Speakers: Be Quiet But Not Sneaky Quiet

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 2.00.58 PMWhat’s more distracting: a speaker who openly refers to the clipboard in her hand or one who stares long and hard at the top of the podium each time she takes a sip of water? One who furtively glances at his watch to see how he’s doing on time or one who makes no effort to conceal doing so?

Many years ago when I moved into a friend’s house he asked that when arriving home late at night that I be quiet but not “sneaky quiet”. Cautiously turning the key and gently opening the front door; tip-toeing around the house to prevent the floors from creaking: all these things, he explained, are not only more likely to wake him but more likely to terrify him in the middle of the night. The routine sounds of a respectful housemate coming home late, on the other hand, might wake him briefly but would also send him quickly back to sleep.

Much better for all involved to simply be open about it.

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Today in False Choices: People Versus Profits

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Consulting with corporations about the importance of putting “people before profits” is mutually beneficial to both speaker and corporation: the latter is afforded cheap virtue and the former an expensive lifestyle. In the world of speaking and corporate consulting, espousing the people-before-profits narrative is, as with authenticity and diversity, simply good business practice.

This value-for-value model is lost on the very same speakers who take it for granted that profits are suspect in and of themselves. These self-styled experts fail to see that, unlike President Obama’s facile description of the tension between liberty and security, people v. profits really is a false choice. Yet companies throughout the U.S. are happy to self-flagellate before speaker after speaker, pretending to temporarily forget that which reality will forever remind them: that profits are a pretty darn good measure of the extent to which you have served others.

At the heart of the people-before-profits movement is a ambivalence about the dignity and morality of business. In popular culture this idea is most evident in movies and on television, where businessmen are almost invariably portrayed as either moral bankrupts (Wall Street) or courageous heroes who unveil the moral bankruptcy the business (Michael Clayton).

The Birkenstock set in particular has built an entire cottage industry around apologizing for being in business, from technology entrepreneur Kate Emery to speaker Dan Pallotta to the TED talks, where the “ideas worth spreading” overwhelmingly assume the people v. profits model.

Into this world of received wisdom enters Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments For Making Money. Lapin’s thesis is that far from being something to be ashamed of, profits should be seen for what they are: a blessing and a measure of our success serving our fellows.

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Strong Body, Focused Mind

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I was in great shape last January. For some reason I decided to into great shape for an engagement on my calendar – something I had never even considered doing before.

Why did I do so this time? One reason that it was a weeklong run at the Magic Castle and after all, one does not simply walk into Mordor.

By the end of the week I learned some interesting things. For one thing, the strength I’d built up from moderate, consistent distance running running and working out with babies effectively reduced the physical workload of performing. More pertinent, onstage it freed my min  to focus on more pertinent things, like what am I doing with my life?

Was is it worth it? This Magic Castle bootleg nicely conveys the incredible reserves of energy my act requires.

In 24 days I’ll need to again be physically strong for my mind’s sake. I’ll make it – but it starts today.

Thoughts? Comments? Leave them in the section below.

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Whipping The Audience Into A Frenzy Is Your Job, Not The Audience’s

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There are two ways to get the response you desire of an audience: earn it or demand that they fake it. The latter is characterized by the badgering of the audience over their insufficient zeal.

I understand you need energy. But why not energize the audience by doing something energizing?

I recently performed in a show emceed by a very nice guy who constantly reminded the audience the urgency of being whipped into a frenzy at all times.  I’m not complaining about the rote “Please give a warm Jacksonville welcome to…” I’m talking about the show business equivalent to North Korea’s forcing its citizens to out-wail one another over the death of Kim Jong Il.

“How you doing, everybody?!?! C’mon, you can do better than that, people! Let me hear you say APCA!” The college students gamely supplied what the emcee was desperately seeking: empty cheering which vanished the moment they were directed their attention to the next bauble.

One of those baubles was me. My approach was not the emcee’s: I believe that if the if the audience has shown up, shut up and given you their full attention then you can’t ask more of them. My job, as an entertainer, is to evoke a certain response and then to shape it, be it laughter, applause or even nervous silence.

By the time I came to the stage the audience had been participating in this showcase/social experiment for several days and were now downright Pavlovian in their response. There might as well have been digital Applause signs flashing on each side of the stage. I had anticipated this (even the most obstinate can’t help learning a thing or two over time) so I knew long before taking the stage that my task was to get this Ticonderoga-class ship to stop on a dime and begin responding more naturally: that is, without prompting.

Audiences are you like you and me, though: if you do a thing worth watching then they will tend to watch it. The key then becomes maintaining their engagement.  My philosophy is that whether you’re a teacher, sword swallower, speaker or comedy juggler, you must strive to be be interesting every moment from beginning to end.  Some things naturally make doing so more difficult (a drunken heckler) while others make it easier (a 4-year old drunken heckler).

Am I nuts? Let me know what you think in the comment section below.

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Happy Performers Make Happy Audiences

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The Orange County Magic & Comedy Showcase in Orange, California is remarkable: instead of limiting the amount of time performers spend on stage, its producer and emcee Joe Derry limits the number of performers. By leaving it to performers to self-police their time on stage, they are freed to spend all their focus on what they’re doing.

Everyone – including the audience – benefits tremendously.

“No one is prowling the back of the room with a watch and a flashlight, waiting to give you your two-minute light” explains Derry. The result is like a much-needed breath of fresh air: performers are relaxed and enjoy an unmistakable sense of camaraderie that’s virtually impossible with the assign-a-slot mindset that prevails at so many showcases.

When I was building up my stand-up comedy act at open-mics, giving performers “the light” was deemed a necessity – and few things go further to ensure that performers are put on ice from the moment they arrive.

By limiting the number of sign-ups instead of the amount of time they spend on stage, Derry’s showcase avoids another problem that famously vexes the format: an audience that consists mostly of sign-ups anxiously waiting their turn. At the OCMC showcase, the audience is comprised overwhelmingly of Orange county locals patently grateful to have a different (and free) magic show right in their own backyard each month.

Learning magic under the auspices of the Long Beach Mystics, Joe Derry knows that happy entertainers mean happy audiences: a lesson more bookers and show producers would do well to learn.

(In addition the monthly showcase, Joe also stars in his own weekly show, Merlin’s Magic & Comedy Dinner Theatre. Both are hosted by the Rib Trader restaurant).

Questions or comments? Leave them in the section below.

Return to www.daviDDeeble.com or watch me relate an awkward conversation I had on an elevator.

Generating Buzz And Power Of The Unexpected

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Some time ago I was thinking of ways to increase my post-show merchandise sales. I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable when watching other performers attempt to reach into the pockets of their audience before the conclusion of their show and I had little desire to follow their example.

But then an idea occurred to me: what about thanking my volunteer during each show by giving him a complimentary edition of my dvd Look What I Can Do! (Not available online or in stores!) That way I could at least make audiences aware that I have merchandise without doing any kind of onstage hard-sell – or any onstage selling at all, for that matter.

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I kept it simple: after inviting my volunteer to return to his seat (to the audience’s applause, of course), I would produce my dvd and point out the following: “Now, Steve, here was sitting in the audience just like the rest of you folks, but then I plucked him out of the ether, as it were, and he found himself onstage in front of everyone with spotlight in his eyes and so forth. And I think he did a great job assisting me. So I’m going to give him a complimentary dvd of my entire show.”

Having performed thousands of shows throughout my life, I thought I had encountered every kind of audience response, from utter indifference to nervous laughter to hanging onto every word that comes out of my mouth in anticipation of more hilarity. But I had never encountered the response of audiences to giving something away unexpectedly.

I’ve given away countless dvds in this manner over the last couple of years and audiences always respond in the same manner, yet it never ceases to amaze me. How to describe it? They react to this unselfconscious act of thanking my volunteer (while making them aware of a thing) with… a gasp. No, not the kind of gasp that’s triggered by performing a dangerous stunt or boarding an airplane wearing shorts. It’s the kind of gasp that results from witnessing the unexpected.

It’s important to note that it’s the unexpectedness of the gesture rather than the magnitude of its generosity that generates the buzz: after all, though slick-looking, each dvd cost me only a couple of bucks to mass produce. (But even there, my volunteer discovers more unexpected surprises inside, such as a blooper reel and commentary feature in which I describe how I dreamt up each routine and so forth).

I always thought I should be able to create and sustain buzz by simply doing  great work. But great work my audiences and clients expect. A little gift for a volunteer for briefly helping me out onstage? That’s unexpected.

By thinking up ways to improve my merchandise sales I accidentally discovered a way to generate the kind of joy and excitement that every performer and salesperson seeks.

Naturally, if my volunteer so desires I’ll sign the dvd for him after the show. How’s that for a great way to start a conversation?

Thoughts? Suggestions? Leave your comments in the section below.

Return to www.daviDDeeble.com or watch me try out new jokes on a baby.

Sound and the First Principles of Event Production

“Sound”, says a character in David Mamet’s play A Life In The Theater, is “the crown prince of phenomena.”

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Entertainers and audiences know that at larger events, no amount of glitz, name-recognition or talent can compete against an improperly functioning sound system. Sadly, many sound engineers (and at smaller events, those who pass for them) do not seem to appreciate the importance of their job.

I’m not talking about a musician-like preoccupation with the “color” of the sound coming out of the speakers at your event. I’m talking about basics, like an event that is 100% feedback-free. Preoccupied with ensuring they properly execute the performer’s cues, amateurs (and, sadly, many professionals) tend to forget the most-basic cue of all: distraction-free sound.

The volume should be properly modulated. The maximum allowable amount of feedback is zero. If wearing a wireless microphone, the speaker’s voice should be amplified the moment she takes the stage.

This last example is particularly pertinent to me. My opening line – Thank you, I represent the lollipop guild – concludes within two seconds of my walk-on applause. The laugh it receives is intense and then swells to fill the entire room. A huge laugh at nearly the instant I’m introduced is my message to each individual in the audience: pay attention or you’ll miss something hilarious.

It may surprise you, then, how many sound engineers seem to think that amplifying my voice is something to get around to around the time I’m introduced.

As a result, at some point during each rehearsal with a sound engineer with whom I am unfamiliar, I must embarrass myself (and humiliate the engineer) by pointing out that my microphone must be functioning properly from the moment I am introduced. (And no sooner. Yes, this, incredibly, is also a problem).

Does this sound axiomatic that I needn’t point it out to a professional? Does it sound patronizing? In in a world where most professions (including my own) are characterized by mediocrity rather competence, I have no choice but to point it out.

Sometimes attention to detail can cause us to lose sight of basics. Think the actor who works himself into such an emotional frenzy that he fails to make his lines understood. The marathoner who, after months of training, fails to pack his shoes for the race.

They’re called first principles for a reason.

Event planners too-often lose sight of getting the perfect speaker or entertainer for their event and leave the soundboard in the hands of someone unfamiliar with the first-principles of production.

Thoughts? Leave them in the comment section below.

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There’s One In Every Crowd – So Why Fret?

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When it comes to distractions while performing, entertainers tend to feel the pea beneath the mattress. I wish I had a nickel for each time I directed my attention the one person in the audience who doesn’t seem to “get” it. One of the most-challenging aspects of live performance is learning not to focus on the disinterested man, the disengaged woman and distracting 3-year old heckler.

Every speaker and entertainer need to decide who in the audience they want to win over. One has a choice: to direct your attention to the gal in the front row who’s clearly not “rolling with it” or to the vast majority of the audience who is.

When you “have the floor”, it’s natural to be hypersensitive to the least little distraction. One example from memory: I was performing in a cavernous theater before a large audience when a woman in the front row began crinkling the plastic wrapper of the lozenge she had just placed in her mouth. It was barely audible to me, let alone the rest of the audience. I decided, however, that it was important to make her (and therefore the rest of the audience) aware of it and that would she kindly refrain from it?

The audience’s reaction: What the hell is this guy referring to? The fact is, no one in the audience was paying any attention to it because they were paying attention to me. I had earned their attention by being interesting – and I threw it away when I drew their attention to the busy fingers of the woman in the front row.

There will always be distractions from time to time – a glass will shatter on the floor, for example – which would be awkward to let pass without any comment. But unless you’re absolutely certain that something which occurs “outside the lines” requires commentary from you, nine times out of ten you won’t regret ignoring it.

Return to www.daviDDeeble.com or watch me juggle (now-banned) plastic grocery bags on The Tonight Show.