The mixed reviews for Jon Stewart’s Oscar-hosting performance last weekend may reflect a dilemma I’ve noticed with many speakers. They get only tepid response from their audiences during their prepared remarks, but wow ‘em during the Q and A afterward.
Often that reflects a lack of confidence in the material they’re delivering â€“ and Stewart certainly didn’t look that delighted with the jokes he had to work with. Much of his opening monologue made him sound more like the emcee at a regional sales convention than the host of the funniest, hottest current affairs show in a generation.
Of course, it doesn’t help if your audience hasn’t been warmed up, or if you’re the thing that stands between them and the thing they really want to hear (in this case, the names of the winners). Stewart had an uphill battle from the start, and his brand of humour â€“ more biting and ironic than Billy Crystal’s more ingratiating approach â€“ is out of step with the atmosphere of mutual self-congratulation that permeates the Oscars.
But once the opening monologue was over, and the actual events got under way, Stewart’s improvisational wit (and the skill of the backstage writers) had a chance to shine, and made the most of it. (My favourite line dealt with the absurdly large Oscar statue on the stage; Stewart asked if the audience tore it down, would democracy break out in Hollywood?) You got the impression watching the show that the monologue was a formality: that Stewart wanted to get it out of the way as much as the audience did.
Think about that the next time you’re approaching a speech that just doesn’t grab you. What would it take for you to feel more in the moment? What are your opportunities to engage with the audience over shared experiences? And what can you cut from the beginning of the speech so you can get to the part you really want to talk about?