Funny business

There’s nothing funny about getting the jitters ahead of a crucial pitch or speech to a large group but one comedian reckons it’s all easy – once you’ve tried stand-up.
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IT TOOK Sam Avery several years – and a night on the booze – before he was ready to take to the stage.

But the 38-year-old has since been hailed by publications as diverse as the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and The Lad Bible, and he has a book on the way.

And when he’s not on stage or producing new material, Avery is coaching entrepreneurs in the art of public speaking.

“It’s all about how you can use humour to connect with an audience, defuse difficult situations or build empathy with your audience,” explains Avery, who delivered masterclasses to SME delegates at last year’s International Business Festival.

Sam Avery performs at a business function

“Sometimes people just want to learn how to crack a few jokes at the start of a business speech but I try to steer them away from that. It’s one way to end up sounding like David Brent,” he says.

“Instead, I try to get people to inject their personality more, to get the audience to like them.”

Avery creates the business workshops as part of his role with The Comedy Trust.

Doing work with clients like Barclays, United Utilities and O2 helps the charity to fund programmes for children, or adults with mental health problems.

Some workshops focus solely on public speaking while others promote workplace wellbeing by building morale, reducing stress and helping to build staff relationships, particularly in new teams.

The Merseyside-based charity travels nationwide to run team-building sessions at staff away-days.

“I’ll turn up out of a corner at breakfast and tell people that by the end of the day they will be doing stand-up. It’s always terrifying for them,” Avery says.

But he insists: “It’s always a good laugh, honestly.”

Once delegates have braved trying to make peers laugh, they should feel more comfortable addressing audiences on subjects within their comfort zone. Or at least that’s the theory.

Sam Avery on stage
READ: Sam Avery's top tips on public speaking

What do the delegates reckon?

David Wafer, 40, put it to the test a few months in to the process of setting up McIver Scott Recruitment, after 13 years in the corporate world.

“Starting a business is a very different challenge and you have elements of doubt. But if you can stand up in front of a room full of people and entertain them then you think ‘why can’t I do anything in life’,” he said.

Wafer was experienced at speaking to groups and likes to use humour at work but admitted that taking to the stage after a few sessions was a “scary experience”.

“If you do something you’ve never done before, it doesn’t do you any harm in terms of being able to think fresher and clearer and from a confidence point of view.”

Sam Avery delivers a business presentation workshop

Louise Barrett, who heads up corporate partnerships at Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, says a Comedy Trust course – delivered with business coaches from Tallant Jones – worked for her team of 10.

“As fundraisers we have to present all the time and 90% of people don’t like it. It could be as many as 400 people at a gala dinner. Everybody has the same anxiety and we never really get feedback.

“It gave us a bit more confidence. We gave each other feedback and thought actually we’re not bad at this. And because it was fun, it made us really bond.”

So how did Avery end up a comedian?

Throughout an early career doing “glorified data-entry” in a bank’s PEPs and ISAs department, Avery harboured dreams of doing stand-up.

But he admits: “As a public speaker, I had zero skills, competence or confidence.”
It was during a drunken night 14 years ago that he finally took to the stage at a university Stars in their Eyes competition.

“A girl I knew leant me a pair of leopardskin leggings, I shoved a cucumber down the front and did a terrible Mick Jagger impersonation,” he says.

He woke up to a text reminding him that he’d come second and agreed to a theatre gig that night.

Frantic and hungover preparation resulted in an “awful” 10-minute set but the student audience was supportive and Avery was emboldened to carry on.

He was “shocking and terrible and stiff” at first but ultimately, he says, the only way to improve your public performance is to practice.

“People often say I’m a natural performer but I’ve had to learn how to look natural. Even people who look incredibly comfortable speaking on stage either have had to learn it or aren’t as comfortable as you think.”

But what if you’re facing intimidating buyers, or delivering news your audience doesn’t want to hear?

“Dealing with difficult questions is a bit like hecklers,” says Avery. “You can’t let people walk all over you but it’s about keeping your cool and responding with valid points. If comedians react the wrong way, then people can see the heckler has won.”

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Produced by the 2018 International Business Festival, in partnership with Wordscapes.