Show business is all about "pizzazz," "razzle-dazzle, and "fireworks." Regardless of the catchy moniker you attach to it, it's about excitement. It's designed to make the performer look good and the audience feel good. Above all, it's the antithesis of boredom. Not only does it make the entertainer more entertaining, it also makes the viewers more entertained.
This show-business sparkle, though, doesn't just happen. It's purposely generated. I learned a few of the tricks of the performing trade early in my career. As a fledgling comedy writer, I had the opportunity to watch Sammy Davis Jr. perform his nightclub act in Atlantic City, two shows a night for two consecutive weeks. Sammy was an extraordinarily natural showman, who was tremendously at ease on stage.
After each performance I listened to the comments of the patrons as they left the nightclub. The idea I heard voiced most often was, "Boy, that Sammy Davis is quick. He can really ad-lib."
And it was true. Sammy Davis could ad-lib. In fact, he would ad-lib the same joke at the same point in his act, night after night.
That's showmanship – to have an act so well-written and so well-rehearsed that it appears to come right off the top of the performer's head.
There are many tricks that performers use to add glitter to their shows. Speakers can learn from these legendary entertainers in order to sneak a little spice into their own presentations. Here are a few of them:
1. Come onto the podium as if you own it. Great entertainers don't simply come onstage, they burst into the limelight. Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bobby Darin, Liza Minelli – all of the greats exploded onto the stage and commandeered the audience. Recall when you've seen live performances of your favorite entertainers. Remember the delightful chill you got the moment that person walked out from the wings? It was glorious, thrilling, captivating. That's exactly what the entertainer wants it to be.
It's not necessarily something that performers are born with; it's a cultivated skill. During one nightclub appearance, Bobby Darin was chided by a husband who reluctantly accompanied his wife to the show. When Darin came onstage, this man said, "Bobby, you'd better be good tonight."
Darin said, "Sir, you don't have to tell me that. I spend a half-hour telling myself that same thing before every show." Darin prepared himself for each stage entrance.
Many times I would sit backstage with Bob Hope after an exhausting day of performances. On the military jaunts, Hope sometimes did five or six shows a day. Hope would be weary, exhausted, his shoulders drooping. Yet when the theme music started and the announcer began the introduction, Hope stood up tall. He appeared to get 10 years younger and four inches taller. Then he strutted toward the microphone with a jaunty bounce in his step that announced to the crowd, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to have some laughs."
Entertainer Al Jolson would even verbalize the excitement to come. He'd say, "Ladies and gentlemen, you ain't heard nothin' yet."
Add some showbiz pizzazz to your presentation by stepping onto the podium with confidence and flair. Give the impression that you're eager to be there and that the listeners are undoubtedly in for a special treat.
2. Impact your audience quickly. You've brought some excitement to the presentation with your entrance; now capitalize on it. Deliver to your listeners, as quickly as you can, what your electrifying entrance has promised.
Zany comedienne Phyllis Diller is noted for her outlandish costumes. The wackier Phyllis's garb is, the more the audience loves it. It has become, along with her raucous laugh, her trademark.
Phyllis hit upon this gimmick, though, as a way to score quickly with each audience. She firmly believes that comics should begin with a laugh. She's never subscribed to the practice that so many of today's comics employ of opening the act with chatter. "How are you folks doing tonight?" "Are you having a good time tonight?" No, Phyllis Diller wants to make a comedy impact as fast as she can. The outrageous dresses have accomplished that for her.
Sometimes her ensembles have been so surreal that they served as their own sight gag. The dress itself got laughs. But then Phyllis can do a line about her garb and score big laughs right off the bat. Her attire serves as her first straight line.
Phyllis' advice is worthwhile even if you're not a humorous speaker. You still are well served by making an immediate impact on your listeners. Begin with a sentence or a paragraph that not only epitomizes your message, but also intrigues your audience. Right at the start, let them know that they're going to want to hear what you have to say.
David Letterman recently entertained some of the troops serving in Iraq. He got their attention immediately with this opening line: "Is there anyone here from out of town?"
3. Keep your audience fresh. Performers know that pacing is an important part of the act. When is the right time for a ballad; when is an up-tempo tune needed? Audiences tire, they get bored, they get distracted. It's the performer's job to keep them interested and intrigued. It's the entertainer who must keep them entertained. It's also the speaker who must keep them listening.
Bob Hope was once taping his monologue for an upcoming television special. The on-camera monologue ran about eight minutes, but in the studio, Hope often entertained for 30 to 45 minutes. At this particular taping, Bob Hope ended his monologue and said to the crowd, "I'm going to do a few jokes about President Jerry Ford and his football days. We're making a tape that's going to be played at the White House. If you can hang around for about five minutes, I'd love for you to hear it." Then he exited the stage.
I met Bob Hope as he came offstage and said, "I didn't know these Ford jokes were going to be shown at the White House."
Hope said, "They're not. The audience was getting tired. This way, when I go back out they'll be eager to hear these jokes, knowing that the president is going to be hearing them too."
Every person stayed to hear those last few gags. They responded with more enthusiasm. Hope had revitalized them with a show-business gimmick.
As a speaker, you too can find ways to refresh the audience. I listened to one speaker who periodically shouted, "Are you still awake?" and she prompted the audience to yell back, "I'm awake." It was great fun for the listeners to participate and it did keep them alert.
Sometimes an amusing anecdote will revitalize an audience. Perhaps a story that's told as if it's a departure from the presentation will intrigue the listeners. Anything that changes the pattern or tempo can refocus the listeners.
4. Work within yourself. Do you know why the great performers appear so talented? It's because they don't do anything that makes them appear untalented. When I worked for Carol Burnett, people often said, "Carol Burnett is so versatile; she can do anything."
With all due respect to Carol, she cannot do anything. She appeared versatile because she only attempted to do those things that she could do – and they were many.
One time I wrote a routine for Bob Hope and a famous boxer who was going to appear on the show. One of the gags featured a multi-syllabic word. Hope called me and asked if I had written that particular line. I proudly said I had.
Hope said, "Gene, this guy has trouble with one-syllable words. He'll never spit out that word you gave him."
Each of us can do certain things well, certain things modestly, and there are some things we should never try. In one of my speeches I had a punch line that featured the word, "shoulder-holster." Unfortunately, I found out after several performances that my tongue and lips cannot get out the word "shoulder-holster."
Tony Bennett sings the songs that Tony Bennett can sing well. Jerry Seinfeld tells the jokes that Jerry Seinfeld can tell well. A juggler who can juggle five razor-sharp knives should not attempt to juggle six razor-sharp knives.
Know what sort of anecdotes you can tell well, what gestures you can use naturally, what phrases and speech patterns suit your style best, and use them. Avoid any that may be effective for other speakers, but seem awkward to you.
It's just good showmanship.