Are You Funny? Does It Matter?
R Wardrop: May 2009
Humour is the best way to make the emotional connection with an audience. There are very few contexts in which it cannot be used: we’ve all been at funerals where the eulogy had us laughing through our tears. And like it or not the news of Michael Jackson’s death was only a few hours old before laugh lines started appearing across the ether, and they won’t stop ‘til they get enough.
I remember Tony Blair - at the height of one of the many political crises and in front of the entire press core - stumbling over the pronunciation of a word. After getting some help he looked up and said, “And I’m the guy who’s supposed to be running the country.” We like it when our serious people have the ability to take themselves a little less seriously.
There are some astonishingly good after dinner speakers. When I watch the audience watching them, I often see people writing down the laugh lines, only to be disappointed with what they have at the end. That’s because these speakers mostly tell personal stories that fit perfectly with their own personalities and character, with the humour integrated into the narrative. Max Boyce was the turn at a recent dinner and he had a hilarious sketch about the results of the commercialisation of rugby. At the other end of the scale, I’ve sat beside speakers who have taken jokes from the internet and delivered them badly to an audience who already knew the punchlines.
Most people do not aspire to the after dinner circuit, but want to pepper their business presentations with humour. Here are three mistakes business speakers often make that mean they are going to fail, and all the positive energy they hope to create is replaced with a big black hole:
1. Starting With A Joke
Too many people try and start with humour, unfortunately often a joke they heard down the pub on Friday night (just don’t do that!). It’s often something that has nothing to do with what is to follow. You are often asking far too much of your audience to get them to react right at the beginning, since they don’t know you yet and you are not Billy Connolly. Ironically, even if it is actually funny you may get no reaction since they don’t yet have permission to laugh.
Be cool at the beginning, let your audience settle and don’t try too hard to ingratiate yourself with humour at the outset. If you are determined to open with humour you have two options: deliver a belter of a one liner and wait for a reaction; or tell a story that results in a moral with a funny twist.
2. Inappropriate Material
This is probably less of a challenge than it used to be, but there are still events that go on where speakers deliver material that is not right for the event in question. Context matters greatly here and what goes down well at night is different from what works during the day. The best speakers include all the audience all the time.
Professional speakers will usually tell organisers what they will do, and whether it is appropriate. If you are organising something don’t ask a really ‘out there’ speaker to do your event and then get them to try and change: they won’t. There will also always be those in the audience who are on the lookout for the slightest slip and will flag it up: mostly they need to get out more.
Amateur speakers need to note that, while humour is always at someone’s expense, all the ‘isms’ should be noted and avoided. But humour has to have a dig at someone or something: I have an after dinner sketch that parodies men and women getting ready to go out to a posh doo, with the men taking two minutes and the women taken two days. Whilst this might not be strictly true, at least both sexes get it in the neck equally.
So firstly put yourself in the audience’s position. Imagine you are sitting there listening to your stuff. Make sure it is funny! Too often the material is more offensive then funny. And deliver with confidence: if you bottle delivery of humour that is a bit racy you will be toast very quickly.
3. Poor Timing
Comic timing, you might say: it’s pause and eye contact; presence and comportment; practise and commitment. You have to believe you are the mutz nutz when you are up there and hoping to make them laugh as there is a sixth sense that detects fear.
So, initially, don’t bite off more then you can reasonably hope to swallow in the first instance. Look for things that interest you first as stories, forgetting about the humour angle. Try some stuff out in benign environments; realise that you’ll fail a lot and even comedians don’t make us laugh every time.
And finally? Practise! Speaking to Scots comedian Fred MacAuley about some of the more challenging situations when up behind the lectern, he said that what most people don’t realise is that it takes a year to produce and hour of stand-up.
Practise everything lots; practise humour more; practise punchlines most!
Barak Obama recently did some terrific humour at a press association dinner and as well as adding yet another string to his very considerable bow, it humanises him to America and the world. Some of the humour was the most cruel, biting satire such as Dick Cheney’s autobiography being titled “How to Shoot Friends and Interrogate People” but such lines are sometimes necessary: they cut through a lot of crap and give us all a laugh at the same time.
So, are you funny? You probably are, but need to find some material that fits your personality. And, does it matter? Yes and no. If you want to be an outstanding public speaker, yes.