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

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.

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