Humor Lessons from Stand Up Comedy

Do you want to add some punch to your presentations?

Do you want to leave your audience laughing?Or at least keep them awake?

Add some humor!  People are more receptive when they are laughing.

I know what some of you are thinking. “But I’m not funny!  I can’t even tell a joke!”

Forget about trying to tell jokes!  Humor doesn’t have to be that hard.

Here is the basic secret of humor—And I quote World Champion Toastmaster Darrin LaCroix: “ People laugh when their minds are successfully tricked.”

As a speaker you are taking your audience on a train ride,  leading them where they expect to go and then you derail them.

You’ve all heard the classic: “Take my wife…Please!”  Why is it funny?  What do you expect to come after “Take my wife?”  (“for example”)—Your mind jumps ahead to what it expects during the set up.  Then, the punchline “Please” is different than what you expected.

The classic “Set up” and “punchline” format sets up an expectation and the punchline changes the expectation.

It helps to have a little pause before the punchline to allow the audience to “fill-in” an expectation.

Another Example from Abraham Lincoln:  “If I were 2-faced. . .would I be wearing this one?”

Humor doesn’t have to be that hard, but that is not to say that you don’t have to work at it!

I realized that I needed to work on adding more humor to my presentations, so about 7 years ago, I took a stand up comedy class.  Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that doing stand up comedy is definitely different than giving a speech—you have to get to the “funny” faster.

Click on the picture below to see the 4 minute routine (from 2006 when I was skinnier and didn’t realize how awful a patterned dress looks on video!).  A written version of the stand up (not exactly the same as the video), is also below the video.

Hi, I’m Diane. I’m a mini-van driving, Blackberry-toting, soccer mom from the suburbs. 
My little world is perfectly organized. . . except now. . .I have teenagers.

If you have teens, you all know the Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde Syndrome:  So mature one moment, so childish the next.  So detached, yet so clingy.  So cool and serene, yet underneath, seething with rage—Well, enough about me.
And now, I have a teenage driver.  It’s caused me to developed a nervous tick—(gasp, startle, brake  gesture).  Hee, Hee, Hee, Hoo, Hoo, Hoo—They should have told me when I took Lamaze that I could still use the techniques 17 years after the baby.

So, just a few days ago, as my son and I were driving down our street– every little kid within a 20 mile radius appears out of nowhere—“Stop! Hee, Hee You’re going too fast!”. . . (Which is good advice for any man).  “Mother, we’re only going 16 miles per hour.”

 I’m one of those moms who loves to do things with my kids—so we all took up karate—now we get to punch and kick each other and nobody calls the cops.  …(smile) It’s called therapy.

I also have a 14 year old daughter—just last year she was telling me how “Yucky” boys are.  This year she wants to go to Southern California because of all the “Hot” guys.  She says it would be like a “Buffet of Boys.”  We have to go vegetarian.

She resents my meddling in her affairs.  ”Mom, this is my life.  Your life is OVER!” 

I must be crazy—I’m homeschooling my daughter.  She decided she didn’t want to waste her intelligence in school.  She’d rather just waste mine.  I’ve taught her everything she knows…if I taught her everything I know, well we’d be back at the “Boy Buffet.”

Have you noticed that teenagers suffer from a kind of blindness?  Especially when it comes to dirty dishes.  I even put a big note on my kitchen counter:  “No dirty dishes on the counter—Ever!”  When I come in the next morning, I can’t find the note—it’s covered by dirty dishes!  I’m thinking of getting one of those things on the front of trains that push cows out of the way—what are they called? Cow pushers?  But what I really need is what all parents of teenagers need:  a little patience, a little perseverance anda big bottle of Prozac.

Keep Calm and Join Toastmasters

Keep Calm and Join Toastmasters

Do you wish you could speak with greater confidence?

Do you wish you could answer off-the-cuff questions (like on job interviews), without sounding off-the-wall?

Do you wish you could develop the leadership skills to ignite your career?

What excuse is holding you back? Too busy?  Not enough money?

I heard someone say, “Excuses are like armpits, everybody has two and they both stink!” I have observed that ultimately people do and make time for what they want to do.

If you truly want to develop as a speaker, the number one thing you need to do is speak!

Toastmasters is a low-cost, flexible, self-paced program in a club format that will allow you to develop speaking (and leadership) skills.

Most of my subscribers are familiar with Toastmasters, but if you aren’t, there are Toastmaster clubs worldwide that meet on a regular basis in which people like you practice speaking and leadership skills.  An entire year of membership is only about $100.  Toastmasters Website

Toastmasters is for everyone. Recently my friend Patty Bremer, who has epilepsy, received her Competent Communicator Award, completing 10 speech projects.

Patty Bremer and Joe Brauer
Patty is shown here with Toastmaster Joe Brauer.  Joe is a financial planner.

My husband, Kim, who is hearing impaired (but recently got new, very awesome hearing aids), also has seen great benefits through his involvement with Toastmasters.
(1:42 Video)

If you already are a Toastmaster, consider joining another club to develop your skills further.  I belong to two specialty clubs:
PowerTalk Toastmasters (for professional and aspiring professional speakers)
Humor Mill Toastmasters (focusing on humor)

If you are seeking individualized coaching, ask me about my reduced rate for Toastmasters!

Find a Toastmasters Club!

Speech prop idea: Balloons

ladder vs balloonThe full-size red ladder was an impressive prop.  It was unique and it helped make the speaker’s point that to have a competitive advantage you not only have to be better you have to be different.

Props can differentiate you as a speaker, making you and your concepts more memorable, giving you that competitive advantage. But maybe you don’t want to travel with a ladder!

Prop possibilities abound. Just about anything can be a prop—even people and animals.

Here are a few ideas.

Some considerations for prop use:

  • Relevancy—Is it just a gimmick?
  • Visibility—Is it large enough?
  • Simplicity—Is it easy to use?
  • Suitability—Will it disturb the audience?
  • Replaceability-Is it irreplaceable, or difficult to replace?
  • Cost—is the cost justified?
  • Transportability—Will you regret that large prop?
  • Timing—Do you show the prop at the appropriate time (not before, not after)?
  • Practice—Did you practice, practice, practice?

One of my favorite props is a balloon.  Balloons are cheap, highly replaceable and easy to pack.  You can use them alone, or you can provide balloons to audience members for audience involvement (careful here, as some audience members, especially in healthcare, may have latex allergies).

In one speech I do on leadership, I use a balloon to represent integrity (the integrity balloon). I inflate the balloon and have the audience imagine that it is filled with my integrity.  I then give a few examples of lacking integrity, deflating the balloon a little each time.  When I only have a little air left in the balloon, I let it go and it zips about erratically before falling to the ground.  “Who can follow a leader like that?”

Consider the properties of balloons for the points you make in your next presentation.  Balloons can represent:

  • Gain or loss (weight, money, integrity, business growth, etc.)
  • Sudden change (popping the balloon, “bursting the bubble”)
  • Flexibility (changing to meet the demands)
  • Lightness (especially if helium-filled)

How could you use a balloon in your topic area?

Can They Hear You Now?


You’ve spent hours perfecting your presentation.  You have crafted engaging content.  You have practiced your delivery.

You will have wasted your time if your audience can’t hear you.

Three of the top reasons that the audience might not hear you are:

  1. Inadequate amplification (or distorted amplification)
  2. Background noise
  3. Hearing impairment

Inadequate amplification

Many speakers think that they can project loudly enough for a large audience, if necessary.

Usually, they are wrong.  In attempting to project to the back of the room, speakers strain their voices, which also distorts their voices.  If you must speak to a larger group (more than about 75 people, depending on room size, conditions and your voice), a microphone will allow you to speak normally and also help your audience hear you. Do a microphone check before you speak, to ensure that it is working properly and also so you will know how it works and how far it should be from your mouth.  If a microphone is not available, you can ask people to sit closer to you, if possible.

Background noise

Background noise is not only distracting, but it can also cause your speech to be inaudible at times.  Proactive attention to possible background noise is your best approach.  Close doors so activity that is outside of the room is not heard.  Find out what is going on in adjacent rooms and try to deal with possible noise sources before they become a problem.  Turn off background music.

I was recently on a boat cruise which included presentations by speakers wearing headset microphones.  Because of wind hitting the microphone, one of the speakers was difficult to hear. The boat staff then lowered clear plastic wind shields behind the speaker, which cut down on the wind noise.  The audience reacted with a collective sigh of relief.  We could now clearly hear the speaker!

Hearing Impairment

Nearly 1 in 5 American adults have hearing loss–a figure that climbs to 1 in 3 for people over 65.  And, only 1 in 5 people who could benefit from wearing a hearing aid wears one.  What that means is that a significant portion of your audience may not hear your entire message.

If you are not hearing impaired, you may not fully appreciate the challenge, so here is a short (41 second) simulation of mild, moderate and severe hearing loss, using a Flintstone’s cartoon.  Have your sound at a comfortable level for the “normal” portion (the first 10 seconds), so that you can realistically experience hearing impairment.

Hearing Loss simulator

What can you do to help audience members with hearing impairment?

1. Reduce background noise

2. Have adequate amplification, and speak up, but don’t shout.

3. Have seating near the front for hearing impaired audience members.

4. Face the audience when speaking (many people with hearing impairment use facial expressions, and lip movements to aid understanding).  Make sure your face is well-lit.

5. Enunciate.  Don’t mumble.  Don’t speak too fast.

6. Visual aids can greatly enhance your meaning, if they are not too complicated.

7. Repeat any questions an audience member asks.

As a speaker, it is your duty to make sure your audience can hear you.

What other challenges or solutions do you have in being heard?