actually approached by an angry Beetonite after the show who was less than amused at me poking fun at his town.

2) Foot in the Door Technique

In sales, this is exactly what it sounds like: manufacturing a reason why people should give you a chance to work your sales magic on them. In the old days of door-to-door salesmen, they would often ask for a drink of water, or to use the washroom, leveraging people’s kindness to get inside the house. Once there, it was a lot easier to make a pitch than out on the door stoop where it’s very easy to say “no thanks” and slam the door.

I see a parallel to stand-up with this technique in the habit of comics who often start their sets with a very short joke. It is rare for even a story-telling comic to launch into a long narrative without first getting their foot in the door, so to speak. After realizing this, I started to kick off sets with a one-liner, the leanest joke possible. I couldn’t fill a set with one-liners, but I have a handful that consistently get laughs, so I will often throw them out to get the audience to a point where they are willing to follow me on a lengthier bit.

Come on back tomorrow for part 2, where we’ll continue with the final 3 sales techniques and how they relate to stand-up comedy

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