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Seven Key Work Skills I Learned From Doing Stand-Up

Talk to anyone who's done stand-up, and they will tell you that it's the most terrifying thing you can do. (I assume these people haven't worked down a 200-ft mine, defused any bombs, or had lunch with my mother.)

I've always been a big one for challenging myself. Taking the plunge into the deep end. And, more often than not, ending up in A&E with various degrees of physical damage and lacerations to my ego.

And one fire I've always wanted to play with, is stand-up comedy.

Talk to anyone who's done stand-up, and they will tell you that it's the most terrifying thing you can do.

(I assume these people haven't worked down a 200-ft mine, defused any bombs, or had lunch with my mother.)

But certainly, as types of public performance go, standing in front of an audience and trying to make them laugh is not easy.

It's especially tricky if you've had no previous experience, and have just booked yourself 25 solo 1-hour stand-up shows in one of the main venues of the biggest arts festival in the World, the Edinburgh Fringe.

So this is what I did. You remember that thing about the deep end...

I heard only two words from the mouth of everyone I told about this: 'brave', and 'mad'.

This did little to raise my confidence levels, truth be told.

But I laughed any worries off (possibly the biggest laugh I got all Summer) thinking, 'what's the worst that can happen - apart from extreme public humiliation and some form of emotional breakdown??'

I was IN. I wanted to have a go. Learn something. Feel the pain, and...then feel some more pain.

By the time I arrived in Edinburgh, brave was starting to feel a lot like foolhardy and mad more like certifiable.

The three days running up to my first show was, without question, the most nervous I have ever been in my life. I spent most of that time either on the toilet, deciding which end of my body needed to be nearest to it first, or experiencing such heart palpitations I had to have myself banned from all local coffee houses.

As the time neared, my brain seemed to alternate between peculiarly calm denial that any of this was happening, to sudden breathless, pop-eyed mania, and a sort of panic-stricken white-out.

The final stage, which I believe psychologists call 'neural incontinence', occurred on my way to do my first show. I staggered across town in an adrenaline-spun blur, carrying a £10 Argos keyboard on which I intended to accompany myself singing songs I had never sung before - and still in its plastic wrapper - shouting 'WHY AM I DOING THIS??? I HAVE A CAREER, YOU KNOW! I HAVE CHILDREN. I USED TO HAVE SOME DIGNITY! Here - have a flyer. Please. Come to my show. Or...don't. But, maybe do. Look, just TAKE THE SODDING FLYER and make me happy will you, you comedy-watching bastards!' at passing tourists, while small amounts of my brain spilled out of my nostrils and onto my jacket.

I think it was around this time that I asked the Bratwurst seller if I could have a job, and if he would like to marry me and we could run away to Bavaria and have strong-thighed, lederhosen-wearing children together.

But once I was behind the curtain, the lights had dimmed, the music started, I heard the bubbling chatter of the audience coming in - an audience?? People were actually here?? had they NOTHING else to DO??- and I'd stopped chewing the microphone lead and weeping into my shoe laces...something strange happened.

I walked out there onto that stage, felt the applause like a triple espresso coursing through my blood, and I did it.

Every day. For an hour. For the whole month.

I think I learned more in those 25 hours of terror, than I've learned in anything else in my professional life.

And I wasn't expecting there to be such a huge overlap between the skills one needs to perform stand-up comedy, and a whole list of skills and experiences we can all use in the workplace, and in life, every day.

Not just the obvious things like ending a presentation of catastrophic first quarter results with a loud, 'THANK YOU HAMMERSMITH, I'VE BEEN LIZ FRASER, GOOD NIGHT!'

Just simple, useful things about confidence, carrying on through moments of self-doubt and fear, timing, observing and responding to an audience, and surviving it.

Here are the main things I learned:

Slow Down.

In stand-up, an hour is a LONG time. It's not sixty minutes. When it's going badly, an hour lasts for at least a week. When it's going well...I'll get back to you on that one when it's happened to me.

Doing a talk, the first ten minutes are OK.

Then there's a very awkward 47 minutes of filler.

The best way to make this go well, is to TALK....S-L-O-W-L-Y.

I'm a speed-gabbler. Once I'd learned to talk at half the speed, I realised I'd immediately cunningly halved my work. This was a turning point.

Don't judge yourself by your audience's reaction.

If they're not laughing it doesn't mean they don't think it's funny. It means they're not laughers*.

Similarly, if the audience you're talking to don't look excited about what you're saying, it might just be because they don't show emotion much. Plough on. You're doing great. And if you're rubbish, you still have to plough on. Either way, just pretend they're loving it, and you're Live at the Apollo, totally ACING IT. It feels better. *it might mean they think you're rubbish. Best advice here is NEVER ASK. Just go home, have a hot bath, and high-five yourself in the mirror.

Silence is golden.

As a broadcaster I'm trained to KEEP TALKING. There are no pauses. There's no silence. But in stand-up, just as in giving a talk, pauses are crucial. It's in the pauses that everything happens. It's when your audience has a think about what you just said, gets the joke, understands the point, and is made to wait for what comes next. LOVE the pauses. Hold them, tease with them, and just WAIT. When you're good and ready, you can move on.

Fake it.

People who appear confident are just people who appear more confident than anyone else. It doesn't mean they are. It means they're better at putting on a show that they are. I've stood on stage whiting out from fear, and delivered a talk that people thought was calm, polished and totally in control. From where I was standing it was shaky, scrappy and a total mess. If you look confident, people think you are confident. They put some kind of trust in you, that you know what you're doing. They listen to you more, and believe you more.

Filler techniques.

All comedians and public speakers have their own fillers. Some take a sip of water. Others fiddle about nonchalantly with the microphone lead, as if they're sooooooo laid back they have all day to just flick it about a bit, step over it, make it wiggle across the floor like an orgasmic snake....when really, they're not thirsty, and the doesn't need moving - they're just desperately trying to remember what they were about to say next.

The eyebrows have it.

Successful performance, whether in comedy or a lecture about kidney stones, is all about delivery. You can have the best speech in the world, and it can bomb on poor delivery. I've been to stand-up shows where 80% of the humour came from the comedians facial expressions and delivery. The material itself was average. The show was great. And eyebrows seem to be key. Mine got a big workout in Edinburgh.

Have killer first and last lines.

What happens in-between the two is dictated by the first lines, and remembered by the last. It's the same in a 3-minute broadcast interview or a 10hour talk. First line - BAM! Last line - BOOM! Prepared, concise, and delivered confidently.

Thank you. And good night.

Liz Fraser is a broadcaster and best-selling author.

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