Being Funny — Public Speaking

When it comes to making people laugh, the rule of Less-Is-More usually applies.  This rule points to the fact that the harder we try to be funny the more our extra effort gets in the way of creating the laughs we want.

Think about the last time you saw a five-year-old who was trying desperately to get laughs.  The youngster does everything he or she can think of to get attention.  The intense showing off will often backfire, resulting not in laughs but annoyance.  Often it’s the quiet child who is the funniest.  Why?  Because life itself is funny.  Humor comes most easily out of the relaxed, natural state.  Kids are cute without trying.  A five-year-old just playing and being himself is funny enough.  When they try too hard, it gets in the way.

This principle of Less-Is-More applies to many areas of our life.  This is especially true when playing sports.  Michael Gelb, in his book about the efficient use of the body (Body Learning), points out that to master many physical activities we need to “give up trying too hard, but never give up.”  He says that’s at the very heart of the Alexander Technique.

I played disc golf with a friend this week. The game is a lot like real golf, except that you throw a frisbee instead of hit a golf ball.  You drive (throw) from the tee box, and near the hole (basket) some 300-500 feet away you “putt” from short range.  There are specialty driving and putting discs.  On the course, there are trees to avoid and sprinklers to contend with.  You can hook, slice, and dribble grounders into the grass.  I even lost a disc high in a pine tree.  The 24-hole course takes over two hours to play.

Since I hadn’t played disc golf in over two years, it didn’t surprise me that I had sore muscles the next day from throwing the disc. Off the tee box, the goal of your drive is to get as much distance as you can.  As a result, you put everything you’ve got into the throw.  I was soon to re-discover that the more effort I put into heaving the disc, the less control I had over the accuracy.  It wasn’t unusual to have my release trajectory fifteen or twenty degrees off track.  In fact, I had one of my longest throws when my release point was about seventy degrees off target.  I watched as the disc sailed over four lanes of traffic which paralleled the course.  The frustration of the bad throw was smothered by the joy of not hitting a car.

In disc golf the harder you try, the worse you do.  The trick is to relax and use good technique.  With a smooth release, it was possible to actually throw straight and long down the fairway.  I occasionally accomplished that miracle in my 102 strokes. It’s the same in golf, tennis, bowling, and dozens of other sports.  Relaxed technique beats the heavy-handed, grunting, heave-ho any day.

And so it is in trying to be funny.  A friend and terrific speaker is currently rehearsing a talk for a Regional speech contest in Toastmasters.  Knowing that a good speech will normally have some funny lines in it, he has seeded his speech with about ten laugh lines.  He’s in the process of figuring out how funny the lines are, and which lines are the best.  Next week he’ll be presenting the speech in front of a dozen different audiences.  I suggested that he measure and score the response to each humor line every time he gives the talk.  That’s easiest to do if you record the talk and listen to it later.  The goal would be to remove the weakest lines from the speech.  The bottom line is that Less-Is-More.  Although you might think that weaker lines would make the stronger lines standout, the more likely result is that the weaker lines actually dilute the impact of the better lines when examining their impact on the speech as a whole.  I’d rather have five funny lines in a talk than a dozen lines of mixed quality.

When using toppers, the technique of following one joke with another joke on the same theme, the jokes need to be strong and build.  Comedians often use a joke-topper-topper formula.  Each joke needs to be stronger than the previous one.  A topper which is weaker than the first joke will drain the energy from the routine.
While sharing the platform with Improv and Toastmaster friends, I’ve come to the surprising conclusion that people who have the most trouble with the Less-Is-More rule are usually the ones who are the funniest.  In many cases, they end up being less funny than people who have fewer natural humor skills.  And almost always, trying-too-hard results in them being less funny than they potentially could be. 

The key is Less-Is-More.  Hold back a bit.  Selectively use your best lines.  Don’t try too hard.  Don’t feel a need to be funny.  Don’t beg for laughs.  Don’t feel down if the laughs don’t come.  In the end, you will almost certainly be more funny than would be by trying harder.  Your humor is more likely to hit the mark when you’re relaxed and in the present moment.  Life itself is funny.  You really don’t have to try so hard.  Just live and the humor will happen.  Try too hard and your efforts will get in the way.

Related article:  Be Funny By Not Trying So Hard