His high school basketball team cut him 3 years in a row, but he shot his shots anyway, until one day he made the Netflix hall of fame. In his standup memoir, Homecoming King, Hasan Minhaj lets it fly story after story, catching fire with punchlines, and driving home the point and underlying theme of the show: A New Brown America.
As a brown millennial still driving a Camry, as a husband and father in an interfaith marriage, and a student of the skill of storytelling, I constantly put the Special on repeat and recommend it to anyone that comes over.
My wife’s worried my obsession might lead me to quit my job and my startup, to become a standup comedian. The truth is I'm obsessed with patterns, and I enjoy reverse-engineering works of art to uncover solutions for major problems.
Specifically, I study Minhaj’s content, delivery, and punchlines to understand how introvert professionals and business people can overcome glossophobia - aka stage fright - and deliver articulate presentations, pitches, and all forms of public speeches.
In the age of social media and artificial intelligence, every millennial needs to up his or her game at public speaking. After deliberate practice, the second best advice I offer on how to improve this ability is to study professionals, such as journalists and comedians. By breaking down their work into bits and pieces and patterns, we can put in the work without having the talent. In this 4-part series of articles, I'll share my process and my findings.
1) The Lesson of all Lessons: Tell Stories
The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic ‘right-brain’ thinkers.
--Daniel Pink, author
Telling stories is like saying sorry, please, and thank you: we all do it, but not enough.
Standup comedians know this better than anybody, and Minhaj nails it by telling dozens of short stories for 70 minutes straight.
Whether you teach, sell, or inform for a living, narrative intelligence is a skill and artform that differentiates humans from artificial intelligence, whether used in a 1-on-1 setting, or on stage.
“Powerpoints are the peacocks of the business world: all show, no meat.”
-Dwight Schrute, ordinary genius
2) Use the Rule of 3
Throughout the show, Minhaj uses the rule of 3 because 3 is a golden number. When you use three items in a sentence, joke, or title, the reader or listener finds the point or punchline more concise, memorable, and satisfying.
The rule of 3 is universal. You can have 3 of anything work effectively:
- Letters in acronyms: LAX. NYC. UPS.
- Words with repetition: Location, location, location
- Words in a title: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
- Actions in a sequence: I came, I saw, I conquered
- Parts in a joke: I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.
2 isn’t enough and 4 is too many. It’s why you don’t see Moe, Larry, Curly, AND Shemp in 3 Stooges episodes.
Now that you’re aware, re-watch the Homecoming King, and notice the frequency and mastery of the Rule of 3 in its glory. Examples:
- LA, Chicago, New York
- Starbux, WiFi, Highways
- Cody, Corey, and Cole
- Soul Cycle -> Yoga -> ZeeTV
- Hannity, Coulter, O’Reilly
- No Fun, no friends, no girlfriends
3) Play with Words, Numbers, and Figures of Speech
Every speaker is tasked with the challenge of holding the audience’s attention still so that his or her message, tone, and punchlines are delivered as the speaker intends. When the audience, hungry for laughter, pays attention, every person’s brain is locked in connection-making mode, eager to chomp on the next simile, metaphor, or pop culture reference dropped by the speaker.
Wordplay - the art of infusing sarcasm, puns, and figures of speech within your content - keeps the audience hooked and wanting more.
For it to work, wordplay has to be subtle and nonchalant, as if you’re just having a casual conversation with your audience. Otherwise, you risk coming across as cheesy, scripted, and trying too hard. Though for beginners, the payoff is worth the risk.
Hasan Minhaj’s use of wordplay is so powerful you forget he uses it, so it required me to re-watch the show a dozen times to identify all the different techniques used. At the risk of giving away too much, here’s a list of examples:
- Beautiful blue BMX bike
- Cody, Cory, and Cole
- Creed, color, class
Fun Words (or Names)
- Rajesh Rengatramanajananam
- No fun, no friends, no girlfriends
- That kid won’t choke on camera. He’s been slapped on camera. – Of course he can spell “knaidel”. – Knaidel. Look at that face. Nothing. Nothing! He’s 12 years old. Nothing! This kid just won $30,000 cash. Nothing.
- I actually had the Audacity of Equality
- It’s a Fair and Lovely World (Fair N Lovely is a popular skin whitening product in India)
- We’re the rappers that made it.
- Like a Brown Mr. Miyagi
- Off with the head. Like a goddamn emperor
- It’s like Tinder with no photos
- I crushed it like a Voldemort Horcrux
- Hindus and Muslims are like the Montagues and Capulets of India. We’ve been warring for centuries.
- Every day I walk past their building during lunch. I’ll see all the [FOX News] employees, Hannity, Coulter, O’Reilly, leave their building, cross the street, walk past me, and line up for halal chicken and rice. I’m like, “Uh… Racist Randy wants that red sauce.” Your brain can be racist, but your body will just betray you.
- Population of 990,000, that’s a small town in India
- Do you know what it’s like to have a parent that controls your life? “No, I don’t. What is that like? Do tell. I would love to hear that story.”
This concludes Part 1, check back next week for Part 2, where we go over self-deprecation, callbacks, and the Bookend Technique.
If you've considered professional speech lessons, I recommend you check out TakeLessons' private speech tutors. Full disclosure: I work for TL, and I unapologetically promote the work we do to connect students and teachers.