To be a creative requires the constant practice of studying your craft, and consistently putting yourself out there. For some, it’s easier said than done. Maybe you know the reality of painting for years only to put your brushes away for months before creating another piece of work. Or, after another creative rejection, your camera is now collecting dust in the back of your closet. Life experiences can pull you away from your craft, while other times, doubt, fear or a changing vision block you from your creative calling. The important thing is to return to your craft, and much can be learned from studying artists from other disciplines. Take comedian Chris Rock who returned to the stage in 2016 after nine years away to embark on his year-long Total Blackout Tour.
Many artists would struggle to perform, let alone attract an audience after such an absence, but not Chris Rock. He still knows how to rock a crowd, and even added international tour dates due to his mass appeal. In October 2017, I attended his Total Blackout show because I needed a good laugh, but I also wanted to heed Rock’s advice to watch our legends while they’re still living. Enough said.
Here are six business takeaways I learned from Chris Rock:
Set Clear Expectations from the Start—The minute Rock took the stage, he welcomed the crowd, then issued this warning: “My show is raw and if you can’t take it, you should leave now.” One would think that anyone who has followed his career and watched any of his stand-up would know what they’re getting into before buying a ticket, but people are strange and unpredictable. As Rock started his set, a few people trickled toward the exit. Completely unbothered, Rock continued delivering joke after joke with excitement and precision.
Early on, define your process for creating work and for working with clients and collaborators. From the proposal and contract to the discovery phase and execution of deliverables, communicate clearly. This will help you minimize the headache of working with cranky clients and create work that benefits all parties.
Be a Student of Life— Creators come from all walks of life. Many are self-taught while others have been trained by leading institutions. If you can look past the degrees and illusions of where you’ve been taught to assign value, you can judge art at face value. Rock dropped out of high school and received his GED, but where his formal education lacks, he makes up with his razor-sharp observations and life experiences.
Rock’s set opened with a satirical look at gun control in the United States, and his doubts that policies will ever change. His hard-hitting jokes and observations about those who commit mass shootings were raw and proved too much for some. The truth hurts. But, more eye-opening was the way he used historical events like recent tragedies to drive home his point.
After watching his show, I re-watched his 1999 HBO special, Bigger and Blacker, and was struck that he opened with the Columbine High School massacre, and how schools were no longer safe spaces. Eighteen years stand between both shows, and one wonders what it says about our society that the gun control debate is still timely. By positioning this issue as his opener in both shows, Rock demands our full attention.
For better or for worse, history repeats itself and trends cycle back through society as if they’re new. If you are a student of life and your industry, you can be ahead of the curve, and push to create positive change.
Know your Audience—Rock’s ambitious tour has him waking up in a new city or country each week, but he never forgets where he is. Early on in his set, he hooks his audience by making local references and jokes about the city. Now, a connection is established, the audience feels seen, and we’re all ready to enjoy the ride.
Any public speaker can benefit from researching your audience before your presentation or new business meeting. Who will you be meeting with and do you share something in common like your hometown, hobby, alma mater, or mutual contact? LinkedIn is a great resource for discovering this information if you don’t know where to start. Did you have a memorable experience in this city or with this brand that’s relevant? Do the groundwork beforehand because establishing a personal connection is key!
Get Physical—Just as a well-placed F-bomb can punctuate language in colorful way, one’s physicality can, too. You could have five people saying the same phrase, but the way they deliver the words is completely different. There were countless moments during Rock’s show where he physically acted out what he was saying, and the audience erupted in laughter! There was something about the way his body moved that turned the joke up a notch and was relatable.
Don’t be afraid to pepper your speeches and presentations with your own physicality. No one wants to watch someone read every word off 75 power point slides (Yes—I’ve suffered through this!) or listen to a monotone presentation. You’re not a robot. Find body language that feels natural, and don’t be afraid to convey emotion through your vocal inflection and movement. Acting classes, improv, Toastmasters and creative cross-training classes are great ways to explore your physicality, and enhance your presentation skills.
Get Personal —Rolling Stone’s cover article on Chris Rock revealed that the Total Blackout Tour was fueled by his bitter divorce, Hollywood frustrations, and taking a hard look within. While Rock’s comedy has typically leaned toward biting social commentary, he challenged himself to get personal. Rolling Stone writer Stephen Rodrick followed Rock on the road as he workshopped his set in Greenwich Village’s Comedy Cellar to one of his first Total Blackout Tour stops in Denver. Rock’s jokes about his divorce initially didn’t elicit any laughs and felt more like witnessing a heated argument between strangers in public.
However, as Rock listened to his confidants about what worked and what didn’t, his divorce jokes began to land softer. From reading the Rolling Stone article to attending Rock’s show five months later, it was nice to see his vulnerable side, and in particular, notice how this bit had developed. We all have room for improvement, and feedback from our collaborators and audience can help us sharpen our craft.
Have Fun!—While Rock may have quipped that the Total Blackout Tour is really his alimony tour, there’s no mistaking that he’s having the time of his life! Rock’s set is nearly two hours, and from start to finish, the viewer feels like they’re witnessing his first and only show! As Rock delivers each punchline, he chuckles with you as if it’s the first time he’s hearing the joke, too. Rock looks good, he’s full of energy, and you don’t want to look away. You can’t fake passion, and Rock is clearly in his element.
Whether you’re conducting a business pitch, exhibiting your work or speaking on a panel, bring your full self and passion to the table, because this is what people will feel and remember.
Which tip has been most useful to you when working on a creative project? Please share in the comments below!