Why your humour gets ignored – and how to fix that

Updated: Nov 2, 2018

Dying is easy, comedy is hard!

Ahhh! If only this weren’t true! Comedy can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be.

Do you need humour in your speech?

Humour is a powerful asset in a presentation. It:

  • adds variety to the speech

  • creates dynamic range between emotional highs and lows

  • creates a ‘two way conversation’ with the audience i.e. the speaker says something and the audience responds

  • allows the audience to see a different side of the speaker

But very little of this is achieved by telling ‘jokes’. As a speaker, your role is not to be a standup comedian. If that’s your goal, then I wish you well. That’s a different job entirely, and there are some very good books out there on becoming a standup comic.

Our role as speakers is to connect with the audience and communicate a message. Humour can help us to do that. Before I go into how we create appropriate humour, here’s a few no-no’s on what not to do:

Don’t use jokes from a joke book or a standup comedian
  • The material won’t sound like you and will come across as being manufactured.

  • When you make a humorous remark, you want to sound 100% as if it came from you.

  • The material is not your own. Technically, it’s plagiarism.

Rude jokes
  • No matter what the audience, there will be some people that you offend.

  • You want to connect with people of all ages in your audience. What if kids are present?

  • If your presentation is recorded for later use, it might be unusable because of your bad language or humour.

Slapstick humour
  • This is the type of humour that was funny at the time, but not in its retelling. For example, ‘My uncle John fell backwards off his chair! You should have seen it!’ Well, we didn’t, and probably wouldn’t have laughed if we had.

  • It usually involves some degree of pain for someone.

  • Trying to communicate the physicality of that event is very difficult.

But I see this kind of humour all the time!

Yes, I do too. Sometimes it’s hilariously funny, and if it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t, you’re left standing in front of an audience of blank faces or – worse still – people who are laughing politely so you don’t feel bad.

Comedy Theatre Melbourne Victoria

What is the best kind of humour to inject in a speech?

The best kind is self-deprecating humour. This is where you’re making jokes at your own expense. This kind of humour also shows a kind of bravery about the speaker. It says the speaker is so confident that they can poke fun at themselves.

You might be delivering a ‘husband and wife’ speech. You’ve probably seen this kind of speech a lot. This is a relationship speech where a person is talking about the trials and tribulations of being in a relationship.

Let’s assume you’re the husband. You may or may not get a positive response if you make jokes about your wife, but you’re more assured of laughs if you make jokes about yourself.

So, what is a joke?

A joke is composed of two parts. They are:

  • the setup

  • the punchline

The setup is exactly that: it sets up a scene. It creates an expectation. It paints a picture. It’s like driving a car down a straight road.

The punchline is about delivering a response that completely thwarts expectations. It’s about surprise. An entirely unexpected event. It’s about turning the steering wheel of that car and flying off to Alpha Centauri.

The unexpected nature of the punchline – the surprise – is what makes it funny. We are caught unprepared. The best punchlines have the gag as far towards the end of the line as possible.

For example:

Setup – My dog used to chase people on bikes a lot.

Punchline – It got so bad, I finally had to take his bike away.

The joke would be less effective if it read:

Setup – My dog used to chase people on bikes a lot.

Punchline – I finally had to take his bike away, it got so bad.

So how do I create a joke?

First of all, you need to print out your speech and examine it. Your printed copy needs to be double spaced with plenty of room to make notes.

Sit down with a pen and look for areas where you can safely inject some humour. If you’ve just had the audience in tears after telling them about the tragic death of your mother, that’s not the place to make a joke. If you’ve told them about what it was like getting bullied at school, that might be a place where you can inject some appropriate humour.

Now examine the language. Take note of seemingly innocent lines. These lines are the setup lines. For each line, write down as many different gags as you can. Let your imagination run free. Be as crazy and as wild as possible.

There will be plenty of these gags that you can’t use. Most of them, actually. Most of these gags can be thrown away, but, occasionally, you’ll come across a piece of gold in the dust.

Here’s a couple of methods you can use to create gags:

Attack the Assumption

Let’s take a sentence like:

My mother loves it when I visit her.

This is a pretty innocuous sentence. Let’s examine the language. The key words are:

  • Mother

  • Loves

  • Visit

‘Mother’ we probably can’t do a whole lot about, but ‘loves’ and ‘visit’ have some possibilities. Even that phrase ‘loves it when I visit her.’ The assumption is that, ‘My mother who lives in her beautiful home loves it when I drop by on Sundays.’

How can we subvert this expectation?

Setup – My mother loves it when I visit her.

Punchline – She doesn’t get many visitors in jail.

Setup – My mother loves it when I visit her.

Punchline – She’s loves to have someone to pick on.

Setup – My mother loves it when I visit her.

Punchline – She’s always in need of new test subjects for her cooking.

None of these lines will have them rolling in the aisle, but they give you the idea.

Use exaggeration

Exaggeration is another great way of building a joke. We can create a joke by making the punchline as wildly over the top as possible.

Once again, let’s take a completely innocent sentence like, ‘I went on a diet recently.’

The key words are:

  • went

  • diet

  • recently

There’s a lot that can be created around the word ‘diet’. Normally the next line would be something like, ‘I lost five kilograms’ or ‘It was hard.’

Setup – I went on a diet recently.

Punchline – It was the worst hour of my life.

Setup – I went on a diet recently.

Punchline – Ended up eating one of my kids.

Setup – I went on a diet recently.

Punchline – That’s my twelfth diet this month.

Setup – I went on a diet recently.

Punchline – You only get one plate per day so I bought a new plate. It’s this big (show it’s as big as a table).

Make fun of traits

Personally, I think this is one of the best ways to create a joke. Everything has its own positive traits. People. Cats. Dogs. Houses. Cars. Everything.

At the same time, we often see negative traits that are a complete contradiction to the positive trait.

These kinds of observations are funny because they are true! Here we search for things about the person/thing that distinguishes it. For example, let’s take an innocent sentence like, ‘My brother works as a programmer for Facebook.’

Setup – My brother works as a programmer for Facebook.

Punchline – But then you go to his house and his microwave’s flashing 12.00

Setup – My brother works as a programmer for Facebook.

Punchline – But he doesn’t know how to turn on his washing machine.

Setup – My brother works as a programmer for Facebook.

Punchline – He needs to get out more. He doesn’t have any friends.

The next step

The next part of the process is to sit down with a writing friend and bounce your ideas off them. With the help of your friend, hone your ideas to the best lines.

This is a constant process of writing and revision. Some comedians spend months honing the setup and punchlines. If you can cut an unnecessary word out – do so. Cut everything you can until the lines flow smoothly.

Then practice your speech in front of a test audience. Record your speech. This is vital. You want to be able to hear later when the laughs come. If you don’t get laughs, you probably need to retire the joke.

What happens if they don’t laugh?

Please take note of what I’m about to say here because it’s probably the most important piece of information here:

If they don’t laugh – keep going.

If your joke falls flat, that’s fine because most people will have no idea that you’ve just make a joke. Just keep speaking. Don’t stare at them expectantly or stop with embarrassment. Just keep going!

A lot more can be said about humour. It’s a great tool to have in your public speaking toolkit. You can add some dynamic range to your speeches with a few key humorous remarks. And the great thing is this – you’re not a standup comic. You’re just injecting the odd bit of humour here and there to enhance your speech.

Comedy might be hard, but it’s worth it.

Likable links: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-mix-humor-into-your-writing & https://www.scienceofpeople.com/how-to-be-funny/


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