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Recently I competed in Toastmasters International’s annual humor speech contest. I wrote and delivered a speech titled “39-1/2 Winks,” which was based on my polyphasic sleep experiment.
The Toastmasters humor speech contest has 4 levels: club, area, division, and district. I won at the club level but lost the area contest. Technically I came in last place because I was disqualified for running over the time limit. If you go even one second overtime in these contests, you lose automatically.
Public failure, private victory
Despite the official outcome, this speech was a private success for me because the humor worked really well — too well in fact. The audience laughed so much that their laughter forced me to run way long. Even after cutting some material on the fly to adapt, I still couldn’t bring it to a close on time. I could have delivered a joke-free speech of the same length in about 5 minutes, but with about two dozen laughs, the delivery time increased by more than 50%.
Competing to improve
In Toastmasters many people say the speech contests are the best way to rapidly improve as a speaker, and I tend to agree. This is the third time I’ve competed in a contest cycle, and I improve much more rapidly doing the contests than I do delivering non-competitive speeches. The competition pushes me to do my best. With respect to moving up the competitive ladder, this was my worst official finish, but with respect to what I learned, this was my best contest ever.
After the speakers were done but before the results were announced, I turned to Erin and said, “You know — I’m not sure whether I want to win or not.” The irony of competing in a speech contest like this is that if you win, you’re rewarded with more hard work as you refine your speech for the next level. I felt I already took this particular speech as far as I wanted to, and if I managed to make it to the district level, I’d have to travel hundreds of miles to Fresno, California to compete in the district contest, which wasn’t particularly appealing. So when the results were announced, I noticed what an ideal outcome it was with respect to my intentions for this contest.
Humor speech analysis
I didn’t record the speech, but I gave a written transcript of it to my friend and humor mentor John Kinde. John posted the text of the speech on his blog and wrote an analysis of the humor techniques. His post is titled “A Toastmasters Speech Contest” if you want to read it. There are a few Toastmasters-specific jokes that won’t be funny unless you’re a Toastmaster, and the humor loses some punch without the visual act-outs and tone of voice, but most of the humor should still make sense in written form.
The art and science of humor
Before I joined Toastmasters in June 2004, I’d never given a humorous speech before in my life. I never knew there was so much art and science behind making people laugh. Writing effective humor is a lot like designing computer games. When you do a good job, the final result may appear simple, elegant, and perhaps even obvious, but it takes a lot of hard work and practice to create something like that.
What I especially enjoy about humor is that it requires an effective blend of left-brain and right-brain thinking. Maybe it’s because I’m left-handed, but I’ve always been drawn to activities where logic and intuition must work in cooperation. Learning the technical skills of humor like premises, punch words, act-outs, mixes, callbacks, and so on only gets you so far. Brainstorming jokes that are intuitively funny will also get you part way. But it’s the combination of logic and intuition that can turn a polite chuckle into a compulsory, drink-spitting outburst.