An article on public speaking and humor
I want to introduce you to one of Three Musketeers of Speech Writing… John Cantu is a San Francisco comedy legend, owner and producer of the legendary Holy City Zoo, who helps you laugh all the way to the bank. He’s written material for Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and the Smothers Brothers, many professional speakers and corporate executives.
This article gives you some concrete suggestions on how you can evaluate your current presentation and discover how effective your presentation’s current humor really is. If you are not totally satisfied with the effectiveness of humor in your presentations right now, chances are that your material can be slotted into one of the following three situations:
1. You have a fully developed presentation that you give on regular basis which does not change much from engagement to engagement except for minor customizing and you want to increase either the quality or quantity, or perhaps both, of the already existing humor.
2. You have one or more vignettes/stories that you believe could be improved by the addition of some humor.
3. You have one or more undeveloped ideas, topics, or concepts that you would like fleshed out into a more presentable and humorous form.
In order to improve your humor quotient you have to be clear on what you want. I have often heard speakers describe their presentations as, “My talk has 10% humor and 90% non-humorous content” or “30% humor and 70% serious material” or “50% humor and 50% solid content” or pick your own ratio.
For me these descriptions are too vague to be of real use in knowing how much humor you already have in your talk, or how much humor you could or should add to your presentation. What criteria can you use to define 10% or 30% or any percent of your speech as humorous?
There is only one criterion for defining the humor in your talk. It is each line that generates a laugh. Every time people laugh – you’ve just delivered an effective humorous line, idea, or concept.
I suggest you borrow a technique used by professional comedians to evaluate their own act for funniness – the concept of LPM: (Laughs per minute). A stream-of-consciousness comic like Robin Williams may generate nine or ten LPM. Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller clock in at about seven LPM. Most comics will run about five LPM. (Before I started working with professional speakers I used to coach new comedians. I usually would work with them trying for a ratio of five LPM.) Bill Cosby, the story teller, rates about four LPM and Lily Tomlin with her philosophical observations runs about one LPM.
There is no right or wrong ratio. It is a matter of personal style. I believe it is more helpful to decide “I’m giving a 30 minute presentation and I would be satisfied with three good laughs” (LPM ratio: one laugh every 10 minutes) or “I want it to be a bit more light-hearted, I’d like at least 10 solid laughs” (LPM ratio: one laugh every three minutes) rather than using the vague percentage technique. This principle can be applied to any length presentation – number of minutes divided by number of laughs desired for your total time frame. I think this approach is better for one simple reason – if you use the 10% or 20% or whatever % concept, how can you tell if you’re succeeding? With the LPM method, you can listen to an audio tape or review a video tape and will know if you received the amount of laughs you were trying for. Realize the LPM technique does not turn you into a comedian. It is only a tool to help you evaluate your success in adding the PRECISE AMOUNT of effective humor you desire.
If you have a full-blown presentation and feel it could use more humor, before you decide to contact a humor writer or a humor coach, you might want to do an analysis of what LPM ratio you would be comfortable with. Do you want five, ten, fifteen, twenty, or more laughs in the time frame of your talk? First review three tapes of past performances. Audio or video, it doesn’t matter, all you’re going to do is listen for and count the number of laughs. Count every laugh. Count a laugh, even if it wasn’t from something you had planned as funny. Count a laugh even if you don’t understand why the audience laughed at that particular moment. The audience doesn’t divide its laughs into “a real laugh because the presenter planned it” and “not a real laugh because it was unplanned” – they laugh at whatever they find amusing or entertaining – AND THEY GIVE YOU CREDIT FOR IT. This is true even if they’re laughing at something another audience member said or did. Count every laugh you hear regardless of its cause.
Create a ‘laughs total’ for each individual session. Divide the amount into the total number of minutes spoken giving that talk and find the LPM ratio for that particular presentation. (Use the exact number of minutes you spoke. You may claim you have a 50 minute speech, but you consistently go over that time by 10 minutes. If that is true, divide 60 minutes by the number of laughs you received.
Deal with the real length of your talk and not the length your literature claims.) Three different totals should give you a fair idea of the range of your current LPM ratio.
Keep in mind that some audiences will not laugh at everything you think is funny and other audiences will laugh at things you didn’t think were funny. Day in and day out if you are hitting 90% to 110% (plus or minus 10%) of your targeted LPM you should consider yourself successful with the amount of humor you want to present.
You might just surprise yourself and discover you are funnier than you imagined. Your laugh ratio might demonstrate that you already have as many laughs as you desire. Maybe even more!
Great. Go forth, speak, and worry no more about the humor in your speeches. You don’t need a humor coach — unless you have new untried vignettes or ideas or concepts that need to be fleshed out and/or punched up.
Another suggestion: Get together with two or three friends and have then listen your presentation and make notes on what they found amusing or could be tightened up to be funnier.
Speakers often make the mistake of judging their humor content by looking solely for obviously humorous-type lines in their talks. Audiences laugh at much more than just obviously funny lines. They laugh at undisguised passion, recognition of concepts that are a part of their own experiences, the juxtaposition of two sentences that together convey some synergistic humorous thought, and many other non-joke elements.
Often a laugh is brought forth simply by pausing and giving the audience time to recognize the humor. In other cases, it is simply a matter of some minor restructuring, rewriting, or repositioning a line differently for maximum effectiveness. This, by and large, is a fairly straightforward matter and for the most part doesn’t take hours of time. Nor does it usually involve any radical restructuring of your talk or adding a bunch of ‘jokes’.
Based on past experience, I am fairly confident that many of the laughs you want are already in your talk. You probably haven’t seen them simply because you are too close to your material. Believe me the laughs are usually in there. That’s where your friends or a humor writer or coach can help. humor.
– By John Cantu © 1998, 1999