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8 Use Humor Appropriately

I am accused of telling a great many stories. They say it lowers the dignity of the Presidential office, but I find that people are more easily influenced by a broad, humorous illustration than in any other way.

—Abraham Lincoln

Humor can make or break your presentation, but it must be used appropriately. Everyone likes to laugh, but few people can tell jokes. No problem. Getting laughs when you speak is not a matter of telling jokes. The most effective humor comes through observation and attitude—real-world examples and illustrations. The real key to Master_Presenter Jeanne Robertson's success throughout her career is, as Toastmaster Magazine states, "her humor—specifically, her ability to laugh at the funny things that happen (or don't happen) to her; and to invite others to laugh along with her."

Telling funny stories doesn't give a person a sense of humor. A real sense of humor means being able to laugh at yourself, and being able to laugh at day-to-day situations that are often anything but funny when they happenAnd therein lies the added challenge. Being a professional humorist entails far more than getting a laugh. Your goal is to inform, to motivate and to impart some bit of wisdom from your experience to your audience. Humorous treatment of a given topic or story is a means to that end. By using humor, your message will be both more enjoyable and more memorable.

Jeanne developed a method called "Jeanne's Journal System." The system was developed to help presenters capture "life-experience humor." But often, the story has to be worked and reworked so it can reach its full potential. The method she invented to find and develop funny stories is called LAWS where "L" stands for Look and Listen to daily life events that have the potential to develop into a funny story. "A" stands for Ask. Jeanne relentlessly asks her friends, colleagues, and total strangers to recount funny or amusing events that happened to them and if she wants to use them, she asks permission. She also relentlessly asks for feedback on stories as she is developing them because sometimes things that she thinks are hilarious, others don't find amusing, and sometimes material that Jeanne is ready to discard, others find hilarious. "W" stands for Write it up. Writing it up will help ensure that you don't lose it and will give you another chance to improve it. The "S" stands for Stretch. Sometimes, adding just a bit of exaggeration will turn a funny story into a hilarious one.

The following example illustrates how she uses this method:

When our son Beaver was in junior high school, he and his friends wanted to wear only Izod shirts. If there was no little alligator sewn somewhere on the garment, that garment hung in the closet until it no longer fit. In addition, the Izod shirts had to be worn with Levi jeans. Period.

[At the same age,] Beaver and his buddies were attending numerous basketball camps in the summer. Time and time again we mothers received the typical camp letter telling us to make sure to sew labels in the clothes our boys brought to camp. With all this information, however, it wasn't until I was reading an old joke book that I developed the following piece of material.

Before one camp, the coach had the nerve to write me a letter that instructed, "Mrs. Robertson, When you bring your son to our camp, please do not mark his name in his clothes with a black laundry marker. We prefer that you use sewn-in labels with his name."

Sewn-in labels? Sure. I thought it was a joke letter. When I realized it wasn't, I put it on the floor and kicked it. Then I wrote them back.

"My name is Jeanne Robertson. I will be at camp with my son on July 13. His name is Levi Izod."

However, Jeanne didn't get the idea for this piece of material until she was reading an old joke book and came upon a joke with a similar theme. Therefore, Jeanne recommends studying joke books to help master the art of joke and story construction, and to stimulate your own creativity in finding and developing funny stories. Jeanne also says that she seldom uses standard jokes, but that she will use them occasionally if the joke is perfect for the occasion. As Jeanne states, "A good joke that is told well and illustrates a specific point is a work of art."

Jeanne has one more strategy that has stood her in good stead, and it will do the same for you if you use it. "If you don't jot things down when they happen, a lot of good ideas get away. If you don't write up your stories soon after, a lot of good stories never materialize." Then keep your stories in an easily accessible story/humor file.

Almost every Master_Presenter we spoke to will tell you that they had a terrific story, joke, or humorous incident, but they had forgotten it. It was only through listening to a previously taped copy of a particular presentation that this treasured material was found. Keeping a story/humor journal will help you be aware of and collect and remember material that can make the difference between a good presentation and a great one. Therefore, we recommend you carry a notepad with you at all times. When something makes you laugh, write it down. With notepad at the ready, pay attention—you'll be amazed at the funny things you see or overhear.

Because humor can make or break your presentation, we will look at Canadian Association of Professional Speakers member Ross MacKay's five reasons for using humor and five rules on how to use it effectively.

Ross's five reasons to use humor are:

  1. To connect with your audience.

  2. To make a particular point.

  3. To change the pace or tone.

  4. To make your message more palatable.

  5. To entertain.

Ross's five rules on how to use humor are:

  1. Surprise your audience—that's what the punch line does.

  2. Allow your audience time to enjoy the joke when it works—if it doesn't work, just pretend it wasn't a joke and keep going.

  3. Use humor to advance to subject of the presentation. The biggest crime is to use humor to get a laugh but it has nothing to do with the subject.

  4. Make sure that your humor is appropriate—appropriate to your audience and appropriate to the event. If you have any doubt, don't use it.

  5. Personalize your material; even a standard joke or introduction can have meaning when it is personalized.

David: Ralph C. Smedley, founder of Toastmasters International said, "We learn during moments of pleasure." Therefore, there are times when humor is needed just because the audience is getting restless or fatigued. In such cases, the audience needs to laugh just to keep them focused on the serious topic at hand. On occasions when I see the audience's attention start to wane, I'll bring out a short, amusing anecdote. The audience laughs, is refreshed, and we move on.

Dr. Terry Paulson, CSP, is one of North America's top-rated professional speakers and is the author of the book 50 Tips for Speaking like a Pro.

Brad: What's your secret for making your content so engaging?

Terry: Early on in my work I was a youth director for high school-age kids and if you weren't funny, couldn't tell stories, and weren't authentic and prepared, they'd kill you. It was an early lesson on how to engage an audience and at the same time make sure that the humor has content and is grounded.

I came out of a research background that was strongly analytical, and I had to learn how to deliver, out of complexity, simple messages that were engaging and fun. A lot of people talk about humor being great to start with and maybe important to end with; I use humor throughout to keep the attention level of an audience, especially with an audience that has a short attention span and starts to wander.

I make sure that my content stays current and is practical. And the humor is an added value. People expect to have quite a lot of material and then select what is relevant to them.

Brad: How did you develop your warmth and sense of humor?

Terry: A lot of people know the importance of research, stories, and inspiration and don't realize how valuable humor is until they start to collect humorous stories and anecdotes around your topic areas. It's a fun way to elicit information.

You have to work at finding things that make you laugh. Then add it into one of your stories. I develop timing by telling a story 70 times before I ever use it on the stage. As I adjust it or make it shorter my timing starts to improve. Always ask yourself, "Is it funny or does it move my content forward?" Find excellent examples and then sharpen your delivery.

Laughter lets them know they are not alone. Laughter makes one audience out of the sub-audiences. It creates warmth and it increases their attention level. One of the things that creates warmth is that I talk to individuals rather than groups. I have eye contact with one person for up to 15 seconds, picking different people in different areas of the audience, and it creates warmth because I am talking more conversationally.


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