Do you have to be funny to speak

A speaker walks into a bar… (Why you shouldn’t include jokes in talks, but should learn 3 awesome ideas from comedians)

Do you have to be funny to speak

One of the most common themes I get asked about as an executive speaking coach is joke-telling. As in, when and how should I make use of jokes to boost my speaking impact?

And my advice is always: “Don’t be a joke teller at all.” And for good reasons:

  • Firstly. Most people are awful at telling jokes and even those who think they’re funny are often not as funny as they imagine – especially if you need to win laughs from a broader audience versus friends on a night out (where alcohol may help)
    • As instant proof of how hard it is to make others laugh, think about how many well-paid comedians there are in your country. Is it ‘not many’. Yes? That’s because it takes years of hard work to learn this craft
    • And is it also true you only find a small percent of these folks to be funny? Probably? And that’s because we’re all selective about what we find funny. And since this will apply to any audience you’ll ever address – you should expect that only ‘some’ of any audience will love your brand of humour
  • Secondly. Even if you manage to tell a few decent jokes that get some laughs, here’s a sad truth: Almost no one will remember your great gags hours, never mind days, later. And that’s because we humans are not hardwired to remember them!
  • Thirdly. If your jokes bomb, you’ll lose audience attention and likely not get it back!

For these and more reasons I say to any would be joke tellers: “fuhgeddaboudit” and embrace storytelling instead – as this is far and away the number one means we all use to gather and share meaning through every stage of life.

And unlike jokes, everyone loves hearing and sharing stories…AND they are a gazillion times easier to care about and remember than gags

But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t learn from the world of comedy. Far from it.

3 Awesome Lessons Speakers Should Adopt from Comedians

A confession. In a moment of weakness/insanity, I was 1 of 17 professional speakers who took part in a recent comedy night at a global speaker summit convention in Croke Park in Dublin.

I know! What was I thinking? And anyway, what could possibly go wrong when trying to amuse over 200 of my peers from all over the world?

But truth is, I took this on as a challenge and learning experience more than anything else. And in addition to having gained a deeper respect for how much effort goes into creating a 5 versus a 90-minute comedy routine, I learned some big lessons any leader can use to instantly up their speaking impact…And here are my favourites:

#1 True Stories Beat Made up Ones, Every Time

Watching how our global audience reacted to each of our 17 brave ‘would be comedians’ last weekend, one thing was abundantly clear. The audience was consistently more attentive towards, interested in, and laughed more frequently for those who used real situations to set up their punchlines versus those who clearly made stuff up. In fact, the latter commonly got groans or, worse, no response at all!

And that’s because it’s far easier to see and get immersed in a situation that seems real. And we’re hard-wired to be less caring/interested in stuff that seems phony.  

And better still (and this applies to when you tell stories on a stage), audiences can and will inject themselves into real circumstances in seconds – which creates hooks that you can then build upon to deliver more laughs.

#2 Give Your Audience More Opportunities to Check in

Every joke is dependent on having a setup and punchline(s). That’s it. if you don’t have these, you’ll get no laughs.

But there’s something else, audiences will also get bored or restless at a comedy night if you don’t deliver enough punch lines within your set. And FYI and depending on their style, the best comedians earn between 4 to 6 laughs a minute.

But since you’re going to wise enough to not try to be a comedian, you don’t have to care as much about this laughs per minute thing. But, you can learn from it for your speaking .

As you share your ideas and stories with any audience, answer this. How often are you giving your audiences opportunities to respond physically or mentally-so they can have more ‘truly immersive’ check-in moments of connection?

In the same vein that your experience at a restaurant when you’re enjoying the food could easily be undermined by a waiter who keeps coming up to your table to ask ‘how your meal was’ and every-time you try to respond, the waiter is halfway across the room and out of ear shot…

… Can I encourage you to let your audience in more often – so they can savour and dwell on what they find meaningful regularly throughout every talk you give? You’ll up everyone’s experience (yours and theirs).

#3 Don’t be a ‘Squeeze-em in’ Merchant!

One more thing on a related topic, which is especially applicable to when you share stories. This is about not doing something comedians call ‘stepping on your lines’.

This is where a comedian may have had a really good setup to a joke followed by a fairly decent punchline and the audience starts to laugh. And then you undermine the whole darn thing because you rush to tell the next gag. Arghhh. After that work!

What you should, no must, do at these times is to stay in moments your audience enjoy for longer. If you don’t, you rob them and you of better experiences.

And the most common reason why this happens, which is rarely a deliberate intent of the comedian?

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s because the comedian is trying to pack too much material into too little time. And then feeling the urge to deliver everything every last thing they squeezed into their setlist, they don’t feel they have enough time to wait for the audience to fully respond.

That’s daft thinking that misses the point, You need and want as much audience response as you can get. And the solution couldn’t be any simpler that this. Put less content into whatever time you have available to you and allow more time for audience laughs and responses.

And speakers, learn from this too. Don’t cram your speeches with so much content that you don’t give your audience opportunities to savour and reflect upon each and every truly interesting thing you have to say.

Remember: You’re not in a race + less can be more!

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