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Archive for January, 2007
I recently saw a terrific feature on Speaker Net News titled Getting Good Promo Photos.
Here are some techniques I’ve used to get good audience reaction photos. The challenge with getting a good reaction shot is that even when a photo is taken while an audience is laughing and having a good time; in almost every photo the audience members look stone-faced. The trick is to catch them when they’re REALLY laughing.
The first (big) challenge is to have some belly-laugh segments in your talk. Although I have lots of laughs in a one-hour talk, there may be only five huge laugh spots. These are usually the key punchlines of the main stories, custom-written lines about the group and audience participation segments. Since I know precisely when these moments are, the technique is to provide the photographer a “map” of the talk pinpointing exactly where the photo opportunity spots will be.
I give the photographer an outline of the talk. Within the outline, I give word-for-word cues of the lines which lead up to the photo ops. I orchestrate exactly where I want the photographer to stand (at an angle behind me) to best catch a full-looking audience. As I deliver the line, I’m mentally preparing myself for the photo. At the moment of the photo op, just after the key punchline, I turn my head so the photographer can catch my profile with the audience reaction and not shoot the back of my head. I’ve told the photographer in advance that I want my profile.
I’ve used a similar technique for capturing good video. When I have a video crew I usually prefer a four-camera shoot, with two of the cameras on the audience for the entire talk. I instruct the operators of the audience-cameras to study the audience for those who are very expressive and responsive (who like to laugh and show it). I’ve also given the camera operators a map of the talk. They know precisely when the best reaction spots are coming up. First, I tell them to be on a wide shot (not a close-up) as the target line of dialogue approaches. Second, they should be centered on someone or some cluster of people who look good when laughing. I hit the laugh line. The wave of laughter starts. And the camera operator slowly zooms in for a close-up to center on the person having he most fun. I’ve captured some great video footage.
This may sound like a lot of work, but even a humorist’s talk isn’t loaded from start to finish with gales of laughter. If you want to capture the few magical moments, you have to work at it. You’ll find it a challenge to capture the gems and that the great shots just don’t happen by accident. The reward is worth the effort.
Learning humor is like learning to play the piano. Nearly anyone can learn to make music on the keyboard. Few will be invited to play Carnegie Hall. And likewise, your average person has the ability to sharpen his or her sense of humor through applied study and practice. That’s not to say they’ll ever take the stage as a professional performer of humor.
These conclusions are based on my own experience. I’m a quiet kind of guy, a North Dakota Norwegian who was never the one to crack a joke, make his friends laugh or wear the lamp shade at a party. At the age of 29, with virtually no significant humor skills in my repertoire, I began a dedicated study of the art of humor, how to create it and how to deliver it: Comedy writing seminars, acting classes, dance lessons, magic conventions, improv training, singing coaching, stand-up comedy workshops, and more. And 31 years later I became an overnight success. Even my mother can’t believe it. The chronological numbers mentioned above are not intended as an exercise in addition.
Some humor experts say that not everyone can learn to be funny. Here’s what I think they are saying. First, their point might be that not everyone can become a humor professional. Just as a piano student may never play Carnegie Hall. I agree. Second, their point could be that some people are humor-challenged, as some people are musically tone deaf and would have a hard time learning to master something musical. I’d agree with that too. But I also believe that those who are terminally-humor-challenged are in a VERY small minority and that nearly everyone can become better at using humor than they already are. Therefore, my conclusion: Almost everyone can learn to use humor more effectively.
Sharpening humor skills is like learning anything else. The skill develops gradually. In my humor workshops I encourage people to develop the talent of observational humor. This happens when you decide to focus on your observational skills and put on your “humor hat” at meetings, pen and paper at the ready. As other people speak, you look for connections with other parts of the meeting, the workplace, your own life. I was attending a meeting where two people were announced as recipients of Perfect Attendance Awards…and they weren’t attending the meeting. Nobody saw the humor until I focused the attention on the funny connection. Also, at meetings, you look around the room for possible humorous observations. For example, in a large meeting hall I noticed two signs over an exit door, one above the other. “Restrooms. Capacity 475.” I guess that means there is no waiting. The signs weren’t meant to have that link, but the humorous connection was just waiting for the right set of eyes. The more you look for the humor the more you’ll see it. Can anyone learn to see those humorous connections? I think so. As with most skills, “The better you are…the faster you get better!”
Here’s something to try. The next time you’re at a meeting, challenge yourself to find at least one piece of observational humor by the end of the meeting. In the beginning, you do it just for you. You have no need to present the humor to the group. But eventually, you can look for opportunities to test your humor discoveries by beginning your closing remarks at end of the meeting with a humorous observation. I’ve been regularly doing that since 1979. And now, at the end of a one-hour meeting, I normally come up with a dozen humorous observations. But I started at square one, just like everyone else. I had no magical gift or skill. I learned the skills from scratch. And if I can do it…anyone can.
Before you start using humor from the platform, wouldn’t it be nice to have a way to know that your audience was going to be wonderful? Wouldn’t it be great to know you had the skills to shift course in mid-stream if your humor wasn’t working? Wouldn’t it be terrific if you had a life guard shouting, “Jump in and speak…the laughter is fine!”
Well, there are some things you can do before and during your talk to help yourself test the waters. Measurements are available which will help you evaluate the humor-receptiveness of your audience before you’re in the middle of your favorite story and realize that everyone is staring at you with blank expressions.
Talk to the meeting planner. Ask them about their audience. “Have you had speakers in the past who used humor that the audiences loved? Tell me about their programs. What worked and didn’t work for this audience?” But keep in mind, you can’t always trust your research. I’ve had supposed bad audiences thoroughly enjoy my programs. And I’ve had what I thought would be terrific audiences not live up to expectations. But it’s a good starting point to know something about the audience. And in the long term you’ll become a better judge of the audience’s HQ (humor quotient).
Enjoy mixing. Visit with members of the audience during the reception or mixer which may precede a banquet. And then visit over lunch or dinner. You can gauge, as a group, whether they’re happy or stressed. This occasionally will alert you when you need a small reorganization of your material before you say your first word.
Break the ice. If you’re speaking at a program with no banquet or reception, you can still meet people before you get onstage. Arrive early and chat with people as they come into the room. You’ll get a good feel for the personality of the audience with just a few one-on-one conversations.
Background chatter. If you’ve had no chance to mix and mingle, you can still assess the mood or climate of the audience just by standing at the back of the room and listening. Is the room filled with chatter, laughter, silence? I can usually tell when an audience is going to be great just by listening to the room chatter for fifteen seconds.
Previous speakers. Watch speakers that precede you. Are they funny? If they’re not…should they be? Is it them? Is it the audience? They are testing the waters for you. It’s like watching someone else’s golf putt before you take yours. Go to school on the experience of other people. It will help you to make adjustments before you’re standing in front of a sea of faces.
Study the audience. Watch specific members of the audience before and during your speech. Find the happy faces. Play your funny material to those people. Don’t spend time trying to win the ones challenging you to “make them laugh.”
Introduction humor. I always include two laugh lines in my written introduction. It helps me to assess the willingness of the audience to laugh. The built-in laugh lines in your introduction also set you up with opportunities to to weave humor into your opening while riding on the coat tails of the introduction humor. When I see that my intro humor isn’t working, I quickly analyze: Is it the introducer’s delivery? The pacing? The preoccupation of the audience? Are they still eating? Is it the sound system? Do I need to make a shift in the way I open my talk?
Adjust when you must. Don’t flail around. Don’t force your own agenda. Don’t try to fit your square peg into a round hole. That probably isn’t going to be funny, at least not for the right reasons. Let go of your preconceptions and take a different path.
Not all audiences are the same. Keep in mind that one audience may respond differently than another audience to the same humor. Some may be hooked by stories. Some may love magic. Some hate magic. Some appreciate puns. Some like visual humor using cartoons, props or costume items. Almost all audiences love audience participation humor. I usually open with comedy magic using an audience volunteer in 90 percent of my programs. Even if they aren’t crazy about magic, they almost always love seeing their own friends and co-workers up front having fun. Have more than one type of humor in your arsenal. I have four, short, joke-like stories that always work. I refer to them as fence posts. And I occasionally move them around where I need a sure-fire laugh with an uncertain audience. I also use visual humor with funny newspaper headline slides in most of my talks. Always a winner, they’re usually about halfway to two-thirds of the way into my talk. If I feel a need to grab the audience earlier in the talk, sometimes I’ll move the slides much closer to the opening.
Test the waters. Master mid-course corrections. Reap the laughter.
Here are the winners of the January humor contest selected from 180 entries:
Headlines We’ll Never See!
IRS Appreciation Day Parade to Be Held Saturday.
Angie Brennan, Annapolis MD
US Presidential Job Outsourced to India.
Charles “Curt” Benkendorf, Northwestern University, Evanston/Chicago IL
Hamas leader finally recognizes Israel after receiving a world map for Christmas.
Claudio Almeida, Seixal, Portugal
HONORABLE MENTION (in random order)
White House painted pink to confuse terrorists.
Record Entries to HumorPower Competition Overloads Servers.
Singer 50 Cent devaluated to a Nickel.
Mel Gibson builds Synagogue.
World so screwed up — Down Under is now On Top!
Politician keeps a promise.
Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinski co-author book — Marriage and Fidelity.
Distemper shots help Nancy Grace.
Ratings slump for Donald Trump…Network said, “You’re fired.”
Stevie wonders why he called.
Used Car Salesman of the Year admits he was too honest for political career.
Bigamist blames it on Russian mail order brides 2 for 1 sale.
Red Tape holds up government building.
Borat appointed US Ambassador to Iran.
Cheney accidentally shoots another lawyer, 2 down — thousands to go.
Bush admits that the Ozone Layer is more important than Oil.
Pope proposes Paris Hilton’s beatification.
Ahmadinejad and Bin Laden race for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Courts Close Due to Lack of Lawsuits.
Viewers Cry: We’re Sick of Reality TV — Bring Back Fantasy Island.
President Bush Delivers Eloquent Speech.
Britney Spears Named Role Model for 2007.
Madonna Sponsors Line of Designer Smocks.
Convention Members Attend All Scheduled Meetings While in Town — Las Vegas Casinos Forced To Close.
Hunter postpones travel plans to have Thanksgiving dinner with his family.
Hillary Clinton selects Monica Lewinski to be Campaign Chairman.
Great Tragedy — Boy eats shark.
Congress takes a salary cut.
Whirlpool announces Global A/C Unit to combat Global Warming. Al Gore to endorse. Possible movie in the works.
Parents outraged at proposed sale of baby beer.
Shopper Injured by Fall Won’t Sue; Blames Own Clumsiness.
Trump To Open Hair Salon Chain.
** Look for our next contest on February 1.
When speaking in public, what is the perfect audience size for delivering humor?
I generally tell Toastmasters who are competing in a humorous speech contest: The most challenging contest is at the Club level. As you move to the Area, Division and District, the contests get easier. This is not only because, with practice, your speech gets better, but also because the size of the audience gets bigger. A typical Club Contest might have ten people attending. An Area Contest maybe 30. A Division Contest might have 50 people. And at a District Contest we might find 150 people. These figures can be higher or lower depending on the District or the Region, but this example shows a typical increase in audience size as you win and move forward.
Because of the contagious nature of laughter, a larger audience is better for getting laughs from your funny lines. Would you rather deliver humor to 10 people or 150? Most people who have a track record with various size audiences will always pick the larger audience.
So the general answer to that is that larger audiences are usually more responsive than smaller audiences. But that rule does not always apply.
Let’s apply the rule of extrapolation. Let’s compare an audience size of 100 people to both larger and smaller audiences.
Taking the principle of extrapolation to the extreme, we can draw two conclusions. An audience of 100 is better than an audience of one. If you want to bomb, try delivering a standup routine to one person in a comedy club. Then try the same routine for 100 people. Larger audiences are better. Next let’s extrapolate in the other direction. An audience of 100 is better than an audience of 55,000. Try delivering your comedy routine in as an opener for a Rock Star in a sports arena. Smaller audiences are better. The law of extrapolation gives us the answer to the question, “Are large or small audiences better.” The answer: It depends.
Before I tell you that there is no magic number, let me share with you what I think is the best audience for delivering humor. Two hundred people. Generally, I’ll feel good going into a speech knowing that there will be between 150 and 350 people. It’s a comfortable humor range. But even those figures are not set in stone.
Here are some factors that cause the ideal audience to vary in size.
The wave response. While the rule is that a larger-sized audience is usually better, as we extrapolate to higher numbers we run smack into the principle of the wave factor. With large audience, usually starting with 400 – 1000 audience members, the audience response to the humor starts to come in waves. One part of the audience hears the funny line first, or understands it first…another part of the audience is a little slower and their laughter kicks in as they hear the first group laughing. If you’ve never experienced this, it can throw your timing off. Laughter response is better if the response is unified and not coming in waves. And here’s an example of the wave response which has nothing to do with audience size: Bi-lingual audiences. You tell a joke. An interpreter translates the joke. Those who speak your language laugh first. Those who speak the other language laugh later. The wave response becomes a factor that influences the perfect-size audience calculation.
Size matters. As a general rule, it’s important to have a room that is the right size for the audience. An improv show with 75 people attending will be a dynamite show if set in a room that is the right size, that feels like a comfortable full-house. Take the same show and move the same 75 people to a theatre that seats 600, and you’ll most likely have to downgrade your expectations for audience response. This is why reserving the right venue for a speech, a contest, or a show, is so critical to the success of the humor.
The shape of things. The room could be in the shape of an L. This would prevent many of the audience members from seeing each other. Another shape factor is the height of the ceiling. Generally speaking, lower ceilings trap the energy and magnify it. At a speech for 4,000 people (like the Bill Gates speech I attended this week) will likely be in a huge ballroom with really high ceilings. From a humor standpoint, this is not good. It sucks the energy out of the laughter. This is why outdoor settings are horrible for humor.
Room Arrangement. Banquet seating can be a plus or a minus. Round tables increase the contagious nature of laughter because people can see others in the audience laughing. BUT if the audience is over 1000 people, theatre-style seating is much better because it concentrates the laughter rather than dilutes it in a huge banquet hall. A heavily draped room is bad for acoustics and reduces the contagious factor because energy is absorbed by the decor.
Humor in the Headlights. Because of the contagious nature of laughter, a well lit room generally plays better than a dark room. Many people mistakenly think a dark room is better because they they’re conditioned by comedy clubs with a spotlight-lit stage in a dark room. That kind of thinking also leads people to the conclusion that sex jokes are the best way to get laughs. Neither conclusion is correct. We always play our comedy improv shows to a lit room. The audience response is better.
Cohesiveness. A small audience who knows each other is better than a large audience who are strangers to each other. Part of this is the comfort level created in what I call a cohesive audience. Part of this is because of the common knowledge foundation on which humor can be based. Sometimes the cohesiveness of the audience results from the simple fact that the audience has been attending the same convention. An audience of 100 people attending their fourth day of a convention will be a better audience for humor than an audience of 200 people attending the opening event of the same convention. Larger is not always better.
Is humor best delivered to a larger audience or a smaller audience?
800 people seated theatre style is better than 1000 people seated banquet style. Smaller is better.
500 people in a theater with 500 seats is better than 100 people in the same theater. Larger is better.
100 people that speak your language is better than 300 people who speak three different languages. Smaller is better.
800 people in a lit room is better than 300 people in a dark room. Larger is better.
100 people from the same company is better than 200 people from all walks of life. Smaller is better.
200 people in a room with a low ceiling is better than 100 people in a room with a low ceiling. Larger is better.
Get the idea. It depends.
So the optimal audience size for humor? Between 150 – 350. Unless the room is dark, the ceiling is high, the banquet tables are rectangular, the room is a long and narrow, nobody knows the person seated next to them, and half the audience doesn’t speak your language. When that’s the case, the optimal size is different.
The key element of humor skills is the ability to connect the dots. It’s the ability to see relationships which the average person doesn’t immediately see. At the core of nearly every joke is the connection of how things are related or how they are not related.
Look at the classic Henny Youngman line, “Take my wife…please!” Its trigger is the connection of the two different meanings of the word take, which provides the unexpected twist. When you study Gary Larson cartoons you see a frequent connection of animals and human characteristics. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” That line connects the obvious (to get to the other side) with the more complicated answer for which we usually begin searching when first challenged with the riddle.
Someone with a great sense of humor is able to see things in a different light because of the connections they make. Remember that a sense of humor is not telling jokes. A sense of humor is a way of looking at life. It’s all about perspective.
A sense of humor helps you to see relationships in a way that allows you to do an attitude shift. A person may believe that his or her positive attitude is important for a happy and balanced life. A positive attitude could be labeled a great attitude. A great attitude might shift into the word gratitude (GR-ATITUDE). For ages, success gurus have told us that gratitude is one of the keys to a fulfilling life. It shifts the thinking to the things we want most in life. Decades ago, Earl Nightingale (The Strangest Secret) told us that “you become what you think about.” That’s the core message of current popular motivational DVD, The Secret, referred to as the Law of Positive Attraction. We’ve heard that concept for decades from Dennis Waitley, Anthony Robbins, Brian Tracy and others. The idea is not really new, it’s just another reminder of an important principle of life. Appreciate what you have and it will draw more of the same to you. Have a great attitude…gratitude.
A fringe benefit of exercising your sense of humor (writing jokes, cartoon captions, observational humor lines) is that you develop the ability to twist your thinking. Anytime you’re having a difficult time with something or someone, you always need to remember “there’s another way of looking at this problem.” The humor habit helps you to avoid tunnel vision. It helps you break out of the customary ways of thinking.
I attended a family funeral about ten months ago for my father’s youngest sister, Florence. It was a wonderful service and the reunion of family members was an occasion filled with wonderful memories and lots of laughing. Florence had a great sense of humor. At family gatherings, like a funeral, you often hear the expression “we need to get together more often, not just at funerals and weddings!” And it occurred to me, I’m really not much concerned with who comes to MY funeral. I’d much prefer that people would come see me while I’m alive! When I die…go bowling. That thought made me smile. It gave me a different perspective. It helped me to realize that sometimes I’m not as good about taking the time to go see other people as I should be. Go see the people you care about while you can. Enjoy the company of those you love while they’re still around. Stress less. Play more with the people that matter. Humor helps shape outlook. It helps us to focus on the things most important to us. The ability to make connections can help us to shape a great attitude. It can help us to live the present moment with gratitude.
One of my favorite sayings is that great speaking skills give you the illusion of competence. The flip side: Poor speaking skills give you the illusion of incompetence! If your presentation skills are weak, you will probably appear less than competent even if you happen to be a master of the subject matter.
I received Rick Carruth’s Magic Roadshow Newsletter, January 2007 issue, with an article that drives home the connection between confidence and competence. Rick includes a link to magician Darren Brown’s video who is performing a psychic demonstration for a group of strangers. Darren admits in the introduction to the video that he is NOT a psychic. But if you’re not familiar with his techniques, you’d probably say “Wow…this guy really has some psychic talent!” On the other hand, if you’re a seasoned magician, you may have read a couple of books on Cold Reading (the performing skills that make it possible to LOOK like you’re a psychic). If that were the case, you would realize that some fairly simple techniques give the performer the confidence to perform in a believable fashion. This confident performance by the magician leads the audience to think that the performer IS a competent psychic. Confidence creates the illusion of competence.
You can check out Rick’s newsletter, paragraph one, for a short piece on the art of cold reading with some interesting links. It’s a great newsletter if you’re a magician, or exploring the possibility of taking up the art of magic, or if you are simply a speaker who likes to be exposed to information which helps you to think outside-the-box. Subscribe at www.MagicRoadshow.com.
When it comes to public speaking or delivering humor from the platform, since you’ve worked hard to become an expert on your subject matter, remember also the importance of sharpening your delivery skills. Your platform speaking skills are the vehicle for delivering your message. With the skills, polish and natural delivery (which does not happen naturally for most speakers), your message will ring true and your reputation will shine. Taking the time to gain top-notch speaking skills is an investment that will pay off.
Bill Gates was speaking in Las Vegas tonight, January 7, and I had a ticket. Arriving almost four hours early guaranteed me a seat about 100 yards from the speaking platform. Thank goodness for big-screen projection. The crowd and the lines were something like a Rolling Stones concert. Except there were more geeks. About an hour from the start of the program I doubted they’d be able to get everyone into their seats…but magically they did. And the speech started pretty much on time.
As the time for the keynote presentation of the 40th Anniversary Consumer Electronic Show approached, I wondered how much humor, if any, Bill Gates would use. I expected that he would use humor in some way to open his talk. As I watched him speak it was obvious that, although brilliant, he is not a comedian. But he does have a very good sense of humor. Remember that a sense of humor is more than just telling jokes. The strength of his delivery is in his casual and connected style. He steps out from the lectern. No barriers between him and the huge audience. He was casually dressed. No coat. No tie. Open-collar dress shirt.
If you’re not a comic, opening a speech with humor, or more specifically jokes, can be risky. Also, there is additional risk when the audience is more diverse than cohesive, coming from a variety of backgrounds and not really knowing other members of the audience. Humor often depends on a certain degree of common experience. In addition, as the opening keynoter, there was little chance to use a situational or observational piece of humor. About the only common experience of the group was waiting together in one line, then moving to another line, then another…before entering the hall. Because of those considerations, using humor to open the talk was a challenge.
Here’s how he handled it. He had a 3-4 minute video which was used to introduce him. A perfect choice. The video was the vehicle for carrying his opening humor. It had clips from previous keynotes, talk show interviews, bloopers, dancing, goofing around…all designed to gently poke fun at him while also humanizing him. He didn’t need a big credibility-building introduction, as he is already a legend. The humorous, fun-style introduction video was ideal. It helped the audience to relax and to realize that he is more like us than he is different from us (if we don’t compare bank accounts).
As he took the stage following the video, he opened with two light jokes which got some laughs. He kept the flow and energy of the talk moving with video clips and alternating other speakers from the Microsoft staff. Within the body of his talk there was additional humor designed to poke fun at himself and the Microsoft founders. In all about 6 or 7 laughs during the talk. Enough to add a light-hearted touch to an otherwise somewhat-techno talk.
It was a successful keynote, his 10th for CES, sharing exciting innovations we’ll see in 2007. He held the attention of the audience throughout. He didn’t take himself too seriously. He connected. We liked him. It was obvious to me that Bill Gates IS a man with a good sense of humor. Well done.
Here’s a link to a great post on Bert Decker’s blog, Top Ten (Best and Worst) Communicators of 2006. You’ll enjoy and learn from the analysis of the good and bad examples from twenty speakers.
Bert is a communications expert of the highest level. Check out his book, You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard, one of the top presentation-skills books available anywhere. Also visit Create Your Communications Experience, Bert Decker’s Blog.