Posts Tagged ‘humor’

Humor in a Serious Speech

We’re not talking stand up comedy here; we’re talking connecting more fully with your audience.

No matter how serious your topic your message will be heard more clearly and understood more deeply if you occasionally lighten the moment with humor.

Think of memorial services for someone who recently died. The moment couldn’t be more serious, but people share stories, usually quite funny stories, about the person whose life they are celebrating. They mention one of his traits and illustrate it with a story that makes people laugh. They feel closer and feel that they understand the person better. The tension is relieved.

However serious your speech:

  • “This company is going to merge with that company”,
  • “I want you all to understand the plight of women in the third world.”

– there is still space for slipping in a bit of humor. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Think of it as like salt on a meal – it’s a very small percentage of the whole, but it makes the difference between blah  and tasty or interesting.

Take a moment to poke fun at yourself “You should have seen me trying to cook on an open fire in Zambia….” Or make some unusual comparisons, “Merging these two companies is rather like marrying a giraffe and a crocodile”

If you’re using Powerpoint insert the occasional cartoon, just to keep your audience awake and paying attention. (Think of the for Dummies books. They start each new chapter with a cartoon. It works very successfully for them, no matter how serious their subject.)

Humor does not have to be of the ‘three men went into a bar’ variety. In fact, unless that is your trademark as a speaker you might do well to leave that alone.

Humor doesn’t have to be about telling jokes. But if you want to tell a joke remember that it has two parts – the set up and the punch line. Practice doing both parts well, and really sell that punch line.

When you plan a speech on a serious topic – one that is full of importance – think of it as a meal, very nutritious, full of protein. A large, perhaps rather heavy meal. How can you make it digestible? With salt and pepper? With sauces? With spices? Presenting it on the plate attractively? Offering smaller pieces?

Carry this approach across to your speech. all that good solid information needs to be presented attractively and lightened with your own entertaining view of it. Your own wit and humor, your self-deprecating take on events are as important as your information.

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You get this terrific idea for a humorous speech. You write it, hone it and practice it. Then you practice it some more, build in the gestures, practice it some more with longer pauses. And practice it again.

A funny thing happens along the way. All the humor seems to drain out of the speech. That strong funny conclusion you were so pleased with? Now it feels like just an exercise in body language, enunciation and pausing. The part you thought was so brilliant when you started? Flat.

You need to practice, especially for a contest, to refine the humor and bring out every little nuance in the stories. However, it does tend to leave you feeling overdone and flat. What to do about that?

One solution is not to practice the whole speech every time. Have shorter practice sessions where you practice one segment. Practice it not to become word perfect, but to reach into and develop the essence of the humor in it.

Practice making each little humorous anecdote or one-liner a tiny perfect masterpiece of humor. Practice it with its introduction and its bridge to the next part, so you keep the continuity in your mind.

As you do this – bearing in mind the essential humor of that particular segment – you will come to feel the essence of it more deeply. That deep feeling of humor is what you must carry over to the audience.

Humor is appreciated at many different levels. There’s the quick laugh but there can also be a deep appreciation of the human foible being held up for examination. There are fast belly laughs as well as smiles and nods that say “Ain’t that the truth!”

You will hear giggles and you’ll see rueful smiles that they “Oh yes! That happened to me once. I made that mistake. Now I can see the silliness of the situation. I never saw the funny side before. Now I can laugh about it.”

There’s a whole gamut of humor between introspection, belly laugh and clever topical one-liner. As you work on your speech feel the quality of the humor. Sense how the different levels might hit home in the mind of the listener. Can you add in another level?

As you polish each humorous moment feel the way it might reach its target. Then expand it. If it’s a quick belly laugh, can you add depth? If it’s a deeper reminiscence can you add a quick laugh to back it up and carry it one step further?

When it comes time to deliver your speech these feelings and insights that you have built in will come across to your audience. You will have full-value humor and a multidimensional speech.

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OK, You’ve delved deep into your memory and all the events, stories and characters in your life and come up with a theme. In your head you’ve cobbled together a reasonable outline. So now you have a healthy skeleton to flesh out. Then comes the fun part: dressing it up.

Your carefully chosen anecdotes have people in them that are larger than life. They have qualities that most of your audience can easily identify with – impatience, talking too much, exercising too little. But the characteristic you choose to develop is going to be larger yet again. How big can you make it? Good! Now make it bigger.

And while you enlarge it in words, in word pictures and in anecdotes, rehearse it so that your whole body expresses this characteristic in all its ridiculous glory. Is the person hyper? Up the ante, make it more hyper than that. and bigger again, so hyper that…

How is your body conveying hyper-ness? You have to show it to get full value for the humor. How does it look if you pace in all directions, short steps, hands going, arms going, head in movement. As you list off all the major tasks this person completes before breakfast can you represent them with your body language?

Put the person in a setting where hyperactivity is either inappropriate or highly visible – a solemn church service or kindergarten at nap time. What might the consequences be? Now make the consequences worse. Logical in a topsy-turvy way but worse to the point of being ridiculous.

Make your character do something against all reasonable judgement – a serious person (math professor?) who does something incredibly flighty. Show someone defying common sense – enjoying to the hilt an experience that might be thought negative, or vice versa – struggling to escape he miseries of a happy situation.

Write the unexpected, and twist it again, but make every person, every setting, every word vivid so the audience gets the picture.

Jot down one liners that made you laugh. You might not want to copy them, but you can use  them as a basis for your own unique one liner.

Pack your humorous speech full of all the humor you can collect, invent or devise. Then write it a bit shorter than your usual speech – allow people time to laugh.

Making people laugh is such a gift. Do it well and the rewards are huge.



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We often call this ‘the string of pearls”. The speaker has selected a theme and strung together a series of anecdotes and one-liners to illustrate it. You can, of course, use this structure with a non-funny speech, but it works very well to keep an audience laughing throughout your humorous speech.

You’ll find five useful secrets to this string of pearls structure:

1. Select your theme with care.

Try to find a theme that all the audience can identify with. If your audience is 50/50 men and women you’ll lose half the audience if you choose a huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ theme and the other half if you choose a ‘how to buy shoes’ theme.

Useful themes for humor can be related to family, workplace or just plain human dynamics. Almost all of us have odd little quirks and putting two or more of them together with the behaviors you have observed can be highly entertaining for your audience. Most people relate to interactions in a family or between people in the workplace. A neat wife has to co-exist with a slob of a husband, for instance. Or maybe you’ve watched an uptight micro-manager stuck supervising a popular slob  And it’s even funnier if you put yourself into the anecdotes as one of the protagonists.

2. Observe behaviors

Some of the funniest speeches demonstrate that the speaker has a sharp eye for the nuances of ordinary, every day living. They pick up on, say, the unusual response to a simple question. They start to notice other odd responses. Then they tweak and exaggerate each of them and look at possible results of the off-the-wall interactions.

I’ve seen this done with a husband-wife scenario following her simple request “Would you please take out the garbage?” Oh, yes, she said it with attitude. Build the attitude in all along the way. Attitude and the physical gestures that go with it, are important in building the laughter.

3. Chronological steps in a process

This can be simple steps in a short-term project (putting together a piece if Ikea furniture)  all the way to looking back on one humorously recurring aspect of your life. I’ve just finished one on 20 years worth of efforts to have a mid-life crisis.

The process could also be trying to persuade someone to do something. It  might be that you are unrealistic and the person is incapable of doing it. Or maybe they resist doing it and you have to overcome all the unreasonable obstacles they place in the way.

4. You

Poking a little fun at yourself pulls the audience in towards you. It takes the edge off your sharp-eyed observations of others if you can be equally sharp-eyed when look at yourself.

5. A dynamite opening and conclusion

Now you’ve established your theme and found all the short anecdotes and one-liners to go with it. The final step is to wrap up the package with a truly intriguing opening and a memorable ending.  Spend time editing these up from good to excellent. They are the frame within which your humor is displayed and they can make or break the entire speech

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Every once in a while an ordinary, simple task or event turns into what has been called a ‘comedy of errors’. It’s probably  annoying at the time, but it’s excellent humorous speech material.

This is one story about one event, not the string of pearls which has a series of linked anecdotes. But while it is one story you can certainly build into it events that happened on other similar occasions. If your story is about a camping trip to the mountains two years ago you can include a happening from a different camping trip to a different place at a different time. You just write it in as if it happened on this specific trip.

Your story can start off as if this is going to be an ordinary event but it should escalate very quickly to the humor. Don’t wait too long for that first laugh.  Your ‘ordinary’ camping trip should degenerate into its humorous chaos if not immediately then step by step but promptly.

No-one in your audience should be thinking “When do we start to laugh?”

Make the people funny. Have contrasting types – you a heavy-duty outdoorsman ready to chop firewood, your wife trying to decide which swimsuit and what shade of make up to bring along. Give at least one person unrealistic expectations – as you revel in the solitude of the wilderness they are asking about Internet access.

Exaggerate the disasters. If you ran out of gas on the freeway coming home, move that to running out of gas while you’re still in the wilderness. Have it be pouring with rain. Have everyone so fed up of each other that they are arguing nastily BUT arguing wittily. The dialogue should be developed with care for maximum humor.

What’s that? You didn’t run out of gas at all? Then you had better have had at least one other ‘disaster’. It’s hard to build a humorous speech if everything flows smoothly and everyone gets along happily.

Not getting along is another source of humor. Being crammed in a tent in pouring rain, besieged by mosquitoes does not bring out the sweetest natures.  Spend time on the attitudes and arguments that develop. Have them build using your insight into human nature and what will make people irritable, what they say when they are getting to the end of their patience, and how they say it.

Build your speech to one final, concluding laugh. It’s your story climax, the funniest of the funny moments. Stand for a moment to enjoy the laughter. your story has been a success.

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One of the issues with putting together a humorous speech is getting all the funny stuff organized. so your first task is to find a theme to hang your humor on. One useful structure is The List.

The List can work one of several ways:

1. The Top 10 list (You know, like Letterman)

  • The top 10 results of…
  • The top 10 ways to….
  • The top 10 reasons for…and so on.

You could make the list appear initially to be serious issues but you give each one a funny twist, building from slightly silly to downright ridiculous.

Or they can be funny right from the title “The top 10 ways to annoy your mother-in-law.”

Just remember that 10 is a lot of points to cover in seven minutes. You don’t have much time to comment on each one, especially as you need to allow time for the audience to laugh..

2. A short list of three, five, or seven “how to” points. Think of the on-line ads you see –

‘three secrets of…’,

‘five best ways to…’,

‘seven proven ways to speed up your….’

You could think up wild and wonderful secrets as well as crazy topics that people might want dissected in your own inimitable style.

3. A list, again of  three, five or seven points (odd numbers work better than even numbers) of steps you took to achieve….. Often the goal itself is humorous and part of the title “Seven essential steps when giving a cat medication”, “five ways to prevent your children from getting a puppy”.

As long as you have points lined up and developed to be even funnier than they seem at first you will have a well structured speech.

Arrange your points from mildest to funniest and within each point build so that your punchline comes at the end.

Once you’ve got your list of points decided, develop an opening that draws your audience immediately into the humor of your speech. Link this to a conclusion that is the grand climax – the biggest laugh of all. Leave people laughing so hard that they will always remember you.

And enjoy the laughter – you’ve earned it.


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You can improve almost any speech by adding a touch of humor. If you’re setting off to present a funny speech, then the more humor the better. But even quite a serious speech can benefit from a quick poke to the funny bone.

For one thing this humor is unexpected and therefore funnier because of the element of surprise. Also it helps keep people awake and paying attention. Who knows when the speaker might give us a break from all that useful information and give us the sudden pleasure of a laugh or a smile. Wouldn’t want to miss that!

Comedians have a whole list of techniques for humor – making the ordinary funny. One of these is exaggeration. A couple of suggestions:

  • really exaggerate. Big time, not just a little bit
  • find a standard of comparison, the more bizarre the better.

So, let’s take a couple of ordinary statements and ramp them up;

– When I go to the grocery store I often buy more than I intended

– Traffic is very heavy between my house and my mother’s house

– My aunt carries a large purse and it is always full of stuff.

I went to the grocery store today for bread and milk. I came home with bread, milk, a case of mac & cheese, a 10 pound bag of pecans, a gallon can of tomato juice, and enough burger patties to feed an army. Did I mention that I live alone?

Now the live alone part may or may not be true – it just adds the finishing touch.

Traffic is so heavy between my house and my mother’s – it’s about five miles, but I pack a lunch to eat in the car.

My aunt’s purse is the size of Texas. I tried to pick it up one day, dislocated my shoulder and dropped it. Out felt all the usual stuff plus a leash for her dog (she doesn’t have a dog), gardening clippers, a Christmas tree ornament, seasickness pills (she lives in Ohio) and some old-fashioned heavy binoculars. When I asked her, she just said,

“Well, you never know…”

To add that light touch to your next speech try a few unexpected exaggerations. It’s a technique many comedians use.


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So,  you’ve won the club contest, the  Area and the Division. Yay! Congratulations! You done good! You done very good!

So now you have moved on to the District contest. The competition is unbelievably steep. How do you prepare?

You’ve edited the speech at least fifty times. You’ve presented it until you can give it in your sleep. Everybody and their dogs have given you hints and told you where you could improve it.

“That first gesture is too weak.” “That first gesture is too strong”. Your conclusion from all this advice? It’s about right.

But what can you do to give yourself that little extra edge when you have already gone over it up, down and sideways?

1. You could try backing off for a while, then coming back to it with fresh eyes.

2. You could try giving the text to a friend or two and asking them to give it their best presentation to you. Now you can observe how someone else would present it. You might get a couple of new ideas. Notice where they have difficulty or stumble over words.

3. You could watch videos of professional humorous speakers and immerse yourself in their presentation of humorous material. See how they do it. Notice the little tricks and the word use. Analyze how they make even their transitions funny.

4. You could ask the funniest speaker you know to coach you.

5. This last one might seem odd. Is there some emotional moment in your speech? A point where there’s a hiatus in the  laughter and you give your audience a contrasting emotion (fear, sadness, anxiety)? If yes, can you deepen that moment of contrast? If no, can you insert that moment of contrasting feeling?   It gives your speech and your humor an extra dimension.

Good luck!

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I attended an Area humorous speech contest yesterday. The woman from my club won. Yay!

Her speech was so much better the second time around. I knew she had found an expert in humorous speeches and got advice and coaching. It really paid off for her.

So my first tip is – if you want to move on get advice and coaching from someone who wins humorous speech contests. Listen to them and work at what they say. Most people love to help a newer speaker. We’re all in this to improve and to help and support each other.

But while I was pulling for ‘my’ club’s contestant, I also began to pull for the young man who came in second.

He had what was basically a good speech. It relied a lot on him getting phone calls from really batty people wanting to tell him about sasquatches and other imaginary creatures. The concept was funny. The batty people and their ideas were even funnier.

But….he didn’t milk all the juice out of the batty ideas. He made a few dabs at the telephone hand gesture, but he didn’t hold it and ‘talk into the phone’. He could even have had a phone as a prop. And what an opportunity to do a Bob Newhart type phone conversation, with him responding to unspoken comments and questions.

It came down to the old saying  ‘Show, don’t tell’. He told us what odd things he heard in these phone conversations. He didn’t show us the incredulity and disbelief on his face as someone tried to persuade him that sasquatches were in league with aliens.

We never got his feeling of  ‘OMG! Now I’ve heard everything!’ We didn’t get feelings at all, just the recounting of facts. Imagine what Bob Newhart could do with batty ideas like that.

It was still a funny speech, but showing it would have got him first place and a berth in the Division finals. Telling it – well, he’s new. It was good practice.

Next time.

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So, by now you’re facing the Area contest or even the Division contest. Good for you! Congratulations! You’ve done well to get this far.

Now you’re starting to feel the pressure of the competition. How can you bring your speech up a few notches so you can stay ahead?

Here are some ideas, based on my observations as I judge contests:

– look at the structure of your speech. Is it logical or does it jump around? Make sure that the ideas follow logically

– make sure your jokes or humorous lines build so that the strongest comes last, as a climax

– hone those anecdotes and the transitions between them so that every word is exact and carries strong meaning

– sell yourself and your speech to the audience with your first words. At this level many of the people will not know you and they may not be pulling for you the way your home club members do. Give them an immediate reason to like you as a speaker and to find you funny

– start people laughing early in your speech, and keep them laughing. Don’t rely on a humorous theme that only has one good laugh at the end

– a humorous theme is not enough to carry your speech past club level unless the anecdotes that illustrate it are themselves funny. If they are stand-alone funny that’s good. If they are support-the-theme funny that’s even better.

– poking fun at yourself almost always works well. Try to make the mistakes be your mistakes, show how you bumbled your way through, going from bad to worse, trying to correct, just getting further into the glue.

– smile, share the joke with an open face, invite the audience to laugh with you

– go for big gestures, movements, wide voice variety. It doesn’t matter if you overdo it a bit – it’s all part of the humor.

– build a really strong ending. I know, I’ve said this before. And I’ll probably say it again – it’s so important.

And Good Luck! Break a leg! You’ll do great!

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