Jack Milner | Interview | Podcast | Maria Franzoni | MFL Global

Interview with Comedy Director at Stand Up & Deliver and Co-Founder of We Do Things Differently, Jack Milner

This week Maria interviewed, Jack Milner. Jack works as a director, comedy writer, business facilitator, and speaker. He has over 20 years’ experience helping organisations and individuals articulate and memorably communicate their ideas. Jack says that skills learnt from the world of stand-up comedy and improvisation need fresh, natural and compelling communication, and can help audiences understand complex stories. As director for the West End, film and radio, Jack knows how to take often dry, technical information and render it clear and memorable, no matter who the audience.

Jack talks to us about the similarities between working with executives and soap stars, what you can learn from the comedy world that you can apply to speaking and how to deal with nerves. He tells us about his scary experience in Russia and why his wife bought him a book called ‘Dull Men of Great Britain’!

Maria Franzoni:             

This week’s guest is Jack Milner. Jack works as a director, comedy writer, business facilitator and speaker. He has over 20 years’ experience helping organisations and individuals articulate and memorably communicate their ideas. Jack says that skills learnt from the world of stand-up comedy and improvisation need fresh, natural and compelling communication, and can help audiences understand complex stories. As director for the West End, film and radio, Jack knows how to take often dry, technical information and render it clear and memorable, no matter who the audience. He’s worked with top comedians, theatre and soap stars, as well as a lot of stressed out executives. His clients include some fairly hefty businesses, such as Google, Microsoft, Virgin Media, the BBC, National Theatre, and the Armagh Look and See Group.

Hello, Jack.

Jack Milner: 

Hello, Maria.

Maria Franzoni: 

That’s quite an intro, isn’t it?

Jack Milner:          

Yeah, yeah, yes it is.

Maria Franzoni:         

So how did you get started?

Jack Milner: 

Okay. It was sort of a little journey, so if I give you that journey as briefly as possible. So, I started out working as a comedy performer and writer and then I ran a little comedy touring company, and that in turn led me to running some comedy improvisation, comedy sketch type workshops.  I did that for a while, and then the venue said, “We’d like you to run some stand-up workshops,” and I said, “Ah, actually, I don’t think you can teach stand-up,” you know, you’re either funny or you’re not sort of thing. And then the venue said, “Well, actually, we’ve already got some people booked, and we’ll pay … (Yeah, yeah), and we will pay you more than normal,” and I said, “Well, actually, I think you can teach stand-up.” And I realised that I could really by doing three things. One was to help people take away the stuff that gets in the way, second thing was to make sure it was fun, and the third thing was to give them some tools to help build confidence.

And, very quickly, there weren’t many other people doing it at the time, so this is about 25 years ago, so very quickly I was working with people like the National Theatre and Channel 4, etc., and that in turn led to businesses occasionally picking up a leaflet and saying, “That stand-up thing you do, could you do something similar for, for instance, our analysts doing their 7:30 presentations in the city because we’d like to make them a bit more engaging?” That was over 20 years ago and the longer I’ve done it now, the more I’ve realised, actually, the skills used in improvisation and stand-up are incredibly relevant to business.

Maria Franzoni:  

Fantastic, and we’ll come back to that a bit later on, because I sort of want to delve into some of the other things that you’ve done. I know that you also write, and you got into trouble in Russia, didn’t you, with regards to your writing?

Jack Milner:  

Yes, yes, a few times actually. This was quite some time ago and I got involved with a serious script that had no gags at all, but it was an amazing true story. As part of it, I had to go out to Russia, this was just after the Gorbachev and just beginning of the Yeltsin time, so it was all very chaotic, and I went out to Russia, and part of the story is set in the frozen north, in somewhere called Severodvinsk, which used to be a port called Molotovsk, which was, at the time, their secret submarine port.  I was staying with a Russian family, one of whom worked at this submarine place, and he said, “Oh, Jack, would you like to come and see … To go to Severodvinsk? And you have to pretend to be Russian.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, that’d be fantastic,” so I went in, it seemed all very straightforward, and then he said, “Oh, would you like to see the port?” I said, “Well, am I allowed?” He said, “No, no, you’re not allowed. Would you like to see it?” And I said, “Yeah, okay.”

So, I went along and went through the gate, and as I was going along, he’d brought his mate along and they were both banging their wrists together as like manacles, going, “Ah, ching ching, Jack, ching ching, siberies, siberies,” and they all thought it was hilarious. I was getting more and more scared. I thought, “What am I doing? What am I doing?” And then I was there, so I stood on the side and there were these enormous submarines, biggest submarines in the world, biggest nuclear submarines in the world. So, there I was, and I thought, “Well, I’m here, I’ve got my camera, the best thing is to be as touristy as possible, so don’t be secretive.” So, I started going around taking snaps, taking snaps of these, and I’ve got them, and it was a secret city, so it didn’t actually exist on the maps, so you couldn’t see it. I went around, took some photographs, and then we all skedaddled out.

Very peculiar experience, great fun, but I did get arrested later on a train, but managed to escape.

Maria Franzoni:  

Oh, my goodness. I’m not sure about your Russian accent either I’m afraid.

Jack Milner:    

No, well, siberie, siberie, so any Russian listeners, apologies, okay?

Maria Franzoni: 

Fantastic. So, you’re good at getting into trouble when you’re abroad, aren’t you? You did something in Calcutta, didn’t you, when you were a comedian? What happened there?

Jack Milner:   

This was before we had kids, so I was with my wife, we were on holiday, and I’d booked us into this little hotel with some fabulous grounds, just overlooking the ocean near Calicut in Kerala. We arrived and it was so warm and so friendly, and I thought, “This is fantastic. What a welcome.” People throwing flowers and stuff like that. I thought, “This is … Well, anyway, we’ll go with the flow.” And then we were having dinner, and the manager came up, and he said, “Mr Milner, I’ve just got a little favour to ask you,” and I said, “Oh, yeah?” He said, “I’ve seen your website,” and I said, “Oh, right, right.” “We’re doing a little festival tomorrow. It’s the Calicut Rock and Roll Festival, and we wondered if you’d do some comedy,” and I said, “Well, actually, I’m on holiday, so no, sorry, I won’t. We’re on holiday, I’m supposed to be having a relaxing time and that already makes me feel quite stressed, the Indian rock and roll festival.” And he said, “Ah, yeah.”

And then he went out and came back and he’d got this leaflet. And there it was, Indian Rock and Roll Festival and at the top of it, headlining, Jack Milner, comedian from England.

Maria Franzoni: 

Oh, my goodness.

Jack Milner:  

With a couple of quotes. And he said, “Please, Mr. Milner, we thought you’d want to do it. It’s the top rock and roll festival in Calicut.”

Maria Franzoni: 

So, did you do it? Did you do it?

Jack Milner: 

I initially said no, and we were having a chat with my wife, and she said, “Well, you’ve got to. You can’t let this guy down.” So, the next day I worked together an act, because he said, “Just a little thing, a lot of the people attending, their English won’t be very good, so if you can work round that,” and so I did, and I did a mix of … I was told animal impersonations go down well, so I got a couple of very silly songs, which happened to involve chickens, so I cut out the rude bits because I wasn’t sure that would go down so well, and did it, and took the mickey out of the techy, and there seems to be, you know, techies the world over are very similar, I did discover that. Yeah, much to my surprise, it went all right. It went all right, yeah, we got some laughs, but, yeah, that was very bizarre.

Maria Franzoni:  

And, actually, that leads me on to quite an interesting question because, obviously, I mean, people to want use humour in their speeches, but that must be very hard to do when you’ve got an international audience. I suppose, when you’ve got one nationality, you can find out, but if you’ve got a diverse nationality with different points of reference, how do you use humour in that case?

Jack Milner: 

I suppose what I did in that particular occasion was I did actually ask him some questions about what sort of thing to they like. What’s likely to work? Bearing in mind the difficulties we’ve got. And so, he said, “Well, we love animal impressionists.” Well, I thought, “I’m not an animal impressionist, but it gives me a start.”

Maria Franzoni:  

Yeah.

Jack Milner:

So, do a bit of research. The second thing is, and obviously you’re talking about different types of people, there are some things that are universal. Relationships, husband and wife, partners, that sort of stuff seems to be pretty much the same the world over. Men are pretty hopeless, that seems to be a given when it comes to women. Yeah, men are hopeless in very similar ways across cultures and women put up with a lot. And see themselves as brighter and men actually do as well, so that seems to go down well. So those are certain givens, but, also, you’ve got to … Somebody said to me, he said that even when you are very fluent in a language, this was somebody who was … And, really, I think you’re bilingual at least, the very least, aren’t you?

Maria Franzoni:  

Italian, yes.

Jack Milner: 

Italian, yeah. But said well, even when you’re very good at another language, unless you are truly, truly bilingual, in other words, you think in different languages, then it’s the humour and the irony that you find very difficult, and that actually goes across cultures. So, it’s not, for instance, the Americans don’t get irony, they do, you only have to look at some of their fabulous comedy shows, it’s just that they don’t get our irony, because they’re not part of our British culture, yeah? So, they don’t get the fact that Brits, when they do banter, can be quite rude, or what appears to be rude. But it’s not, in Britain, it’s seen as … Somebody once said to me, “If an Englishman greets you politely and you’ve known them a while, this is when you’ve known them a while, and they just greet you very politely, then you know they don’t like you, right? But if they greet you with a huge insult, then you know you’re away.”

Yeah, so I should finish this call with a good insult, Maria.

Maria Franzoni:   

Thank you. You pre-empted my last question, there you go. So that’s really interesting. That’s great that you can apply that to speaking. What else have you learnt from the comedy world that you can apply to speaking?

Jack Milner:  

Well, one is when speakers just chat to us as human beings. And that’s, I think, one of the biggest mistakes I see from less experienced speakers is they go up and it’s this rather phony person that you think, “Where are you?” Somewhere in there is you, yeah? And, actually, what we want is you to converse and be present with us. So, something that comedians are very good at is breaking up so called fourth wall between them and the audience. And I know one of the speakers around, who we both know very well, Mark Stevenson. Now, Mark has a background in stand-up some time ago, but he uses a lot of that in making those connections with the audience, so if, for instance, having seen him in action, say, the first five minutes aren’t going quite as well as he expected, he’s got that wherewithal to say, “Okay, I need to create a connection with the audience now.” And it might be just provoking them, so pushing them, or it might be some self-deprecating humour, or it might be picking on an individual and creating a little connection that way.

So, it’s those sort of skills, I think in particular, and just the confidence I think. I always recommend when people say, “Oh, how do I improve as a speaker?” I say, “Well, go on a stand-up course. Put yourself on a stand-up course if you really want to learn it.” And they go, “Oh, that’s a bit scary.” Well, exactly. When you can do that, then you can handle everything and the confidence you will get from it is enormous. You don’t have to be the funniest person in the world, don’t worry about that, just do it. You’ll develop some gags as you go along, and then give it a go.

Maria Franzoni: 

Very sound advice and I’m glad you mentioned Mark because he’s a great example because of his content, he’s a futurist if anybody doesn’t know, and he will be one of our future guests actually on our podcast. His content, of course, is quite technical and can be very hard going without that humour, and with that humour, he makes it wonderful and memorable, so great example. I want to ask you now do you approach working with comedians and actors and soap stars differently to how you would approach working with a senior executive for example?

Jack Milner:  

No, I don’t. There’s a lot of similarities. They are often both under huge pressure, so that’s first, is an understanding of the pressures. So, for instance, if you’re a soap star in a play, then the chances are you’re in the play partly to help sell tickets. And you’re not an idiot, you know that. And also, you know there’s … everyone has that imposter syndrome a bit, yeah? We all do. And you can have that imposter syndrome and then, if you’re a soap star, you’ve made your living blagging it, essentially because acting in soaps involves a lot of blagging. Where you are having to learn lines incredibly quickly and you’ve got a certain technique that just means that, in your mind, actually there’s a really skill to it, but you get away with it. They’ve either got the job in the first place, actually, because they’re really good actors, that’s why a soap pays them a lot of money and then they go back into, say, theatre, and, suddenly, they’re doing something they’re unfamiliar with and in their head, they’re going, “I’m famous, because I blag it every day, and now I’ve got to go up there.”

And so, the exec is often feeling the same thing. Here I am this imposter syndrome and often part of their skill, if you like, the thing that’s driven them to where they’ve got to, is a fairly decent sized ego. And so, there’s that need to be looked after as well and I found that when I worked with or when I work with soap stars, that you’ve got to really respect and understand that ego needs a little bit of puffing occasionally. But also, you’ve got to be really honest with them as well and be prepared to push them. I find that they, both executives and when I’m working with soap stars, they both appreciate that fact, that you want the best for them. The only reason why you’re pushing them and pushing them and saying, “Come on, you can do this,” is because you want them to reflect the actually, the often very brilliant person that they are.

Maria Franzoni: 

Very good, very good. So, I think one of the big things for people when they speak is actually nerves and managing nerves. Have you got any tips for that?

Jack Milner:

Well, actually, one of my favourite tips comes from the brilliant Jamil Qureshi, from his footballer book.

Maria Franzoni:

Yes, people might not know. We’re now going to reveal that Jamil Qureshi is the secret psychologist.

Jack Milner:  

Yeah, well, he does actually put it on his emails, so I think it’s out there.

Maria Franzoni: 

Not much of a secret – but carry on.

Jack Milner: 

Yes. Sorry world, if you’re there going, “Oh, no, I thought it was bloke down the road.” Anyway, it’s Jamil, and he says one of his top tips with footballers in their mind-set was don’t compare. So, you were in a team with Messi, for instance, or you’re saying the Welsh team is a classic, where they’ve got one amazing world class player, Gareth Bale, and the rest of them are good or average.

Maria Franzoni:  

They’re going to love you. They’re going to love you saying that.

Jack Milner:  

I don’t support Wales, so I can say it, but it’s true, and he said, “Don’t compare. Don’t compare yourself to the other players in the team, compare yourself to how you were six months ago. Are you improving compared to yourself six months ago?” It’s the same as a speaker. Say, for instance you’re the, if you like, in a speaking event’s the sandwich, the filler between the star act at the beginning and the star act at the end, and you’re less experienced than they are, you’re less famous than they are and you’ve got the lower fee than they have and you’re speaking for longer as well, so you really are the filler. But you do not compare yourself to, for instance, a Jamil. Jamil’s been doing it a while. Apart from being very gifted and all the rest of it, he’s been doing it a while. He does, you’ll know better than me, a lot of gigs.

Maria Franzoni:

Yes.

Jack Milner:  

Every year. I mean, he could be in three or four countries over three days, sometimes more. That’s part of it, so what is the point of comparing yourself to that? So, number one, don’t compare. Number two, accept your nerves, yeah? So, one of the things when you go on stage as comedian, you’re never going to look as nervous as you feel, number one. But also accept what’s happening to you. So, when you get that feeling like, “Oh, my God, I’m up here and I’m not feeling my best, I bet they all think I’m an idiot.” Just breathe and go, “Okay, I’m nervous,” because the moment you start going … I’m posturing here, and I’m just realising this is a podcast and no-one can see me posturing, but, you know, once you start to say, “Okay I’m going to stand and look amazingly confident. Oh, that makes me look a bit like a fascist I better not do that.” And then you start going, “Okay, I’ll just try and look natural,” and you’re looking rather peculiar, and all the time you’re inside your head and you’re not connecting to the audience out there. So, accept.

And the third thing, this works brilliantly for me, is to visualise the audience, whatever they are, as a group of people who you’ve spoken to in the past who loved you. So that’s something like, for instance, so what I do is I used to go and do speaking events at Bucks Uni, so I used to go and talk to the students and I’d have a great time.  In all honesty, I didn’t prepare as much as should because it wasn’t as well paid as one would hope, but I loved it, actually loved it. Third year students, going in and having a chat with them, and it was great fun, we’d have loads of laughs.

And so, if I’m to see a sea of suits out there and those little voices in my head go, “Oh, you’re a bit of imposter. Who are you to talk to these people about that?” And in my head, I go, “Okay, you’re a group of students at Bucks Uni. I am who I am, I can’t pull down a glitter ball of myself, and I can’t turn myself in Saint Jamil, and neither should I. I should be true to myself, who I am, do my thing, do it as well as I can. Do not apologise for who I am,” and then we have a really good time.

Maria Franzoni:  

That’s really good advice yet again, and, actually, to delve a little bit further into who you are, your wife bought you a book called Dull Men of Great Britain. Why?

Jack Milner: 

Why? I think there’s a little message there, isn’t there? There’s a little hint. Because I’m a cricket nut, yeah? Now that’s not particularly dull, because I mean, people listening who love cricket are listening to this. It’s I also collect Wisden Almanack.

Maria Franzoni: 

I have no idea what that is.

Jack Milner:      

Right, okay, I don’t have one here, but they are essentially, they’re called the cricketing bible, so they’re these little, funny, square yellow books. They’ve got about 1000 pages and they are just full of cricket score cards. Now, the modern ones, actually, have got lots of articles and things like that in them.  But they go back to 1863. They’re just sort of reports on cricket matches and stuff like that. Anyway, I’ve got about 120 from 1887 I think is my oldest and they are collector’s things, you collect them, and unlike a lot of collectors, I read them. I have two … This is why she bought Dull Men of Great Britain for me because I have two by my bed.

Maria Franzoni: 

That makes sense, that makes sense. So, finally, we’re coming to a close, so I think this is a really apt question at this point. Can you give us a couple of tips for a really good finish?

Jack Milner: 

All right, okay, good finish. Okay, so number one, a good finish is don’t finish with Q & A. Yeah, because you finish with Q & A, the last question might be, where’s the loo?

Maria Franzoni:  

I doubt it, but, yes, I know what you mean. It changes the dynamic.

Jack Milner:  

Yeah, or it might be that really crap question, you go, “Oh, thank you very much for that. I’m now running out of time and finishing with a bit of a bluh.” So then you stay in control of it. The second thing is, in stand-up, you used to say have either your best line or your second-best line for the end. Most speakers actually, they’ll work really hard with the beginning, because they want to grab their audience. Well, they don’t go, “Okay, I need to finish on a biggie,” and spend a lot of time … If you haven’t got one, spend a lot of time on that. The third thing is finish on a laugh, finish on a gag.

Maria Franzoni: 

Fantastic.

Jack Milner: 

Yeah, finish on a laugh, you know?

Maria Franzoni:

Okay. I haven’t got a gag, I’m just going to say thank you very much, Jack, for being my guest today.

Jack Milner:                          

Thank you. Bye bye.

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