From the August 2014 GPS Speaking Tips newsletter, free monthly tips on public speaking and presentation skills. Click here to sign up.
Earlier this year, I was on a flight from Sarasota, FL to Atlanta, GA. I’m one of those people who likes to talk with others in my row (great networking!), and the man sitting next to me was an agricultural comedian named Tim the Dairy Farmer. A farmer himself, Tim flies around the country giving humorous speeches at agricultural conferences and conventions and also performs at comedy clubs. What an interesting niche market!
I was enthralled and started peppering him with questions. What does it take to be funny? What makes for a good joke?
Here are some take-aways from my spontaneous interview with a professional comedian about using humor in public speaking. In each section, I offer Tim’s advice on comedy and then my thoughts on how it applies to public speaking.
The First 8 Seconds: Tim the Dairy Farmer said you have to bond with the audience within the first 8 seconds. He said that you set the mood for the entire show in those first 8 seconds. “If you walk on stage looking nervous, then the audience will feel nervous.” If you smile, on the other hand, it invites your audience in. I completely agree: the first sentence of your speech – including what you do before you even speak – is critical as you set the tone of the presentation. Some of you will remember that I wrote about this issue on Boston.com a few years ago when I talked about the first 8 words of a startup pitch to investors.
Think About Flow: Tim said, “People have the attention span of a rock; if you veer off course, you start to lost people.” As a result, he said that comedy is about laughs/minute. His sets are anywhere from 45-60 minutes long, and he goes for a laugh every 8-10 seconds. A story can take 24 seconds to tell. While that might be a lot of interaction for you giving a presentation, it does make you think about what you are doing to engage the audience every 10-15 minutes. What can you do to break up the presentation: ask the audience a question, show a video, tell a story?
It’s Not Just Words: Tim said, “You gotta sell the entire joke; it’s not just words.” It’s pausing, body language, timing. Sometimes you have to laugh at your own jokes: it’s a trigger that gets people laughing. When you give a speech, it’s not just about the words, it’s about the pacing, the way your intonation matches the content, body language and sense of confidence. Make sure your entire body matches your words.
Know Your Audience: As you can imagine, Tim the Dairy Farmer’s humor is very different at a corporate event than at a comedy club; you have to know your audience. I’ll add to that advice by saying: know what your audience will laugh at – and test out that humor on a trusted (and relevant) audience member in advance.
Give Yourself Time to Prepare: Tim says it can take years to write a good joke. He starts with a 1-2 minute story, then he condenses it over time until he gets it to the right joke, the right premise, the right setup, and the right punchline. This means giving yourself time to write your speech material, whether it’s a joke, story, or idea. Don’t write it out the night before and expect it to work.
New Material in the Middle: Tim says he puts his new material in the middle of the set, so if it doesn’t go over well people won’t remember. But he always starts and ends with tried and true material, so he knows he will get a laugh up front and at the end. What does this meant to you? Start strong and end strong, because those are the parts the audience will remember most.
A few final words of advice from Tim for those of you looking to incorporate humor into your next speech or presentation:
- Read The Comedy Bible for tips on how to be funny. Remember it takes work and preparation to use humor effectively.
- As you’d imagine, Tim says to heed the Golden Rule: no jokes about religion or politics. I’ll add to that: especially since your speech might be recorded and put on YouTube, you can’t assume that the only people to hear the joke are those in the room.
- Use situational humor: a joke related to the “here and now” of the room. Try to find a shared experience to which everyone can relate.
- My own advice: if you’re going to make fun of someone, it’s better to laugh at yourself than at others. And make sure your humor is relevant to the point you’re making in your speech.
Interviewing Tim the Dairy Farmer made for a quick and interesting flight. I hope Tim’s words of wisdom about humor are useful to you in your next speech or presentation.