What Jim Gaffigan Taught Me About Communication

Jim Gaffigan poster

Jim Gaffigan in San Francisco

Jim Gaffigan makes me laugh out loud.

Janet and I went to see Gaffigan last week at the Masonic in San Francisco. This was the first live comedy show by a major artists I’ve ever attended in person. I was not not disappointed.

But I did more than just laugh. Gaffigan put on a communication clinic using humor. He schooled me. And here is some of what I learned:

1. Talk about what you know.

Jim Gaffigan’s comic persona is a clueless man tormented by life who will tell anyone willing to listen. This is his metanarrative.

His tone and manner suggest we could just as easily be sitting at a bistro table as in a concert hall. And the jokes themselves are drawn from everyday life, describing things like the exhaustion of raising five children, the tortrue of airline travel, and the rigors of a long-term marriage.

He executes this material beautifully because he owns it. Refining the jokes for years on the road certainly doesn’t hurt. But when he says, “I have five children….The bidding starts at $50,” he’s not joking about being a dad. He is one.

Gaffigan models the principle that my talks need an address somewhere in my life. After all, if my ideas don’t relate to my own experience, and don’t even work for me, why should anyone else consider them?

Presentations deeply rooted in the presenter’s experience offer the audience a “backstage pass.” The music seems sweeter when you’ve met the band, and a talk feels more believable when I can sense real life behind it.

Talking about what I know also enhances my content and delivery. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” So true. Being a docent for my own life is so much easier than hoping my memory holds up while unpacking “19 Ways to Achieve Financial Security.”

Longer talks on more abstract subjects serve an important function. But there is a reason why  TED presenters give the speech that springs most naturally from their own accomplishments

2. Be for something by being against it.

As a Christian preacher I was trained to make a case for the teachings of the Bible every Sunday. If my talks didn’t seem to land, the only recourse was to double down.

So the way to make an idea land was to support it with a “kitchen sink” of arguments, illustrations and statistics. Gaffigan demonstrateds something very different.

Almost all of his jokes attack the very things in life he loves the most. He laments that his wife incessantly critiques his handling of the remote control, while bragging that he contributes only 10% of the parenting effort.

That’s how I know he loves his family. Because he complains about them constantly. So constantly, the audience gets that his bond is deep enough to survive a relentless pounding in front of millions of strangers. That’s love.

So sometimes I can make a point by suggesting alternative or even opposite ways of looking at it. If I present a sermon on the resurrection of Jesus, for example, I could ask how Christian claims about it differ from the claims of alien abduction “victims”?

Telegraphing to the audience that I’m not threatened by a question like that can only help.

A contrarian approach isn’t a substitute for presenting the truth as I see it, but it can be a powerful complement. It tells the audience that I am bigger than my talk, and aware that life and tRuth are complicated.

A disarmed audience is more likely to be open to receiving that truth. And more likely to enjoy the way I present it.

3. Use weakness as strength.

“I’m a fat guy.”

If Gaffigan has a mantra, that would be it. The first quarter of his show is devoted to his issues with weight and exercise.

This material surprises, especially in San Francisco where 2% body fat is d’rigeur. But it proves he is not afraid of us. So he plunges into a full-on assault on running, hiking and every other form of exercise, summarized in a one-word challenge: “Why?”

Gaffigan is counter-cultural. Instead of insinuating the perfection of his personal brand, he focuses on its flaws. This self-mocking engenders a perverse respect for the comedian: a guy who speaks openly about his less impressive traits must have courage and integrity on some level.

And the audience embraces it. The radical idea that vulnerability is acceptable wins over the crowd in a way that jokes cannot. If Gaffigan can be a “fat guy” maybe It’s OK for me to be imperfect. And then maybe I need to re-think all the ways I critique other people on the basis of their imperfections. He is offering us grace.

There is no deprecation like self-deprication. The crowd isn’t only laughing, they are opening up to him, letting down their own defenses, and eventually are won over by his hapless persona.

Instead of allowing audiences to believe (by omission) that I am invulnerable or omni-competent, letting my weakness show in appropriate ways can forge a connection that my best material cannot. It’s common ground.

Chances are they sense some of my issues anyway. Talking about it shows I am not afraid of my imperfections and they don’t have to be afraid of there’s either.

4. Talk about faith in public–wisely.

During his running critique of physical fitness, Gaffigan blurts out, “I think of Jesus as a really in-shape guy.” The audience freezes, unsure how to react. He lets that hang in the air for a moment and then says, “that’s the name that takes the air out of the room like no one else.”

This comment launches a series of jokes about religion. The unease of the audience is almost palpable at points. My take is they’re ambivalent about whether a private, individual issue like spirituality has a place in a diverse public forum.

That’s exactly the opening Gaffigan wants. He plunges ahead into a long riff on the “loaves and fishes” story (Matthew 14:13-20). Beginning with his own devotion to bread, he speculates on what types of bread Jesus could have produced for the hungry crowd (“pretzel bread?”). I laugh. So does everyone else.

By treating religion like any other subject, Gaffigan mainstreams it as an appropriate topic for the public square. What a relief. The laughter drains the tension out of the issue and suggests we might even be able to talk about it with each other.

As a Christian who is also a professional presenter, I learned a lot about communication from the Jim Gaffigan concert. Moreover, he helped me appreciate even more how Jesus connected with people.

Jesus spoke out of 30 years living among common people, he claimed those who seem first will one day end up last, he laid aside his rights and position to sacrifice himself, and his very public discussions of faith “amazed” people.

Thanks Jim.


What Children Taught Me About Communication

Lots of unusual things happen on the road. A few years ago, for example, we met a former Air Force sergeant who actually worked at Area 51, the desert location where secret military things happen according to the government, and salvaged alien spacecraft are hidden according to UFO researchers.

But one of the most helpful of our unusual road experiences occurred while presenting our vision for a new church in Berkeley to a group of elementary age children at Elevation Church in Layton, Utah. Jan and I shared with them for about 10 minutes before speaking in the adult service.

Before going to the children’s area, we cooked up a plan for our presentation: We would use a Cal teddy bear as a prop, then show one of our short Berkeley videos, and then talk a bit just before giving the kids a chance to ask questions. Brilliant.

Entering the room, we found Brianna and Clint, two of the adults working with the kids, and asked for some advice on how to communicate with today’s nine year-old. I questioned whether the children even knew what a “university” was, only to be assured they did understand the word “college” because there were some in the area, and they mostly intended to go there one day.

That helped. But, soon we realized the kids were too old for our teddy bear trick. When the video failed to function (our bad), the second part of our plan also collapsed. This left us  with only a short talk and the favorite of every 5th grader: Q & A.

The children entered as a group and all sat in the front row, separating themselves by several seats to stretch end to end. Brianna told us later that getting them all into the front row was a considerable moral victory. Her comment reminds me how much often progress has to be measured in excruciatingly small steps.

Jan opened our presentation by defining “college” as a kind of school attended by thousands of people and said we were going to move near to one called “Cal” to start a new church. Then it was my turn to talk about how God wants to be everyone’s friend and that many of the people at Cal didn’t know about God’s friendship.

Then came the highlight of the talk (at least for us): teaching the kids to growl like Cal Bears (our mascot). A few brave students asked some questions during the Q & A time, and, with one final bear growl, we excused ourselves to speak in the adult service—where the video worked, the reception was warm, and everyone sat attentively through our 30-minute tandem presentation.

We both spoke in each venue, and we both totally enjoyed them.

But I gained a new conviction about training communicators: anyone preparing for a role that involves public speaking should give presentations for children on a regular basis. Jan and I have done so many talks for adults that I cannot count them, but we have been in a children’s venue only a handful of times.

This latest experience with kids reinforces some things for me:

1. Talks really need to be shorter: We were asked to do 10-15 minutes for the children. But even this very reasonable request seemed like an eternity during the actual presentation. Some of that feeling doubtless reflected our inexperience, but I can only imagine how long it seemed to the kids! I have been an advocate of 25-minute sermons for a while now, but mine generally end up being something like 30 minutes, even using a timer. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

The children taught us that shorter (generally) is better. My case for short talks is not based on declining attention spans, but on two other ideas: (a) the time belongs to the audience not to me, so my task is to be a good steward; (b) cutting minutes from a talk forces me to use only my best stuff by condensing the content, hopefully getting rid of the Hamburger Helper and retaining the hamburger.

2. You are the ultimate weapon: On the road, presentation technology will work about 70% of the time. This figure climbs to about 85% whenever you have home court advantage. We could not get our Berkeley video to function for the children (our fault for not showing up earlier with the disc), but they did not seem to care. Even the collapse of the teddy bear strategy left them unmoved. Their response seemed to depend more on who we were and why we were there. Are we going to be more impressive than their video games? I don’t think so.

This experience made me wonder if we are over-developing our technology and under-developing ourselves as communicators. I’m not suggesting this is always a trade-off, but that with all our production meetings, creativity teams, and branding, who is in charge of developing the communicator him/herself into a person worth listening to?

3. Feedback is my friend: Adult audiences are usually too nice. Even when I am doing a talk that is not moving people at all, many in the audience will solidify their facial expression into a frozen mask of feigned interest. Sure, some will play with their phones, but lots of people will pretend to be engaged while secretly watching another movie in the multiplex theater of their minds (or their phone).

Children are not so. They are honest. Whenever Jan and I lost the attention of our elementary age students, their posture and expressions immediately made this painfully clear forcing us to try something else to regain their interest (the Cal Bear growl helped a lot). Similarly, watching yourself on video as soon after a talk as possible is a tremendous way to improve, as is soliciting input through surveys or focus groups. Why not invite a future-Christian to a service and ask him or her give you an evaluation of a sermon? I ask my students in preaching classes to do this sort of thing, and often see profound results.

Communicating across cultural lines is the single most effective way to grow as a speaker. The line between adults and children is one of those opportunities. Think you’re pretty good? Try speaking to kids.