The Power of Observational Humor

The Power of Observational Humor

A well-placed joke lets people
laugh and release tension.

By John Kinde, DTM, Accredited Speaker

The district competitors in the Evaluation Speech Contest were ready to present their evaluations. As I was introduced, someone opened a door in the back of the meeting room, which was next to a parking lot. Suddenly, we were distracted by something that sounded like a loud warning beeper from a truck: Beep. Beep. Beep. This was happening exactly as the Toastmaster said, “And our next evaluator and contestant is John Kinde.” By the time I reached the podium, someone had closed the door.

When there is a significant distraction in the room, my approach is to address it with humor. It takes some practice and some quick thinking. My first words after taking the podium: “Pardon me while the forklift brings in my notes.” I was instantly connected to the audience and on my way to an effective evaluation.

Observational humor is that fresh, customized humor you create only seconds before you deliver it. It is sparked by what you hear or see before you are introduced to speak. It’s normally a piece of humor that you didn’t bring to the event but is inspired by your observations once you’re there.

Observational humor is powerful. Here are a few reasons why:

Common experience. The forklift example was effective because it recognized something that everyone noticed. The foundation of a good joke is common experience – the you-had-to-be-there factor. This explains why a funny, spontaneous line, when you later tell it to a friend, doesn’t get the same response as it did when it first happened. You had to be there.

The power of tension. One of the functions of humor is to relieve tension. A distraction during a meeting creates a bit of tension that begs for relief. A well-placed observational joke lets people laugh and release the tension caused by an interruption.

The element of surprise. The immediate nature of the forklift line also added power to the humor. There is great value in being in the moment. The line is unexpected, but at the same time the audience is thinking, “Yeah, I noticed that beeping sound, too.” They love being surprised with a totally unexpected observation.

Making connections. In a speech evaluation contest, the more positive points and suggestions that you make, the more competitive you will be. Someone who makes one suggestion may be at a disadvantage to someone who makes three suggestions. What about someone who made so many points that they needed a forklift to bring in their notes? Making the connection between the notes and the forklift was the key to making the humor tick in that line.

The illusion of freshness. A great opening line can make the audience feel that your entire speech is fresh and prepared just for them. Compare that to opening with a time-worn joke that everyone has heard and you’ll see the impact of observational humor. One of the key reasons to practice observational humor is to add a fresh touch to your talks.

Audience bonding. When you are in the moment, the audience connects with you because they know that you are really present and you are there just for them.

Saranne Rothberg, founder of the ComedyCures Foundation (, hones her observational humor skills by hosting more than 50 therapeutic comedy programs each year for people fighting devastating illness. “Observational humor is powerful because it lets me be incredibly playful and intimate on stage,” says Rothberg, who also presents a live weekly radio broadcast. “It goes beyond the joke-joke-joke format. The audience immediately trusts that I am listening and care about their interests. They understand that they are not getting a cookie-cutter presentation.

“By integrating observational humor with their content, you earn their full attention! Then, anything is possible.”

Here are a few more examples of observational humor that may trigger your creativity: 

Word Play
A great way to uncover humor is to watch for alternate or double word meanings. At one of the meetings of my home club – PowerHouse Pros in Las Vegas, Nevada – the theme was “Presidential Trivia.” Darren LaCroix, Toastmasters’ 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking, shared his mantra of “Stage time. Stage time. Stage time.” Later in the meeting, I was able to connect his thoughts to a current discussion: “Here’s a piece of presidential trivia. Zachary Taylor logged more miles campaigning by stage coach than any other president. His campaign advisor told him the key to success was... Stage time, Stage time, Stage time!” 

Poking fun at yourself is a safe way to get a laugh. At a club meeting, a member referred to a celebrity speaker who talked fast and delivered high content. This frustrated the audience, the member said, because they couldn’t take notes fast enough. My observation later in the meeting: “If you haven’t seen me before, I’m a slow speaker, which I know will frustrate many of you because I won’t say anything you’ll want to write down.” 

Something Funny
If you hear someone say something that gets a laugh, you might be able to piggyback on their joke to get a laugh of your own. At a club meeting, a speaker told an old joke about a fence around a cemetery: The fence was there because people were dying to get in. Later in the meeting I delivered an observational humor line: “There must be something wrong with me. Today I passed by a cemetery with no fence around it... and I had no urge to get in.” 

Look Around the Room
Always keep watch for anything unusual that can lead to a humor connection. Before you are introduced to speak, be observant. Is there anything in the room that is strange, interesting or funny? I was speaking at a Toastmasters contest and noticed something unusual about the speaker platform. There was a short, 12-inch safety railing attached to the front of the platform. I guess it was there to keep someone from falling off the risers.

                    “The truth is funny and sometimes all you need to do is look for it.”

During the contestant interviews, I shared this observation: “You may have noticed the railing along the front of the risers. It’s not high enough to keep you from falling off, but just high enough so that if you do fall will guarantee that you don’t land on your feet!” The line received a huge laugh as people were thinking, “He’s right!” The truth is funny and sometimes all you need to do is look for it. 

Combining Your Observations
During another meeting, someone commented that I looked like a mortician in my black suit. Another speaker talked about book publishing and mentioned how ISBN numbers were used on the back of books to track sales. He also encouraged us to write a book, closing with the advice: Don’t die with a book still in you. Later, I combined three observations in a quip: “Someone mentioned that I looked like a mortician in my black suit. Actually, I do own a mortuary. We offer coffins with ISBN numbers on them for speakers who die with a book still in them.” 

Courage and Risk
Rothberg shared with me a powerful observational-humor moment. “The key to developing on-the-spot humor is fearlessness, commitment and the skill of profound listening. Let me give you an example. I spent seven hours in a military van with two Marines en route to a ComedyCures Veterans program. During that ride I was like a fly on the wall, observing their vocabulary, content, tone and how they joked with each other.

“The next morning at our live event, I was able to immediately draw from those observations. As I opened the show, a blind and paralyzed 83-year-old veteran with a malfunctioning hearing aid cried out that he wanted to commit suicide. He couldn’t hear the show. His name was Joe. I joined Joe in his wheelchair, gently cupping his face and his hand with the broken hearing aid. ‘Joe, sweetie, I’m not going to continue this program until we fix your hearing aid.’ Then in my best military voice I yelled: ‘Joe! We leave no man behind, Joe!’ Joe and his fellow injured comrades laughed for about five minutes. And then Joe proposed to me!

“I bonded with my audience and created a spontaneous comedy platform that permeated the rest of the show. Observational humor had an impact stronger than anything else I could have done.” 

Learning Observational Humor
When it comes to learning observational humor, there is no substitute for discipline. Challenge yourself to create an observational humor line every time you attend a Toastmasters meeting – or any kind of meeting, for that matter. Much of my early practice came at Chamber of Commerce networking meetings. As you sit with paper and pen in hand, keep your eyes and ears open for humorous connections. Look for other people’s comments that get a laugh. Try piggybacking on their lines.

Look for spots in the meeting where you have a chance to speak, then use an observational line. Perhaps you’ll be introducing a guest, making an announcement or giving an award. Drop in your line, then segue to your official business.

With observational humor, the less-is-more principle comes into play. If you are able to come up with three observational lines, pick your best one and use it. If you can create 10 lines, use just two or three of the best ones. Making a quality cut and using only your best lines can make the difference between having a reputation as someone who is always funny and someone who is funny only 30 percent of the time. 

John Kinde, DTM, Accredited Speaker, is a humor specialist from Las Vegas, Nevada. He can be reached at