Why are some speeches more humorous than others? Why do some speakers make audience laugh, while others don't? What are the common mistakes done by our speakers in humorous speech contests?
Also read: How to spot a judge in a contest?
This is the contest season in Toastmasters. I see a number of new members participating in Humorous speech contests. Some of the contestants may be still wondering "Why am I not able to make audience laugh?" or "Why was my humorous speech not a winning speech?". I'm not an expert Humorous speaker, yet! I'm still trying to master the art by delivering humorous speeches. So, I cannot write an article on "How to make people laugh?". This article is a summary of my notes from the various Humorous Speech Contests that I attended recently. This article provides some insights about the common pitfalls to avoid when crafting and delivering a speech in humorous speech contests:
1. Don't forget to pause before the punch
Pause is a powerful tool used by great communicators to persuade the audience, to make them think and to arouse their curiosity. A pause when used effectively can bring in humor in your speeches - especially before delivering the punch line or before breaking the surprise.
"Take my wife .... please" is a classic example of "pause before the punch". Pause increases the curiosity and lets the audience's imagination buds to do some homework. Then you surprise the audience with the punch line. If you give away the surprise too fast without the pause, audience aren't going to laugh.
2. Don't make the audience to feel uneasy
Normally, speech contests are attended by at least 20 or more people. When you make it too uncomfortable for the audience, they aren't going to laugh for your jokes. Instead, they are going to be thinking "Why did this guy include this line in his speech? Can't he think of something better?" Speaking about things such as Farting, Sex and other vulgar/discriminating topics are going to create uneasy feelings for the audience. To give you an example, one of the speakers had this line "She had BIG eyes, She had a BIG smile, She had a BIG ... BIG... Car". This line didn't bring any humor. So, consider avoiding such phrases.
3. Don't laugh for your own jokes
I've seen novice contestants laughing for their own jokes. If you carefully observe stand-up comedians, they keep their face straight when cracking jokes. What happens when you laugh for your own jokes? You may be breaking the surprise for the audience too fast. Your face starts reacting even before the audience starts to laugh for your jokes.
4. Don't forget to use the right words/phrases, to bring in humor
You don't have to be an English professor to be a humorous speaker. However, at the same time, you should use the right words to bring humor. For ex., "One year into the married life... I realized, men are from mars, but my wife isn't from venus". If somebody delivers this line as "After a year of marriage, I realized men always come from mars and women always don't come from venus", the humor effect will be lost. There are some speakers who may not be good at English - I would recommend them to rehearse the speech/delivery several times until they get comfortable with the word choices. Even the champions of humor does that.
5. Don't get carried away by the laughs - Stay focused on the script
There are times when contestants get carried away by the audience's laughter. All of a sudden, they go out of the script and start doing a free flow speech. For example, I've seen one of the speakers doing this - the moment audience laugheed, he said "From your giggles I can make out what you understood" and he started to talk about things that were not planned in the script. Since he went out of the script, it became very difficult for him to come back to the mainstream flow. So, always stay within the script - especially if you are just beginning your humorously speaking career.
6. Don't pick Internet jokes
Facebooks and Googles have made jokes very accessible to users now. In addition, people get a zillion forwarded emails every day.
Today, most jokes are morphed, modified and massaged into several forms and it reduces the laughter quotient. There are multiple reasons why you shouldn't use Internet jokes - first of all, it is not your original content; second of all, the audience would've already heard/read the joke and hence, they wouldn't be surprised when you deliver the punch line.
7. Don't ask a question and lose control
One speaker started the speech with the question, "Do you hate cockroaches, lizards and rats". The immediate response from the audience was "No". However, the speaker expected a "Yes" response to follow-on with the speech and deliver a punch line. He wasn't prepared for a "No" response and he wasn't able to make audience laugh with the punch line.
(Also read: Beyond the Speech Contest Rule Book)
8. Don't miss to exaggerate real life incidents
Many speeches fail to bring in the humor, because situations aren't exaggerated. Speakers narrate incidents from their life as it happened. However, if you have to learn from the movie directors, they create incidents that are not "real" to increase the entertainment value.
Recently I delivered a speech about "Why you shouldn't be a Toastmaster". I exaggerated an incident to convey the point that "Toastmasters don't get to the point". Read the paragraph below:
A Club officer would go to the stage and make an announcement… “Imagine it is 24th Aug 2013… a bright sunny day… you are attending the Toastmasters International convention at Cincinnati, USA…. the finals of the World Champion of Public Speaking Contest… the hall is filled with people… people are busy talking to each other … you can smell the coffee brewing … your name gets called on the stage… Contestant #1, Rajeev Nambiar… Rajeev Nambiar, Contestant #1… the crowd starts to cheer… Rajeev… Rajeev. All of a sudden, the Chief Judge walks to the stage and stops you from talking “Rajeev… You are not eligible to contest. You haven’t paid your membership dues for this term”. Fellow members, if you don’t want to lose an amazing opportunity to participate in WCPS contest, pay your membership dues now”. All that the club officer wanted to say was “Dear Members… the last date for membership renewal is Mar 2013. Please pay your dues before that to be eligible to participate in the contests”
If I had just said "The club officer always goes to the stage and threatens us to do our renewals for us to participate in the contest", instead of the above paragraph it wouldn't have been humorous enough.
Sharing real world incidents as they unfolded in your life may bring-in some laughter at the club level because the club members know you very well and they can visualize the sequence better by putting you in that incident. When you move to the area/division/district level, your audience may not know you much and hence your simplistic narration may not bring much laughter.
9. Don't narrate incidents where you give feedback using "Toastmasters Evaluations" technique
This is a beaten to death technique in Toastmasters circle to bring humor - narrating incidents where you give feedback to people using Toastmasters Evaluation style. For ex., Husband giving feedback to wife, Boss giving feedback to team member, Boy friend giving feedback to girlfriend etc., To the extent possible, avoid such narrations. It may help you at the club level contests because you have extraordinary connection with your audience. However, it will fail to work at the area or division / district level contests where audience would've already heard 100s of such speeches.
10. Avoid too much drama
Again I would like to refer to stand-up comedians. They don't even move a single bit to make audience laugh. So, don't try to include artificial gestures or stage movements in your speech. One of the toastmasters drove a scooter "drrrr...." and he moved around the stage like a kid driving the scooter. It looked too dramatic at Area contests. I'm not saying that you should deliver the speech by standing in one location. However, use the stage when it is needed, use gestures when they are appropriate.
11. Get permission from people before you use their name
There are some characters (sorry people!) in Toastmasters community - where just mentioning their name would bring-in laughter. However, before using their name in your speech please do get their concurrence/permission. Even toastmasters who look jovial during the club meetings, do not take things lightly when you make fun of them on the stage. I've unknowingly offended people by referring them in my impromptu speeches, to bring-in humor. I had to face the heat, later-on :) You can use self-deprecating humor as much as possible. However, try not to make fun of others. Even if you are going to refer to someone, get their permission first.