If you’ve ever seen a Q&A interview where they ask, “Name a performer you’d drop everything to see,” my answer to that is, hands down, Eddie Izzard. I’ve seen him perform his comedy act live and many times on video (and even briefly met him at a signing in Chicago), and the brilliance of his performances blows me away every time.
One of my favorite bits is from his show “Dressed to Kill,” when he does an entire bit in French. I highly recommend you watch it (I’ve included a link), because it is hilarious AND, if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll be able to appreciate it like a linguist. He uses intertextuality and gesture during the French bit about showers and the President of Burundi to reference back to an earlier bit in English (he uses repetition quite a bit throughout his performance), so everyone gets the joke, even if they don’t speak French.
The other day, in an article in the Boston Globe, Izzard has revealed that he’s recently been taking a new show on tour and performing in the native (or dominant) language of the area he’s visiting. So far he’s done shows in English, French, and German, and wants to move on to Spanish, Russian, and Arabic.
Since he’s not fluent in all of these languages, he’s had to script the show completely (i.e. no improv), with the help of his brother, Mike Izzard, who happens to be a linguist (just one more reason to love those Izzards!). But in performance, he (Eddie Izzard) has found that certain phrases, particularly those that rely on wordplay, need to be changed in each language because their meaning doesn’t really translate.
This is the ultimate example of audience design: adjusting what you say to have the maximum impact and best chance of being understood as you (the speaker) intended it. We do this all the time, although not necessarily to large audiences of people who speak a different language, but the concept is the same. And like Izzard, when what we say doesn’t get the response we expected, we change it to try something new.
*I was going to add a paragraph about how this applies to marketing, but techcommgeekmom wrote a nice piece covering this topic. I encourage you to read it here.