Show Me the Funny!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 30 years of studying humor, it’s this. You CAN learn to be funny. Some people think you need to be born funny, the class clown. I’m a laid-back, serious, Norwegian from North Dakota and I’ve won humorous speech contests at the Toastmasters District level four times and three trophies at the Regional level representing the funniest of 10,000 people. If I can do it, you can do it. And if you don’t look funny or have a reputation for being funny…great! You’ll take advantage of the element of surprise, one of the basic elements that makes humor tick.

In this special report I’ll refer to some activities in Toastmasters Clubs that are relevant to both Toastmasters and non-Toastmasters. If you’re not a member, consider checking our a club in your local area. Visit the Toastmasters’ website:

Here’s a secret from comedy improv. If you want to be funny, don’t try to be funny. Really. Trying too hard kills the joke. Students of improv comedy learn that going for the gag is often a sure way to minimize the laughs from the platform. Relax. Let your humor come organically from your stories, the essence of your character, and your relationship with the audience. Avoid the “Look of Expectation” when a humor bit fails. The look of expectation is what you get from your dog sitting next to the dinner table hoping for a treat from your plate.

The Content of Your Speech

When writing your speech, keep it clean. Sometimes it’s tempting to cross the line, but take it from someone who has learned it the hard way. Clean material consistently plays stronger. Not only that, playing it clean takes more talent and skill. Off-color humor is a comedy cop out. Any junior high school student can get a cheap laugh from four-letter words and bodily function jokes. Blue humor puts your reputation at risk. One of your goals is for people to want to hear you speak again and to tell their friends about you. The more experience I have using humor, the more conservative I’ve become. When in doubt, leave it out!

Joke books are not the best source of funny material. Personal stories are clearly the best. Your own stories are original and compelling. Humor comes naturally from the pictures you paint. Force fitting a “joke” to a point will always be second best to a personal story. And besides, the best kind of joke is not one you’ve picked off the Internet or found in a joke book. Everyone has probably heard it and your element of surprise is short circuited when you use material that has been widely circulated. A benefit of using joke books is that they can be handy for jump starting your thinking and getting you on the road to writing your own original material.

Identify the key trigger word in your joke and put it at the very end of the joke’s punchline. It maximizes the tension build up and the element of surprise. Try to avoid putting even one word after the punch word. Adding clutter after the punchword or punchline buries them and disguises the joke.

Remember that less is more. The more concise you are, the more likely your humor will hit the target. If you have a long setup for a punchline, it is said that the punchline is carrying a lot of baggage. So write your material, and then edit and cut.

It’s also a fact that specifics are funnier than generalities. A “1985 yellow Yugo” is funnier than “a car”. Paint rich pictures with your word choices. It’s also conventional wisdom in the comedy writing business that words with a “K” sound are funnier. Therefore a Cadillac is probably funnier than a Ford.

Invest in your talk by writing and practicing it well in advance. As you’re sitting at the speaking venue awaiting your introduction, I recommend that you are not rehearsing your speech in your mind. Instead, hopefully you know your talk and your opening lines so well that you can concentrate on what’s going on around you before you speak. Check out the features of the room. Pay attention to the details of the meal and the service. Listen to everyone speaking before you are scheduled. Take notes. Look for humorous connections you can drop into your talk. You’ll be adding fresh new material to your talk. The last-minute lines you add have a good chance of being the funniest lines of your entire presentation.

Adding Punch To Your Delivery

Never rush your delivery. When you get to the punchline, deliver it, and then pause. Wait for the laugh and it will normally come. A Toastmaster friend once told me: “I figured out why you’re so funny. You INSIST that we laugh!” What she meant was that I wait for the laugh and give the audience a chance to get the joke.

And then, don’t be in a hurry to get to the next funny line. Deliver a punchline and let them continue to laugh. Don’t step on the laughter. Starting to speak again too soon is like telling them “please don’t laugh!” Let the laughter peak and as it starts to fade (but before the laughter completely stops), continue speaking. The proper rhythm will come with experience.

If you try a joke that falls flat, never apologize or explain it. If they don’t laugh, pretend you were serious. Your humor is meant to be a surprise. If they didn’t laugh, it’s you’re secret. If a long story meant to get a laugh is greeted with silence, try saying this. “And the point of that story is…” Hopefully your humor has a point!

Animate your speech. Show them rather than tell them. Don’t be a talking-head. Don’t bury your head in your notes. Doing that will isolate you from your audience. Know your humor well enough, especially your punchlines, that you can deliver the humor without notes and bring your gestures, movement and facial expressions to life.

To maximize the surprise element of your humor don’t “telegraph” it. Never use the equivalent of “a funny thing happened to me on the way over here.” You’ll dull the surprise if you tell them something funny is coming. Just do it.

Try to deliver your humor in a room that it well lit. Because comedy clubs are often dark, we sometimes mistakenly believe that comedy plays best in a dark room. Not true. Humor plays best in a well lit room. Laughter is contagious and people will laugh more when they see others laughing. If possible, arrange the seating so that people can easily see each other.

The Best Place to Practice

The best place to practice delivering your humor is at a Toastmasters Club. There is no substitute for practice and there is no better place to take risks and stretch yourself than at a Toastmasters meeting. What is missing at most speaking venues is good, gentle feedback. That’s what you get at a Toastmasters meeting.

In my opinion, the people who you consider the most funny are not actually funnier, they’re just more consistent. The main difference between an excellent improv player and a beginner is consistency. Both have moments of brilliance. Both can have an equally wonderful sense of humor. The better player will just hit the mark more often. Your humor consistency ratio improves only with experience. Find a place to be bad while getting better.

If you are not a member of a Toastmasters club, a couple of things they do might interest you: Observational Humor and Contests. Here are some observations from my 30 plus years of Toastmasters experience.

Some clubs practice the Observational minute. This is a humor segment placed near the end of the meeting, normally after the evaluations but just before the Master Evaluator’s review of the meeting. The person leading the Observational Humor segment will ask: “Does anyone have any observational humor?” Members create fresh humor out of the circumstances and flow of the meeting. In time, members of your club will gain some genuine humor skills, creating the best and most powerful form of humor (along with stories), observational humor. I’ve seen tremendous growth in the humor skills of members of several clubs who have used the observational minute. If your club has a JokeMaster, I suggest replacing it with The Observational Minute.

If you’re not a Toastmasters member, you can practice your skills of observational humor at any meeting that you attend. Give yourself the challenge to “wear your humor hat” during the meeting and weave in a humorous observation sometime at the end of the meeting. It will make the meeting more interesting for you, sharpen your humor skills, and give you the reputation that people should stay awake while you are speaking!

If you have ever entered a speech contest, always remember that you learn more when you win second place. Losing is a good thing, it leads to growth. When you’re second best, you take a harder look at your material and delivery. And besides, when it comes to a perspective on winning, for the most part, you are being judged by people who have not accomplished what you are trying to do. Normally, most judges are not past contest winners. So don’t take the results too seriously if you lose…or if you win! If you lose, it doesn’t mean that you weren’t good. If you win, it doesn’t mean that you were great. It just means that on that day, in the subjective opinion of a small number of judges, the points fell a certain way. Compete for the sake of growing. And in the long haul, if you do well, you’ll be like Babe Ruth. He is remembered for his home runs, while his record number of strike outs are quickly forgotten. Everyone who competes truly wins a growth opportunity.

When competing in contests beyond the entry level, have comfort in the reality that the higher up the ladder the contest is, the easier it is. Your material becomes more highly refined and tested. The audience is larger. Bigger audiences mean more laughs. The most challenging contest is at the first level. Fact. This also applies to the non-competitive environment. As you speak more often, you get invited to speak to larger and more important audiences. So when you reach the higher levels, step on the platform with confidence knowing that you are prepared and up to the task. And when the audience is sitting there thinking “show me the funny”… you will!