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Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California

Tricks of the Trade

A good storyteller uses a battery of devices to hold you rapt: a smile, a shrug, a cheerful nod, a significant pause, and a rush of energy toward the story's end. But even if you're not a born raconteur, you can carry off a story with confidence. Follow these rules when practicing telling a joke:

  1. Don't announce that you are going to tell a joke, oversell the humor to come, or promise the audience "this one will have you rolling in the aisles." Better to take the audience by surprise.

  2. Don't apologize even before you begin by saying "I'm not much of a comedienne" or "I'm not sure I can tell this right." It's hard for an audience to recover from a negative introduction like that—even if the joke to come is hilarious.

  3. Identify only characters, characteristics, or facts that are going to be essential to the story. If you say, "Sarah Serene, Sunday school teacher," you are cuing your listeners to wait for the point at which her name and occupation pay off. And if you don't, your punch line may be lost in the audience's expectation of something else.

  4. Make direct eye contact with your audience during the joke. Look from face to face, and shift your gaze from one part of the room to another. You should have practiced your jokes to the point where you are totally comfortable with them.

  5. Have a good time while you're telling your joke—smile and put a bounce in your voice (and your step, if you move around). If you don't enjoy the story, why should your audience?

  6. Speak at a brisk pace and eliminate all but the essential words. A good joke is edited down to its pure essence and doesn't distract the audience with superfluous detail.

  7. Stick to simple words that move the story along.

  8. Time your humor realistically. Don't tell a 3-minute joke in a 7-minute speech.

  9. Don't rush the laughter—only inexperienced speakers do this. Enjoy it; don't wait until the laughs die out entirely before proceeding, but don't rush things by cutting them off either.

  10. Practice telling the joke in different ways. Always evaluate your reception after a speech and think of ways to shape and improve your humor. Never let it get stale. Sometimes the addition or deletion of a single word makes all the difference.

  11. Proceed undiverted to the climax.

  12. Deliver a clear, exact punch line.

John F. Kennedy said we must do what we can with humor. Speakers who follow this advice—and who don't overdo the jokes—find humor to be a formidable ally.


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