Listening with Honest Ears
In the eight weeks since I started doing stand-up comedy, I have recorded each set I performed — whether in class, at an open mic, or at a real performance. I also have each recording transcribed. This really helps me in my editing and re-writing process.
This is noting new for me. I routinely record every talk I give. It’s part of how I improve.
It’s always tempting not to record myself; I hate how I sound and never like to listen back to myself. Reading the transcript can sometimes be a good shortcut to see things that I can fix, but there is no substitute for listening back to the recording. This is the path to improvement.
When you listen, you must listen with “honest ears.”
Here are 5 things I listen for when listening back to my audio recordings. All of these things are crucial not just for stand-up comedy, but for any talk or presentation.
(1) Verbal Filler
All of the umms, likes, you know…
I have a lot of these. I tend to start a lot of sentences with “and” as a transition.
When I read these in the transcript I can see how much they get in the way. When I hear them, it reinforces the need to eliminate them.
The more I can hear them, the more awareness I have of them when I’m performing. You can’t eliminate what you don’t hear.
Speaking slow enough so people can hear you and take in what you’re saying is obviously crucial in any talk or presentation. In stand-up comedy, it’s essential. If you rush through the punch line, you won’t get the laughs.
I feel like at the end of my set, I rush my last punch lines, but it’s hard to tell in the moment. I tend to talk fast under normal circumstances.
Reading the transcript, even with time stamps, won’t tell me whether I rushed through one part of my set. The only way to know if I rushed is to listen back to it.
Listening back a day or two later, the set sounds different. That’s when I can hear with fresh ears.
Even if I didn’t rush, was my pacing at the speed I wanted it to be? Sometimes I want to speed up in a bit, as a way to signal an emotional cue, like being frenzied. Other times, it may be unintentional. This could be a sign that I’m not quite comfortable or confident in the phrasing or with the joke itself.
Did I speak at a pace that was suited to the material? Did I pause where I wanted to? Did I rush my punch lines?
Where do I need to enunciate better?
We can all sometimes trip over our words or garble our speech. I can sometimes catch myself in the process, but not always.
Part of this is evident in the transcript. Where the transcription is way off, I assume it’s at least partly because I wasn’t clear in my enunciation of my words. (The other part is sometimes just bad transcription, or a poor recording quality.)
That makes a difference in any talk, but in stand-up comedy it can kill you. If people can’t understand what you’re saying, they’ll miss the set-up or the punch line, and you won’t get a laugh.
Sometimes, you want to be deliberately softer in one bit than in another bit. The change in dynamics is an intentional part of tone, and conveys elements that are part of the joke.
I’m listening for where I changed dynamics unintentionally. For example, as I listened to the recording, I could hear that my opening joke was softer. This wasn’t intentional.
I added a new line to my opening joke last night. It’s newer material, and it sounded less confident. The core part of my set was louder and more assured. Even though I am still playing with it, I am more confident in that material.
This is perhaps the most obvious thing to listen for: where did people laugh? Where did they not laugh?
At a class I attended recently, comedians Gibran Saleem and Harrison Greenbaum shared the difference between a bad comic and a great comic:
A bad comic bombs, but focuses on the one person who laughed.
A great comic kills it, but focuses on the one person who didn’t laugh.
When you’re in the moment of your set, you can’t focus on what didn’t get a laugh. You have to move on.
After my set, I typically remember the big places where I got big laughs or where I didn’t get any laughs. But it’s impossible to remember everything. And often we remember wrong.
Was everyone laughing, or was one person laughing really loudly? It makes a difference.
Listening back to the recording after a couple of days, you can be objective. You can listen with honest ears. Then note what got reactions and what didn’t get reactions.
What’s your process?
Are you a speaker? Do you give presentations? I would love to hear your process. Do you record yourself? Do you listen back to it? What are the things you listen for?