I re-read a great book on public speaking recently and I was reminded of a technique which was the first one I ever used! I’ll give you a brief background on the book, and the technique itself, before I tell you about my experience with it.
The book I had read was called “Just Say A Few Words” and it was by the late British Comedian and After Dinner Speaker Bob Monkhouse. Bob was a great comedian whose style were one-liner jokes similar in style to his hero Bob Hope. According to the book, Monkhouse was at an after dinner event in the 1960s alongside fellow British comedian Tony Hancock.
As the story goes Hancock never really enjoyed public speaking. He was in fact more of a comic actor than a comedian. He had brilliant script writers on his radio and TV shows and was more comfortable speaking the words of others.
According to Monkhouse they were both to speak at a charity function at London’s prestigious Savoy Hotel. Speaking before Hancock was a white-haired old priest, who nobody gave a second thought to. Apparently, however, he gave an extremely witty and hilarious speech making the audience roar with laughter.
Then came the deadpan Hancock. After the applause for Hancock had died down he waved his speech notes in his hand and said:
“Just before we came to dinner, Father Terry and I met in the gents and you all know what a lad he is for a joke, my goodness me yes. He said to me, “wouldn’t it be funny if we exchanged speeches and I did yours and you did mine?” So we did, and you’ve just heard mine. This is his and I’m not going to do this load of rubbish – good evening!”
I used this technique myself the second time I ever performed stand-up comedy. I was a 19 year old open mike new comedian at the time and, for reasons beyond me, I was put on after an extremely experienced feature comic who regularly played all the big London clubs and got paid for the privilege. I sat there in the audience in horror as he made the audience scream with laughter. I was terrified because I knew I had to follow him.
I bounded onto the stage confident in my own abilities that I could follow such a pro. My world was suddenly blown apart as punchline after punchline failed; I was being heckled ruthlessly and I headed rapidly towards “comedy death”.
It was then I heard the words no dying young comedian wants to hear from a heckler: “got any material?” My heart sank. I’d been slaving over that script and those jokes for months. I’d rehearsed again and again and knew my carefully crafted material backwards. And here I was being asked by a drunken heckler if I actually had any material.
But, from the depths of my being, I managed to pull out a version of The Hancock Manoeuvre before I had even realised what I was saying. My immediate response was: “actually yeah. I spoke to comic who was just on before the show and we agreed to swap material. He did my act and was hilarious and I’m doing his and it’s a load of rubbish. Thank you very much, good night!” I left the stage to a round of applause. More so than just a polite clap. I also received a huge compliment from the comic who had gone on before me.
So next time you are in a tight spot and the speaker before you does an absolutely amazing job, have a think to yourself “can I equal if not better his speech? or shall I invoke The Hancock Manoeuvre?”