(Originally Published in Inc): 23 Tips From Comedians to Be Funnier in Your Next Presentation
Former biologist Tim Lee takes the stage at TEDx for the second time this year. Lee’s medium of choice: the all too often mind-numbingly boring PowerPoint presentation, but when he unleashes his deck, it’s anything but. Within seconds, the audience is in hysterics of laughter and clapping loudly to show its appreciation … for his PowerPoint. You may be wondering why this has not happened to you.
Lee is one of a growing number of comedians equally at home on a business stage. As the lines between information and entertainment blur, speakers like him are in high demand. (Lee actually has sold out shows where people pay money to see him give PowerPoint presentations. Sounds strange, I know.) Apart from being funnier than most, he has one big additional advantage over regular business speakers: He is onstage way more often.
Comedians’ content and delivery are honed through years of practice as they master their craft. In doing so, they are among the few public speakers that clock up the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell says make a master. It’s forcing regular business presenters to up their game.
With that in mind, here are 23 tips from comedians like Lee and other top 10,000-hour comedians for you to become a better and funnier public speaker:
1. Use the Rule of 3
“This rule is a basic structure for jokes and ideas that capitalize on the way we process information,” says Lee. “We have become proficient at pattern recognition by necessity. Three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern. This combination of pattern and brevity results in memorable content.”
2. Draw Upon Your Real-Life Experiences
The safest humor involves personal stories, because they are guaranteed to be original and can be easily practiced and perfected. As Ricky Gervais says, “As a creator, it’s your job to make an audience as excited and fascinated about a subject as you are, and real life tends to do that.”
3. Identify the Key Part and Get There Fast
U.K. comedian Jimmy Carr says, “Writing comedy isn’t really about writing; it’s more about editing. It’s about what you don’t say. What are the fewest words I can get down here in order to get to the funny bit?”
4. Find the Funny in Pain Points
“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it,” Charlie Chaplin said. While he likely didn’t mean customer pain points, the same wisdom applies.
5. Think Fails and Firsts
“So many people ask me for help creating a funnier speech,” says Darren LaCroix. “They want to know where to ‘find funny.’ I suggest starting by looking in the mirror! Start by looking at your fails and your firsts. The first time you did something wrong. Audiences love the humility and openness.”
6. Screen Your Jokes
“Presentations have an extra advantage over most traditional standup sets–a giant friggin’ screen that the audience is staring at the whole time you’re onstage,” says Sammy Wegent. “And in a world where funny Photoshopped images, memes, and GIFs dominate our devices, visual humor has never been bigger. So don’t just say funny things in your presentation. Show funny things, too.”
7. Think Fun Over Funny
“Making people laugh is only one type of humor; getting them to smile is another,” says Andrew Tarvin. “When starting out, focus on making things fun as opposed to making things funny.”
8. Tell a Joke
If people laugh, a joke already added value. “It helps if it segues into a point. But it doesn’t have to,” says Rajiv Satyal. One of his favorites that’s both hilarious and yet clean enough for a corporate presentation: A guy joins a monastery and takes a vow of silence. He’s allowed to say two words every seven years. After the first seven years, the elders bring him in and ask for his two words. He says, “Cold floors.” They nod and send him away. Seven more years pass. They bring him back in and ask for his two words. He clears his throat. “Bad food,” he says. They nod and send him away. Seven more years pass. They bring him in for his two words. He goes, “I quit.” One of the elders looks at him and says, “That’s not surprising. You’ve done nothing but complain since you got here.” I’ve never had that joke miss in any context, says Satyal. And it’s easy to tie it into something going on at a company, e.g., a reorg. (Every place is always doing a reorg.)
9. Like Jerry Seinfeld Does, Use Inherently Funny Words
Some words are funnier than others and can be amusing without any given context. Words with a k in them are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. L’s are not funny. When writing his bit about Pop-Tarts, Jerry Seinfeld took foods from the ’60s in all its strange, frozen, unhealthy forms and narrowed his focus on Pop-Tarts. Why Pop-Tarts? Because Pop-Tarts sounds funny. “The Pop-Tart suddenly appeared in the supermarket … and we were like chimps in the dirt playing with sticks.” According to Seinfeld, what makes the joke, “is you have got chimps, dirt, playing, and sticks. In seven words, four of them are funny. Chimps, chimps are funny.” (See the interview here.)
10. Paint a Picture for Others to See
“Comedy is in the details, but you don’t want to over do it,” says Reggie Steele. “Just enough to set the scene. Talk to people as if you’re talking to a blind person or you’re doing something for the radio. Details matter.”
11. Do Something Memorable
“This can be good or bad. But memorability is more powerful than likability,” says Sammy Obeid.
12. Jokes are: 1, 2 … 4!
“They look like they’re about to establish a pattern but then break it just when it’s about to become one,” says Rajiv Satyal. “In this example, you think I’m counting but, when you hear “4,” you realize I was doubling the numbers. It makes sense in retrospect. (But they’re not 1, 2 … 7! That would just be random.) Jokes work due to the element of surprise. Too many business presentations are stuff people already know (1, 2 … 3!) or stuff people don’t know what to do with (1, 2 … 7!). Give ’em something both memorable and fun.”
13. Use the Art of Misdirection
“The beautiful thing about a business presentation versus standup comedy is that the presentation audience can be misled into a funny line much easier,” says Cody Woods. “Due to the many boring presentations they have been subjected to, they are suspecting it less. Use this to your advantage.”
14. Put the Word the Joke Hinges on at the End of the Sentence
For example, if the fact it’s a cat is the surprise or twist, don’t say, “There was a cat in the box.” Say, “In that box was a cat.” That way you’re not still talking when they’re meant to be laughing, says Matt Kirshen. You can watch President Obama using this technique here.
15. Use Tension
“There has to be tension for a punch line to land,” says Zahra Noorbakhsh. “Tension sets up the desire to see a problem–however big or small–get resolved. If you can identify what is making your audience restless, anxious, or uncomfortable, you can work backward to find the joke that chills them out.”
16. Avoid Ever Going Blank Onstage
Use the Memory Palace memorization technique. To do this, it is useful to have the image interact with the environment, Richard Sarvate says. “For my sushi joke, I picture a sushi chef,” he says. “If I put him in the elevator in the lobby of my apartment; I picture him mashing the buttons on the elevator in frustration. Now that he is interacting with the environment, it’s a lot easier to visualize and recall. It’s useful to make the image bizarre in order to make it more memorable. For my Mexican Indian joke, I picture Krishna wearing a sombrero. A ridiculous image, which is almost tougher to forget.”
17. Use Your Hands
“Speak with your hands in front of you, not flopped down to your side,” says Matt Morales. “Pretend your double fisting a couple of drinks that you’re going to spill if you put your arms down. Or just double fist a couple of beers. Granted, that might not make your presentation better, but eventually you won’t care anymore.”
18. Use Metaphors and Analogies Combined With Hyperbole (Exaggeration)
“Figure out the pattern of something you’re criticizing, and then choose a metaphor that makes that look ridiculous,” says Brian Carter. “For example, I might teach that trying to do organic social marketing without ads, maybe hoping for it to go viral, is like trying to drive a car that only other people can fill up with gas when they feel like it, and hoping they will. Exaggerating anything makes it funnier. So I could exaggerate the previous example and say that it’s like the Star Trek Enterprise trying to fly to a new star system without any dilithium crystals, and hoping that some Klingons show up and give them some. Now, I just made those up and they’re probably horrible, but that illustrates the process (Trekkies get it).”
19. If the Energy Is Down, Bring It Up
“If the host didn’t introduce you with a strong round of applause, this is a good time for you to ask the audience to offer a round of applause,” says Sarah Cooper. “Feel free to ask for a round of applause for the presenter, the host, some of the presenters before you, the sponsor or organizers of the event, and even one for the audience themselves (even though they think they’re clapping for themselves, it still feels like they’re clapping for you).”
20. Trust Your Funny Bits
“Your jokes are funny, so have confidence in them,” says Brandon Scott Wolf. “Deliver your punch lines emphatically, and then give the audience a moment or two to process what you said so they can laugh.”
21. Have Fun
“Don’t put something out there that bores you. If it bores you to tell it, you can bet it will bore your audience to hear it,” says Sal Calanni.
22. Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance
Overpreparation will help you be ready for anything and give you the knowledge and confidence that you can handle whatever comes your way onstage. As Steve Martin says, “Persistence is a great substitute for talent.”
And last but not least, from Irish comedian Dylan Moran:
23. Don’t Rely on Potential
“Don’t do it! Stay away from your potential,” Moran says. “You’ll mess it up. It’s potential; leave it. Anyway, it’s like your bank balance–you always have a lot less than you think.”
As Mark Twain said, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.” That type of arms race may be one worth all our time. Most presentations are really boring. With applications of these tips, yours will not be. I hope you enjoyed reading these tips from comedians.