How to use humor in your talk

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Are you having a difficult time trying to figure out how to use humor to your talk? You’re not alone! Many speakers face an intimidating fear of incorporating jokes into their speeches.

Today, on The Speaker Lab, I’m going to be discussing the proper strategies for using humor in a talk and the importance of employing pictures and videos. We will also dive into how you can be on the lookout for humorous material, why “you had to be there” stories should be avoided, and the correct technique for self-deprecating humor. I’m also going to explain the most effective way to cope with a failed joke and how to move on gracefully.

Ready to learn the best way to utilize humor in your talks? Read on!

Why you should use humor in your talk

Humor is a powerful tool for a motivational speaker. Not only does it endear you to the audience, it can set you apart in the speaking market. The best speakers use it to their advantage in order to engage their audience. To learn more about integrating humor in your talks, have a listen to the Speaker Lab podcast’s episodes on how to use humor when speaking.

In one of the podcasts, Ron Tite, a professional speaker, describes the power of using humor in your talk. According to Tite, sometimes an easy laugh can feel good, but more satisfying is the silence that follows. That is the power of being able to control a room.

As a speaker, it is important to balance how much time is spent being funny and how much is spent on the strategy. This is what can really take people on a journey with you when you can take them from uproarious laughter to complete silence, before delivering the main point that you want to share.

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How you can use humor in your talk

As you prepare your talk, keep in mind that you are a professional speaker before you are a comedian. As Jeremy Rochford said in this episode of The Speaker Lab podcast, “Quite often as speakers, we judge ourselves as it relates to humor, to comedians, but we’re not supposed to be comedians, right?” Rochford continued: “Whereas your typical working professional comedian is getting four to six laughs per minute, as a speaker, if we can get four to six laughs per 30 or 45 minutes speech, we’re killing it.”

So don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You’re probably not going to be able to top a professional comedian. But you can still use humor as an effective tool in your speaking toolbox.

And keep in mind: humor is a great tool that speakers can use to engage and connect with their audience. But it should always be used within an understanding of the audience’s two questions: “So what?” and “Now what?” The former implies why their message should matter to the audience and why it’s important, while the latter looks to elicit a reaction or action from the audience. Humor can help to loosen up an audience and make them more receptive to the message being delivered. Failing to have clear objectives with humor can be a mistake.

An example of how to use humor in your talk

As Grant Baldwin put it in an episode of the Speaker Lab podcast, “humor is really effective because it’s such a great way for keeping an audience engaged. Comedians are really good public speakers. They are individuals who have a point of view. They have some type of message that they are presenting. They’re telling stories, and yet their use of humor is really powerful for keeping that audience engaged throughout the entire presentation.” A comedian’s show could last anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, or even beyond 90 minutes, but a good use of humor will keep the audience on the edge of their seats the whole time.

Here’s an example use of humor from Grant. Several years ago, during the peak of the Ebola crisis, he was giving a presentation. He decided to take a different approach and use humor to illustrate his points. And he did this by taking an unexpected detour when it came to telling a story.

He said, “Ebola, do you remember when that was a big deal, like a year or two ago. That was a big thing. Everybody was nervous about it. Everybody swore they were gonna get Ebola because a couple people had this highly contagious disease. And so I remember that I was speaking at this conference, and this is, again, this is not an Ebola conference at all, but it’s just on people’s radar. It’s on people’s minds. And so I’m talking about it and I’m getting ready to make a really serious point. And so I’m telling a story. I don’t remember exactly where I was going with it. And so I paused. I said, here’s something I want you to catch. And I just paused for a second [before saying]: not Ebola.”

Though unexpected, Baldwin said, his humor was effective because it kept his audience engaged. While Ebola references might be inappropriate for your own jokes, the method still stands as a tool you can use to keep your audience engaged.

Gold humor vs improv

There are a few different types of humor you can use. Two key forms are “gold humor” and improvisational humor, or “improv.” What is “gold humor”? Ron Tite, in an episode of the Speaker Lab podcast, explained.

“Like a comedian, speaker’s got a gold material, right? There’s stuff that you just know. You’ve done it a million times, and the reason it’s so fantastic is because you’ve done it a million times,” Tite said. “You can start it with something where you think it’s funny. And then you share it and it doesn’t have to be brilliantly funny, [but you] continue to work at it and you work to get it to the gold. And the only way to do that is to deliver it, over and over again.”

What about improv? As Grant Baldwin put it, there’s nothing quite like spontaneous, unscripted moments, as they can often produce some of the most genuine and hilarious comedy. Improvising in the moment really makes these moments special, and you can really appreciate the humor that comes from them.

One informal rule of comedy Ron Tite expounded on is known as “Never Ignore The Reality,” because there are things that happen that are just off kilter a little bit, and you can make light of it in a way that makes your audience feel present with your talk.

Imagine this: The power suddenly went off, leaving the speaker scrambling for an answer. What was supposed to be an ordinary event suddenly became anything but. In this moment, you must seize the opportunity to make this moment worthy of the audience that witnessed it. Make the most of it, and you won’t regret it. As George Carlin said, my job as a comedian is to just remind you of the things you forgot to laugh at the first time.

Another example of comedy you can use in an improv situation is what Robin Williams called “go there.” Tite explained: “He’d say something like, the Scottish people are horrible golfers. And then he would slip into this character of a Scottish person golfing, and he just would go there. And you could say, man, the air conditioning sucks. Go there. What happens when the air conditioning sucks?”

When things go sideways

As Ron Tite explained, one of the best things you can do when a joke falls flat is to verbally note it, and move on.

“What I’ll do is if it falls flat, I’ll just say something like, huh, fascinating. I thought that was, you do not. That’s interesting. And I’ll move on.” said Tite. “I think you have to acknowledge the fact that you clearly were in that mode of telling a joke or that you thought was funny.

By acknowledging that the joke didn’t land, you take away any sense that you forced the joke on the audience, and give yourself an opportunity to quickly move on. This can help keep the conversation light and open, and avoid any awkwardness that may otherwise linger. You also demonstrate humility as a speaker by taking responsibility for the failed joke. (And you give yourself the opportunity to come back to the joke later if the context or timing is right.)

What to avoid when using humor in your talk

Here are a few tips from Grant Baldwin on things to avoid when using humor in your talk.

  1. Like salt, humor can ruin things if you have too much of it. Finding the right balance is key when using comedy and humor when speaking – too much of it can distract from the actual content. Striking a good balance ensures your delivery is both entertaining and informative.
  2. When using humor in your stories or jokes, don’t set yourself up for failure by announcing that it will be funny. Better to let the joke or story unfold in a way that catches audiences by surprise. This way, the humor is unexpected and catches them off guard, leaving them pleasantly surprised.
  3. Don’t rush through stories and jokes – take your time to let the audience appreciate the humor. Make sure to give them an opportunity to laugh!
  4. Exercise caution when it comes to using humor. If you make everyone laugh but offend the person who hired you, you’ve made a mistake. It’s better to be on the safe side by making sure your jokes aren’t too provocative or offensive with the event organizer before your gig starts.
  5. Stealing jokes is never a good idea. Instead, use funny stories you hear or come across as a source of inspiration. Use them as an avenue to explore other humorous possibilities. For example, if you’ve heard a really funny story about an airport experience, consider telling the story from a different angle or making it even funnier with new elements. Don’t copy, but use it as a creative prompt.

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So you’ve now learned a little more about how to be funny in your talk. Want to go deeper?

Check out this episode of The Speaker Lab Podcast, Why Speaking is Fun With Mike Goodwin. Goodwin takes us through his journey to success in comedy, detailing how he got his start and how he’s been able to thrive in both mediums. He shares the importance of growing from your mistakes and pivoting on the fly. Plus, his enthusiasm for his work and helping others learn from his experiences is truly inspiring. Tune in to our conversation to learn more!  Check out the episode here.

Still want more? Check out our blog post on how to find paid speaking opportunities in any industry. Happy speaking!


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