Laughter is magical. For a speaker, it has the power to impart confidence. Nothing feels better than receiving a roar of approval from an audience after delivering your punchline. It can provide a boost of energy and propel you into the heart of your speech.
For a listener, laughter has the power to ease tension. Speeches that tackle serious and important subjects can be difficult to process. Lightening the mood helps the audience relax and pay more attention to your next point.
If you want to spark laughter, these three types of humor can unite you and the audience: (1) Relatable humor relies on a reference the audience understands. It allows them to relax and feel like they’re listening to a friend; (2) Self-deprecating humor is an option if you’re willing to make fun of yourself—it shows you are human and contributes to your likeability; Finally, (3) humor that leaves you vulnerable can help you bond with an audience, because if you speak from the heart and help the crowd laugh about serious topics, your message will be clearer in their minds.
Using these three humor strategies helps ensure the best chance of connecting with the audience.
A shared experience bonds the speaker and audience. Listeners feel like you have a hidden insight into their everyday lives, and that’s delightful. You may not feel like you have relatable experiences to draw from, but you do. Audiences love to hear about embarrassing things your children have done, because their children have done the same things. Everyone has a crazy story about a commute to work, so talk freely about belting out songs in traffic jams or being crammed like sardines on a subway train.
“Being vulnerable in your comedy is powerful because it not only spurs the audience to laugh, it allows them to laugh in a sometimes difficult world.”
Boost the impact of humorous, relatable stories by acting out funny conversations you’ve had. Change your voice to portray other people. Use your body and take up the stage; be bold! The more engaged you are in the stories, the more engaged your audience will be. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld is a master at using observational humor, focusing on the funny aspects of everyday life. Witness his observation about children: “A 2-year-old is kind of like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it.” Parents the world over can relate to that.
If you can make the audience laugh by pointing out common experiences and feelings, they’ll want to hear what else you have to say.
Comedians have made entire careers out of self-deprecating humor, which is the ability and willingness to make fun of yourself. If you’re short, have fun taking time to move down the microphone stand. If you’re bald, ask the audience if they’re distracted by the glare coming off your head. Being able to laugh at yourself is courageous.
American comedian and actor Rodney Dangerfield was known for his self- deprecating one-liners and his “I don’t get no respect” catchphrase. Joan Rivers fired off zingers about her own marriage. Irish/British stand-up comedian Jimmy Carr makes fun of his distinct laugh, and American comedian Jim Gaffigan jokes about his weight and unhealthy eating habits. (He speaks lovingly of bacon, french fries and chocolate cake.) Audiences love speakers who don’t take themselves too seriously.
An important disclaimer: Don’t make fun of your expertise. If you’re giving a presentation about marketing, don’t tell a joke about being a bad marketer. Find something universal but more trivial. Example: “Are you someone who stays a little too long at the hotel buffet? I’ve known some great marketers who can’t say no to those waffle machines.”
Here, we’re delving into the highest level of humor: revealing things about yourself in a funny way. The biggest mistake I’ve seen speakers make onstage is trying to seem like Superman. They make fun of the audience, but they’re bulletproof to any comedic barbs. Being vulnerable in your comedy is powerful because it not only spurs the audience to laugh, it allows them to laugh in a sometimes difficult world.
The best way to unite yourself with an audience is sharing your challenges in life. The simple act of being vulnerable will make the audience feel like you trust them. In return, they’ll trust you.
One of the best examples of a comedian showing vulnerability to powerful effect was a 2012 set performed by Tig Notaro, an American stand-up comic, writer and actress. In it, she revealed to the audience that she had cancer. Notaro used her signature dry, deadpan humor to actually talk about the idea of dying, and her audience loved her for it. She used sarcasm to give a voice to the often ambiguous nature of God. “Rest assured, God never gives you more than you can handle,” she said, wryly, “I just picture God going, ‘You know what? I think she can handle a little more.’” What seemed like a taboo subject instantly connected her to the crowd.
We’re all in this together. Give yourself to the audience and they’ll give back to you.
Always Punch Up
Humor, by its very nature, is meant to go after a target. You’re “making fun” and often, you’re making fun of a group of people. Sure, universal humor can take on big topics, like business, religion or politics, but all of those mean targeting people as well.
“Audiences love to hear about embarrassing things your children have done, because their children have done the same things.”
“Punching up” means using elements of humor when talking about someone who is in a higher level of power than you or your listeners. Does this mean you can’t tackle serious issues like income inequality, racism or mental illness in your speeches? No, but it does mean you should pay close attention to who the target is. For example, it can be funny to skewer the obscenely wealthy, but it’s in bad taste to target a specific individual who is rich. Use hyperbole whenever you can, which is writing a punchline that moves the conversation to an impossible level. Exaggerate. “The hot sauce was so spicy I thought I would need a fire extinguisher for my mouth.”
Find Unexpected Connections
Maybe the most difficult way to engage the audience is finding a way to get them to relate to each other. Political and social viewpoints can feel polarizing, making some speakers reticent to draw on controversial subjects when adding humor to their speeches. Yet the best way to unite the audience is with humor that resonates.
Sometimes it feels that we have to worry about offending everyone these days. For example, cross-cultural humor sometimes doesn’t translate, and gender-based humor can raise the ire of some. The most important thing you can do is find people you can trust and ask their opinion if you’re worried your material might offend. Testing your speech works across all spectrums. Surround yourself with friends of other races, cultures and beliefs. The more diverse your inner circle becomes, the less likely you’ll be to offend a wide audience. Diversity not only informs your comedy, it helps you better understand the world around you.
We all want the same things. We want to feel loved, we want to feel safe and we want to feel understood. If you can use different forms of humor that show your audience that you care for and understand them, you can get laughs from anyone, regardless of their background.
Nick Jack Pappas is a comedy writer, stand-up comedian and one of the founders of Comedywire in New York City.