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A laughing matter

You’d be forgiven for wondering what Steve Martin has to do with internal communications and employee engagement. However, his meteoric rise to fame offers some important lessons in understanding an audience and adapting to change.

As a young boy, Martin worked at Disneyland, selling guidebooks to visitors of the Magic Kingdom. Like many young boys his age, he developed a love of magic tricks, and soon found himself working at the Disney Magic Shop. Here, the beginnings of what would become his stand-up routine were born as he incorporated parts of the manager’s sales patter into his very first magic shows. As he performed more frequently, and over time, the magic tricks gave way to a full comedy routine. He began recording his shows, listening intently for the smallest of gaps in his delivery, and constantly looking for ways to engage the audience.

At the end of one performance at a university, he realised he would have to exit the stage through the audience, as there was no backstage area. Not wanting his exit to be awkward, he thanked people on his way out. However, this was taken to be part of his act, and the entire audience duly followed him out through the building. He continued to ad lib in the street and was forced to hail a taxi in order to end the show. This ultimately became part of his act, and was successful for many years, but he was quick to cut it from his repertoire once it had run its course. At the height of his fame, he attempted to take 2,000 people out into the street, resulting in the disruption of traffic and his act being completely lost in the noise of the huge audience. As soon as he realised that his message wasn’t having the same impact it once did, he never did it again.

In another early show, he walked out to a packed Monday afternoon crowd, only to discover that the audience was made up of Japanese tourists with limited English comprehension. He quickly adapted his act to include additional physical comedy, rustling up balloon animals such as snakes, slugs, caterpillars and centipedes – even though he didn’t really know how to make balloon animals.

 

Keeping the message fresh

His comedy act became a parody of a comedy act where anything could happen. As a result, many people understood his pristine, conservative, three-piece suit to be a middle finger to the established comedy movement. It was, in fact, worn for purely practical reasons. The bright white material accentuated his gestures and mannerisms, and the waistcoat simply prevented his shirt from becoming untucked. He continued to allow his audience to believe that it was part of his ‘wild and crazy’ persona, despite his pragmatic approach to stage attire.

His stand-up career came to an end when he looked into the audience one night and saw something at a table in the back that he hadn’t seen for many years: empty seats. He’d peaked. He was already reworking, tweaking, adapting, updating and reinventing his routine based on audience feedback, and nothing he could do was going to fill those seats. He knew that if he didn’t change something, the only way was down, and he couldn’t risk the impact that empty seats would have on his image and career. Instead, he turned to the big screen. His first major motion picture, The Jerk, released in 1979, actually borrowed large parts of his routine. The message was the same, but the channel had changed. He now had time to do test screenings with audiences, rewrite entire scenes, film retakes and add new characters and plots.

It wasn’t all plain sailing and sold out shows, however, and there was, clearly, many years of hard work and dedication to his craft. What he proved though is that it pays to be bold and to adapt to change and that if all else fails, nothing beats a fake arrow through the head.

In this way, his career reminds us that as your audience changes and evolves, so must your messages, and the way you deliver them.

 


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