Masterful Presentation Skills — Public Speaking and Humor

Today I had the amazing experience of watching a master in action, once again.  I attended the Patricia Fripp Speaking and Presentation Skills School.  After a combined 55 years of National Speakers Association and Toastmasters experience, I have to say that the Fripp Speakers School is the best speakers training workshop I’ve ever attended.  Solid content, no fluff and brilliant, laser-focused coaching.  Many of Fripp’s coaching suggestions were laser-focused and amazed those of us in the audience.  It’s no wonder that people take the class again and again.  I attended her November school and this weekend I’m one of the repeat students.  Tomorrow morning I return for the second day of the class.

Although the primary focus of the two-day school was not Humor
Skills, most of the concepts could be applied to make you a more
humorous speaker.  Here are a few gems from Fripp’s speaker school
and some comments on how they relate to the design and presentation of humor.  This article appeared four months ago in our ezine but has not been previously published in our blog.

1.  Never open a speech with a joke!  Great suggestion.  Everything in a speech should have a point and purpose.  A joke, just for the laughs, is out of place in a formal speech. Yes, it’s great to open with humor, but do it with a humorous story that has a payoff which ties into the theme of your talk.

2.  Rapport covers flaws.  When giving a talk, whether you’re
getting laughs or motivating the audience, don’t worry about being
perfect.  It’s nice to be prepared, but perfection is not a requirement.  In fact, an occasional stumble makes you a real person.  Audiences identify with someone who is real. The audience likes someone who is real.  And when people like you, it’s easier to be funny.

3.  Stand still at the opening of your talk.  The eye goes to
movement and not sound.  In your opening you want the focus to be
on your carefully crafted words.  Likewise, when you’re delivering
your humorous punchline, it is best if you are not moving.  Your
set-up is likely  filled with animation and gestures.  And the space AFTER the punchline is delivered, is often punched up with movement, your physical reaction to the punchline, called a take. But the punchline itself is best delivered with no movement. Movement attracts attention and diverts focus from the key words which will activate the laugh.

4.  Eliminate unnecessary words.   A basic rule of humor:  The
fewer words between the start of a funny story or joke and the
punchline, the better.  Keep your wording tight and you’ll get more laughs.  A long, wordy story better have a huge laughter payoff or you’re in trouble.  If the punchline is weak and the setup is long, the expression is that the punchline is carrying too much baggage.  Trim and tighten for best results.

5.  When crafting the opening to a speech, ask yourself, “what are
they thinking?”  That’s also the key to good observational humor.
If you can determine what people are noticing, and what they are
thinking about what they are noticing, you have the seed for a good
humor line.  When you can tap a universal truth, in the form of a
common thought, humor almost comes automatically.  Often all you
need to do is just state the obvious.  They laugh, as they think,
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing!”

6.  When you have the right words, the speech is so much easier to
deliver.  And so it is with humor.  A well-word-smithed humor story
will have the right rhythm and punch that the delivery will flow
easily and naturally.  You will find it easier to relax and enjoy
the experience of sharing the story without having to stress over
the word selection.

7.  Know your speech so well that you can forget it.  Also with a
humor story, know key parts of your setup and punchline so well
that it comes to you without thinking.  It allows you to be “in the
moment” and connect with your audience.

8.  Specificity equals believability.  A car is funnier than a
vehicle.  A Yugo is funnier than a car.  A yellow Yugo is even

9.  When designing your speech, tie your closing back to your
opening scene
.  Often, I open and close a talk with humor. I call
the process “bookending”.  I like to have bookends on each end of
the speech.  The bookends are similar, that is they match.  In gave
a speech where I open with a funny line involving an 800 toll-free
telephone number.  At the end of the speech I close with a
different 800 phone number story.

10.  Your audience remembers the mental images that you create.
People think in pictures.  Paint a funny picture and your humor
stories will come to life.

11.  Speakers should avoid misusing technology.  A speaker can
misuse PowerPoint, thinking that the computer program is the key
element of the presentation (instead of the actual message and
delivery).  Likewise, I’ve observed that speakers who want to
include humor in their presentations often misuse props.  They rely
on the prop to create and carry the humor, just as a speaker could
rely on PowerPoint to be the main focus of the speech.  For
example, when a red clown nose used to get a laugh solely for the
sake of wearing a clown nose, a speaker is falling short of the
humor potential the clown nose could have if it were blended into a
powerful humor story.

12. The pause gives people a chance to think about what you’ve said
and to internalize it.  In delivering humor, the pause is what lets
people process the relationships and connections that trigger the
laughs.  Without the pause after the punchline, you don’t give the
laughter a chance.  You subconsciously tell people that there is
nothing funny and that they’re not supposed to laugh.  The pause is
one of your most powerful assets when delivering humor.

13.  Use verbal shorthand to give your characters a back-story.
Describe someone or something with a label that brings with it a
rich combination of characteristics.  I have a story about an 80
year old man who gave me some unsolicited advice.  I could say that
I was approached by a  “George Patton style WWII Colonel,” because
as we talked I discovered that he was a retired Colonel who served
in WWII, and that description accurately pictured his authoritarian

14.  Make them like your characters.  As you build your characters,
do more than just describe them.  Give the audience a reason to
like them.  In a funny story, just as the audience needs to like
you, they also need to like and care about the characters you
include in the story.

15.  Your life is a comedy routine.  Develop your own original
humor.  Your life is a goldmine of humorous experiences.  Dump the
jokes and tell your own rich, humorous stories.

16.  When looking for interesting stories from your past, ask
yourself what questions do people ask about your job or past
experiences?  I realized that I have 17 years experience as a
nuclear weapons launch officer and have never included any
experiences from that part of my life in my speeches.  I’ve been working on developing some humorous material from that part of my life since attending the first school and my next speech will include some of this new material.   Certainly there are some story gems from those many years of working at such an unusual job that my audiences would find interesting or fascinating.

17.  A movie must have “five moments.”  What are the “five moments” from your speech that people will be talking about afterwards.  If you use funny stories, some of those “five moments” will most likely be the laugh points in your stories.  People remember best what they laugh about.

18.  If you want to learn something, teach it to others.  She
specifically recommended taking what we learned from the speaking
school and teaching it to others.  I told her I’d write an article about what I learned and apply it to using humor.  She said, “Great idea.”  So here it is.

For more information about Patricia Fripp’s Speaking and
Presentation Skills School visit

Related Articles:

The Use of Timing to Make Your Humor Connect

Humor Presentation Skills — Natural Delivery

Be Funny by not Trying So Hard