Nearly 30 years since his last televised special, comedy legend Bill Cosby returned to Comedy Central Saturday, November 23, in his latest offering appropriately titled “Far From Finished." At 76, Cosby is perhaps at his best with an arsenal of stories about marriage, changing relationship dynamics, and growing older. With an audience seemingly hanging on his every word, watching a master storyteller at work for 90 minutes was, I realized, not only a great dissection of comedic approach, but a chance to reinforce some great PR lessons as well.
Here are my top three takeaways from watching Dr. Cosby at work:
1). Authenticity Wins Every time
In addition to his genius crafting a funny narrative, Cosby is also well known for keeping his act clean at all times. That’s who he is, and fans everywhere know what they can expect. His personal stories are funny in part because they are unique to him, but he also touches on their universality.
Witnessing first-hand the power of narrative and its potential to grip an audience while tending bar in New York, Cosby had no doubt in his mind that was the style he wanted to emulate.
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s the style I want to go with my writing. Identification and a style that I care,’” recalled Cosby in the post-concert interview accompanying the November 25 DVD release.
“The [comics] who really care know that it’s from the mind down to these fingertips. From that point on, it’s your style,” Cosby continued.
The public can smell inauthenticity a mile away. To succeed, brands must be authentic, know their voice and use it to their advantage. A serious brand suddenly trying to interject humor at the wrong moment can be perceived as disingenuous. On the flip side, brands who have established themselves as risk takers, often pushing boundaries and engaging humorously with the public on an ongoing basis can pay off big time. I’m looking at you, Zappos.
2). Plans Change, Be Flexible
One of the recurring themes that cropped up in the post-concert interview was Cosby’s reliance on his intuition and how trust in both himself and the audience are more often than not the driving force behind his performances.
“When I walk out, there’s not even a rush. I walk out and I look at them, and I hear them, and I reach down and I pick up the mic, put it over the ear, put the [microphone receiver] in my pocket, and I have from that point, no idea what I am going to say. My plan is that I don’t have a plan.
“I don’t try anything out. If it’s funny to me, I’m going to give it to you,” Cosby said of his work style.
Remembering back to “Himself”, Cosby confessed that one of his most beloved routines, “Chocolate Cake For Breakfast” was largely ad-libbed as a result of his trust and connection with the audience at the time that gave him the freedom to let go and have fun.
Likewise, and especially in PR, crises happen and plans will get scrapped. Surprises and the unexpected are part of what PR is about. Seize those opportunities and challenges as they come. Be open to your approach and appreciate fluidity. Understand that the best responses often come from quick adaption and the ability to think on your feet. Remember when the power went out at halftime of the 2012 Superbowl? The marketing team at Oreo was all over it reminding you with a timely PSA that, “You can still dunk in the dark.”
3). Tell A Great Story
Cosby is a revered storyteller. That is his gift. He takes audiences with him through every tale he tells and despite the diversity of the crowd, they’re all with him as if it’s their own, regardless of their personal connection or understanding. The degrees vary, but everyone finds a way to identify with him. The connection to story is almost automatic. Human nature. Great stories give the opportunity for the listener to create their own unique visuals which instantly lead to better recall. Our memories love visual cues.
On more than one occasion, Cosby said, he was pressured to speed up his delivery. “They said, ‘If you didn’t get them in the first 30 seconds, you will lose them,’” he recounted. What he learned was it wasn’t so much about grabbing their attention, but building trust, and holding it. Getting the audience to go along with him believing the payoff would be worth the wait.
This week, Adweek unveiled its annual list of the most viral ad campaigns. What characteristic did many of the top honorees share? They forewent the traditional length of most ad spots, 15-30 seconds and instead focused on a compelling narrative to grab the public’s attention. It’s no secret that content is shifting away from television and moving toward online and mobile, but as the platform changes, so do the rules. Campaigns that live online are not bound by older decrees where ad length and airtime are financially linked. Online presents brands with an amazing opportunity to tell compelling stories about themselves and their product without breaking the bank for airtime. This year’s best story? Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign—a three minute ad—was shared over 4 million times.
Thank you, Bill Cosby for decades of laughs. You’ve made me not only a better comic but a stronger communicator. I owe you a debt of gratitude for inspiring my personal credo: life is all about chasing (and later telling) the great story.