Episode 63: December 29, 2011
by Lisa B. Marshall
I'm sure you know from your own experiences that laughter brings people together. Humor helps to defuse difficult situations. It makes you more likable. It reduces stress. I've even read research that says laughter makes our internal organs work better!
How to Become Funnier
I'm not a naturally funny person, so over time, I had to learn how to be a humorous speaker. In today's article I’ll give you some tips and techniques that worked for me so that you can add humor to your talks too.
The first time I was funny on stage was an accident. I still very clearly remember I was giving a demonstration of body language. I was slumping my shoulders and looking depressed and then I said, "I'm very happy to be here today."
What Makes Something Funny?
Everyone laughed and I was thinking, “Huh, what did I just do that was so funny?” I thought I was just demonstrating an incongruity between my words and body language. I happened to be delivering the same presentation that very same afternoon, and sure enough, again, at that same point in the talk, the audience laughed. You have no idea how excited I was that I had accidentally figured out a way to consistently make the audience laugh. Now I know, that what I did is exactly what humor is: I put two unlikely things together in a clever way. In fact, researchers describe humor as a sudden resolution of a cognitive incongruity.
How to Study Humor
Learning to be more lighthearted will help you be more likeable, more promotable, and healthier.
From then on, I made it a point to study humor. I attended The Humor Project annual conference. The Humor Project is an organization in upstate NY that focuses on the positive power of humor. I started watching more sitcoms; I went to see more funny movies; I even learned to juggle and I made a habit of going to comedy clubs.
The goals of my humor program were to closely observe humor so that I could mimic what I saw. It was really an eye-opening education and the side benefit was that I was laughing a lot more! So for sure, it’s a great idea to create your own humor program--even if you don’t have the goal of becoming a humorous speaker. Learning to be more lighthearted will help you be more likeable, more promotable, and healthier.
Use Exaggeration to Be Funny
One of the first humor techniques I noticed was that obvious exaggeration was something that people laughed at. So I started adding exaggeration into my talks. The idea is to overstate a defect or a strangeness of someone or something. For example, when I explain how important natural gestures are, I demonstrated with a very large, unnatural, spastic-like gesture. Voila, the audience laughs. Works like a charm.
Another easy way to incorporate exaggeration is to exaggerate facial expressions. For example, when I’m talking about the importance of smiling, I often say to the audience, “You need a focus on a natural smile.You don’t want a motivational speaker smile.” And then I make the biggest, fakest, over-the-top smile. Sometime I even add in “jazz hands” for effect. OK, in this case, I admit, the audience might just be laughing at me, instead of with me.
Use Asides and Self-Deprecating Humor
Another easy form of humor that I noticed is the aside. On TV or a theatrical stage, the actor directly addresses the audience--sometimes while the other characters freeze in place. If you’re a fan of the TV show, The Office, you’ve seen this technique. Since I am a public speaker who often talks about public speaking, I’ll make asides about the delivery of my presentation. For example, when I make a mistake, I’ll step out of the presentation just to make fun of myself.
Actually these aside comments could also be categorized as self-deprecating humor which is an unprompted negative criticism of oneself. Conan O’Brien and David Letterman are known for this type of humor.
Speaking of which, turns out studies show that self-deprecating humor is the most successful way for a man to seduce a woman. Mystery solved.
Tell Embellished True Stories
Anyway, for me the best way to incorporate humor is by telling true stories that also incorporate the other techniques too. In a previous episode of The Public Speaker I explained how to tell effective stories. As a very quick reminder, setting, characters, dialog, and descriptive detail are all very important to good story telling.
For humorous stories, you need to be sure that you don’t let on that what’s coming is funny. The more serious you are before you deliver the punch line, the funnier it will be. You have to act as if you don’t even realize it’s funny until after the audience laughs. By the way, that advice also applies to the delivery of one-liners.
Gestures, Vocal Variety and Pauses Are Important
The use of slightly exaggerated gestures, vocal variety, and pauses are critical to funny stories. In fact, a misplaced pause can ruin a story. There’s one story I tell that took me over a year to figure out exactly where to pause and for how long. Turns out I wasn’t waiting long enough after I delivered the punch line. It took a couple of seconds for the audience to get the humor and they only laughed when I gave them enough time. It always seems like an eternity while I’m waiting for the laughter, but sure enough, good things comes to those who wait.
Practice Until It’s Funny
My final tip about using humor is to practice, practice, practice. Tell your stories to friends, to co-workers, to people on the street--really anyone who will listen. Go to story slams, open mike nights, toastmasters, etc. Tell your stories different ways and see what works best. Just because someone doesn’t laugh the first time, doesn’t mean it’s not funny. Even if you do get a laugh, one small change might get a bigger laugh. Once you figure out the elements that work best, be sure to write them down and then repeat.
So there you have it, some quick and dirty tips to help you add a bit of humor to your presentations. First and perhaps most importantly you can learn a lot just by regularly listening and watching humor. Next, try some exaggeration. Next, consider incorporating asides and self-deprecating humor while telling interesting, lighthearted stories. Be sure to use slightly exaggerated gestures, vocal variety and pauses. And finally practice.
This is Lisa B. Marshall, passionate about communication your success is my business. If I can make you smile, then you can do it too.
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If you have a question, send email to email@example.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.