Stewart Lee practising his performance

So I saw Stewart Lee the comedian doing a show at Cheltenham Town Hall last night. Two hours or so of material that he’s testing out to see how it might contribute to a TV series and also a touring show. He was superbly clever and very funny in a variety of ways, but his humour was always going to be great. It was his practice messages in the way he delivered his show that I thought worthy of turning into some coaching points.

So here’s my thoughts about what he showed us:

1. If you’re practising then let people know that’s what you’re doing and get them to be in on the act with you. Be upfront that you’re trying things out and you’ll be using other people’s reactions and thoughts to help make sense of how well your practise is helping improve the things you’re working on. It’s good to practice and is necessary if you want to make something better than it is right now, so why not just let everyone know that’s what you’re doing. What are you practising? Does anyone know?

2. Engage people in your practice further by letting them have the feeling that they know what’s being worked on and they’ll have the inside track on your plans and they’ll be able to say ‘I saw them when they were still working on that… I’ve seen the work in development and now the end game’. The privileged observer/supporter role will play to many peoples egos, but you have to let them in on the secret to cash in on this one. An engaged observer who feels they are helping you shape towards the finished article will make greater efforts to help you, because they’ll feel it was their efforts that made the difference (granted, the Cheltenham audience didn’t help Stew that much last night, but compared to Cheltenham comedy audiences of the past, this one really was trying to be helpful… Cheltenham just starts from a low baseline when it comes to unfettered audience participation!).

3. Let the observers know that you’ve already got a very good feel for what great looks like so you won’t just be blindly agreeing with the feedback you get from them and you might even choose to let the observers know they’re being average at their job, rather than just toadying to every view presented by them. Remaining both judge and jury for your own development is a critical stance to take and it therefore requires those collaborating with you to step up in their role. You might be seeing privileged stuff but you also have to work hard to make an impact on the existing views of what good looks like. Remember the person that has been practising relentlessly has far more right to be severe critic or elated cheerleader than the people who are passing by and seeing the latest iteration of the performance that will be defined in the future as groundbreaking.

4. Keep telling people how you think you’re doing so they know what you think of you. This keeps both parties able to calibrate their views and add value to each other. Too often the practising party does not share their view of how they think they’re doing. This skews the power relation and the sense of who’s opinion matters most to the “expert onlooker”. Regularly sharing your view of how you’re shaping up against your own scorecard means that you keep reminding people you’re practising and that their input is still needed. Also the more frequently you ‘show the current score’ the easier it is for the onlookers to provide specific feedback… This didn’t happen explicitly in the show, but there was enough of Stewart grading himself as part of his comedic genius that means I can shoe-horn this one in

5. Manage expectations from the outset and do this very explicitly if necessary and repeat. This is all about setting the context of the practice session so don’t skip this one. Where are you at, what are you expecting and what should be expected about this relative to future sessions. Talk to people about this, write it down (see Stewart’s website) and reference the entire development journey that you’re going on. Someone watching the first practice session of several hundred should play a different role from someone watching the 199th practice session of 200.

Mr Lee did all of this in a brilliantly funny manner that added to the aura he creates around the show. How much the show changes over the coming weeks and months will be interesting to see.

How well are you setting up other people to help them help you be better?