Humor Skills and Public Speaking

Riding the Wave

It takes less energy to move a body already in motion than to move a body at rest.  Likewise, it’s much easier to keep an audience laughing which is already laughing, than it is to get a seriously stone-faced audience to start laughing.  We’re talking about the principle of momentum applied to humor skills and public speaking delivery.

Here are some tips related to momentum and humor:

1.  It’s a good idea to include humor in your formal introduction.  When your introducer uses a couple of laugh lines while introducing you, it warms up the audience and gets them laughing.  It sets them in motion.  It gets the wave started.  And your opening line will be funnier when the audience has already been laughing.  Look for some humor you can slip into your introduction.

2.  The principle of momentum is understood when arranging the agenda for Toastmasters Humorous Speech Contests.  Often times the Toastmaster of the event (the MC) will use humor to get the audience laughing.  If this is not the case, the first speaker will be at a disadvantage.  She or he will be speaking to a cold audience and, in effect, will be the audience warm-up speaker for the other contestants.  It’s important that the Toastmaster of the Contest not be the humor star of the event.  The person filling that role should use just a bit of humor so the audience is ready for the first speaker.  That sets the scene and gets the wave rolling for the contestants to shine.

3.  The Wave Principle gains power from the common experience of the audience. Here, the contagious-nature-of-laughter principle comes into play. One person laughs.  Then two more people laugh, because the one person next to them is laughing.  And then more people laugh.  In a very large audience, the wave principle becomes even more noticeable as the wave of laughter washes over the entire audience.  The experienced humor presenter is comfortable riding the wave.  He or she takes time to let the wave flow and is careful not to step on the laughter.  Let the audience laugh.  Stop talking.  And then resume your speech just before the laughter dies.  Do not wait until the laughter is completely gone.  You want to keep the momentum and energy going.  Therefore you don’t want to stop the wave at its peak, nor do you want to let it die completely.

4.  The Wave Principle also applies to observational humor.  One of the observational humor triggers is the category I call “Something Funny.”  As a trigger for observational humor, this does not imply that YOU say something funny, but rather that you notice something amusing that someone else says (before you take the platform) that tickles the funny bone of the audience. This sets things in motion.  And later in the program when it’s your turn to speak, there will still be a ripple you can use to get the wave rolling again.  This also is an example of the common-experience factor in action, which was mentioned in paragraph 3; the audience had the common experience of laughing together at something funny earlier in the program, which primes them to laugh at your observational remark.

5.  The principle of the Topper is based on the Wave Principle.  A topper is a joke riding on the coat tails of another joke, usually on the same theme.  I remember a great set of lines by the flamboyant Donald Maltby (Philip Charles MacKenzie) in the Showtime sitcom, Brothers, from the early 1980s.  Donald hated boxing, and is introduced to a boxer.  His response, while trying to be friendly and positive, is:  “Oh, boxing!  My favorite sport…where people hit each other…in the head.”  This is a good example of the structure: Joke-Topper-Topper.  Success also depended on delivery with the right attitude, with perfect timing, by a colorful character.  But the structure is also one of the reasons that these lines worked so well.  The sequence of Joke-Topper-Topper is usually designed so that each topper in fact “tops” the previous line, hence the name Topper.  Keeping the momentum and building on it.  The lines ride the wave and add energy to it.  And the laughter flows.