Testing the Waters — Humor and Public Speaking

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.