How To Add Humor To Your Talks

Do you know how to make your audience smile and laugh?

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #63

Use Exaggeration to Be Funny

One of the first humor techniques I noticed was that obvious exaggeration was something that people laughed at. So I started adding exaggeration into my talks. The idea is to overstate a defect or a strangeness of someone or something. For example, when I explain how important natural gestures are, I demonstrated with a very large, unnatural, spastic-like gesture. Voila, the audience laughs. Works like a charm.

Another easy way to incorporate exaggeration is to exaggerate facial expressions. For example, when I’m talking about the importance of smiling, I often say to the audience, “You need a focus on a natural smile.You don’t want a motivational speaker smile.” And then I make the biggest, fakest, over-the-top smile. Sometime I even add in “jazz hands” for effect. OK, in this case, I admit, the audience might just be laughing at me, instead of with me.

Use Asides and Self-Deprecating Humor

Another easy form of humor that I noticed is the aside. On TV or a theatrical stage, the actor directly addresses the audience--sometimes while the other characters freeze in place. If you’re a fan of the TV show, The Office, you’ve seen this technique. Since I am a public speaker who often talks about public speaking, I’ll make asides about the delivery of my presentation. For example, when I make a mistake, I’ll step out of the presentation just to make fun of myself.

Actually these aside comments could also be categorized as self-deprecating humor which is an unprompted negative criticism of oneself. Conan O’Brien and David Letterman are known for this type of humor.

Speaking of which, turns out studies show that self-deprecating humor is the most successful way for a man to seduce a woman. Mystery solved.

Tell Embellished True Stories

Anyway, for me the best way to incorporate humor is by telling true stories that also incorporate the other techniques too. In a previous episode of The Public Speaker I explained how to tell effective stories. As a very quick reminder, setting, characters, dialog, and descriptive detail are all very important to good story telling.

For humorous stories, you need to be sure that you don’t let on that what’s coming is funny. The more serious you are before you deliver the punch line, the funnier it will be. You have to act as if you don’t even realize it’s funny until after the audience laughs. By the way, that advice also applies to the delivery of one-liners. 

Gestures, Vocal Variety and Pauses Are Important

The use of slightly exaggerated gestures, vocal variety, and pauses are critical to funny stories. In fact, a misplaced pause can ruin a story. There’s one story I tell that took me over a year to figure out exactly where to pause and for how long. Turns out I wasn’t waiting long enough after I delivered the punch line. It took a couple of seconds for the audience to get the humor and they only laughed when I gave them enough time. It always seems like an eternity while I’m waiting for the laughter, but sure enough, good things comes to those who wait.

Practice Until It’s Funny

My final tip about using humor is to practice, practice, practice. Tell your stories to friends, to co-workers, to people on the street--really anyone who will listen. Go to story slams, open mike nights, toastmasters, etc. Tell your stories different ways and see what works best. Just because someone doesn’t laugh the first time, doesn’t mean it’s not funny. Even if you do get a laugh, one small change might get a bigger laugh. Once you figure out the elements that work best, be sure to write them down and then repeat.

So there you have it, some quick and dirty tips to help you add a bit of humor to your presentations. First and perhaps most importantly you can learn a lot just by regularly listening and watching humor. Next, try some exaggeration. Next, consider incorporating asides and self-deprecating humor while telling interesting, lighthearted stories.  Be sure to use slightly exaggerated gestures, vocal variety and pauses. And finally practice. 

Just be sure to check out my episode about avoiding humor mistakes.

This is Lisa B. Marshall, passionate about communication your success is my business. If I can make you smile, then you can do it too.

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If you have a question, send email to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.

Woman Giving Presentation image courtesy of Shutterstock


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.