I started speaking in public under the name Hoot Brooks about three years ago. The first thing I learned was that a joke based on 1960s TV - one that friends and family thought was funny - would get blank stares from a young audience at Goodnight's Comedy Club on a Tuesday night.
Thursdays and Saturdays in other venues didn't go so hot either.
Young audience is a relative term. Let's just say the under-fifty crowd is not going to have the familiarity or nostalgia to fully appreciate my impression of Andy Griffith if he were the captain on Star Trek. Beam me up, Goober.
Before long I learned that comedy was not my thing. Humor, maybe - but not comedy. So at the open mics I started trying to share short bits of science and history - kind of abbreviated Malcolm Gladwell lectures. My goal was not to get laughs, but to hold the audience's attention for the five minutes.
My most popular bit (so far) is a short biography of an eccentric character from the Civil War. At a writer's open mic, or maybe at a venue packed with students, I could open my talk with the phrase "In the mid eighteen hundreds--"
But in your average beer joint I couldn't even complete that sentence before the audience started to evaporate. Half the patrons would suddenly head for the bathrooms, or the bar, or maybe step outside for an important cigarette.
So I began to open the story with I'm going to tell you a true story about a crazy man...
And that worked. The next few sentences would also have a hint of mystery and a bit of urgency. It was like I was firing a few short machine gun bursts to get their attention.
As matter of style one might want to open more gently sometimes, but the strong opening is a good tool to grab an audience you don't already have.
And now I just need a tag to close this with and put a button on it.