humor in public speaking

When the Speaker Turns a Toast into a Roast

Sunday night we watched the Golden Globe awards spiral downward into a verbal slapfest. Ricky Gervais, the emcee for the evening, pushed the envelope and went beyond edgy to offensive. A comedian is supposed to be funny, witty, and a little risque. However, as a public speaker, Gervais seemed to be oblivious to the fact that he was speaking in public. Rather than being funny, his comments and barbs were insulting and at times downright mean. Although others may disagree, an awards ceremony should honor the winners while using wit and humor to poke fun at the recipients and film industry. Think Billy Crystal. What makes the commentary funny is that there is a kernel of truth in the joke which makes the audience laugh. When introducing actor Robert Downey Jr, Gervais  said, "But many of you in this room probably know him best from such facilities as the Betty Ford Clinic and Los Angeles County Jail." Ouch. As a listener, it didn't feel good and it didn't make me laugh. It felt like an attack. The real humor was missing because the comments lacked a lightness.

Downey shot back, "Aside from the fact that it's been hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I'd say the vibe of the show has been pretty good so far, wouldn't you?"  As a coach, I must say that this was a good comeback. It was quick, clever, and he acknowledged the elephant in the room. I've attended roasts at the Friar's Club in New York City and they can be brutal. But one thing is different. Most of the jokes are funny and there's a lot of laughter. When hosting an awards ceremony or even a roast, it's not about the emcee. It's about the honorees.

Gervais was not alone in his bad behavior. After accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award, Robert De Niro  hurled a zinger at the foreign press.  " I'm sorry more members of the Hollywood Foreign Press aren't with us tonight, but most of them got deported right before the show. Along with most of the waiters. And Javier Bardem." De Niro was not gracious. This kind of poor judgment is exactly the kind of communication that causes people to lose their jobs. As a public speaker, your presentation is your brand. And your words will live on long after you exit the stage.

Laughter Is Good for You and Your Audience

We've heard the stories about the healing power of laughter. Scientists are now "graphing the laugh" and it's a serious subject. They've discovered that even animals laugh (no, not just hyenas). In the research lab, rats would continue to return to handlers who tickled them. Dr. Robert Provine, author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, studied laughter for years and concluded that laughter is mostly social and only a very small percentage of laughter is a result of joke telling. Laughter can actually produce a chemical that acts as an anti depressant in the brain. While there is no scientific evidence that laughter alone produces a direct health benefit, it's enough that laughter feels good and creates good feelings. So don't stress yourself if you can't tell a joke. Laughter is about engagement. You can project a funny cartoon, show a humorous video clip or even play off the humor of the audience. All you need to create laughter is another person. Nervous? Laughing is a good way to burn off nervous stress. Facing a hostile audience? Get them laughing. You can't be angry and laugh at the same time. So stop being so serious and bring a little laughter into your presentations.

Finding the Funny Fast

Did you hear the one about the elephant who walks into a psychiatrist's office?... If you've ever been challenged finding your funny bone, you need to read Jan McInnis' book, Finding the Funny Fast.Humor is so important in a presentation. Laughter bonds you to the audience, breaks the ice, releases tension,and makes people feel good! And according to Jan, you'll get more favors if you make people laugh.

But if you're a recovering serious person like me, you may wonder if you're capable of being funny. Jan McInnis believes anyone can be funny once you know the formula. Finding the Funny is a quick read chock full of simple ideas for crafting jokes. The secret formula for finding humor is to ask questions. She observes her environment and notices what's missing or what stands out. She then asks herself, "What if it wasn't there?" "What's good about it?" She then creates lists of fun lines that answer the questions.

In a nutshell,writing jokes is about saying out loud what the audience is thinking and making connections between the environment and their experience. She uses analogies, stereotypes, and common assumptions to "get to the funny fast." Jan can write 15 jokes in two hours and believes creating humor doesn't have to be laborious.

The most memorable speakers and ads are the ones that are funny. This book is a great investment. I can't wait to try her techniques in my next speech.

Give a Knockout Acceptance Speech

When you're an award winner or an honoree you might be expected to give an acceptance speech. Most speakers ramble or speak too long. Take a lesson from Sandra Bullock's Academy award acceptance speech for The Blind Side and notice the elements that make it effective. Start with a humorous opening line. "Did I really earn this or did I wear you out?"

Acknowledge the competition. Sandra spoke to each of the nominees by name and said what she appreciated about them.

Thank the people who gave you the award and helped you to achieve your goals. Sandra thanked the family who provided the story, the people who made the film, and people who showed her support.

Make it personal. She talked about what the film was about for her and thanked all the mothers who take care of children. She skillfully transitioned into thanking her mother and her husband.

End with a thank you and exit the platform. Commit to ending on time.


Make Your Training Fun and Memorable

Are you still stuck in lecture mode? Don’t get me wrong. We all have to convey information. But after seven minutes or so, the brain starts to drift. Lecturing, along with reading, are the most passive and least effective forms of learning.

Make learning active! By involving your audience and getting them moving they'll understand and retain the information better and longer.

If your audience is falling asleep, side-talking, or can’t remember what you just said it’s time to turbo-charge your training seminars.

Here are some alternatives to lecturing and tips to accelerate learning:

Understand how people learn. Learning styles may be either visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or cognitive. People may be global, needing the big picture, or linear, needing a logical, detailed approach. Make your learning active and varied and you will capture all the styles.

Tell stories. Create a skit or story to explain a concept. Try setting it in a fairy tale or in King Arthur’s Court and substitute your business concepts. Once upon a time there was a knight who wanted to get to King Arthur’s castle. So he asked the wizard of communication “What is the secret of leadership?

911 for Speaking Bloopers

If you've ever seen the outtakes of a movie or TV show, it can be quite funny. The actors make mistakes and then they laugh about it. But what about public speaking bloopers? Suddenly it doesn't seem so funny. I watched a man give a presentation with his fly open. Another presenter had the slides in the wrong order. President Bush frequently mispronounced words. And I once knocked over a cup of coffee while giving a seminar!

We're going to make mistakes. That's a given. But how you handle the mistake is what counts. What's your recovery strategy? I ask my audiences to think of their worst fear. One person was afraid she'd trip over a wire on the stage. So, imagine it actually happening. What could you do to recover?

How about saying... "I want you to know I've been practicing that entrance for weeks."

Or you could say... "Never let it be said that I don't know how to make an entrance."

Or... "Now that I have your attention..."

One motivational speaker had to contend with a fire in the middle of his speech. He led his audience to the parking lot, stood on a car, and continued his speech. If companies and cities can have disaster recovery strategies, so can you. Develop a list of one-liners that you can put in your toolbox and you'll be prepared for any situation.