“How Can I Be Funnier?” Speakers, Leaders and Authors Want to Know

camel“When you’re laughing at something, you remember something.” – Joan Rivers.

Agreed. Is there any surer sign you’ve won people’s favorable attention then when they’re laughing?  Appropriate humor is one of the best ways to  get your idea, product, startup, or organization noticed, liked and remembered.

A coaching client preparing a conference keynote told me, “I know humor is important, but I’m not funny. Every time I try to tell a joke, it falls flat.”

I said, “I’m not suggesting you tell jokes.  You’re right, they often come across as forced or  false. The good news is, we all have funny things happen to us or around us. All you have to do is start noticing what makes you laugh that’s relevant to your topic and integrate it (with attribution) into your talk.”

He said, “But I’m speaking on  a serious subject. Humor could be out of place.”

“Here’s the thing.  Harvard researcher Nancy F. Koehn found that goldfish have longer attention spans than we do;  nine seconds to our eight.  People can only pay attention to serious stuff for so long. They may understand that what we’re saying is important and they’re supposed to listen; but if our message is complicated or depressing and requires mental discipline, incentive or bandwidth they don’t have; it may not get through.”

“But  I don’t want to risk alienating my audience.”

“I’m glad you brought that up because it’s another reason not to use jokes. Jokes are fabricated.  At some level, people are wondering, ‘If you made this up, what else are you making up?’ It makes it hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction.”

“So what do I do?”

“Use true humor so people can trust you. When you share real-life experiences, you maintain credibility because you’re not fabricating things.”

“What’s an example?” he asked.

“Well, here’s  story I use in my Tongue Fu!® How to Deal with Difficult People – Without Becoming One Yourself presentations. It usually gets a laugh and lightens the mood after discussing  ‘dark’ topics such as what to do when people are yelling at you or being mean to you.

I was in the San Francisco airport heading to my gate on one of those long moving sidewalks. A very tall man, at least 7 feet tall,  was walking the opposite direction. I couldn’t believe it. The people in front of me were pointing at him and laughing.  I thought, ‘How rude, there’s no excuse for that.’

When he got closer, I could see why they were laughing. He had on a t-shirt that said in very large letters, “No, I’m NOT a basketball player.”

As he went by, I turned to say something and burst out laughing. The back of his shirt said, “Are you a jockey?”

I had to meet this clever young man so I jumped off the moving sidewalk and ran back to catch up with him. I asked, “Where’d you get this terrific shirt?”

“My mom made it for me. I grew a foot between the time I was 16 and 18 years old. I  was really sensitive and self-conscious. I didn’t even want to go outside because everyone had to make a smart aleck remark. My mom finally told me, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’ I’ve got a whole drawer full of these shirts at home. My favorite one says, ‘I’m 6′ 13″ and the weather up here is fine.’”

I told him, “This is so smart.  You are a walking-talking model of  Fun Fu!”

Now it was his turn to laugh.  “What’s Fun Fu!?”

“It’s based on something humorist Erma Bombeck said, ‘ If you can laugh at it, you can live with it.”

“Oh yeah, I can relate to that.  I used to get so annoyed when people talked about my height.  These shirts have made all the difference. Now I have fun with it instead of being frustrated by it.”

What a wonderful example of how humor can be a saving grace. Instead of being annoyed or offended about this situation, he chose to be amused.”

My client said, “Okay, that’s a fun story. But how do you tie that back in so it’s relevant to your audience?”

“Good question. It’s crucial to ‘hook and hinge’ the punch-line of an anecdote back to our point so people understand how it relates to them.”

“Hook and hinge?”

“The ‘hook’ is the key phrase or take-away of your story. In this case, the hook could be ‘have fun with it instead of be frustrated by it’ or ‘be amused instead of annoyed or offended.’

You ‘hinge’  the take-away phrase by asking several ‘you questions’ that motivate audience members to explore how this might apply to them.

For example, I often ask, ‘Is there something you’re sensitive or self-conscious about? Would you like to have fun with it instead of be frustrated by it? Would you like to brainstorm some non-combative comebacks so from now on you can be amused with, rather than annoyed by, that situation?’

Do you see, by using the same words from the story and turning them into ‘you questions,’ people are now actively thinking how they can use this insight in their own life.  That’s how to integrate humor so it’s purposeful, relevant and useful for everyone in the room … instead of trotting out a a joke that falls flat.”

My client asked, “Can I use your ‘Hook and Hinge Technique’ in writing too?”

“Absolutely. A master-mind buddy, Denise Brosseau, got a book deal from Jossey-Bass and spent several intense months working on her  Ready to Be a Thought Leader? manuscript.

When doing the final proof, she realized it was a bit too serious and would be more intriguing if she added some true humor. I told her, “All you have to do is think about situations that have made you laugh out loud in the past few months that are in some way related to the points you make in your chapters.”

Bingo.  Denise illustrated a number of her ideas with laugh-out-loud anecdotes, including this one, one of my favorites.

Denise was shopping for a baby shower gift at a Babies ‘R’ Us store in Palo Alto, California, near Stanford University. While waiting in the check-out line, she was entertained by a couple in front of her who were discussing the confusing instructions on the box that said the crib they were about to buy had to be assembled from scratch. They nervously asked the cashier, “Will we be able to put this together ourselves?”

The casher asked innocently, “Do you have college degrees?”

“Oh, yes,” the man assured her, “I have an MBA and my wife has a Ph.D.”

The cashier smiled and said, “Then you’re going to need to hire someone.”

Bada boom.

Denise told me, “The cashier’s response was so unexpected, everyone in the area cracked up. I weave that story into my presentations and it always gets a big laugh. More importantly, it supports my point that advanced degrees can add value, but they’re not required to to be a thought leader in your industry.”

Denise is right. Unexpected responses elicit laughter.

Do you know how Einstein knew he had a good idea? When he laughed out loud.

That’s why, from now on, if something unexpected causes you to laugh out loud, write it down. Then, figure out how you can integrate it into an upcoming presentation, pitch, blog or book to give people a respite from the “serious stuff” and to win their positive attention for you and your topic.

Want to see an example of how to integrate humor into a presentation?

One of the mot rewarding aspects of this TEDx talk is that people tell me they find it funny, and they show it in staff meetings because employees like watching it and it motivates them to STOP giving elevator speeches.

Why do they find it funny?  Because I used a tip from Pretty Woman Director Garry Marshall who told our Maui Writers Conference audience that Hollywood screenwriters and directors deliberately put a laugh in the first couple minutes of their movie because they know, “Laugh early, laugh often.”

Research shows that when people laugh in the first couple minutes of a film, or the  first couple pages of a book, they conclude it’s funny and tend to see it as humorous from then on.

When you watch this TEDx talk, notice the Carrie Fisher (from Star Wars) quote in the fist minute, “Instant gratification takes too long,” how it gets a laugh, how I hook and hinge it to the topic, and how we’re off and running.

Are you preparing an important written or spoken communication?

Ask yourself, “Is my message serious, complicated, depressing or boring?”

If so, how are you going to provide comic relief?  How are you going to integrate some true humor so people get a mental break from the “dark stuff?”

What’s happened to or around you recently that made you laugh out loud? How can you hook and hinge that appropriately funny situation into your topic so people get the point and use their subsequent insights in their life?

To paraphrase the Joan Rivers quote at the beginning of this post, when people laugh at something you say, they are more likely to relate to, remember and act on what you say. And that’s a win for everyone.