March 2021 Leader Letter

Find Your Funny!

Humor experts advise how to sprinkle a little laughter into your leadership.

By Renée Covino

LOL (Laugh Out Loud), haha, and a smiley face showing teeth—symbols of laughter are woven into our everyday communication because they spread a little joy and contribute to one of the best feelings on Earth. We all love to laugh but are often intimidated to make others laugh—especially in a leadership role—positioned out in front and exposed to a team audience. But that is actually the perfect opportunity to be funny! Because “people learn best in moments of enjoyment,” as Ralph C. Smedley said, leaders have a unique chance to inspire through joy and laughter. One of the secrets is discovering your unique flavor of funny, realizing it’s an art and a science, according to humor experts speaking at Toastmasters’ latest Public Speaking webinars, which featured a humor workshop in two parts.

Ready to find your funny? Consider these ideas and techniques discussed by the moderator and panelists:

Start keeping a ‘humor’ notebook , advised Andrew “Drew” Tarvin, comedian, self-proclaimed humor engineer, professional speaker, and corporate trainer. Any time you have a funny idea or inspiration, write it down. If something “crazy” happens to you, write about that experience in this journal—it will help you remember that funny moment later. Getting into this kind of writing practice does more, too—"it changes your perspective, you start noticing a lot more in the world around you,” Tarvin said.

Take note of “what amazed you, what amused you, and what moved you,” added the webinar’s moderator, Mark Brown, professional speaker and 1995 World Champion of Public Speaking. Also, if during regular conversation you get a chuckle or a smile or someone breaks a laugh, write that down too. “Sometimes you have humor in you, and you don’t even know it,” he said.

Use self-deprecating humor appropriately, offered Stephan Dyer, comedian and owner of a bilingual public speaking and comedy school. “Most comedians are introverts, which people don’t expect, but we have that self-awareness that’s so important,” he said. To open with self-deprecating humor is a good way to break the ice, “it releases the pressure, gets people to laugh, and then you can continue” to make your real point. Pointing out flaws (those that are in keeping with professional conduct) can also help leaders portray themselves as vulnerable and human to their staff, which, in turn, can result in greater team productivity and camaraderie.

Tarvin added that self-deprecating humor is best used sparingly and in off-the-cuff conversation at work. “It’s a great way to start, then move to other forms of humor.”

All of us have funny stories from childhood—write them down and practice telling them, recommended Veronica Dangerfield, who acknowledged she has the perfect last name for a comedienne; she is also a financial educator, international speaker, and a published poet. “Pick random people, tell them your funny story and see if they laugh,” she said. “Tweak the language and get it to work.” If you have one good joke or story like this, it never gets stale, providing you don’t tell it over again to the same people.

Tarvin agreed that practice makes perfect, remembering that “all the world’s a stage, so you don’t have to do stand-up to practice.” You can use social media to test puns, he offered.

The important thing with practice is it gives you an awareness of “what other people think is funny about you and your life, not what you think is funny,” according to Dyer. It becomes your own style—and not you imitating someone you see on television or Netflix.

Be very aware of who you’re talking to, knowing the audience is half the battle of being funny, Dyer said. “One of the things we say in the comedy world is always punch up, don’t punch down at people who are already the victims.” Punching down to a group that’s been criticized is not that funny and especially important for leaders to remember. He also recommends showing up early to any speaking engagement or when you’re speaking in front of a live group.

If the audience is virtual, put a smiley face next to your webcam to get you in the right humor mood, suggested Tarvin. Remember you can use different elements to get a laugh, such as hitting the mute button on purpose at an appropriate time, but make sure you pause and let the laughter take a minute or two to ignite. It’s harder virtually when people can’t hear one another laughing.

Use quick humor to address when distractions happen in presentations, advised Tammy Miller, professional auctioneer, clown, and Pennsylvania State University professor. If there is any kind of distraction in the room or even online—you have to address it because if you don’t, you’re distracted, she explained. As a professional clown, she is also a fan of props such as red noses and kazoos to get a chuckle.

Remember that humor is a form of love and its force can be compared to that of loving a child, stated Dangerfield. “Be consistent with it and never give up.” Use humor to connect with people, to support them, and help them live their best life, she recommends.

Additional Resources:

The Formula for Funny

The Healing Power of Humor

How to Be the Funniest Person in the Room

The Humor Workshop—Part I

The Humor Workshop—Part II