When I first told a good friend I started doing stand-up comedy, his response was, “But you’re not funny.”
In many ways, he was right. Humor was not something that came naturally to me. I was and still am an introverted computer geek with a degree in computer science and engineering who got pushed into improv and stand-up comedy while attending university. I was as surprised as anyone when I made people laugh.
I had to learn how to humor, and I did it by doing what engineers do with most things they want to better understand: take it apart, see how it works, and put it back together again.
What I’ve discovered—after over 1,000 shows as a stand-up comedian and improviser, and more than 600 keynotes delivered in more than 30 countries—is that humor is a skill. And just like public speaking, it’s something that can and should be learned.
Whether you’re speaking in front of an audience of five people or a thousand, at a conference or a wedding, as a brand-new speaker or a Distinguished Toastmaster, humor is a valuable way of capturing attention, boosting engagement, and increasing the impact of your message.
The question isn’t “should you use humor?” The question is “how do you use it well?” How do you effectively use humor in a corporate keynote, Pathways speech, or when you have to say a few words at the holiday party after everyone’s been sipping eggnog and singing Jingle Bells?
The key is what I call the Humor MAP.
The Humor MAP
The Humor MAP is the easiest way to determine what type of humor to use, regardless of venue, organization, or speech topic. It also helps you choose the right humor for different cultures, work contexts, and times of day (my math jokes don’t go over as well at 8 a.m. when people’s coffee has yet to kick in). It’s the framework I’ve used with organizations like Microsoft, the FBI, and the International Association of Canine Professionals (woof!).
Humor is a valuable way of capturing attention, boosting engagement, and increasing the impact of your message.
The MAP isn’t a formula for funny but rather a framework for how to think about what humor will work based on three key factors: your medium or the format in which you’ll be sharing your message, your audience or who will be hearing your message, and your purpose or why you want to use humor in the first place.
When you define these three things, you’ll have a good idea of what type of humor to use to get the results you want.
The medium is all about the how: How will the message be delivered? Will you be speaking live in a conference room, onstage in a banquet hall, or virtually over Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or one of the other 20,000 online meeting platforms that seem to exist?
The medium impacts your delivery. Exaggerated performance and big movements can be a fun part of speaking when on a large keynote stage, but might feel out of place when pitching a concept in your boss’s office.
Timing is also a factor in how your message flows. For example, one of the biggest mistakes people make when they first start using humor is they “step on their laughter.” That means they say something funny, but they don’t pause long enough for people to laugh before they start talking again.
Gauging how long to wait is part of what we mean by “timing.” This is even harder in a virtual environment where often people are muted, and you can’t hear any laughter. When delivering virtually assume that you are crushing it; assume every joke is landing. Because assuming anything else won’t help your performance.
The next component of the Humor MAP is the audience, which is all about the who. Who will hear your humor? What do they know? What do they need? And what do they expect? You want to deliver the message they need in a way they may not expect.
The audience determines the content of your humor because they dictate whether or not what you say is funny—if they laugh, it is; if they don’t, it isn’t.
As a result, speaking their language is vital; otherwise you run the risk of boring, confusing, or upsetting them … like the time I told a grandmother in London that I liked her pants. I was unaware that in the United Kingdom, “pants” means underwear. I was wondering why she winked at me.
It’s very hard to deliver an effective speech if you offend the people listening. So, if you’re unsure about the audience or will be speaking in front of a diverse group, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Keep your humor positive and inclusive and leave any sarcasm or “digs” for your friends.
The final component of the Humor MAP is also the most important because it’s all about the why. Why are you using humor? Is it to capture people’s attention, help them understand a concept, or make them laugh so hard they get milk up their nose, thus never forgetting your performance?
The purpose primarily defines the type of humor you use. If your goal is to capture attention, a long story that has a slow build and no payoff for seven minutes is not going to do the trick. By the time you get to the punchline, your audience will already be daydreaming. Instead, it would be better to go with a quick joke or incongruous statement, so the audience laughs within the first 20 seconds of you speaking.
The Humor MAP is the easiest way to determine what type of humor to use, regardless of venue, organization, or speech topic.
There are no rules dictating what type of humor you must use for a specific purpose, but I have found that some styles tend to work better than others. Here are three of what I believe to be the most important reasons to use humor as a speaker:
Capture Attention (Incongruity)
Once you get people laughing, they are listening. Incongruity humor, such as a humorous synonym, also known as a “humornym,” is a great way to quickly capture attention. Which would get you to lean in more: a speaker starting with “ladies and gentlemen” or “hello fellow humans”?
Improve Understanding (Association)
When you want to explain a complex topic, create a compelling metaphor or analogy that will keep your audience engaged and help them understand the idea. I’ve helped speakers compare project management to weddings, population census to Girl Scout Cookies, and geoengineering to Mary Poppins—it turns out a spoonful of sugar helps incredibly complex solutions go down.
Increase Likability (Reference)
There’s no denying that we like people who make us laugh. Reference humor takes advantage of that by referencing media, experiences, or concepts that the audience already knows, such as a popular movie or visiting family during the holidays. A very powerful version of this is the callback. When you reference something that was previously said in a Toastmasters meeting or refer to a joke you made in your own speech, you’re crafting an experience that includes the entire audience.
MAP Your Way
I’ll admit some people still agree with my friend that I’m “not funny.” Just check out the comments on my TEDx Talk on the skill of humor. While the majority of the comments are positive and the video has more than 10 million views, there are still plenty of people who have posted things like, “This dude isn’t funny”; “He’s trying too hard”; and “Go back to engineer, PLEASE!”
So, when I say, “this is what works for me,” it’s up to you to decide if that’s a pro or a con. I’ve found that humor for the sake of humor is perfectly fine, as long as you are intentional about that being your purpose. With a clear objective for using humor, you increase the chance that you’ll not only delight your audience but also achieve your goals.
Andrew Tarvin is a humor engineer and author of three best-selling books. He has been featured in numerous publications and podcasts and is the primary contributor to the Humor That Works blog. Learn more at www.humorthatworks.com.