How To Find & Use Humor When Speaking

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Today we are going to be talking all about a subject that is really, really important for speakers to have in their toolbox or in their arsenal. And yet it’s the type of subject or topic that a lot of speakers are nervous about, they’re intimidated by. But we’re going to try to make this as simple as possible today. Today we’re going to be talking about humor. We’re going to be talking about jokes and comedy and how to incorporate that into your speaking.

So whether you are someone who uses humor or if you don’t think of yourself as funny, wherever you may be on your speaking journey, and using comedy as part of it. We’re going to make this really simple for you. So we’re going to be talking about why humor matters, why it’s important.

We’re going to be talking about how to find and use humor, and then we’re also going to be talking about some different strategies around humor, how you can incorporate it into your talk, and then just some things that you should do, if humor works. Sometimes it doesn’t work. There’s times where you try something and it just bombs. It’s happened to me before. What you think is going to get some type of laugh or reaction, is met with crickets and awkward silence and it sucks, but it happens. We’re going to be talking about humor and how to interject some humor into your presentations.

So humor is really, really effective because it’s such a great way for keeping an audience engaged. I mean, you think about comedians in general, and comedians are really, really good public speakers, they are individuals who have a point of view.

They have some type of message that they’re presenting, they’re telling stories, and yet their use of humor is really, really powerful for keeping that audience engaged throughout the entire presentation. A comedian may do anywhere from 30 to 60 to 90 minutes or more of comedy, and you are just on the edge of your seat for a good comedian.

With a bad comedian, you just can’t get over quick enough. And it is same with a bad speaker. But with a good comedian, you are drawn to what it is that they are saying and it keeps you engaged.

Now, I get it. As a speaker, you don’t have to necessarily be a comedian, but again, know that humor will really keep people engaged. If your talk is compelling, if your content is solid, if you’re well practiced, you don’t need to use a joke every 30 seconds or so. But I think we can all come up with some of these one liners. We can come up with maybe a funny story or just a funny quote or something that adds just a little splash, just a touch of humor.

So What? Now What?

You could be the type of speaker who uses a lot of comedy and humor and it works really, really well, or it can become too much to the point where there’s really no content. So you always want to find that right balance there.

But one of the things that we teach, one of the things that we’ve talked about, is that the audience is always asking themselves two questions: So what? And now what? So what? Why should I care about this? Why is this important to me? Why does this matter? Why are you sharing this with us? So what? And then the second question of, now what? What do you want me to do as a result of this? It’s great that you shared that.

I enjoyed that story or that principle or that idea, or that talk or that lesson or whatever, but now what? What am I supposed to do as a result of that? Humor should still be used within that context, within that framework. I know for me, especially early on in my career, there were times where I wanted to tell a joke or to tell a funny story just for the sake of being funny. I wanted the audience to like me, I wanted the audience to laugh, I wanted to get a reaction from them.

There were times where I would tell a joke or a story that really didn’t add anything to the talk itself. It didn’t really move the talk forward. It was just for the sake of being funny. And you should never do that as a speaker. That’s a mistake that I’ve made and maybe you’ve made that mistake as well. Humor should always be used within this context of, “So what and now what?”

Now, whenever you use humor, one of the things that it helps an audience do is loosen up. It helps an audience to enjoy themselves because if you are having fun, it helps the audience to have fun as well.

And again, this is something that we’ve talked about before – an audience reads off of you as the speaker, they kind of match your emotions, and so if you’re funny, if you’re having a good time, then it helps them to relax and have a good time as well. But if you’re uptight, if you’re stiff, if you’re nervous, if you seem uncomfortable, it makes them uncomfortable as well.

By using humor, by injecting some of that humor, even if it’s just a little bit here and there, it helps the audience to loosen up, to have a good time. And it certainly helps you to loosen up as well. When you make a joke and they laugh or you tell a story and you get a good reaction, it really makes a big difference for a speaker in their confidence and just their feeling that it is going well.

Different Ways to Use Humor in Your Speeches

Use humor as much as possible in situations and in points where it makes sense to use them. So let’s talk about some different ways that you can use humor, how you can find humor.

Make Fun of Yourself

One of the simplest things that you can do is just use self-deprecating humor, meaning that you’re kind of poking fun at yourself, you’re making fun of your outfits or the way you look or something that you did or something silly.

I use a lot of stories. I use a lot of humor and a lot of the stories that I use are just kind of funny stories, self-deprecating stories. I tell a story about when I was a little kid and I stole jewelry from my mom to give to a girl. I use that to say, “Look at how goofy I was as a kid.” I tell a story about recently going skydiving and what a “traumatizing” experience that was, and so that can be a bit of self-deprecating humor.

But self-deprecating humor just kind of pokes fun at you, at your situation, at yourself, at your circumstances, at your surroundings, whatever it may be. But it helps the audience to kind of loosen up. So one type of humor could be a self-deprecating joke.


Another type of humor could come from one-liners. So it could just be like a tag on the end of a story. So you’re telling a story or making a point and then you just end with some type of one-liner that maybe takes a different direction that the audience didn’t anticipate.

Images and Videos

The other thing that works really well for humor using images, using pictures, or using videos. I’ll give you a great example here. I remember speaking at a conference a couple years ago and there was a keynote speaker who was funny.

They had a couple of one-liners throughout and a couple little funny bits. But one of the funniest things that they did was they showed a video. And this video was a very funny video. It tied into the message that they were talking about.

I remember after that session, I was actually doing a workshop with a small group of people who were in that previous session with the keynote. So I was doing the small group later where we were talking about speaking and the art of speaking, how to find speaking engagements and so on and so forth.

I asked the audience, “How many of you thought that that keynote speaker from earlier was funny?”

They were all like, “Oh yeah, yeah, he was hilarious. It was awesome. It was great.”

I said, “So let me ask you this. What was funny about what he shared?” And immediately everybody defaulted to the video. The video was the part that was the most funny. Think about it in their minds, in the minds of the audience.

They associate that speaker with being funny. Not that the speaker did anything, they just used a video that they had found on YouTube and it worked really well within their message. That is a way that you can use humor, by showing a funny video or showing a funny image.

We’ve all seen those pictures on Facebook or social media, the pictures that just make the rounds, the pictures that are shareable, that it’s just funny. And used in the right context, it can be really, really funny.

For example, you’ve seen some pictures of those autocorrect fails. You know, like someone meant to send one thing but then their phone autocorrected something else, and then it creates this totally mixed message, right? So you can have screenshots of these that are really, really funny.

You didn’t create the humor, but the humor already exists within that image. Recently, I did a talk where I was talking about communication. I showed a bunch of examples of these autocorrect fails. Again, I didn’t come up with the humor, I didn’t write this, I didn’t make these autocorrect fails. I just found these online, showed them, and it worked really, really well to tie into this message of communication and miscommunication.

How to Find Humor

So how do you actually find humor? Again, it can come from stories and one-liners, from images, from videos. I always recommend that you just pay attention. Look for things that are funny to you. Pay attention to things that happen.

Pay attention to funny situations, funny circumstances, funny one-liners, maybe it’s a funny line that your kid had said or something even that you had said that was just kind of spur of the moment. It just seemed funny.

I want you to pay less attention to how you would use them and more that you’re just making note of them. You know, like let’s take that text message autocorrect thing, for example, right? We all know that that’s funny. It may be the type of thing that we see or we think of and we think, “That’s really funny. That’d be good. I’d love to use that, but I don’t have anywhere that I could use that. That’s what I want.”

I want you to think about that right now. I want you to think, “This is funny. I might be able to use this at some point.” One of the things that you should do is get into the habit of making notes on those things and having what I like to call your radar up.

Having your radar on things that are funny, things that just catch your attention. And this isn’t just true for humor, this is true for stories or points as well. Having your radar up and paying attention.

So when you come across something that is a good story, something that was as funny, that doesn’t necessarily mean you know exactly at that moment where you’re going to use it or how you’re going to use it but just, “This could be good. I could see how I could use this at some point.” It’s on your radar. You’ve made a note of it, and then maybe at some point it’s something that you could use in the future in some type of presentation or talk.

Watch Comedians

Another way to find humor is to watch comedians. This is one of the things I really like to do. Comedians are, ideally, very funny and what makes them funny is their different, unique points of view. Or they may take some type of subject or topic and go a bunch of different directions with it. They may tell a funny story and I like to pay attention to what makes that story funny. So not only what it is that they do, but also the subject matter or the topic of what it is that they talk about.

You may take someone like Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld is very, very good with what’s called observational comedy. He’ll talk about funny things related to going to the airport or getting on a plane and all the little nuances there about that that are just funny.

Let’s just talk about this. Let’s point out some things that we may have missed but are obvious ones. We all kind of talk. Have you ever been watching a comedian and they say something and you’re kind of laughing and you’re like, “It’s funny because it’s true.”

Maybe you’ve been laughing at something and you’re like, “That’s so true. That happens all the time.” And part of that is what makes it funny. So that observational humor works well. You may be able to point out something that exists in that industry or in that space or something that the audience may be familiar with.

So you could point out something funny related to texting, something related to driving, something related to family dynamics, something related to a TV show that was on right now.

Pay attention to what comedians use, what they see, what the audience finds funny as well. Now, when you’re doing this I’m not recommending that you steal and that you say, “Oh, the audience found that funny so I’m just going to use that as my own,” whether you came across it from a comedian or somewhere else. No, no, no.

Definitely do not do that. It gets you ideas, it gets you thinking in the right direction. What else is funny about going to the airport? What they mentioned this, but here’s a different way that I could spin it. Here’s a different way that I could present it.

Use Social Media

Another way to find humor is to pay attention to social media. What gets a good reaction on social media generally gets a good reaction on stage. Any type of funny sayings, funny quotes, funny images, things that have lots of likes and shares and retweets from your own stuff, from other people’s stuff as well.

Pay attention to what it is that makes it funny. A big part of using humor is just paying attention. Paying attention to daily life, paying attention to what other people find funny, paying attention to social media and looking for things that would work for you to use in terms of humor.

Take It in an Unexpected Direction

Now, let’s shift gears for a second. Let’s talk a little bit about how you actually use humor in a presentation or in a talk. One of the ways that you can use humor is that you can take an unexpected detour, take an unexpected turn with a story.

So I’ll give you a quick example here. A couple years ago I was speaking and it was in the height of the disease, Ebola. Do you remember when that was a big deal, a few years ago? That was a big thing. Everybody was nervous about it.

Everyone just swore they were going to get Ebola because a couple of people had it. So there’s this highly contagious disease and I remember that I was speaking at this conference, and this is not an Ebola conference at all, but it’s just on people’s radar.

It’s on people’s minds. I’m talking about it and I’m getting ready to make a really serious point. I’m kind of telling a story. I don’t remember exactly where I was going with it. I paused. I said, “Here’s something I want you to catch.” And I just paused for a second. I said, “Here’s an important thing I want you to catch. Not Ebola.”

And everyone just kind of laughs because it’s one of those things like, okay, he’s getting ready to make a serious point. He’s kind of building up to this point. He’s going to make a serious point. And we went a different direction. So taking an unexpected detour with a story is one way that you can use humor.

Context Matters

Another way to use humor is, again, paying attention to context. I’ll give you an example. There was a time that I was speaking a couple years ago in Washington, D.C. and it was during a G8 summit or G20 summit or some type like world leader summit where there’s a bunch of the top world presidents that happened to be in Washington, D.C. At the conference that I was speaking at there happened to be the president of China.

He was staying there at that hotel. And as a result of that, there was just secret service everywhere, like crazy, crazy amounts of security, crazy amounts of media. It was just really, really intense. So one of the things that I said at the beginning of my presentation, a keynote, was, “Hey, I wanted to share something with you that I worked on today. I wanted to share with you the top ten things that you shouldn’t do when sharing a hotel with the president of China.”

It got a great reaction because we were all very, very aware of that situation. We’re all sharing a hotel with the president of China. This is kind of cool, but also kind of intense. So I just made this top ten list and it went over great because of that shared context of that situation.

Now, if I told that story and read that list in a different setting, it’s not as funny because we weren’t there, right? Because it was one of the things where if you were there, it’s really funny, but you had to be there. Think about the context whenever you’re using humor. This works really well, not only like in the event context, but it also works really well with current movies or music or actors or politics.

I mean, we are gearing up for an election this fall, a presidential election, and so using political humor right now works really, really well. But a year from now when the election’s over and the dust has settled it’s just not as funny anymore because that shared context begins to go away.

And now another thing whenever you’re using humor is to never tell the audience that it will be funny. “Oh, I’ve got to tell you guys a story. This is going to be so funny.” Don’t do that because you’ve already set yourself up for failure. The expectation is already too high. One of the best ways to use humor is to use it in a way where it almost sneaks up on the audience, where they didn’t see it coming.

I’ll give you an example. I mentioned that I tell a story about stealing jewelry from my mom when I was a little kid. Here’s the way that I set up this story: I’m talking about it in the context of how we all make mistakes.

We do things we regret, we do things that we wish we could go back and change. I say, “You know, I want to tell you about a story of a time when I was younger where I did something dumb.” And I start getting really serious about this and kind of somber.

And I say, “I want to tell you something about a time when I made a horrible decision. I’m not proud. It’s something that’s embarrassing. It’s not easy for me to talk about, but I want to share this lesson with you today with the hope that you learn from it.

When I was in first grade, there was this girl . . .” And so I go into that and I just pop and I kind of just smile for a second. Everybody’s expecting that the story is going to be serious, but it’s taking that unexpected turn.

I’m not starting by saying, “Oh, let me tell you guys a funny story. So I made a dumb decision one time.” Well, then I’ve already stepped over the joke there. I’ve already kind of hurt the joke there. So don’t tell the audience it will be funny.

Also, whenever you’re using humor, don’t forget timing.

If you rush through the joke, it won’t be funny. So let me give you an example here. Okay, let’s go back to that opening line that I used in that story that I’m kind of setting up. “When I was in first grade, there was this girl,” and so I could just keep pressing, I could just push right through.

“When I was in first grade, there was this girl and I had this big crush on this girl . . .” and so I could just keep going right into the story. But whenever I take into effect timing, I can use a pause as a great method of humor.

So instead, what I would do is, I’d say, “When I was in first grade, there was this girl,” and I just pause and smile and just let that hang there. That immediately gets this reaction from the audience.

Like, okay, all right. I see this is going to be something funny. So don’t forget the timing of that. Don’t just rush through stories. Don’t just rush through jokes. And whenever you’re speaking, you always want to allow that audience a chance to laugh at the joke.

So let’s go back to that same line of “When I was in first grade, there was this girl” and they start laughing, and then I just go right into the next line. I haven’t given them a chance to respond to it. So I want to pause not only for the joke, but I also want to allow the audience the chance to respond, to react to that, and to have the chance to actually laugh.

One other thing I’ll say about using humor is to always, always, always be appropriate. Be appropriate. Be very, very careful about offensive humor. Listen, if you make everyone laugh, but you tick off the decision-maker that brought you in, you’re doing it wrong. You screwed up. I always, always, always want to err on the side of caution. I want to make sure that this joke is appropriate and it’s not going to be too PG-13.

Now, whenever you’re doing humor, whenever you’re using a joke, there’s going to be times where you tell a joke and it works and it gets a great reaction. And then there’s times where you tell a joke and it just doesn’t work.

If a joke doesn’t work, move on. Don’t try to explain it. Don’t try to go into “Oh, it’s funny, you guys just didn’t get it. Let me explain why.” If you have to explain the joke, it’s not funny. So if it just bombs, it doesn’t get a good reaction, you can use some of that self-deprecating humor or you can just move on.

So sometimes I might tell a joke and it just gets a light little chuckle and so I might say something. “Make a mental note to not use that joke again.” Just something like that. I’m just poking fun at myself. I’m poking fun at this situation that I told a joke, nobody laughed, and it’s just kind of awkward. So rather than make it awkward by trying to explain it, I just move on or make a little self-deprecating comment about it and then I can move on.

Also know that there’s going to be some settings and audiences and environments where some jokes will land better than others. The environment and the setting and all those different nuances can make a really, really big impact on any presentation and in a talk.

But whenever it comes to using humor, there’s times where if you are in with an audience that’s a great audience and it’s a packed room and you’ve got a thousand people in there and they’re hanging on your every word. They may laugh at anything you say, but if you’re with a group of ten people and it’s kind of an awkward room, and it’s the end of a day and everybody’s tired and you tell a joke, it may just not go over well.

And it’s not that you did anything wrong. Maybe it was the exact same joke or story, but because of that setting or that environment, it affected how the joke might go over. So just like your stories, jokes and humor, they evolve over time.

You know, you’re always trying to improve on them and figure them out, and sometimes some of the best material that you come up with in terms of humor may just happen on stage. Maybe you’re the type of person that’s witty, you think quick on your feet.

You’re good at just improving and rolling with it. So there’s times where maybe you just say something off the cuff that works really, really well in terms of humor. It’s something that you can use in a later presentation and talk as well.

Watch Comedian

Here’s a little resource that you may want to check out. There’s a great documentary by Jerry Seinfeld called Comedian. The premise of the documentary is – this is a couple of years after the TV show Seinfeld had ended – Jerry Seinfeld himself is starting to get back into standup comedy, and so he’s learning new material.

He’s trying new material, and so you see him going up on stage, trying a joke, writing new jokes in his office, and then going and trying to deliver it. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t, but it’s just a really, really, really good behind-the-scenes look at comedy and how to use humor and comedy in a public presentation, in a public speech.

So definitely, definitely, definitely, if you’re interested in this, check that out – Comedian by Jerry Seinfeld on Netflix.

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