Humor has the unique ability to lift a presentation to another level. Used smartly, comedy can get people to see things from a different perspective and foster a more emotional connection with an audience. If you can get your listeners to smile, you’ve engaged them, and when they laugh with you, odds are they’ll also be for you.
Yet as any speaker knows, the line between making them laugh and making them groan can be razor-thin.
In this article we highlight four Toastmasters with comedic talents: a London street performer, a TV show host, a professional emcee and a business executive who made the leap into stand-up comedy. While their approaches are similar, each has unique lessons to teach from both successes and failures in seeking the power of mirth.
Owen Lean found his calling when, on a whim, he began performing magic tricks in the streets of Melbourne, Australia. Inspired by the magician David Blaine, Lean soon found onlookers in that city doing double takes and walking into lamp posts after watching him perform tricks like floating a bank note over his hand.
Since then Lean has traveled the world making his living as a street performer. He currently lives and works in London. A member of the Canary Wharf Communicators club in London, Lean holds one of the world’s first university degrees in street magic. When he was given approval to perform a street show as part of his dissertation project, Lean performed the show successfully in front of all his tutors. He’s currently making the transition into professional public speaking.
As a street performer, what have you learned about reading audiences?
One thing I’ve learned, which many speakers know, is that people sitting with their arms folded aren’t always fully present. I get audiences clapping for no reason at the start of a performance; they have to unfold their arms to clap, and others hear it and become curious about the show.
That begins the audience rapport that is the essence of a street show. I also watch how people are walking. If someone is walking very fast or with purpose, there is no way they are going to watch my show, and I don’t attempt to lure them in.
“In the street a lot of comedy comes from prepared responses to things you know are likely to happen.”— OWEN LEAN
Performers are essentially energy manipulators. If you’re doing your job right, the audience ceases to be individuals and morphs into a giant whole. I work to control audience energy so it reaches peaks at different times in my shows. For example, the best way to gather an audience for a street show is to create a happy, relaxed energy at the start. So I might tell jokes and use silly humor as people approach me. “Don’t worry sir, if you keep practicing you will learn how to ride that bicycle” as one example.
I’ve also learned who will make the best volunteers. You might think it’s the person who is most clearly and loudly enjoying your show. But if someone is giving you that much energy, you don’t want to remove them from the audience; that would be a big loss. You want someone who is not as high-energy but may be leaning in and focusing intently on you.
How do you deal with hecklers?
I’ve developed tactics for dealing with archetypes like “the Joker,” who may have been the class clown in school and just wants to be part of the action. They typically aren’t trying to be disruptive, so I will sometimes include them.
One audience member was making jokes about me during a performance. After a while I addressed him. “Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to my uncle. I was quite sure I tied him up in the car.” The man joined in the fun, laughing and retorting, “Nephew! Great to see you again.” And that was the last we heard from him. He was satisfied with the attention.
You’re making the transition to public speaking. How does your approach to using humor change in that scenario?
I’m big on using humorous anecdotes from my own life and finding something I think the audience will relate to. In the street a lot of comedy comes from prepared responses to things you know are likely to happen. A dog may run through my show barking, distracting people. So I might say, “Later on, ladies and gents, I will take that dog and twist it into a balloon.”
It can work the same way in public speaking. You might see someone in the audience wearing the same kind of thing as someone else; it might be two women with red dresses and red shoes sitting close to one another. I’ll say, “Before I start, I am going to read these women’s minds—your favorite color is red.” Having bits prepared for things you are likely to encounter is a good way to inject some humor.
Sarah Carothers, DTM,
Making others laugh and feel better about themselves has been a life’s mission for Sarah Carothers, vice president public relations of the Texas Trotters Toastmasters in Houston, as well as an Ambassador for the Toastmasters revitalized education program. The CEO of Craven Comedy, Inc., and host of her own TV show, Carothers also is a practicing chaplain, author, facilitator and philanthropist.
How do you react when your jokes aren’t working?
I have experienced that on occasion while performing stand-up comedy. You just have to keep going and eat it up, as I say. But you also can make light of yourself. I might say, “I have to stop buying those jokes from Jokes.com,” or some other line, to acknowledge what’s going on and lighten the mood.
You mentioned that you try to find humor in your mistakes. What’s an example of that?
Toastmasters clubs often include members from around the world and on occasion names can be mispronounced. We had a gentleman in one of our clubs whose first name was hard for me to pronounce and early on I would make mistakes.
“Just because people aren’t bent over laughing doesn’t mean you’re bombing. Some do their laughing on the inside or with a slight smile.”— SARAH CAROTHERS
I apologized and he suggested I use his last name instead. We were able to laugh together about it. You have to find a way of finding the comedy in things but also let your colleagues know you respect them ... in this case by trying hard to learn his name.
What can audience body language tell you about how your humor is being received?
Just because people aren’t bent over laughing doesn’t mean you’re bombing. Some do their laughing on the inside or with a slight smile. Other times it might be difficult to get a firm read on an audience but you have to proceed undaunted. You just have to be sincere with your audience and they’ll usually embrace you in the end.
Palmo Carpino, DTM,
Palmo Carpino is a professional speaker and emcee who uses humor and improv techniques to connect with his audiences. He emcees events like awards ceremonies, company banquets and volunteer-appreciation celebrations. A Toastmaster in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, for nearly 20 years, Carpino competed in Humorous Speech contests and coached and facilitated humor workshops. For the past five years he’s been actively involved in the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers.
How does humor help you as an emcee?
With any event, humor is absolutely the best way to get people on my side. If they are with me, they will stay with me—stay on time, stay in the room. Whether I’m presenting or hosting an event, I make it a point to meet with audience members prior to the event. I look for those friendly faces from the stage. Creating a sense of familiarity—all of us laughing at the same thing—really helps with staying in control [of the event].
And humor really comes in handy in those times when there are little hiccups in the agenda. When people are laughing (or just having a pleasant time in general), they are less likely to panic, or stampede or throw food.
What’s your philosophy about using humor in speeches?
Instead of using someone else’s joke, or something you’ve found online, I suggest using truthful or self-deprecating anecdotes instead. For example, maybe I can’t button my suit jacket because of the great meal that was just served. I might say to the audience, “That’s OK because I’m starting to sweat anyway, and I always sweat before I’m asked to talk about things I know nothing about.”
What are the biggest pitfalls of using humor from the stage?
Any content that is inappropriate for the audience or the occasion is sure to disappoint. Also, any time you single out an individual instead of the circumstance, you can be sure that the “division” you create is also between you and your audience.
Permission plays a major role in what you may be able to get away with. If you are not a woman, do not make fun of women. If you are not an athlete, don’t make fun of athletes. If you are not Italian, don’t make fun of the Mafia. Okay, even if you are Italian, don’t make fun of the Mafia.
How do you recover when you bomb?
If my own humor isn’t going over as intended, then, quite simply, I haven’t done my homework and have no one to blame but myself. It means I haven’t researched the group enough and/or haven’t read the audience correctly in that moment. Ideally, if the intended humor is appropriate to the topic at hand (which it must be), you may be able to come back with an actual recovery line, such as, “OK, perhaps not the best illustration—let me try again.”
The best comedians learn from failure and create changes as needed. I’m a huge fan of motivational humorist [and longtime Toastmaster] John Kinde and his phrase “A bad joke deserves a good autopsy.”
How can speakers develop their “humor gene”?
Humor is built on timing and on the unexpected. You can strategically and tactically plan it with an arsenal of planned spontaneity or, you can just say out loud what you are thinking in your head and learn to decipher what’s appropriate. Delivery, and specifically your own style of delivery, can be a completely different matter than use of humor formulas. This is usually what separates the “ok attempts” scribed into a written speech from the “memorable point illustrated in a memorable manner.”
My last point is one I also share with newbie improvisers and I think it is true here as well. Techniques are all fine and good but I would suggest that if you want to go from good to great, “It’s not so much about building a library as it is about building your reflexes.”
Raajeev Aggarwal, DTM,
You can likely count on one hand the number of computer industry executives who also are stand-up comedians. But that wasn’t about to stop Raajeev Aggarwal from making the leap. Aggarwal, who has been a member of Toastmasters clubs in Washington, D.C., Boston and Los Angeles, didn’t tell the employees of his computer-systems design company, Compubahn, Inc., about his double life for years. “I hesitated mainly for fear they might think their boss was a clown,” he says. But Aggarwal had little to be concerned about as most have championed his courage and he’s gone on to perform on the American cable network Nickelodeon TV, where he portrays a dull high school teacher in a show called 100 Things to Do Before High School, which began airing in 2015. Aggarwal has also inspired his wife and two of his children to try stand-up comedy.
What’s your approach to using humor in public speaking, including Toastmasters?
Self-deprecating humor generally works best. Because humor is challenging and can easily upset people, I prefer that safer variety. I like to use myself as the victim so I am the one who looks stupid and not the audience. As an extension of that, I also make fun of my family …. I try to use comedy that relieves people of their misery. You are putting yourself down so that everyone in the room feels better about themselves.
How often do you perform stand-up comedy?
About twice a week. I generally go to booked shows or Open Mics. I also use my Toastmasters participation to try new jokes. I tell my fellow Toastmasters that I am using them as guinea pigs to try new material.
What if you’re performing stand-up and the audience isn’t responding?
If the humor isn’t working, then I try side comments like, “Some of you are going to get this joke and laugh tomorrow morning.” Or, “It seemed funny when I wrote it.”
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist based in Minneapolis and a frequent contributor to Toastmaster magazine.