Humor Skills

December 14th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

Can humor skills be developed?  Yes, absolutely.

I’ve had a strong sense of humor since I was a child.  I would sometimes get in trouble for making witty commentary in class, causing the room to bust out laughing.  In fact, I still do this today in group situations.  But this always came to me as a natural skill that I took for granted, and until last year I never thought about consciously developing it.

Before joining Toastmasters I had never given a humorous speech in my life.  If I spoke on business, software development, or marketing, I figured that humor was either unnecessary or inappropriate.  I was definitely wrong about that.  Including humor in a speech improves audience rapport, reduces tension, keeps the audience alert and focused, improves impact and retention, and makes the speech more memorable.  Humor can turn a good speech into a great one, even if the speech topic is a serious one.  I know some people who even say it’s a good idea to include humor in a eulogy.

One of the most popular speakers at the Game Developers Conference each year is Will Wright, creator of The Sims and Sim City.  His talks on game design are standing room only.  Why?  Because his presentations are absolutely hilarious and always memorable.  His humor comes across as very natural and spontaneous.  And on the other hand, you have a speaker like Bill Gates, who’s about as funny as a hard drive crash.  All the times I’ve seen him attempt humor have come across as forced and artificial.  If he were to develop his humor skills, it could easily increase the impact of his message (and probably cause less people to regard him as evil too).

In my Powerhouse Pros Toastmasters club, we have a special segment at the end of every meeting called Observational Humor.  This is a time where anyone in the room can offer a joke about something related to the content of the meeting.  Usually we end up with about 20-30 jokes between us.  The challenge is to be able to find the humor in the content we just heard.  We have several professional comedians in our club, and I’ve been amazed at just how much humor they’re able to extract from our meetings.  Practicing observational humor is a great way to build humor skills.  It would make for a great addition to many corporate board meetings.

I’ve been amazed at just how hard certain comedians work to perfect their craft.  I previously regarded humor as a natural skill, but there are successful comedians who didn’t start out very funny at all.  They learned to be funny… to the point where it seems totally spontaneous and natural.  One such person is professional speaker Darren LaCroix, who won the 2001 World Championship of Public Speaking with a very memorable humorous speech titled, “Ouch.”  A few months ago, I attended one of his workshops where he showed a video of his first stand-up comedy performance.  He was downright awful.  Yet nine years later when he won the world championship, anyone would swear he must have been born funny.

One very talented humorous speaker who regularly attends my Toastmasters club is John Kinde.  He’s a great example of someone who learned to be funny by working hard to perfect his craft over a period of many years.  Whereas most people in our club struggle to come up with one or two good contributions to observational humor, John consistently finds a dozen or more humorous observations that have us all laughing uproariously.  The first time I saw him do this, I was floored.  I thought, “Wow.  That is some serious talent.  How the heck does he do that?”  But over the past year, as I attended a humor workshop he presented, bought one of his audio programs, signed up for his free newsletter, and of course had the chance to learn from him in person, I began to see that there was a method to his genius.  I noticed there were specific techniques he was using again and again.  He wasn’t just pulling jokes out of thin air, although his techniques were so well internalized through years of practice that it appeared completely spontaneous and natural.

I’m a long way off from reaching this level of talent, but I’ve begun applying these techniques in my own presentations and have seen very positive results.  One simple technique is that if you have a planned joke in your speech, try to modify the joke as you deliver it to connect it to something that occurred earlier in the meeting instead of delivering it exactly as you’d planned.  This will significantly raise the humor level of the joke, and you’ll get a much bigger laugh because the audience will perceive the entire joke as being spontaneous and unplanned.  I’ve tried this when the conditions were right, and it’s very effective.  Our observational humor practice also helped condition me to notice opportunities for spontaneous humor when I’m speaking, so I’ll usually be able to add at least a couple jokes to a speech even if I hadn’t planned to say anything funny.  This takes a lot of practice, but it’s well worth the effort.

Humor can be very effective in the workplace too, even if you’re not a professional speaker.  If you can add humor to your presentations and other communications, you will find your ability to influence others increasing dramatically.  No one wants to sit through a dry presentation. But if you can generate some laughter every few minutes, even if the topic is a serious one, you’ll hold your audience’s attention, and people will be more likely to hear (and to care about) what you’re saying.  When I give a humorous speech, a general rule of thumb is to aim for 20 laughs in 5 minutes.  That means having a laugh every 15 seconds on average.  But a humorous speech isn’t a series of jokes like a stand-up comedy routine.  A speech has genuinely interesting content too, but the content is presented in a funny way.  So if it’s possible to give a speech that conveys a message with four laughs each minute, it’s certainly possible for you to give a presentation at work and get a laugh every 2-5 minutes.

For some tips on developing your humor skills, I recommend you read through some of John Kinde’s humor and presentation articles.  I also recommend you sign up for his free Humor Power Tips Ezine.  I’ve been subscribing to his ezine for almost a year now, and I’ve learned many great tips for making my presentations more humorous.  Some of these, like the Rule of Three, take only a minute to learn and can be used again and again.

I didn’t use much humor in my professional writing at first, but after seeing its effectiveness in speeches, I’ve been working to add more humor to my writing as well.  Some of my previous blog posts that include humor are:

It usually takes me longer to write something funny, so I certainly won’t be turning into an overnight comedian, but I have noticed that humor helps to make certain personal development concepts more easily understood.  Sometimes we get stuck in negative states like frustration or guilt, but when we can laugh at our most difficult situations, we can more easily grow through them.

The value of humor is perhaps underrated, but if you take the time to develop your humor skills, I think you’ll find it greatly improves the impact and effectiveness of your communication.  Use humor to add spontaneity to your speeches, playfulness to your presentations, and rhapsody to your reboots.  <- Notice the rule of three???


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