Good comedians are better writers than most of us.
It might not always sound like it, but every word and phrase has been chosen with care.
They use the smallest number of perfect words in the best possible order to keep you interested.
They put their thoughts into your head with minimal resistance. And we could all learn a lot from them.
This post won’t teach you how to be funny.
But it might teach you how to write like a human being.
Start with a simple idea
However bizarre, complex or controversial you intend to get with your content, you can always start with something accessible.
It could be something universally agreeable. It could be something highly contentious. It could be something that sparks debate, captures attention, divides audiences or feeds egos.
But as long as it keeps them reading, you know it’s done its job.
Comedians know exactly how to get the ball rolling. Just one quick statement or question, and you already feel like you’re going on a journey.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of opening lines from some popular comedy specials. Professionals love to start things off with:
- something we can all agree on:
“I’m sick of sex offenders.”
(Bill Burr, Why Do I Do This?)
- something relatable:
“I don’t go out any more – I have a baby now.”
(Louis CK, One Night Stand)
- something intriguing:
“DC is different.”
(Dave Chapelle, Killing Them Softly)
- or something controversial:
“I want to get a gun.”
(Bill Burr, You People Are All The Same)
By comedy standards, these are some of the cleanest first lines around. And while they might not live up to the shock value of some of the more juicy openers (see George Carlin if you want your feathers ruffled), they all share the same important attributes:
- They’re short and simple.
- They’re very easy to understand.
- They all leave you wanting to know more.
In short, they’re all good hooks. And if you want to write great content, you need to make sure your opening line ticks all three boxes.
Speak to your audience like they’re people
Because in case you hadn’t noticed, they all are.
You could be forgiven for forgetting that fact when you’re targeting CEOs and accountants. It’s easy to slip into a cold and distant voice when you’re thinking about your audience in terms of their organisation or position.
But CEOs have feelings, too. They have fears and worries, needs and desires – and some of them even have a sense of humour.
They also read for relaxation and entertainment, just like the rest of us. So make it easy for them: speak directly to them, treat them like human beings, and involve them in the conversation.
There are some phrases and manners of speaking that you’d naturally use face to face that you probably try to avoid when you’re writing.
Don’t avoid them. They’re priceless for creating rapport and the illusion of a two-way conversation.
So how do stand-up comedians make their monologues feel like dialogues? They do it by:
- Putting words in your mouth:
“I know what you’re thinking straight away – ‘Ricky Gervais, are you still doing stuff for charity?’”
(Ricky Gervais, Out of England)
- Speaking to a specific part of the audience:
“Ladies: let’s discuss harrassment.”
(Patrice O’Neal, Elephant in the Room)
- Presuming a reaction:
“I’m sick of Obama’s wife getting involved. You weren’t elected, so shut up. Let me guess: is this considered sexist?”
(Bill Burr, Night of Too Many Stars)
You won’t always have a chance to get chummy with your readers. But if you have a chance to give your readers a part to play, take it – they’ll feel a connection to what you’re writing.
Reduce everything down to simple language
No one ever complained that something was too easy to understand. And if anyone ever did, they’re an idiot.
Expressing things in simple terms isn’t a sign of anything being dumbed down. In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s proof that you’ve understood something so well that you’re able to strip away the bloat, boiling the concept down to its essential core so that anyone can grasp it.
The average person reads for information and for fun. Plenty of people read to get to grips with difficult issues, or to see their own viewpoints tested. But that doesn’t mean they need to read difficult language or have their vocabulary challenged along the way.
If you want your readers to deal directly with the information and ideas inside your writing, you need to make the language seem invisible.
Good writing is about the transfer of thoughts and ideas from one mind to another – so make that transition as seamless as possible.
Better yet, breaking down things you understand into the most simple language often creates an original take on the subject.
By avoiding the usual clichés and phrases you subconsciously copy from others, you can draw out the root of your point in a way that’s fresh and unique to your perspective.
Just look at these simplistic reductions that gave birth to an expression that’s both clear and original:
“After your third kid, you’re just making more in-the-way people.”
(Bill Burr, Why Do I Do This?)
“I’m forty. And that’s young in everyone-else years.”
(Patrice O’Neal, Elephant in the Room)
“That’s all your house is – it’s a pile of stuff with a cover on it. It’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”
(George Carlin, Comic Relief)
Create negative space
If you want to get basic about it, stand-up comedians are just professional speakers.
And that means you can easily compare their craft with the crafts of other kinds of professional speakers: politicians, professors, presenters and poets.
Despite their differences, every one of these professional speakers has one main skill in common – and it’s usually the first thing we notice that separates them from an amateur.
They’re completely in control of the pace of their delivery.
These people use short sentences.
They can turn it up or down, slowly building momentum with the rhythm of their rhetoric as they course through longer, more intricate sentences into a swelling crescendo that carries you along on a flurry of words until, before you know it, you can’t tell if you’re following it or just feeling it.
And then they stop.
They create some space.
A pregnant pause, a one-line paragraph.
You’re hanging on every word.
Stand-up comedians are no different. Just take a look at this clip (it’s not long) and you’ll start to see exactly how Anthony Jeselnik’s painful pauses and blunt sentences could be translated into a piece of writing that’s both dramatic and digestible.
Think short sentences and tiny paragraphs:
Make it personal
When I first started out as a copywriter, I wrote mostly for agencies.
I often wrote blog posts and articles for big-name brands. And as a newbie, I felt like I was doing something grand.
But most of the time, the articles were published with only the company’s name as the author. Not my name, and not even the name of a random employee.
As a result, I felt I could never use a first-person perspective for any of it. I couldn’t even fabricate a charming story to make a point.
But when I started to write for smaller businesses, there was always a name. Sometimes it was mine, and sometimes I was ghost-writing as the company director or as one of their marketing team.
Suddenly, there was room in every article for a little personality. A strong opinion, a relevant experience, or even a risky joke or two.
The result? My writing became more readable, more believable, and more compelling – just by opening up the voice to include more personal viewpoints and stories.
Stand-up comedians do this all the time. I just did it too, and you probably didn’t realise.
It doesn’t have to be a gut-wrenching narrative full of twists and turns, and it doesn’t have to draw tears or laughter.
It doesn’t even have to be true.
What’s important is that the reader feels like you’re a real person telling it how it is, not just rattling off another dry list of regurgitated ideas.
Writing like a human is harder than it looks.
It’s a deliberate effort, and it takes time to undo the bad habits we all slip into so easily.
So the next time you sit down to a blank page, remember to:
- Start things off with something easy. A short statement, an intriguing question, or a bold opinion.
- Treat your readers like the humans they are. Write like you speak, and get them involved.
- Forget complicated language. Be direct, sincere, simple and clear.
- Give your readers some space. Change things up with a few short paragraphs and sentences.
- Insert yourself into your writing. Slip into the first-person from time to time, and let your readers in on a few personal secrets.
Or if learning from professional speakers sounds like too much work, just hire a professional writer to get the job done properly instead.