Can Anyone Learn to Be Funny? Humor Skills and Public Speaking

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.