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Chapter 17: Harness the Power of Humor


There are three things which are real - God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

- John Fitzgerald Kennedy

I remember the first joke I ever heard. My father told it frequently, whenever my sister and I got particularly annoying:

Three elderly women were sitting on the beach in Miami. Two were talking about their children. The first one said, "Ah, my son is a lawyer, makes $250,000 a year, drives a Jaguar, and sends me down here to enjoy the sun for one month every year, and he and my two grandchildren call me up every other week to see how I'm doing." The second woman said, "That's nice, but my son is a plastic surgeon, and makes $500,000 a year. He and his wife have twin Mercedes Benzes, and he sends me here for three months every year and my adoring grandchildren call me every week to see how I'm doing." They turned expectantly to the third woman, who said, "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I have no children." In unison, the other women said, "What on Earth do you do for aggravation?"

This joke, which sticks so relentlessly in my mind, seems to me a model of technique. A joke is a short short story, one carefully propelled by skillful clues and deliberate miscues. Most jokes are designed to reach a sudden, surprising climax, one that triggers an explosion of laughter.

Why can humor be such an effective device for a public speaker? The most obvious reason is that a good story entertains your listeners. It makes them feel good, makes them more responsive to what you have to say, and convinces them that you're a "regular" person with a good sense of humor. Used with restraint, humor can also make your ideas more memorable, clarify your points, and persuade your listeners.

Restraint is the key word. Go for smiles and chuckles, not belly laughs. You want people to pay attention, not to roll in the aisles (unless, of course, you're a humorist and your main purpose is to entertain). The goal of a powerful speaker's humor is to keep the audience involved.

Make Your Point - Memorably

The best humor makes a point, and accomplished speakers favor illustrative humor over jokes that liven things up but serve no real purpose. The best way to use humor effectively is to change the PEP formula - Point, Example, Point - to the PHP formula - Point, Humorous example, Point.

Winston Churchill once advised the Prince of Wales: "Use a pile driver and hit the point once, and then come back and hit it again, and then hit it a third time with a mighty whack." Speakers who use humor to reinforce their points make members of the audience focus in an entertaining way, without making them feel like they are being hit over the head repeatedly with the same point. Whether they remember the joke is not important. What they do remember is the idea that the joke illustrated.

Use Laughter Early in Your Speech

Many speakers use humor at the beginning of their speech, because introductory humor can be a great attention getter. A funny opening sells both the speaker and the speech to the audience. Someone introducing Thomas Edison dwelled at length on the talking machine. When Edison was finally allowed to rise he said, "I thank the gentleman for his kind remarks, though I must insist upon a correction. God invented the talking machine; I invented the first one that can be shut off."

Humor, early in the speech, works well to establish a rapport, but only if it fits in well with your presentation. Too many speeches start out with humor for humor's sake, and the audience gets put off or sidetracked, instead of involved in your topic.

One of the best places to make a humorous point is in the title of your speech. Every title should make a point, and a little humor can make your audience anticipate the speech to come. You don't need to be matter-of-fact or dull when you can title a speech for telephone salespeople, "Why Am I Still on Hold?" or a speech on public speaking, "If I'm the Speaker, Why Is the Audience Snoring?" One of my favorite titles was for a speech on tax deductions. The accountant who presented the information called his speech, "Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Charitable Deductions, but Were Too Cheap to Ask." If your talk is basically serious and has no other humor, you should avoid starting with humor. You don't want to raise false expectations.

The beginning isn't the only time that humor can add punch (or a punch line) to your presentation. You can use it at the end of your presentation as well, to provide an uplifting moment after a heavy or grave subject matter, or to raise spirits when needed. You can inject humor in the middle of a presentation at a significant transition or a change of subject - this is like a fresh beginning in some ways. But do not make humor the subject; merely use it as garnish!

How to Ease Your Way Into Humor

If you're convinced that using humor is a good idea, but you're not sure how to do it, here are a few tips:

Audiences Are Hungry for Humor

In my speech, "The Power of Questions," I ask the audience if they are asking enough questions. "For instance," I say, "do you willingly ask for directions when driving?" That gets a little titter. I follow that with, "Is that a sexist question?" That gets a bigger laugh. Let's face it, neither of those lines is a side-splitter. Yet I get a laugh every time. My theory is that people listen to so many boring speeches, they appreciate even the mildest humor. So even if you make the smallest effort to keep them entertained, you'll have them on your side from the start.

What to Do if You Don't Get a Laugh

Know when humor just isn't appropriate. Nothing falls flatter than a joke with a negative response or none at all. If you think a joke is appropriate and it just doesn't get a laugh, continue with the rest of your speech. I've also used this recovery when a joke I tell meets with silence: "Well, your chairperson shared that joke with me a little while ago; I guess you can see why she wanted to give it away." Once I heard a speaker add the following when a joke fell flat: "I'm like the famous second-story burglar - except I'm a second-story man. Let me try that one more time." I have also heard a speaker point out to an audience that studies have established a strong correlation between laughter and intelligence, and then pause and wait for the laughter.

Things Are Not Always What They Seem: Ad-libs Can Be Planned

According to Michael Iapoce in his book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Boardroom, there are many ad-libs you can have prepared in case you run into an unexpected situation. Practically anything you say will get a laugh when you appear to be ad-libbing.

The 3 Kinds of Humor

Platform speakers tend to use three kinds of humor: original stories from personal experience, borrowed humor, and adapted humor.

Original Stories from Your Personal Experience

Everyone can tell a story, and the stories about you and your foibles are the most humorous. Using humor from your own life brings the people in audience closer to you; they also see and appreciate your ability to poke fun at or make wry comments about yourself. Using stories from your life also diminishes the changes that the audience has heard the story before. You should always be looking for something to trigger a story. In your little black book for gathering speech material should be a humor section for ideas, stories, and incidents you might be able to use at a later date.

We all have so many stories from our lives, things that are also part of a "common experience." Poking fun at ourselves puts audiences at ease, and once you come up with this sort of angle on yourself, you can reuse whatever characteristic you've chosen. One very successful speaker always makes pointed comments about her height - she's well over 6 feet tall. I make fun of being short, and the peculiarities I possess as a native New Yorker. Obviously, effective speakers don't dwell on aspects of themselves, but they use those things deftly, to reveal themselves, to establish rapport, and then move on with an amused audience in tow.

Potential material is everywhere. Once I was looking for an original story I could use to make a point about how we feel powerless when we're out of control. Then I remembered an exchange my husband and I had the last time he drove me to the airport. We had had our usual "calm" discussion about his driving ability. He thinks it's absolutely "smashing"; I, on the other hand, am petrified he might be right. After jumping a divider to avoid hitting an oil truck in front of him, he explained to me calmly, while I tried to recover from what felt like a heart attack, that whenever he's in the vulnerable passenger seat, as I was, he feels the same anxiety I was feeling because he's not in control. Looking back, I realized I had a perfect example of a story that could be told humorously.

I have told this story many times, and it always gets a warm chuckle of recognition, because most people can empathize with the situation: They either are backseat drivers or have one in the family. Whatever story you choose to tell, be sure to practice it many times before your speech. Audiences are everywhere; I try out a lot of my new material with cab drivers.

Borrowed Humor

Secondary sources can add wit and authority to any presentation. When you borrow humor from others you often end up borrowing vivid style as well.

Where do you find borrowed humor? The most important source is the printed page - newspapers, magazines, and books. Humor anthologies, Reader's Digest, Parade magazine, and your local newspaper are all sources of humor that you can borrow and use in a variety of situations. But never borrow without giving credit, unless you have really changed and adapted an anecdote to fit your own life.

Adapted Humor

Many speakers remodel jokes to fit their situations. A good story can have many lives, and you can edit it to suit many different audiences. The "lightbulb" jokes that swept the country a few years ago are brief examples of how the punch line of the same joke can vary, depending on who is the target of the humor.

Rules for Selecting the Right Jokes

How do you know if an audience will find a joke funny? You don't. Tad Friend, in a New Yorker article (November 11, 2002) called "What's So Funny," writes: "How the brain processes humor remains a mystery. It's easy to make someone smile or cry by electronically stimulating a single region of the brain, but it's astonishingly difficult to make someone laugh." There is no guarantee that what you find funny will tickle your audience as well, but there are ways you can stack the odds in your favor.

Choose material that fits your talent and doesn't depend on your weaknesses. If you're not good at foreign accents, stay away from jokes that require one. Most good speakers don't try to act funny or perform stand-up comedy. They look for humor, not comedy. How can you tell the difference? When you read a story or a joke, ask yourself if it's funny on paper. Comedy often relies on a funny character, a funny accent, or some special delivery to put it across. Humor will be funny on paper.

Humor usually reads easily and is also easy to speak. You can use a comfortable rate of speech. It doesn't require a tongue-twisting or machine-gun delivery and doesn't contain a lot of dialogue. When you find a joke with a lot of alternating dialogue, study it carefully to make sure it's not too complex for a comfortable delivery.

Fit your material to your audience. Humor is very subjective, and the same jokes won't be funny to everyone. Some jokes are devices that let the audience laugh at someone. It's essential that you pick the right target. But the platform speaker has an advantage over the nightclub comic: facing an audience with which they share something in common - the same club, the same company, and so on. Shared characteristics make it easier to pick specific targets that your listeners are willing to laugh at.

Members of an audience enjoy laughing at people who they regard as superior in some way, from sweepstakes winners to the president of the United States. Bosses or authority figures are perfect targets, as are government officials and politicians - anyone who is in charge of things. People also like to laugh at anyone who disturbs their peace and self-esteem: in-laws, supervisors, neighbors, and competitors.

Although audiences also like to laugh at people they regard as inferior, a speaker can be haunted forever by a public insult that he or she thought was a good joke. If you choose to make fun of groups, do it subtly, as one Baptist minister did. Addressing an outdoor conference on a cloudy day, he said, "Well, the weatherman hasn't done us any big favors today. But this weather isn't bad.... It's certainly plenty good enough for Methodists."

There are two important targets to stay away from: sacred cows - people whose accomplishments or reputations make them immune to laughter - and the audience itself. People don't like to laugh at themselves, and audiences are not good sports.

Occasionally, you can get your listeners to laugh at themselves - if you include yourself in the joke. An investment counselor speaking to a group of doctors about stocks and bonds managed this opening: "It's such a pleasure to be able to talk to a bunch of doctors, for a change, without having to take off my clothes." Sometimes I try to really personalize a presentation by asking ahead of time for the names of three people I can gently pick on during my talk. Clear this beforehand to make sure that no one is offended.

The Best Target of All

You are the best target of your jokes. You not only entertain that way but also win all sorts of extra points with your audience. For one thing, who is going to resent your jokes? You're telling the audience you are a good sport. You win over those in your audience when you use yourself as the target of your jokes, and it's a distinct advantage to have them on your side.

Charlie Chaplin once said, "To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it." Examples of self-deprecating humor are everywhere. Joan Rivers says she's such a bad housekeeper, she reports a burglary once a year, so the cops can come in and dust for fingerprints.

The more dignified and prestigious the speaker, the better self-mockery works. Some examples: "Here in the business word I'm Chairman of the Board. At home I'm chairman of the storm windows." Senator Stephen Douglas once called Abraham Lincoln a two-faced man; Lincoln said, "I leave it to my audience - if I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"

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.

Professional Projects: Simple Ways to Add Humor
  1. Devise a humorous title for a presentation on the topic of avoiding computer viruses.

  2. You have to present a speech on leadership. Develop two humorous items to include in the speech; use newspapers, magazines, or your own experience as your sources.

  3. Create a humorous story about your most embarrassing moment, your first date, your worst blind date, or the foibles of your family.

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