The Hilarious Love Child of Tech and Stand-Up
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because presentation is everything.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
The audience sits shoulder to shoulder as Caitlin Gill delivers her sermon “The Evils of White Males.” Never mind that she’s lecturing to a roomful of San Francisco’s startup-iest bros who are the very target of her tirade. On display behind her is a bizarre set of PowerPoint slides — humping flies and laser cats. “You know who the real enemy is? It’s Brad. It’s Wesley. It’s Chad. It’s Logan.… It’s all those guys!” bellows Gill, with the gusto of a real pastor, and the crowd goes wild.
This is Speechless, the nerdiest, most comically awkward underground improv show in the world. It oozes snarky startup culture, but pokes fun at all the stupid buzzwords, the gluten-free Soylent and the prepubescent hoodies that the Valley holds dear. “It takes the format that people grow to resent in their workplace and turns it on its head,” says Gill, who’s given dozens of presentations on the Speechless stage.
For the show one Thursday night, I am handed an itchy blue lanyard and told that I’m the CMO, or “Chief Masturbation Officer.”
Fittingly, you’ll find Speechless down a grimy alley in San Francisco’s Mission District. Directions for the participants are simple enough: Ad-lib a PowerPoint presentation on, ugh, “crowdsourced” topics like mustache maintenance, CrossFit miseries and Donald Trump 101 for aliens. It could be a startup pitch, a lifetime achievement award speech or a self-help seminar. For the show one Thursday night, I am handed an itchy blue lanyard and told that I’m the CMO, or “Chief Masturbation Officer.” Others are given equally embarrassing titles: “The Weird Intern,” “The HR Nightmare.” You, the presenter, will be handed a snazzy laser pointer and microphone, but have no clue what insane images await on the PowerPoint slides: Kermit the Frog huffing cocaine, men in thongs, some form of sex act — nothing is off-limits. All the while, the audience will watch as you either bomb spectacularly or reign supreme.
PowerPoints have long been the bane of Silicon Valley’s existence. According to Microsoft, some 350 presentations are given every second, or about 1.26 million per hour, with hapless attendees fighting to stay awake as CEOs, managers and sales reps drone on about uninspired pie charts and photos. Speechless is the ultimate antidote, giving the tech world a taste of its own medicine, one shoddy speech at a time.
Laughs aside, improv is a great learning tool that helps with “public speaking skills, narrative storytelling [and] putting your authentic self out there,” says producer Scott Lifton, as he strokes his scraggly red (unironic) beard. Speechless has trained companies — Google, Adobe, Microsoft, Uber, Airbnb, Salesforce, Zynga, eBay, PayPal, Wal-Mart — on how to get out of the presentation rut by encouraging speakers to rely on quick wit and imagination instead of a black-and-white presentation template.
Niche comedy? Perhaps. At times, the show reeks of Silicon Valley, and while it may be a hit at sausage tech fests like Google I/O, the jokes may not zing as much with a crowd clueless about unicorns. To be fair, Speechless has already expanded to cities like Portland, Oregon and Dubai. Even so, most would still find the prospect of pulling a presentation out of thin air utterly nerve-wracking. “I’d pee my pants,” my neighbor, a startupper who works at Reddit, whispers to me during the show.
He’s got a good point. But he’s missing the quintessential perk of having a comedy show that rings true to Silicon Valley — you’re creating content that’s never existed before, and after you’re done, no one’s going to remember it anyway.