Five Speechmaking Lessons from Abbott & Costello

Like Jerry Seinfeld, I grew up watching old Abbott & Costello re-runs on TV. Here he deconstructs the classic “Who’s on First?” routine to demonstrate why it’s so funny. But the lessons he draws are just as useful for anyone giving a presentation or speech:

1. Edit to the bone

Seinfeld notes that “all the air was sucked out of” the routine, “leaving a sketch with near-perfect timing. The less air, the funnier it gets.” Similarly, the less fluff in your speech, the more powerful the ideas are. (Of course, when you deliver it, you need a little air between the big ideas, which you can accomplish by slowing down and adding pauses at key moments.) So edit the hell out of your writing. Read it aloud — when you get bored, that’s where to make cuts. When you’re done, cut some more. Commit to cutting 10 or 20%.

2. Heed the music of your words

Why is it easier to remember the words to songs? Because they’re set to a rhythm and melody and incorporate rhyme. Seinfeld talks about “musical math.” The more your words are set to a natural rhythm, the easier it’ll be to not only express them, but recall them. Again, reading the text aloud will help you “find the music.”

3. Practice, practice, practice

According to Seinfeld, Abbott & Costello honed their routines on the vaudeville circuit with a merciless schedule of “eight shows a day … five, six days a week.” If something’s important to you, whether it’s a presentation, an interview or a meeting, it’s worth practicing. Not just at your desk or in front of your computer, but in your head — in the shower, at the gym, while doing dishes. Internalize it to the point where you know it by nature. But won’t the delivery come across as stilted and over-rehearsed? No. Read on.

4. Live in the moment

Do Bud and Lou look bored? Like they’ve done this bit 10,000 times? No. Why not? Because the truth is, internalizing your words actually frees up your mind. It sounds counter-intuitive, but as an actor I can tell you it works. Instead of grasping for the next thing to say, you’re letting your ideas flow naturally. And that allows you to focus on the intention behind the words and frees you to play a little around the margins and react in the moment. Which brings us to the last point.

5. Commit

Seinfeld says that what makes the routine work is that “each man is totally convinced of his perspective.” It’s not enough to recite the words; you have to feel them. If you’re talking about a process, visualize the steps in your head. If you’re talking about a person, picture him or her in your mind. If you’re talking about an idea, paint a mental picture. Put energy and intention behind every word you say.

Every communication is a performance. Treat it that way and you’ll increase your odds of success.

2 thoughts on “Five Speechmaking Lessons from Abbott & Costello

  1. I was on the UChicago alumni webinar and enjoyed your talk and got a few new good ideas for my own work and for my husband, who is a scientist by day and an aspiring novelist. Great post here, and I will check out the rest of your blog.

  2. Thank you so much — I’m glad you found it helpful! There were a lot of questions about how technical/scientific people could apply the lessons and I’d like to think that they’re applicable in any field.

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