A Substitute


… and then listen for the laughter.

One of my fondest memories as a speaker was the time I was called in by General Foods Management Club to substitute for Ewell Gibbons, a natural food TV celebrity. I lived right there In Battle Creek, Michigan where the meeting was to be held. Ewell was forever being shown on TV eating cattails and other weird foods he’d locate out in the woods. I worked hard on my opening lines for my talks and so I opened with a comment on being the substitute for Ewell Gibbons. I said, “Unfortunately, Ewell could not be with you this evening. I understand he was detained in the Upper Peninsula for violating a virgin pine.(pause) He said he just couldn’t resist those crazy cones.” (pause)

Let me digress. Once when the great comic Jonathan Winters was interviewed on a show about comedy he said that when he was learning comedy he was told to tell a joke, hit the punch line hard and then slowly count to five waiting for the laughter. Then he said, “I still haven’t learned to do it silently. One, two, three, four, five.”

Well when I’d write these new opening lines for a speech I had to practice them in my mind. In my rehearsals I used to hit the punch line hard and then count to five silently and then listen for the laughter. I learned to wait until the laughter built too because some audiences are a little slower catching on. And I learned how to let the laughter begin to ebb before I would continue. (Don’t step on the laugh.) I learned that there were a thousand ways to mess up a joke and so not all of those opening lines worked the way I visualized them in my mind.

That night I got a great laugh on the first line and then greater laughter and applause on the second. I was home free with that audience from there on. When you are being paid as a professional speaker your job is to win over that audience every time.

Another challenge I faced that evening is best described in this well known quote. “A prophet is without honor in his home town.” I’ve been told by those who know the Bible much, much more than I do that Jesus could not work miracles in his home town. Well, I knew I certainly wasn’t in His league.

Now the reason that presentation sticks out in my mind was that I finally had the courage to open with new material and even though this was a home town group I managed to do a great job. It was a small booking but a giant step forward in my career. Most of what I did that evening was my original material. I’d been gaining confidence, building my repertoire and having enough success on a national basis to feel good about my career. I didn’t work any miracles that evening but I sure came a long way.

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