In the field of public speaking, it has been said that,

“if you can get your audience laughing, you can get them to do almost anything”

This is because humour is disarming. It gets your audience and yourself on the same plane. It is liberating and creates a space for listening.

And for the record, humour in public speaking isn’t –

– Delivering canned jokes that are ripped off the Internet

– Relying on crass or lewd humour that are derogatory in nature (though it’s sometimes used in stand-up comedies)

– Traversing into sensitive territories like making controversial and offensive points about politics, sex, finances and religion

– Spouting foul language and expletives

The deal is this – if you think you any of the above “techniques” may just be your winning rib tickler, think again. While a select group may be laughing, you risk ruffling the feathers for some and you may have just sidelined a segment of your audience consequently, however important or relevant your content will be to come.

Not funny at all.

So what is humour? From the etymological roots, humour is defined as

“the mental faculty of discovering, expressing or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous” (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Hence quite simply, what creates and causes humour are mental and visual pictures or scenarios that are ridiculous, absurd or exaggerated. Or they could be inconsistent with conventional beliefs and commonly-held logic. Think about British comedian, Rowan Atkinson in his role as Mr. Bean.

His timeless antics like using his bare feet to control the steering wheel of his car on the roads or saying “good night” to his teddy, would not be the usual behaviour you will expect from a normal adult. But whenever he does that, his audience still laughs, anyway. Not because it’s normal, but precisely because it’s exaggerated and absurd.

It’s tough trying to analyze humour and break it down to its nuts and bolts in an academic sense – it ceases to be funny. So I will instead, share 3 different techniques for you to incorporate humour in your speeches, with examples from select public speakers and humorists.

1. Irony

Being ironic is about being deliberately contrary to what one would usually expect and that it often becomes amusing as a result.

The concept of irony was played out skillfully by Kwong Yue Yang, the second-place winner for the Toastmasters International (TI) 2011 International Speech Contest

In his speech (02:00), Kwong was sharing with the audience about his ambitions to go back to China to start his own business. After all, being a native Chinese, he has connections and other advantages. So his million-dollar business idea was actually to open a factory and sell… fake American goods!

This earned Kwong his bout of laughter as he was addressing a predominantly American crowd. What made it humorous was the fact that Chinese has often been under fire for producing knockoffs but Kwong delivered it with full conviction and what seemed like, a stroke of ingenuity.

He then delivers his punch line by declaring that he’ll sell those fake American goods to Americans themselves! It was not surprising that more guffaws ensued.

The irony that was being played out here was the fact that even though the goods were knock-offs of American brands, the customers purchasing them were actually Americans themselves. It worked out especially well since Americans have a reasonable propensity for self-deprecating humour, that is, laughing at themselves.

What turned out to be a joke about the Chinese has its tables turned around to be one played on Americans.

The lesson here is both audience awareness and skillful play of the concept of irony to bring our humour. Do you know what are some of the most ludicrous habits of your audience? What are some of their living contradictions? Like a transport and delivery company that prides itself on having world-class delivery standards but have an internal issue with staff timeliness.

Weave them into your speeches and provide them the space and opportunity to laugh at themselves. Later on, segue into a poignant learning point. That’s how you get them to laugh and then, learn. Better still, all about themselves.

2. Triads “gone wrong”

A triad is a set of three related or connected concepts or arguments that are usually delivered sequentially to deepen a meaning or build an argument towards a certain logical direction. Not only is it a great tool of influence as it creates cadence and hence “stickiness” in your speeches, it can also be used as a tool for humour. Consider the following triad:

“If I could be granted three wishes from a genie… I will want to lose weight, be rich and have Angelina Jolie as my girlfriend”

It sounds perfectly fine and if I may say, desirable, as a testosterone-filled man. However, look at how this triad will change when I amend the last “wish”

“If I could be granted three wishes from a genie… I will want to lose weight, be rich and have… a genie who can’t count”

Now, this is how a triad has “gone wrong” in that it is supposed to stack up in a logical fashion but ends up with a twist in the end or is also the punch line.

In Kwong’s speech (03:45), he was asking the people around him for advice when he was all doubtful of himself. So he asked his uncle and he advised Kwong to return to Australia. Then, Kwong asked his entrepreneurial friends and it was no surprise that they recommended him to start his own business. And finally when Kwong asked his girlfriend, one would expect his girlfriend to whisper sweet nothings to him like “Kwong, no matter what you do, failure or success, I’ll always be with you”

Instead, his girlfriend tells him, “Kwong, go away” (the punch line) with Kwong left in disbelief, of course. Now, whether that was a true incident is unimportant.

Later in the speech, Kwong relates his encounter with a fortuneteller (04:25) who was providing him divination about the different the areas of his life that was bothering him. First, it was his career line that was short, which probably signifies it being short-lived. Next, it didn’t help that his brain line was also short. Finally, the “punch line” came with the fortuneteller advising Kwong to moisturize more with the multiple crisscrossed lines on his palm.

The way Kwong made use of triads “gone wrong” to create a humorous effect was classic. In this case, this is also the “incongruity effect” and ludicrousness at play.

The gist of this technique – break the intended logic of a triad and ensure the final leg of your triad, which is also your punch line, is as incongruent and ridiculous as it can get without losing comprehension.

How can you craft a triad such that it is seemingly building your premise towards a logical and expected ending but take your audience off the beaten track towards the end?

3. Self Deprecation

Self-deprecating humour, or humour made about oneself, is a great technique because you are giving permission for your audience to laugh at you (and chances are, they love to). Moreover, it allows them to better connect with you because you now appear more fallible through your stories and play up some of their experiences and characters on stage.

Fundamentally, self-deprecating humour needs you to have the emotional capacity to quite simply… laugh at yourself. Laugh at the misfortunes that take place in your life, your quirks, your failures, your flaws etc.

Joe Wong, a Chinese American comedian and chemical engineer, uses self-deprecating humour profusely in his headline performance at the United States (US) Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association (RTCA) Dinner in 2010.

He shares that he had gone over to the US when he was 24 years old to study at Rice University in Texas (02:15). That attracted some acclamation and applause from the audience. Wong then made a witty remark to inform his audience that it wasn’t a joke… until now (then).

He then shared about how there was a bumper sticker that was pasted on his car and it read,

“If you don’t speak English, go home”

It didn’t help that he only noticed it after two years later!

This incident was doubly funny because of his ethnicity as a Mainland Chinese and the associated stereotypes that Chinese citizens do not speak English as well as his apparent long reaction time to what seemed obvious.

Self-deprecating humour is fundamentally about framing your perspectives. You have to be knowledgeable and informed about who your audience is and more so, who you are to them. Challenge the conventions about your identity, dramatize those stereotypes and frame your perspectives up in a way such that the gap between what is in your audience’s minds and what happens for you is huge and hence, laughable.

Humour is hard work.

4. A bonus technique… Shut up! And let em’ laugh

This final tip is credited to Darren La Croix, the 2001 World Champion Public Speaker (WCPS) where he illustrates the concept with a laugh graph.

The gist of this technique is quite simply… to shut up and let them (your audience) laugh. Many times as speakers, we are so engulfed by our content that even when we have delivered a strong punch line, we don’t pause to let them laugh. We inadvertently allow our audience to “step on our laughs.

What happens in such case when we are uncomfortable or unable to pause adequately is that the humour gets muted and downplayed.

Watch the videos of Kwong Yue Yang, Joe Wong and Darren La Croix and you will notice they are highly attuned to the emotional spaces of their audience. They know when to stay silent and for how long, nod along and allow the audience’s laughter to erupt and expand organically.

Final Words

Appreciation for humour is an acquired taste and exercise of awareness. You need to be more observant than usual and be conscious for what makes people laugh and try to understand why. Better still, when you do laugh, reflect on it and find out what works in getting you tickled.

Being humorous as a speaker then is about stage time and diligence in experimentation. There will be times your joke fall flat and you get nary a chuckle. And there will be days you hit a home run with your humorous story.

Keep speaking till they laugh. Wildly.

I have also shared these tips this on my Linkedin.

21 Ways to Delivering Engaging & Effective Presentations

Join our mailing list and receive a copy of my latest ebook. Learn strategies you can apply straight away to make your presentations more effective!

You have Successfully Subscribed!