The Marx Brothers defined hilarity for a generation or more. But watch one of their movies now and you’re likely to be struck by how often their timing is off, their humor punctuated by uncomfortable pauses.

But as Groucho explained in his memorable* autobiography Groucho and Me, the pauses were a feature, not a bug.

It happened like this: Attending the premiere of one of their movies, the brothers noticed that the audience often missed some of their best jokes, because they were drowned out by laughter from the previous punchline.

To fix the problem the brothers and crew took future shows on the road, as musicals performed in front of live audiences.

Their goal wasn’t to make a few more bucks. It was to time the laughs, so they’d know now long a pause to leave after each joke when they turned the show into a movie.

This became relevant to my intermittent public speaking quite a few years ago. It’s become relevant to how you lead and manage, as you now face the same challenge the Marx brothers faced, your average radio hosts have faced for years, and I discovered when I found myself conducting more webcasts and webinars than live presentations.

Namely, we all find ourselves talking to dead air, not people. Because while the people are there, listening to the disk jockey and me, we can’t hear our audience’s reaction to what we’re saying and how we’re saying it.

For me the issue is public speaking. For you it’s presenting and facilitating video meetings. Neither you nor I have, that is, any way to tell whether hilarity has ensued or our material has fallen completely and utterly flat.

Which brings me to my first piece of advice: If you lack sufficient self-confidence to know, deep in your bones, that your material is brilliant, tell fewer jokes and funny anecdotes. Because without that confidence you’ll discover an emotion even the best stand-up comics sometimes experience: flop sweat. And you’ll experience it even when you haven’t flopped.

Second: Leave no time for laughter. For whatever reason, groups of people laugh longer than individuals, so even if your wisecrack provokes a chuckle, it won’t last longer than a second or two.

Third: Resist the temptation to “go flat.” With a live audience, when the presenter’s material doesn’t generate a response their instinct is to retreat to a gesture-free, inflectionless monotone.

It’s an instinct I’ve learned to suppress, as it can only lead to one place – a vicious, negative-feedback-driven descent into feigning a cardiac event to get me off the hook.

Listen to successful radio hosts and you’ll hear them injecting more … not as much, more … vocal inflection into their schtick.

So piece-of-advice #3 is to kick it up a notch. Express yourself with as much liveliness as you can muster. At first this will feel phony. That will pass.

One more: At least when you have the authority to mandate such things, insist your virtual meetings are video-on meetings. Participants might gripe, but don’t let their grumbling sway you. Point out that expression and body language contain more than half of all communication, and you want communication in your team to be as complete as possible.

Bob’s last word: Every time you present or facilitate via Teams, Zoom, plain old teleconference, or what-have-you, record the session. Then take the time to watch and listen to yourself. The first time round you’ll probably wince a few times, but that’s okay. Everything that makes you wince is something you’ll be sure to do better next time round.

Bob’s sales pitch: I still don’t love putting on webcasts, because I like the audience feedback that comes from doing things live. But put them on I do, and who better for you to put in front of your group than yours truly, whether I’m in front virtually or 3D.

Interested? To reach me, click here.

Now on isn’t everything – and it isn’t serviceable.” It’s about how “everything as a service” doesn’t include everything, and in fact it doesn’t include lots of important things. And no, I don’t know when “X” came to mean “everything” either.


* This is based on my memory of the book, not a recent reading. I read Groucho and Me in 7th grade, mostly in study hall, from which the proctor once ejected me for laughing too loud and often. I remember the ejection, and the A I received for my book report far more vividly than Groucho’s memoire itself.