The Message of You

Observational humor can spice up any speech. Guest host Judy Carter, author of The Message of You, explains how on this week's episode of The Public Speaker. 

Judy Carter
8-minute read
Episode #195

The Message of You

by Judy Carter

Today’s podcast is on how you can add observational humor to your speech. People love speakers who make them laugh as well as having good content. I was at a National Speakers Association meeting and a newbie was asking, “Well, I speak on a serious topic, do I really need to add humor to my speech?” and the answer of course is “No, you don’t…unless you want to get paid.”

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That’s why in my new book, The Message of You, I put in a thick chapter on all the formulas speakers can use to instantly get laughs. And before I was a speaker, I spent 17 years on the road as a headlining comic. And using a few, well-worn comedy formulas I can show you quick ways to add clean, observational punch lines to your speech.

Clean, because you want to get to paid, and hello – you’re no longer 8-years-old and very often people have to listen to you while they’re eating lunch. Nobody wants to hear about your genitals or your bathroom habits while they’re choking down soggy trout. And if it’s sexual or scatological, skip it! As far as the observational aspect, observational humor conveys confidence and spontaneity and creates immediate rapport with your audience and leads to repeat bookings.

I can already hear you protesting, “Ooh, spontaneous observational humor, but I’m not a comic!” Listen, this is the good news: Getting laughs as a speaker is a lot easier than doing stand-up. Speakers aren’t expected to get huge laughs every 10 seconds, so when you do deliver a funny line, it’s a happy surprise. Plus, using real time observational humor can win an audience over. They appreciate being in on the joke. They appreciate your awareness of their surroundings. That’s right, if you know how to look for it, there’s funny happening all around you. There’s funny in the parking lot at the convention center, there’s funny in the hallway as you prep to go on-stage.

So here are 3 formulas you can add to your speech. They’re guaranteed to work, no matter what the topic. You can get more formulas in my book, The Message of You.

Formula #1: Get a Laugh in the First 10 Seconds

The easiest way to do it is by asking the audience to applaud something. That way, you show that you are in charge. By asking them to do something, you are assuming the leadership position. So let’s just say the MC has introduced you, you take the microphone and say “Thank you Darren, what a great intro, let’s give him a hand,” and the audience will applaud.

Now, let’s say you observe something and everybody in the room has the same observation. This happened to me at a gig. I observed that the MC had a very deep voice. So I said “Thanks for a great intro. Let’s give him a hand,” applause, applause “What a great voice you have. Now we all know exactly who played Darth Vader.” Everyone cracks up. Why? Because they all had the same observation, and like I said before, people like to feel like they are in on the joke. So mentioning something obvious and inclusive accomplishes that goal. And when the audience knows you’re just making it up on the spot, they give you a lot of leeway. So it doesn’t have to be uber funny. And you don’t always have to plan for the first thing you’ll say. Allow for some spontaneity. It might scare you, but your audience will love it. And that’s a great way to start off your keynote speech.

See also: How to Deliver an Effective Keynote Speech

So observe something that went wrong, or something that went right, but something that everybody has in common and ask them to applaud it. “Hey let’s have applause for the dessert chef, who gave us cake and pie!” I mean you could pretty much mention anything for them to applaud, and they will!

For instance, let’s just say everybody is sweltering and then someone fixed the air conditioning. “Hey, and let’s have a hand for the guy who just fixed the air conditioning!” Or maybe he drained the clogged toilets, or fixed the mic that was squealing a moment before. Or if they had a party the night before, you can say “Hey, let’s have a hand for the very generous bartender from last night who gave us all our hangovers. Woohoo!” Or if there’s a lighting guy working the spotlight and you’re walking around the stage, you can say “Hey, let’s give a hand to the guy on the spotlight who obviously passed his drug test and is able to follow me.” Or this is another good one “Let’s have a hand for all of you guys for surviving three days of meetings.” Or, “Let’s have a hand for the people from Canada just for always being so nice.

Spontaneity is the skill of an experienced speaker, and your ability to risk being spontaneous in the first minute is going to grow with stage time. But eventually you need to take this courageous step and trust your instincts.

Formula #2: You Are the Joke

Using this formula, we say the words “I know what you’re thinking,” and then we give the advantages of what they’re thinking. Let’s face it, when a speaker steps on stage they’re facing an inherent hostility towards know-it-alls, and the best way to curb that judgment is to engage in some lighthearted self-mockery. Having the guts to laugh at your own expense not only creates laughter, it creates likeability.

Here’s how you do it: Start off by making a list of anything that the audience can see that could be considered negative. This could be your age – you’re really old or you’re really young. Or it could be your hair color, or your limp, or the fact that you’re in a wheelchair, or anything else that the audience can see about you. And obviously “I’m short” is better than “I’m lactose intolerant,” because they can see your height but not the internal workings of your colon.

Next, make a list of the advantages of these negative attributes. You want to find a contrary, positive point of view. So it goes like this: “I know what you’re thinking: Does she realize her hair is the same color as a bag of Cheetos? Hey, there are advantages to having hair this color! I have a part time job guiding airplanes into the gate at the airport! This way! This way!”

Guaranteed laughs.

Formula #3: The List of Three

Three has a comedy rhythm that just works. Using the list of three formula you’re going to set up a serious idea, lead the audience down a path, and then twist it on the third. For this formula to work, it’s an absolute necessity that your first two statements are real and serious so you lead the audience down a path of sincerity and then surprise them with a joke at the end. They never want to see the funny coming; the surprise is what makes people laugh.

Here are two easy ways to set up this formula. I call them “big big small” and “small small big.” We start off with a set up about your topic, something very serious that you’re conveying to the audience. Here’s a “big big small” example: “After all, it’s a scary world out there, we’ve got terrorism, the war in Iraq, Lindsay Lohan is out of jail. It’s scary!” 

We set up with the word “scary,” and followed up with terrorism, and the war in Iraq. Those are big things. That’s why the third one should be something happening in pop culture, something small, something insignificant. Because the first two are big global issues, the third one should be something like you have acid reflux and your mother has called five times today. Something small.

Now let’s look at a “small small big” example. Try to finish this statement: “There are three subtle clues that your relationship might be over – you stop sending each other love notes, you’re not kissing as much, and…” The first two are subtle clues that your relationship might be over, so the third one wants to be something very unsubtle, like your husband’s moved in with his new girlfriend, or your boyfriend has issued a restraining order. That’s how you get the laugh. And the secret to doing this well is doing it quickly. Don’t telegraph that you’re going for a joke. You should be delivering your content as normal and suddenly, there’s the joke. You can use this formula in your speech by inserting the audience’s biggest problem on the third slot, so it’s really about them.

See also: Communicate Better Using the Rule of Three

I was hired to speak at a cosmetics company once and was told that management has announced that there would be no bonuses that year. They actually asked me to do something funny with that. Can you believe it?! That was such a tough assignment. But using the list of three helped me get a laugh. I also knew that right before my keynote, the audience in this cosmetic company would be doing workshops on conceptual selling. So this is what I came up with. I said “Boy, I understand that you learned today about conceptual selling, and that means that you aren’t selling lipstick, but rather the concept of beauty. It’s not about the mascara but the concept of glamour. And I guess it’s not about the money, but the concept of a bonus.” Well I have to tell you, people didn’t see it coming, they literally, literally fell off their chairs.

The list of three is also a great way to make your PowerPoint slides more entertaining. Break up your learning points into lists of no more than three bullets, and always have the third slide be a funny surprise.

And speaking of three, I’m going to end this with three rules you must follow when adding humor to your speech:

Rule #1: Never use a joke you didn’t write. Finding a joke on the web does not count as writing your own. If you didn’t pay for it, you stole it, and stealing jokes is not funny.

Rule #2: Don’t add off topic funny stories to your speech. This may seem like a ludicrous thing to say, but the point of adding observational humor is to make your speech funny throughout, and not subject your audience to a long winded story that has nothing to do with your message or your content. At the end you may not get a laugh and wind up with an “Eh, I guess you had to be there.” So make it relate to your content.

Rule #3: Look for landmines in advance. Whether you’re speaking overseas or for an American company’s national conference, don’t assume that your punch lines will pack the same punch for every venue. Do your research. Try out material on someone and then find out about cultural sensitivities of your audience. Sometimes when you travel to a foreign place, like North Dakota, it’s like being in a foreign land. When I was up there and said “Oh jeez,” they objected “We do not use that kind of language here.” So you might want to check it out beforehand.

And if you need any more information on injecting humor into your speeches, I’m at JudyCarter.com. Check out my new book, The Message of You.

Exclusively for Listeners of the Public Speaker Podcast

Listen to an exclusive excerpt from chapter 1 of Judy Carter's new book,The Message of You.