Making an impression

How do we make an impression? With a few impressions? I’m not suggesting for one moment that you go all out and create a stand up routine for your next job interview but there is something sublime about going along with your comedic intuition to help people remember you. A laugh never did anybody any harm.

There is no better way to drive home a message than with humour. Some of the best women public speakers I have seen broke all the rules, did away with the PowerPoint, shoulder pads and powder puff in favour of straight talking, a nice comfy sweater and a slick of lip gloss! It’s what they said that mattered – if you are passionate and funny about your subject matter, people remember you.

At the risk of upsetting all those image consultants out there (and yes, I’ve had my colours done too) your dress sense is not as important as feeling comfortable about your subject matter. As long as you have enough material and deliver confidently and in style, you can bring the house down. That’s how comedians do it – plus if you can throw in a bit of humour for good measure, people will find it easier to remember you and what you said.

In my book, what you have to say about yourself is far more important than what you look like. As belts are being tightened in these restrained financial times, there will be less emphasis on appearances and a general relaxing of business formality. One story that I love about clothes and making an impression, illustrates this perfectly.

Many years ago a friend of mine applied for a job with the Body Shop and was called for an interview with the late great Anita Roddick. Anxious to make a good first impression, and always very formal in her appearance Mary wore a new smart military style suit and perfect make up.

Upon arrival at Body Shop HQ Mary was propelled into a room full of people who looked more like they were going to highjack a whaler for Greenpeace than working for a high street beauty retailer! It wasn’t even dress down Friday – such was the informality of the working environment. Jeans and scruffy t-shirts were the order of the day and, with only a brief appearance by Anita, Mary came away suspecting that her brass buttons had spoken volumes in the wrong language!

Much to her great surprise Mary was recalled to meet Anita for a ‘one to one’. Anxious not to make such a statement this time around, we discussed wardrobe and approach. It was decided that a pastel coloured fluffy mohair jumper (which was one of the most casual items in Mary’s wardrobe) would replace the formality of her customary tailored separates and she would rely on the confidence of having an MBA and a killer CV.

Mary was kept waiting for over 30 minutes to meet Anita in her offices above the Carnaby Shop – then in no more time than it takes to say ‘brass buttons’ it was over. Anita breezed in, asked Mary a few personal questions about hobbies, dreams and wishes, nothing about her luminous career, then on her way out commented, “Nice jumper, by the way.”

Mary did get the job – to this day she’s not sure if it was the jumper that did it or her CV! Anita was always a very instinctive person and relied less on the hype and more about what she saw in front of her. I suspect that the jumper just demonstrated to her that Mary was a real person with a fluffy heart who she could work with.

Yet, all too often we make such assumptions about people based on what they wear and look like. The modern day ‘book and cover-judging’ parable of Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent proves the point!

People come in all shapes and sizes and move in different ways. One of the most inspirational and maverick speakers I have seen over the last year is Allegra McEvedy, chef and founder of The Leon food chain. I saw her speak at a conference last year to an audience full of tailored formality and opinion.

Allegra broke all the rules of presenting as she shambled onto the stage, took off her jacket like she was settling in for a cosy chat and positioned her box of tricks, which we later discovered held some banners featuring much loved inspirational slogans. There were no slides, notes or (it appeared) any sort of formal preparation, but what followed was pure magic. Allegra translated her passion for what she does professionally into a brilliant presentation – it was authentic, informative and fun – in fact, good enough to eat!

So how does comedy fit in with all this? We discover a lot about ourselves through humour and its use. It is always strange to me that it is acceptable to the most prudish of audiences if a famous TV personality like Jo Brand says the C Word on stage, yet if uttered by an unknown comic, it’s disgusting and rude. It’s based on respect, and Jo’s audiences trust her because they see her on telly. A newcomer isn’t afforded the same privileges of straight talking.

Shazia Mirza was asked to say a few words at a charity event held at the House of Lords and we’d discussed what part of her material was or was not suitable for the audience. By her own admission, Shazia has comedy turrets, so you can guarantee that if you tell her to leave something out, she’ll put it in!

Again I am always amazed by the reaction of people to something that could be deemed inappropriate for an occasion – invariably they laugh, often guiltily and nervously at first, but then it catches hold and the laughter spreads until the point when everybody joins in relieved that abandonment has won out!

One of Shazia’s jokes about inappropriate party small talk did, literally, bring the House of Lords down – grown men, nay Lords no less, were weeping with joy that something so funny and naughty had been said in their hallowed halls.

Humour can be the blue touch paper that lights the fire of your passion. We don’t learn how to ‘say it like it is’ instead we are schooled to say what we think people want to hear. Comedians like Jo Brand and Shazia Mirza know when to push it – they don’t always get away with it but life deserves a few risks.

I’ll bring this exploration to an end by describing the goose bumps I get, not only when I hear her sing, but when she talks as well. Annie Lennox is nothing short of heroic with her ability to bring attention to some of the world’s worst plights – child mortality, HIV and more. This is a woman who has learned to use her passion and humour to change things – recently honoured at the 2010 Woman of the Year lunch; Annie’s authenticity shines out against the rest of us.

While I wrestled with the dilemma of what to wear to this important lunch (I was very proud to be invited this year) Annie is up there on stage fresh faced and clad in a plain black t-shirt and jeans, the only nod to glamour being her peroxide blond crop. Annie Lennox doesn’t waste her time on a complex wardrobe – it’s all about her as a woman, mother and humanitarian. It’s very pared down, neutral almost and you don’t judge.

Equally inspiring to listen to, and by complete contrast, is the founder of Kids Company, Camila Batmanghelidjh, who wears the most glorious celebratory cacophony of colour and fabric from her head to her toes. I saw her hailing a taxi the other day, her appearance as impressive on the street as it is on a stage. This is not an act – this is Camila, in all her colourful glory. Quite literally the fabric of her being matches her patchwork personality – the motto being (maybe) that she does have to live up to the way she looks.

From the supremely flamboyant to the plainest of janes, whatever you look like, what you have to say matters the most. Your appearance is actually an extension of your personality so work on your material first – take a leaf out of the books of some of our funniest women who come in all shapes and sizes. Then if lipstick makes you feel good, wear it. If you like to tie your hair up, tie it. None of this matters as much as what you say and how you say it.

©Lynne Parker, founder and producer, Funny Women Ltd.

Funny Women is at the vanguard of nurturing and promoting female comedy talent – from finding and developing new acts through its annual competition, the Funny Women Awards, to working with established performers.

Founded in 2002 by Lynne Parker, former journalist, broadcaster and marketing consultant, Funny Women has become a leading comedy brand, promoting new female talent through live events, workshops and training programmes.

Funny Women recognises that comedy is all about passion and fun and we take this with us into everything we do. We produce our own shows and tours as well as bespoke events for companies and brands.

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