Interview w/Ian Tyson: comedian & motivational speaker

by Scott | 5/13/2009

Ian is a long time public speaker who speaks frequently to very tough crowds:  high school students. His talks are roughly described as motivational speaking, but if you didn’t know, you’d think it was solid stand up comedy than happens to have positive messages (without being cheezy). You can check a really funny bit of him making fun of superheroes here.

SB: Why do you think most people have fears about public speaking? Did you have them before you started? If so, how did you overcome? And if you still have those fears, how do you manage them?

People are afraid of failure. That fear holds so many people back on so many things in life, and public speaking is only one of them. Nobody wants to look “stupid”, “foolish”, “unprepared”, or any other (insert negative adjective here) thing that may be socially harmful in anyway. I think a lot of us worry about how we look or are perceived so much that it restricts our ability to enjoy an experience like speaking in front of a crowd.

Do I get nervous? Absolutely, I’ll be more scared the day I DON’T get the little butterflies in the stomach as I wait backstage. But as I have told many people in public speaking workshops I have facilitated, it is all about reading and redefining your body’s reaction. The body’s reaction to fear and excitement is the same; sweaty palms, “the stomach”, you name it. So if the reactions are the same it becomes a mental decision; “Am I afraid?” or “Am I Excited?” – there is a big difference. You are excited to see a movie you have waited for a long time, you are afraid walking through an empty parking garage at night.

How do you know you have a good story to tell? Lots of people think their stories are great, so how do *you* evaluate when a story is good/powerful/useful in what you do?

It’s tough to tell you have a good story until you tell it to someone. You have to measure the reaction from a listener and see if you have kept them engaged and had a satisfying ending as well.

I am sure there are quiet reserved people who have stories that would blow your mind, but we never get to hear them. The genesis of telling a story is the attention you get in a lot of cases. People always told me I was a very “animated” story teller; talking with my hands, doing voices and changes in tone, really putting on a show. In that regard, it makes what I do that much more appealing as a career, if I wasn’t doing it on a stage I would be telling friends over dinner.

Some of the stories I use in my shows are stories I have told people in the past, some have to be massaged in their style to fit the message, and sometimes the message fits them. In the writing/development process for me, I need to try out stories in a smaller group scenario first, either professional or socially to see how a story plays, then I can either add it to an existing show or build something new around it.

What is your process for developing a new talk/lecture (e.g. if you had to describe in 5 or 6 steps, what would they be?)

My process for writing new material is always evolving. If I am adding something new to my existing show, it usually develops through improvisation on stage or forethought of a story/bit that I throw in when the time seems right. As for writing a whole new piece, that is a process I am in the midst of right now. People don’t really realize that at least for me, it can take years to really mold and develop a show to a point where you are happy with it. But the process for me is this, start with the idea for the show, think of bits from shows that I have discarded for time or because they didn’t fit, and see if they do now. Think about relateable stories from my life that may fit.

The rest is just having ideas come to me, in the car, on the couch, in a plane, jot it down as a thought and revisit it later. Once I have a group or stories, it is the art of putting them together so that the show has a nice pace and development to it. Then it is write it down (in point form only), revise it, and keep writing and re-writing it. That is how I used to write stand-up comedy, have the idea, flesh out the joke/story, write it down and then write it down again. I know I am ready to go when I can write out the whole “set list” for the show as one or two words per section, the rest I do not script per se, I just work out the best way to say it, while I am saying it, until it is perfect.

How important in your process is practice? If it’s a large part of how you develop material, how to allow yourself room to improvise to respond to an audience?

I am not sure I have ever really “practiced” as it were, not in a long time anyway. For me, performing is practicing, you have to just go out and test the waters. I know for example that in the fall, when my busy season ramps up, I need a show or two to shake the rust off, but it sometimes those shows that end up having some more improvisation (while I am remembering what comes next) and occasionally that produces absolute gold. I think the last time I ever “said it all out loud” practiced was maybe 15 or more years ago when I was doing a “tag team” speech with a friend and fellow speaker.

What is the biggest disaster that’s happened during a talk you’ve given. And what, if anything, did you learn from it?

Biggest disaster? I work predominantly in high schools so you can only imagine! A few years back, I was very excited to be returning to my old high school to perform. I needed new video footage for my website, so I hired a 2 camera crew to come and film the show. I was very excited to be on the stage I performed high school plays in. I arrived to find the rear stage curtain was broken so instead of a nice black background, I had a strip of bad looking dry wall. Second, the stage lights had been sent off  to be cleaned. So instead of a fully lit stage, I was lit by the lights overhead in the gym. Not much sense for the film crew to be there now, but they were being paid regardless… so on with the show. Now, I use some edited music in my show for comic effect during a couple of my bits, and the bits are MUCH funnier with the music.

Mid way through the second piece of music (of 7), the CD player crapped out  completely.  I am standing mid-stage, “saying just a second, we’ll try that again” and then the teacher walks out and whispers in my ear “It’s not going to work”, so I made a joke of it and told abbreviated version of the other bits sans-music. Unusable video, and an interrupted  show. The thing I had to keep reminding myself was “This is not about you, do a good show for them” which I hope I did.

Lesson learned: I have a detailed check list that I send to clients a week before the show with all technical needs, a cue sheet and fairly insistent statement that we need a quality sound system with a working CD Player. I also now carry multiple copies of the music and in a worst case scenario have all the cables with me to hook either my iPod or computer for the music, and I even have back door page on my website with all the edited tracks available for download, by me only.

You can watch more of his videos and see his work here.

2 Responses to “Interview w/Ian Tyson: comedian & motivational speaker”

  1. Rhett Laubach Says:

    Good stuff, gentlemen. Great points. I will forward it on to my network…


  2. Sue Wipf Says:

    To whom it may concern,
    My Mom Is turning 84 years old and has been an Ian Tyson fan forever.I was wondering if Ian Tyson could sing Happy Birthday to her on a cd and e-mail it to me.Her name is Mavis and I’m sorry to say but tyhis could be her last Birthday with us due to several health issues.I hope you can ask him and ful fill her day.Thanking you in advance .

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