What I learned from watching The Daily Show and its various offshoots isn’t about comedy. (If only!) Rather, I learned fundamentals of effective communication, such as: effort, confidence, curiosity and intellectual dexterity. Even though I only watch these shows periodically, I’ve used the lessons I learned from them to improve all kinds of presentations, from facilitation of a week-long planning workshop to a 20-minute briefing to executives.
If your personal taste or politics makes The Daily Show, The Colbert Report or Last Week Tonight unappealing, (or if you've never heard of them), you can still use these lessons. Because they aren't about content or style. They are about technique.
As I mentioned in a previous post on clarity in communication, it’s never a good idea to mimic others’ style. Their skills are another matter. I've found that when people are good at what they do, regardless of what it is, you can often learn a lot just by watching them with an open mind.
There are four main lessons that I’ve taken from these shows. To further illustrate each lesson — and make this post a lot more entertaining! — I provide links to excerpts from the shows. As you likely know, the shows are for mature audiences. Please use your discretion when viewing the excerpts.
Lesson 1: Break “The Curse of Knowledge”
I’d argue that this is the most significant lesson and the most difficult to master, because it requires the integration of various skills and insights. John Oliver, a Daily Show alum who now hosts Last Week Tonight on HBO, masterfully demonstrates this lesson. A great example is his interview with Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who leaked information about U.S. government surveillance activities. More on that interview in a second. But first, a bit about "the curse of knowledge.”
Steven Pinker (Professor of Psychology at Harvard, not a Daily Show alum!) argues that the curse of knowledge is a key reason that people fail to communicate effectively. In a talk he gave in 2015, he described the curse as follows: “When you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like for someone else not to know it.” Because of the curse, we are more likely to “overestimate how familiar our audience is with our own material.” For this reason, explanations that seem obvious to us, may be incomprehensible to our audience.
Pinker’s suggestion for breaking the curse of knowledge is essentially to a) get feedback on your material from members of your audience and b) use their feedback to rework the material until it makes sense to them. This is exactly what John Oliver does in the segment with Edward Snowden.
First, Oliver helps us to understand what it feels like to listen to someone who is suffering from the curse of knowledge. He and Snowden are discussing the difficulty of having an effective, public debate about cyber-security, because the topic is so complex. He interrupts Snowden’s techno-speak to say:
"This is the whole problem. It’s like the IT guy comes into your office and you go ...Oh...*@! Don’t teach me anything. I don’t want to learn. You smell like canned soup.”
Oliver then demonstrates that by actually talking with people, he was able learn that they do care about the privacy of personal information in certain contexts, namely, government access to their naked photos. Oliver then guides Snowden through a practical exercise using the new knowledge about his audience to improve his communication. He has Snowden explain NSA programs not in the technical language Snowden is most comfortable with, but in the context that people understand and care about — how the government could use these programs to access to their naked photos.
My explanation of what Oliver did is admittedly dry and the segment is anything but — see for yourself, here. But I believe that the reason it was effective is not simply because it was really entertaining, but because it was straightforward and comprehensible to so many people. Which is our lesson.
If our audience is made up of people who are just like us, with our background, knowledge and sensibilities, then maybe we don't need to adapt our message very much. But this is rarely the case. We should be aware that most people, even the people who are paying us to present to them, will give up if we make them work too hard to understand. In most instances, we, as the presenters, need to do the work by: a) giving up the jargon we find easy and convenient; b) learning what's important to our audience by actually talking to them; and c) translating our message into those terms.
Lesson 2: Do not 'wing it'.
When people are really good at what they do, they make it look effortless. But of course what we are seeing is the polish of a final product. We don't see the hours of practice, zillions of drafts and various failures that created the polish. I realized this about The Daily Show and The Colbert Report during the writer's strike of 2007-2008. Without writers, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert relied on improvisation. The results were…not good. Watching a few of their shows during that period made me realize that they really do not just come up with this stuff. It takes effort and skill. (And, man, do they need those writers!)
When we admit that making presentations is work, and act accordingly, we produce a better end product. Even experts who know their topic inside and out, or who are "really good in front of crowds" aren't at their best when winging it.
Lesson 3: Show them, don’t tell them.
The Daily Show and all of its spin-offs make liberal use of visual puns. Why? First, a picture is worth a thousand words. (Well, almost...see more below.) Second, puns communicate complicated ideas, often with contradictory elements, in a short phrase or single image. While puns are often received with eye-rolls, they have a long history in communication and entertainment for a reason. As noted in an article in The Atlantic, puns are often “more about getting an ‘A-ha!’ than a ‘Ha-ha’.”
Our lesson? The value of puns is that they are succinct and surprising. Even if you can’t come up with a pun, aim to enhance your presentation with elements that achieve those dual outcomes. At a bare minimum, always opt for a visual. A recent study on the use of visuals in presentations, (which I found courtesy of the blog by Ugly Research), found that:
“Subjects who were exposed to a graphic representation of [a] strategy paid significantly more attention to, agreed more with, and better recalled the strategy than did subjects who saw a (textually identical) bulleted list version."
The graphic didn’t have a significant impact on the audience’s understanding of the strategy being discussed. But, at least the presenter had their attention, which I'm pretty sure is a prerequisite for understanding!
Lesson 4: Own it.
The Colbert Report's 'Better Know a District' segment is a perfect example of owning your performance. It's full of long, awkward interactions between Steven Colbert and the representative from the featured U.S. Congressional District. I generally feel uncomfortable with the awkwardness of these pieces, but keep watching because surprising things often happen. Colbert never falters in playing his role, which often results in confusing and even irritating his guests. But, because he owns it without flinching for the duration, even clearly uncomfortable interviewees generally join in the fun by the end. The segment with Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin's 4th District is a clear demonstration of the fact that most people will eventually follow when they are skillfully led. (Congresswoman Moore gamely tries to talk policy, but in the end takes a ride on an imaginary motorcycle.)
If your work requires you to help people see a problem from a new perspective, find the courage to make a tough decision, or just loosen the comforting grip of habit, then this lesson is for you. When you ask people to do something unfamiliar, you have to demonstrate that you are fully committed and that your commitment can withstand a bit of pushback. Second, you've got to get pretty good at whatever you are doing or asking them to do. (I've seen presenters try something for the first time in front of their audience — it generally doesn't go so well.) Drawing on this commitment and competence, you'll be able to stand in front of people with the confidence necessary to point them to something new. Hold on longer than feels comfortable...that's usually where change starts. Finally, as Stephen Colbert skillfully demonstrates, if you ask people to do something that could make them feel vulnerable or foolish, be sure you do them one better in those respects, so that it's clear you're in this together.