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Presentation lessons from Steve Martin's autobiography

Steve_martinThe greatest presentation lessons will never be found in a book on using PowerPoint (or any other presentation tool). Advice and lessons are found in different places. I have always said that some of the greatest advice on presenting on stage comes from the world of stand-up comedy. In the almost fifteen years of Presentation Zen, I have often pointed to the lessons from comedians. Stand-up is the most naked and most difficult kind of public speaking gig I can think of. For every famous stand-up comedian you know, there must be ten thousand others who tried but eventually gave it up.

One of the most enjoyable auto-biographies I have ever read is Steve Martin's Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life. It's brilliant. I stumbled upon the book shortly after it debuted many years ago. Recently I purchased the e-book and reread the whole book cover to cover on my the iPad and found myself highlighting over one hundred passages in the Kindle app.

Below I share just thirteen of those Steve Martin quotes while elaborating on how they relate to the world of speaking and presenting at large. Anyone who performs or otherwise makes their living presenting in front of audiences big or small will get something from Martin's account of his 20-year career as a stand-up comedian. You'll learn how he made it to the top, but also why he walked away from it. It's an inspiring story and also a cautionary tale. And there are lessons for us all.

Success takes *a lot* of time
Before Martin became a star, he spent well over a decade struggling, just trying to get better everyday.

"I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success."

I found it remarkable that several months after killing it on his 16th appearance on the Tonight Show—which should be a sign that he had "made it big time"—Martin recalls in the book that he was at one of his lowest points professionally just a few months later, unsure if true success would ever be achieved.

Have a clear structure
Regardless of the length of your speech of presentation, have a solid structure on which to build your material.

"I always gave my performances, even my five-minute talk show appearances, a beginning, a middle, and an end.

One the most basic is the classic Act I, Act II, Act III (beginning, middle, end). You can also think of this in terms of exposition/background, conflict/struggle, and resolution.

Keep it moving forward
It is not hard to be interesting sometimes or engaging occasionally, the trick is to keep the audience engaged from start to finish. Over time you learn which bits work (and in what order) and which bits do not. It's often the arrangement of the content and the pace of delivery that keeps the momentum moving forward.

“Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.” Precision was moving the plot forward, was filling every moment with content, was keeping the audience engaged."

The right physical environment is crucial
Each audience is different. What worked for one may not work for another, even if they look similar on paper. But the atmosphere of the physical space is also crucial. Martin touches on the importance of the physical space several times in the book.

"Darkness is essential: If light is thrown on the audience, they don’t laugh; I might as well have told them to sit still and be quiet."

For keynotes or ballroom style presentations before large audiences, creating this sort of show-biz atmosphere with a well-lit stage and a darkened ballroom is good advice. It works for many conferences and events such as TED, Ignite Talks, Pecha Kucha Nights, etc. For most other types of presentations, it's best to keep the lights on.

"Comedy’s enemy is distraction, and rarely do comedians get a pristine performing environment. I worried about the sound system, ambient noise, hecklers, drunks, lighting, sudden clangs, latecomers, and loud talkers, not to mention the nagging concern 'Is this funny?'."

Distraction is the enemy for presenters as well. A good tip is to arrive early to minimize any surprises and to make adjustments depending on the configuration of the room.

Dress just a bit better than the audience
In the early ’70s Martin changed his on-stage look from a casual "hippie" fashion to something much more formal. In talking about why he wore a three-piece suit (and therefore a vest), Martin states:

"How can I 'look better than they do' if my shirt was blousing out between my belt and by suit button?"

Having read books such as Showmanship for Magicians, Martin was the consummate professional and knew the old adage in show business was to dress better than the audience. This is a good general rule of thumb for speakers—and it does not hurt for students making presentations either: Always dress a little better than your audience. This does not always mean you have to be formal (or business formal), it means to know the audience and dress in a manner that is just a bit smarter fashion-wise. A tech conference in Silicon Valley is very different than a large bank in London, for example. Last summer I gave a three-hour talk for 300 managers at a famous financial firm in New York City. I wore a formal suit but not a tie (not unusual for the hot Tokyo summers). I was surprised when I got to the venue in NYC that every man and woman was dressed in formal business wear, and every man was wearing a tie. Oops. I turned it into a joke near the start of my talk, but on that day at least I did not look better than they did.

Give them something to think about later
Create messages that stick. Give them something for now and for later.

"I believed it was important to be funny now, while the audience was watching, but it was also important to be funny later, when the audience was home and thinking about it." 

We want to engage our audience in the moment. We want to have an impact immediately and give them something to think about now. The real key to success as a presenter (or a teacher, etc.) is to give them something to think about later as well. This is the difference between mere entertainment—which is engaging in the moment but does not make us think later—and an entertaining talk (or lesson) which is engaging in the moment *and* gives us something to think about and talk about long after the presentation.

There is no substitute for experience
Martin talks of looking at tapes of his earlier work and notes how he appeared overly self-aware and lacked authority in his delivery in the early days. That presence and authority on stage came, but only after years and years of working on his craft.

"My growing professionalism, founded on thousands of shows, created a subliminal sense of authority that made the audience feel they weren’t being had."

The key is to be consistently good
Martin states that it was never enough to be great some nights and mediocre on other nights. Anyone can be amazing sometimes, he suggests, but the key is to be consistently good.

"It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances."

The key to greatness is persistence
There are numerous examples of Martin extolling the virtues of persistence over raw talent.

"But there was a problem. At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent."

"Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do."

"There was a belief that one appearance on The Tonight Show made you a star. But here are the facts. The first time you do the show, nothing. The second time you do the show, nothing. The sixth time you do the show, someone might come up to you and say, 'Hi, I think we met at Harry’s Christmas party.' The tenth time you do the show, you could conceivably be remembered as being seen somewhere on television. The twelfth time you do the show, you might hear, 'Oh, I know you. You’re that guy.'"

One of the hardest things to do for a successful speaker—and professionals in general—is to abandon the past, even though it was successful, and move forward with something new. Martin walked away from stand-up at the height of his success.

"Moving on and not looking back, not living in the past, was a way to trick myself into further creativity."

A wonderful book
This is such a great book. So great I read it twice. In a GQ interview in 2007, Jerry Seinfeld called Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life "one of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written." Loads of lessons for anyone who needs to get on stage from time to time. Insightful and well written by the man himself, Steve Martin.

 My favorite line from the book:

       “I think communication is so firsbern.”

I think so too.



David Folkerson

Great post. Something that rarely gets mentioned is the importance of ambience. In this case, lighting. It's amazing what the right lighting can do to a room.


I would never have thought that people won't laugh if the lights are turned on, but it makes perfect sense. I've also heard that puzzled people don't laugh, so make sure what you say is clear to them.

Thanks for posting this. I'm curious to read the book now.

Steve Jackson

Love Steve Martin! Great tips. I also think stand-up is great training for business in general. I do it as a hobby from time to time (open mic) and it has helped me getting in front of a group in my work as well.


What exactly does the word "firsbern" mean?
What does he mean by the statement “I think communication is so firsbern?”

Christina Moore

Point 4- Dress a bit better, is something that is hardly addressed. It's also a tip that reinforces knowing your audience.


"I think communication is so firsbern.” Is a line Steve used to say sometimes in his act (and he used it in the book). "Firstbern" is nonsense and not a word, therefore it's funny...well, I think it is funny. May lose something in the translation :-)

John Zimmer

It was great to read this post, Garr, for a couple of reasons. First, I am a huge Steve Marin fan. I have read his book (a couple of times like you) and I had all of his albums when I was teenager. He will always be my favourite comedian. Second, it was only a few months ago that I blogged about 10 lessons that I pulled from the book for public speakers. I don't usually promote my posts in comments on other blogs, but I'll make an exception here in case you and your readers are interested in comparing. Some of the points overlap with yours, but others are different.

What I admired most about Marin, while reading the book was his incredible work ethic. His description of performing in the restaurant of a hotel standing beside the salad bar - while it was in service! - is incredible given the heights that he reached. Perseverance indeed!

Michael Colson

This one has surely a lot of motivational stuff not only for the performers but for everyone. The mentality of the people sitting in the dark is completely different than those sitting in broad light. It is a well know, untold fact, nobody has written or discussed about. There must be many other instances within the book which curious readers will find out. Great read!

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