Organic Humor — Better Than Jokes

David Brooks spoke in Las Vegas this past weekend on Eight Essentials of Effective Speaking.  He is the Toastmasters 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking.  More importantly he is an inspiring, informative and entertaining speaker.  He connects with a natural and conversational style.  I had heard that he was an awesome speaker…and he was.

What most caught my attention was that he averaged of about two audience laughs a minute during his 90-minute speech. This is impressive because he was speaking to inform and inspire, not primarily to entertain.  Keep in mind that a standup comedian who scores three to four laughs a minute is doing a great job…and that’s his primary job!  A speaker who gets two laughs a minute is almost unheard of.

Not only did he get lots of laughs, they were good laughs, not just polite titters.  And he did it without telling jokes.  He achieved humor organically.  Let me explain.

A joke is a stand-alone piece of humor.  If a joke is used in a speech, it’s something that has its own structure and could probably be told around the water cooler at work the next day.  A joke is probably not dependent on the context of the speech to make it work.  In fact a joke is often a set-up/punchline bit that was often heard somewhere else and then dropped into a speech.

Organic humor springs from the context of the talk.  In fact, it’s so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the talk you almost don’t notice it.  It’s there.  It’s keeping you engaged.  But if you were asked to write down all the humor you heard in the talk you probably couldn’t remember much of it.  Organic humor blends into the talk and becomes one of the enjoyable but often invisible parts of the speech.  It’s unlikely you’ll repeat any organic humor lines to your friends the next day because, even if you could remember the lines,  “you had to be there” for them to be funny.  Separated from the context of the speech, organic humor loses its power.  Within the context of the talk, its power is amazingly magnified.  For most speakers, this is great.  What we want remembered are our points and not our jokes anyway.

One quick example of organic humor:  David told us that his web site was  He explained that is owned by a pottery maker.  “So if you are looking for some pottery, go to…but if you just want a crock…” 

This is a fun piece of humor which:
    1.  Plays with the double meaning of the word crock.
    2.  Uses self-deprecation.
    3.  Re-enforces the proper web site.

What followed were three more customized humor bits about his name; all organic humor relevant to the context of David’s speech, and which would have made no sense if another speaker tried to “borrow” the lines for his or her speech.

As I listened to his talk, it hit me:  He was using lines that I’d use as an observational humorist if I were watching his talk and preparing comments for later.  In fact, a few times (maybe six or seven) I picked up an observational humor insight from one of his sentences and then…like magic…it was the next line he delivered.  It was a Wow Moment for me.  After 30 years of studying, using and teaching observational humor, it was the first time “a light bulb” went on as a result of seeing someone over-laying observational humor onto his own speech!  I was amazed.  (A recent blog post discussed creating observational humor at a recent Patricia Fripp event.)

Now I’m not saying his punch lines were obvious.  Definitely not.  In a 90-minute talk with maybe 170 laugh moments, I rarely saw the punch line coming.  And the average person probably never saw the humor coming because, like most people, the study of humor isn’t their life.  All they knew was that David Brooks was a fun and likable speaker who was easy to listen to. 

The Ah-Ha for me was to re-examine my talks using my observational-humor skills to pinpoint new humor lines.  These are skills which are not exactly the same as the skills I use to develop humorous stories, cartoon captions or monologues.  And in the past, I’ve normally limited my observational humor talents to developing opening lines for my talks and to create closing monologues for events at which I’m only a spectator.  Thank you David for modeling a skill that provided me with a terrific learning moment.

So when you practice your observational humor skills…remember that you are creating a tool that:
     You’ll be able to use to open your speech with comments about what happened prior to the start of your talk.
     You’ll find handy for creating a fresh and humorous transition into any closing remarks you may make at the end of a meeting.
     You’ll can use to develop an entertaining observational monologue after someone else’s talk.
     You’ll be able to use to increase the laughter throughout your entire talk by adding organic humor.