Friday, June 28, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Carol Burnett's live audience Q&A

Actress and comedian Carol Burnett, whose popular television variety show ended in 1978, is most well-known for her slapstick skits and performances, all played for laughs. The under-12 daughter of a friend, watching old Burnett shows, couldn't believe that one person was behind all those characters.  But when I think of Burnett as an adept public speaker, I think of the question-and-answer sessions she used to open her shows, all of them recorded in front of a live audience.

It was a high-risk choice for the same reason many speakers fear Q&A: It's that time in a speaking engagement when anything can happen. Fortunately for the audience in the theater and watching on TV, anything did happen--and Burnett was a master at handling the unexpected. Here's how she explains the genesis of putting the Q&A session at the top of her hour-long show:
"Our executive producer, Bob Banner, bless his heart, said, 'Carol, I think you should go out and be yourself at the beginning of the show, before you start putting on the fake body suits and the wigs and blacking out your teeth, you know,'  I said, 'What would I do? I can't tell jokes--I couldn't tell a joke to save my soul,' and he said, 'Well, you should do questions and answers'."
There are scores of these question sessions from The Carol Burnett Show, which ran for more than a decade. I have two short compilations below for you to watch of Burnett, who will receive the Mark Twain Prize for Humor later this year, being interviewed about the Q&A sessions and fielding questions. You'll see there's a mix of high humor, along with getting the audience members onto the stage, bringing out backstage crew, and answering specific and practical questions about which the audience is curious. What can you learn from this famous speaker?
  • Consider putting questions at the start of your session: You might want to put the questions at the start to let the audience get familiar with you--and it's also a good tactic if you have an angry audience or contentious issue to discuss, or you just want to get a handle on who's in the room and what they're thinking about. No live audience shows up without questions. Getting them out in the air early might be the smartest thing you'll ever do as a speaker.
  • Go out and be yourself: Burnett's producer had the right idea in asking her to "be yourself" with the audience before she began pretending to be someone else in the acting portions of the show. By letting the audience have direct access to her as she was, engagement with the show was high, both in the hall and in viewers' living rooms. If you look at Q&A as a time when you're pressured to look smart or glib or polished, take the remedial action of watching Burnett gain credibility and fervent fans merely by being herself. It's about being authentic as a speaker.
  • Inject some humor into your answers: I'll turn to Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for U.S. President Ronald Reagan, to explain what humor does for the speaker. Here, she was doling out advice to another presidential candidate, but the points work for us all: The audience member who is "laughing is half yours, and just received a line he can repeat next weekend over a beer at the barbecue or online at Starbucks....If you make us laugh we spread your line for free....When two people meet, as they come to know each other as neighbors or colleagues, one of the great easers, one of the great ways of making a simple small human connection is: shared laughter. We are a political nation. We talk politics. So fill that area with humor: sly humor, teasing humor, humor that speaks a great truth or makes a sharp point." A bonus for any speaker: Humor will relax you as well as put the audience at ease


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