If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 30-plus years of studying humor, it’s this: You can learn to be funny. Some people think you need to be born funny—that if you weren’t the class clown, there’s no hope. I’m a laid-back, serious Norwegian from North Dakota, and I’ve won the Humorous Speech Contest at the district level four times. If I can do it, you can do it.
And if you don’t look funny or have a reputation for being funny, well, great! You then can take advantage of the element of surprise, one of the basic elements of humor.
Here’s a secret I’ve learned from practicing 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. Relax. Let your humor come organically from your stories, the essence of your character and your relationship with the audience. Avoid the eager look of expectation when a humor bit fails. That look is what you get from your dog sitting next to the dinner table hoping for a treat from your plate.
Play It Clean
When writing your speech, keep it clean. Sometimes it’s tempting to cross the line, but take it from someone who has learned 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 teenager 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. When in doubt, leave it out!
Personal stories are your best source of humorous material. Your own stories are original and compelling. Humor comes naturally from the pictures you paint. Drawing on a personal experience is always better than force-fitting a joke to a point. And besides, if you pick a joke off the internet, everyone has probably heard it and your element of surprise will be short-circuited.
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 punch word or punchline buries it and disguises the joke.
“Humor plays best in a well-lit room. Laughter is contagious and people will laugh more when they see others laughing.”
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, the punchline carries a bigger burden. So write your material, then edit and cut.
Also, specifics are funnier than generalities. A “2015 red Honda Accord” is funnier than “a car.” Paint rich word pictures.
Invest in your talk by writing and practicing it well in advance of your delivery date. As you’re sitting at the speaking venue awaiting your introduction, concentrate on what’s going on around you. Check out the features of the room. If it’s a dinner event, pay attention to the details of the meal and the service. Listen to everyone speaking before you. Take notes. Look for humorous connections you can drop into your talk—these last-minute lines might be the best part of your entire presentation.
Wait for the Laugh
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.
Don’t be in a hurry to proceed to the next funny line. Don’t step on the laughter. Starting to speak too soon is like telling the audience “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 the audience doesn’t laugh, pretend you mean the line seriously. Your humor is meant to be a surprise. If they didn’t laugh, it’s your secret. If a long story meant to get a laugh is greeted with silence, try saying this: “And the point of that story is ...” Let’s hope your humor has a point!
Animate your speech. Show rather than tell. Know your material well enough that you can deliver it without notes, thus bringing your gestures, movements and facial expressions to life.
“If you try a joke that falls flat, never apologize or explain it.”
Try to deliver your humor in a room that is 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.
Practice at Your Club
The best place to practice delivering your humor is in your club. There is no substitute for practice in a supportive environment, and a Toastmasters meeting is the best place to grow and stretch. The people you think of as funny are probably not funnier than you are—they’re just more consistent. The main difference between an excellent improv player and a beginner is consistency. Both have moments of brilliance. The great player will just hit the mark more often. Your humor consistency ratio improves only with experience. A Toastmasters club is the perfect place to be bad while getting better.
In my opinion, the Jokemaster function, in the way it is featured by many clubs, is a waste of time. My observation is that this person usually reads a mediocre joke to the audience and is met with polite chuckles. The joke is normally not very funny and this is not a good way to learn humor delivery.
Here’s my suggestion: Replace the Jokemaster with The Observational Minute. This is an observational humor segment placed near the end of the meeting, normally after the evaluations but just before the general 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.
And now it’s time to enter the Humorous Speech Contest. Always remember, you learn more when you come in second. 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 example at a district-level humor contest), remember this: For the most part, you are being judged by people who have not accomplished what you are trying to do—win the district Humorous Speech Contest. So don’t take the results too seriously. Compete for the sake of competing. And in the long haul, if you do well you’ll be like the baseball legend Babe Ruth, who is remembered for his home runs, not his strikeouts. Everyone who competes wins a growth opportunity.
If you compete in the Humorous Speech Contest beyond the club level, take comfort in the fact that the further you advance in the contest, 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 club level.
So when you reach the higher levels, step on the platform with confidence, knowing you are prepared and up to the task. And when the audience is sitting there thinking show me the funny, you will!
John Kinde, DTM is an Accredited Speaker and a member of Powerhouse Pros Toastmasters club in Las Vegas. He is the founder of the Las Vegas Improv. Reach him at www.HumorPower.com.