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5 Comedians That Will Make You a Better Public Speaker

Are you a bad story teller?  Do you sound monotone?  Do you ramble and forget what your point was?

There are several forms of public speaking that challenge dentists everyday.  From addressing your staff to presenting a case to a patient, we continually need to be able to effectively communicate our goals to others.  Once in a while, you may even be called upon to lecture to a study club or speak your mind at a dental society meeting.

For some people, this is a terrifying idea.


In my lecture, Public Speaking: Conquer Your Fears, Master Your Words, I review techniques to help dentists, well… conquer their fears and master their words.

I gave this presentation at the 25th ADA New Dentist Conference last month.  My friend, Dr. Laura Aeschlimann, was in attendance and she learned a few tricks to polish her public speaking skills (which are already quite good).  Laura asked me to write a post about one of my favorite tricks: learning from stand up comedians.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that you should try to tell jokes and be funny all the time.  No no.

But we can learn a lot about cadence, timing, pauses, volume control, pitch, and story structure from comedians.  Plus it’s a fun way to practice.

I continue to polish my abilities as a speaker by listening to comedians work their magic.  I find a bit I like and listen to it over and over.  I rehearse it, matching the exact tone and speed of the act until I could recite the bit from memory.  I immerse myself in the performance.  If you do this, I promise you will start to pick up some of the subtle devices the comedian uses to keep the audience’s attention.

So here are some of my favorite comedians who have taught me to become a better public speaker.  Go check them out on Youtube and see which ones resonate with you.

WARNING: Some of these comedians use foul language and gross humor.  If you’re easily offended, you may want to practice your public speaking with another technique!

(1) Louis C.K.

Louis is perhaps my favorite working comedian right now.  He’s the funniest he’s ever been and he’s not slowing down.  His latest album, Hilarious, is as good as it gets.  Definitely some raunchy language here, but his gift of observation transcends his use of four-letter words, in my humble opinion.

What to look for: Louis is a master story teller.  He controls his voice and chooses his words like he’s conducting an orchestra; every moment is perfectly planned.  No matter what you level of skill you are as a speaker, you will learn something from him.

(2) Mike Birbiglia

Mike is a master of using speed to drive a story.  He deliberately slows down his words to a crawl to draw your attention to important concepts, then speeds back up during the filler.  Perhaps he uses this technique too much, as his style becomes predictable after a while.

What to look for: Changing the speed of your words is a powerful (and often ignored) speaking device.  If I’m talking about a clinical technique that I think is overly complicated, I’ll speed up my words when I describe it to convey my feeling of confusion to the audience.  I’ll take dramatic pauses for emphasis.  I’ll slow down, painfully, if I want the audience to share my boredom.

(3) Paul F. Tompkins

My second favorite working comedian today and much cleaner than Louis.  Like Louis, Paul combines several speaking techniques to culminate in an extraordinary performance.  Check out his album, Impersonal, for the best of his stuff.  He does a bit about peanut brittle that will make you cry with laughter.  He often uses a silly voice, almost as if he was talking to a six-year-old child.  I would avoid that if I were you; we don’t want to sound condescending to our audiences.

What to look for: Paul’s persona is loveable and goofy.  It’s as much disarming as it is charming.  You can’t help but find him non-threatening.  You listen to him and already trust him.  This is is a very high-level skill.  Also, for those of you who might be turned off by foul language, Paul is the comedian on this list for you.

(4) Maria Bamford

Maria is the odd-ball on this list.  Her humor is avant-garde, abstract, and downright bizarre.  She has an incredible ability to impersonate the people she meets in her life.  She doesn’t want to do impressions of famous people; she’d rather impersonate the ditzy checkout girl at the local food store.

What to look for: I don’t recommend you start doing impressions as a public speaker!  But we can learn from Maria’s power of empathy.  She truly embodies the odd people she impersonates.  She temporarily sees the world from their perspective.  When I tell a story for an audience, I try to inhabit the characters for a moment.  It makes the story more real and entertaining.

(5) Patton Oswalt

Patton is the conversationalist.  Listening to his stand up sounds like listening to a friend at the dinner table.  He’s informal and relaxed.  Whereas Louis C.K. bits sound like every word and pitch is finely crafted, Patton sounds like he’s just having a fun chat.  Some of his material can also be a bit raunchy, so be careful what you stumble upon.

What to look for: Being able to sound conversational as a speaker is one of the ultimate goals.  You’ll keep people’s attention better and put them at ease.


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