I am not naturally funny. At least I do not think I am. But, sometimes we all want to tap into our inner Jerry Seinfeld. This article will give you a few simple techniques to bring humor to your presentations
The fundamental principle to remember is that humor is rooted in surprise. As human beings, we delight in a twist that challenges our expectations and our sensibilities. For example, consider that the following joke attributed to Joe Pasquale: “See this, it’s my step ladder. My real one left when I was three.” Or better still, at least if you are a math nerd or know one, “An independent variable is one that does not need other variables to feel good about itself.” (Attribution unknown)
The examples I use below are drawn from the best practices of the keynote speakers with the most views on TED.com.
Tip 1: Self-deprecating humor is easy and effective
As a society, we are conditioned to keep up appearances. So, we laugh with automatic delight when someone lets their guard down and reveals that they are in fact human. We laugh when others reveal their bad judgment. We laugh when they share their character flaws. We even laugh when people share stories of their physical pain – as long as they managed to survive. Mel Brooks once said: “[From your perspective] tragedy is when you break a nail, comedy is when I fall through an open manhole and die.”
In her 2008 TED talk, brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor described how she studied her own stroke as it happened. This topic could bring people to tears. And yet, Ms. Taylor had her audience rolling on the floor laughing by revealing to them what a super-nerd she is: “And in that moment my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side. Then I realized, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke!’ And the next thing my brain says to me is, ‘Wow! This is so cool.’ “This is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?”
Tip 2: Exaggerated reality is always good for a laugh
The simple way to express humor through exaggerated reality is to put a normal person in an extraordinary situation or an extraordinary person in a normal situation. Some examples of this are nonchalantly ignoring extreme danger, excessive reactions to minor offenses, and unrelenting futility.
Sir Ken Robinson, the most viewed TED speaker of all time, puts an extraordinary person – Shakespeare – in an ordinary situation: “Because you don’t think of Shakespeare being a child, do you? Shakespeare being seven? I never thought of it. I mean, he was seven at some point. He was in somebody’s English class, wasn’t he? How annoying would that be? ‘Must try harder.’ Being sent to bed by his dad, you know, to Shakespeare, ‘Go to bed, now,’ to William Shakespeare, ‘and put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.’”
Tip 3: We love to bring down authority
Experts who study why we laugh have determined that people laugh when they feel a sense of superiority. This of course results in some very cruel and offensive humor that you should steer clear of in your keynotes, not to mention in your life. However, there are some constituencies that it is still politically correct to make fun of such as academics and politicians.
Social scientist Hans Rosling, in his 2007 TED talk on global economic development takes aim at the academic elite. “But one late night, when I was compiling the report I really realized my discovery. I have shown that Swedish top students know statistically significantly less about the world than the chimpanzees… I did also an unethical study of the professors of the Karolinska Institute — that hands out the Nobel Prize in Medicine, and they are on par with the chimpanzee.”
Tip 4: Embed humor in dialogue
Any strong keynote includes discrete bundles of story and fact and all well-told stories are dialogue rich. That should give you plenty of opportunity to embed humor in your characters’ dialogue. Rather than describe how she was feeling, Jill Bolte Taylor in the example above expertly incorporates humor in internal dialogue. Similarly, Sir Ken Robinson places the humor in the words of Shakespeare’s English teach and Shakespeare’s father.
Tip 5: Learn to “riff”
You are likely to ask the question: “How funny do I need to be in a keynote?” To answer that question, consider the extremes. Professional standup comics deliver four to five jokes per minute. That is too much for a keynote and actually quite superhuman. In contrast, Bill Gates delivered one joke every ten minutes in one of his TED talks.
In my moderately scientific analysis, the most viewed TED speakers deliver an average of one joke per minute in their keynote speeches. The best top out around two jokes per minute. The secret is that the jokes are not evenly spread out. When they hit a funny theme, they ‘riff’ on the theme with clusters of three, progressively funnier quips. Sir Ken Robinson is the master of this.
Try it out!
Public speaking can be nerve wracking and trying to tell jokes often heightens your anxiety level. But, you just need to ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen? The worst is that one of your jokes will bomb and no one will laugh. So what. No one is going to remember. No one is going to talk about your failed attempt at humor at the water-cooler. You will not end up destitute. The next time you get a chance to speak, try to be funny. As with inventions, the secret to getting more laughs is simply to attempt more jokes. Just remember to keep it clean.