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Set-up/ punch in corporate communications

June 30, 2014

Alongside my work with comedians I deliver corporate training applying the tools of stand-up to presentations, pitches, meetings…  I have worked with Channel 4, ITV, Google, M&C Saatchi and many more.

I did a one-hour breakfast session last month for the London office of visual effects production house The Mill ("Based in London, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago we collaborate on award-winning moving image, design and digital projects for the advertising, games and music industries".)


One of the central points I make is that tools from comedy can be used to great effect beyond just getting a laugh. And that is true of the classic joke rhythm: set-up/ punch. In comedy it's to get a laugh. In business you can use it to foreground key information, make your message more memorable and give it more impact.


I explored Set-up/ Punch with the Mill group using text from their website. First of all I picked out this phrase from the About Us page of their site:


Our passion is for great ideas, beautifully executed, that engage audiences irrespective of platform, device or venue.


This phrase is clear, economical, well written and informative. I have no problem with it on those grounds. What I am interested in here is identifying the key piece if information and giving it more impact.


So I then went through the phrase to find the punch. I initially felt it lay here:


Our passion is for great ideas, beautifully executed, that engage audiences irrespective of platform, device or venue.


In stand-up the punch is always the last thing you hear. So I adjusted the phrase accordingly:


Irrespective of platform, device or venue, our passion is for great ideas, beautifully executed, that engage audiences.


Then I thought perhaps the more pertinent punch is ‘beautifully executed’. This is at the heart of what they do. So I reorganised the phrase again so that phrase becomes the punch:


Irrespective of platform, device or venue, our passion is to engage audiences with great ideas, beautifully executed.


All agreed this has more impact and foregrounded the key information. They were surprised that such a simple change had a big effect.


One person queried the (as he saw it) slightly odd start to the sentence: “Irrespective of platform, device or venue…” This though is echoing how jokes work. The essence of the joke is surprise. It starts and you can’t see where it’s going. It piques your interest and curiosity.


Next we looked at this phrase from their About Us text:


We collaborate with groundbreaking directors, creative agencies and visionary brands, who trust us to bring their ideas to life.


With set-up/ punch thinking this then became:


We collaborate with groundbreaking directors and creative agencies.

Visionary brands trust us to bring their ideas to life.


Again creating more punch and more impact. We then went on to look at misdirection.In their original text it said:


Though we are renowned for our unrivalled creative expertise, we are just as inventive with our workflow solutions.


With misdirection applied:


We are renowned for our unrivalled creativity and invention. With our workflow solutions.


The misdirection operates because in the first phrase (the set-up) we assume they are talking about their visual effects. Then we are surprised by the second phrase, the punch. In comedy that rhythm can create a laugh but here it’s simply creating a surprise – which pleasantly jolts the audience and wakes them up.


So here we see greater impact being achieved with the simplest of means using stand-up tools. This kind of thinking works for textual communications as above, is at the heart of punchy messages like Tweets and also gives momentum, focus and punch to spoken messages in meetings, presentations and especially pitches. This kind of work on word-order is exactly the kind of thing that you need to do in stand-up.



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