Writing a Funny Speech

I received some great questions from a reader who is also a competitor in Toastmaster speech contests.

1.  What is more important: laughs per minute or humor quality?

I’d say they’re generally linked.  Quality humor gets more laughs.  Keys to quality are:
  – Your writing
  – Your confidence
  – Your timing
And not necessarily in that order!  Great timing and confidence can often make up for writing that isn’t top notch.

2.  How many laughs do you shoot for?  How many applauses do you hope to get at the district level?  (The TM District level is the fourth step of competition and normally the highest level for the humor contests.)

My observation is that a typical district winner gets 12 percent response rate.  I time both the length of the speech and the audience response segments to get my percentage.  I once had a 33 percent response rate at a Regional contest for an audience of 300 people (they used to have contests one level above District, but TM no longer sponsors contests at that level).  I’d say anything from 15-20 percent is very competitive, and probably a winner.  On the subject of applause, it takes a VERY strong line, usually a line customized specifically for that audience, to get applause in the middle of a speech.  I rarely see that in my presentations or the presentations of others.  For me, applause is never a goal, it’s just a rare measure of quality.

3.  Can you tell us more on the topic of laughs per minute?

A stand up comic shoots for at least 3-4 laughs a minute.   Even more is better and top comics will get more.  I prefer the response percentage approach because it pays attention to the length of the laughter.  A lot of small laughs, or titters, are not worth much.  It’s the huge laughs that really pay off.  In a speech, I’d rather have one huge laugh a minute than 6 small laughs.  In reality, a good speech will have a mixture of small, medium and (hopefully) some big laughs.  If I were to count laughs I would use a scoring system:
titter one second                  1 point
medium laugh 2-3 seconds   3 points
strong laugh 4-5 seconds     5 points
huge laugh over 5 seconds   8 points
It’s not a science, but the weights I’ve assigned seem appropriate to me.  The quality of the laughs have to be weighted to make the laugh-count system accurate.  That’s why I prefer to just use a ratio.  To calculate the ratio, I play a recording of the speech starting/stopping a stopwatch while the audience is responding.  Then I do the math to come up with the response ratio (divide the total audience response time by the total length of the speech).  Although I used to calculate a response ratio all the time, I don’t do that much anymore.  Now, I pretty much intuitively know the ratio after a speech is over.

4. What type of humor do you find generates an applause?

Often it’s observational, spontaneous or customized humor written just for that group.  The strongest line in the 33-percent speech was an ad lib about the food service at the banquet the night of the contest.

5. What is the criteria that you use to rank certain speech topics and ideas to be contest worthy?

I look for a seed idea that has the potential to generate lots of humor lines.  I usually come up with a seed and let it germinate for a year before I use it.  Although I usually write my humorous speeches just a few days before the first contest, I’ve normally been thinking about it for a year.

6. Any special tips to making storytelling work in a humorous speech?

Be a lifetime student.  Get books, CDs, go to workshops.  Do everything you can to improve your skills.  Be a life-long TM.  I joined TM in 1973.  I recommend Doug Stevenson’s How To Write and Deliver a Dynamite Speech.  Doug is a master story coach.

7.  Should I try humor that is not my style?  Should I stretch myself or keep developing my skills as a storyteller.

Do both.  Yes, stretch yourself.  Do something out of your comfort zone.  And continue to work on storytelling skills.  For important speeches, go with your strength.  For growth, try things outside your comfort zone.  In my opinion, speech contests are growth experiences.  Although when you reach the District-level finals, the speech begins to feel like it’s in the important category!   When I say important speech, I generally mean something like an presentation to the board of directors, an important sales presentation, a professional talk where you’re being paid good money to speak.

8.  I’m going to keep trucking along and writing speeches.  I’ve written 3 funny ones so far, although not good enough to win a Division Contest in my opinion.

Always compete.  In ALL the contests, not just humor.  Don’t take the results seriously…win or lose.  You’ll know when you’ve given a great speech.  The audience is the true judge…not the judges.  The judges don’t pick the best speech, they just pick the winner.  It’s important to be addicted to the process not the trophy!  Go for the growth, not the affirmation of the judges.  Humor is definitely a learned skill.  I’ve learned it from square one.  And if I can learn it, anyone can.  Of course I’ve been studying it for 31 years.  But I started getting pretty good at it, and developed a reputation for humor, after about three years of study and competition.  The results are worth the effort.

9.  Any final thoughts on becoming better at using humor?

If your TM club has a joke master, throw it out the window.  Instead, have an observational humor segment at the end of the meeting.  It’s fun and everyone sharpens their humor skills.