engaging with humor

That’s Funny! How To Engage Others With Humor

We learn better in laughter. What is funny? What makes us laugh? How can we engage others with humor while we teach something meaningful?

I love public speaking! It is such a powerful way to share a message and engage people with it. In my journey as a speaker, I first worked on weaning myself off of slides and becoming a better storyteller. A tall order for a “recovering scientist”? The biggest battle for me was to strip off unnecessary details.

Then I began to focus on the question, “How can I deliver a powerful message and incorporate humor?” I got curious: What is humor? What makes us laugh?

Why Do We Laugh?

I consulted two books and some Toastmasters resources to get a better understanding:

  1.  “Comedy Writing Secrets” by Mark Shatz and Mel Helitzer
  2.  “The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny” by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner 

Both books say humor is complex. We understand some of the reasons why we laugh. 

According to the first book, psychologist Patricia Keith-Spiegel identified two primary reasons why we laugh:

  • Out of surprise and
  • When we feel superior

An essential theory is the Benign Violation theory. It says something is funny when a “violation” ends up being benign

Think of “America’s funniest home videos.” 

  • Someone does a stunt (a violation of what you should do or “normal”). 
  • It goes wrong. They might even get hurt – but not too severely. 
  • If the person died or became paralyzed, we would not laugh. 

What is funny also depends on the audience, the context, and culture. 

That’s great to know. Especially, the first book goes into more detail on what we know about why we laugh (chapter 2). 

Yet, how can we put this into practice when we are not seeking to write comedy but convey a message? 

Practical Tips For Engaging Your Audience or Team With Humor

Here are a few things I have learned:

  • Share something vulnerable about yourself – a story about a situation where you took a misstep, had a frustration, or tackled an obstacle.
    • Add in some detail that makes people feel like they are there with you. 
    • Above all, make it relatable to the audience.
    • For example: “In 1989, when I planned to come to the U.S. for a student exchange program, my Mom thought my knowledge of English was not up to the task. As an English teacher in Germany, she should know. I went nonetheless. There I was at the airport in Atlanta. I stood at the yellow line at immigration. The immigration officer asked me, “Do you speak English?” – I asked the audience what they thought I answered. The audience guessed “Yes” or “No.” Then I said, “I hope so!” Everyone laughed.
  • Offer stress relief.
    • Describe a challenging situation. After building up the suspense, the story takes a sudden turn, saving the heroes from impending doom. 
  • Incorporate self-depreciating humor.
    • An example from me (being German): “Germans don’t have humor.” (followed by a pause) – “Inviting people to laugh with you while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be the fool, but you’re the fool in charge.” (Carl Reiner, writer, and director )
  • Add an element of surprise: You say A, then B. The audience expects C to come next. But instead of C, something else happens next.
  • Use funny props.
    • I have given talks with martial arts headgear and boxing gloves to show the conflict between completing a project versus making it perfect.
    • In another talk, I described a journey with ten steps. I dressed up as a hiker with a backpack and hiking poles. (I love hiking!) I revealed an item from a large envelope from my pack for each step. One of the steps was “Have more eyes on your social media.” I opened the envelope and revealed a cute teddy bear with lovely eyes. That got a laugh.
  • Add exaggeration. Be careful not to lose the balance between being funny and meaningful.
  • Be judicious with puns. I love puns. Yet, in speaking, I don’t tend to use them much. Puns often cause more of a groan than a laugh.
  • Be careful with jokes. Don’t try too hard. It’s best if a joke refers to something realistic. Keep them simple and easy to understand. Consider your audience and their backgrounds. Avoid offending. That is why self-deprecating humor is a safe thing to do. 
  • Always be authentic.

Key Takeaways

  • We learn better in laughter.
  • We have some understanding of how humor works.
    • The Benign Violation theory is fundamental in that realm. Something happens that is a violation of what normally is expected. But its consequences end up benign.
    • Two main reason we laugh are surprise and feeling superior.
  • Stories, when told correctly, can be powerful in teaching meaningful messages and concepts.When we can create some laughter along the way, it is all the better.
    • Telling stories about yourself going through challenges, or frustrations, and using some self-deprecating humor, are powerful.
    • Props can be an fun and effective tool.
    • We must do so without trying too hard or losing our authenticity.

It is fun to be creative and experiment. Toastmasters is a great place for trying new ways to deliver your material in an even more engaging way. Find YOUR style.

I’m Curious

  • What makes you laugh when you attend speeches (or in life in general)?
  • When you speak, how do you get the people in your audience to laugh?

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