Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Strategic advice

Some good advice to anyone who wants to get people to agree with them, via The Kung Fu Monkey.
Learn to say Ain't:
A good stand-up can walk into a room, a bar with no stage and a shit mic, in the deep goddam South or Montana or Portland or Austin or Boston, and not only tell jokes with differing political opinions than the crowd, can get them to laugh. With all due respect to our brother performers in theater, etc., we can walk into a room of any size from 20 to 2000 complete strangers with no shared background and not just evoke emotion ... we can evoke a specific strong emotion every 15 seconds. For an HOUR. A good stand-up can make fun of your relationship with your wife, make fun of your job, make fun of your politics, all in front of a thousand strangers, and afterward that same person will go up and invite the stand-up to a barbecue.

In short -- every club audience is a swing state.

When I first started out on the road, I was a skinny guy with a big nose, a Boston accent and a Physics degree telling jokes in bars out West. I was hitting a wall of resistance in a lot of rooms. One night in Rawlins, Wyoming, the headliner -- a sweet road comic named "Boats" Johnson -- took me aside.

"You're a good joke writer. I mean, damn, there's some smart stuff in there."

"Thanks. But, uh..."

"They don't like you much." Boats handed me a beer. "Second show. Longneck. Always a longneck. Bring it on stage. Sip from it every now and then."

"I don't really drink on stage --"

"Fine. Fill it with water. Don't bring attention to it, just sip from it."

I shrugged. "Anything else?"

"Yeah. Learn to say 'ain't'. Don't change the jokes. Just learn to say 'ain't' every now and then."

The shows went, much, much better after that. I told the same gun control jokes, the same pro-gay marriage bits, the same making-fun of the culture wars jokes. But now I was killing.

There are two lessons to be taken from "Learn to say 'ain't'." First, the fundamental dynamic in all crowd interaction is us vs. them. Period. It's sad. Oh well. Get over it and win.
He draws this basic us vs. them dynamic into a pretty sophisticated model of how to get your audience to see you as a member of us, rather than them. It's hard, because the stage is a natural barrier, an easy way to separate us from them. The beer and colloquial language make it that much easier to recognize the person as a guy telling stories, rather than a Boston physicist/comedian.

Think of John Edwards rallies. His stage was low, in the middle of a crowd. He entered through the audience, shaking hands. When he got on stage, he talked about the problems of average people (raising kids, paying bills, prioritizing payments). He took what he was talking about to the level that his audience cared about. They trusted that he had the mind get his solutions to work, but they trusted that he understood the problem.

This can also help in the upcoming science battles. In an article coming out soon in the Pitch, I tell a story about how my downstairs neighbor's pipes froze, and I lost my water. My adventures in practical naturalism in getting my water running are a simple, obvious explanation of "methodological naturalism." I didn't get all Karl Popper, I didn't use big words (like "methodological"). The reporter got it, and liked it enough to put it in at least one draft of the story (we'll see if it survived the editor).

Don't talk about antibiotic resistance, talk about why doctors don't prescribe penicillin. Eschew fancy language. Listen to William Strunk. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Avoid Latinate phrases. Take a sip of beer now and then. In Kansas, talk about integrative pest management, which minimizes selective pressure on pests. Don't talk about minimizing selective pressure, talk about slowing evolution down. Say "ain't" and "y'all" now and then. Crack jokes here and there. Keep your sentences and words short.

Don't be The Scientist who Tells The People How It Is. A commenter on the post that started this learned in the Army that you don't say "the smart thing to do is …" you say that it's common sense. Saying that something is smart makes people feel dumb, and like you're lording your smarts over them. Saying it's common sense makes people think that it came from the Old Farmer's Almanac.

It's Just That Simple” by Wilco from the album A.M. (1995, 3:46).