Speaking Tips: Don't Be Funny

For many years, I’ve quietly mentored a few speakers in the industry. Nothing big, nothing formal, just periodically I’d find somebody that wanted to get in front of audiences and speak, and either they’d ask me some questions or I’d get the feeling that they were open to some suggestions, and things would sort of go from there. Now, as I start to wind down my speaking career (some), I thought I’d post some ideas and suggestions I’ve had over the years.

This time, it’s about humor. Or the lack thereof.

Recently, I watched a presentation by a speaker (nobody I will name, to protect the guilty) who tried—oh, so very hard, he tried—to be funny. But his jokes just weren’t landing with his audience, and he grew visibly more and more nervous with every bombing joke, until finally he either ran out of material or ran out of courage, finished his talk, and bolted for the door as soon as he could.

It was really a painful process for everybody.

Which leads me to my next speaking tip: Don’t be funny.

Or, rather: Don’t be funny, unless you know how to be funny, and by that I mean you have actually studied how to be funny.

Don’t quit your day job

It’s a hidden desire we all (or many, anyway) have: to be standing in a group of laughing people, tossing off quip after quip, telling story after story, to peals of laughter and amusement. To be funny, it seems, is so easy—just find the right jokes, toss off the right comments at the right time, and lo-and-behold, everybody laughs, and who doesn’t love somebody that makes you laugh?

(Matter of fact, remember, we learned that lesson in Aladdin? Genie tried to tell Aladdin to reveal his true identity to Princess Jasmine because “A woman loves a man who can make her laugh!” He refused, of course, and ended up having to out-trick the Vizier/sorceror/evil-genie at the end of the movie instead. Shoulda run with the Genie’s advice, Al!)

Unfortunately, when the would-be comedian tries to be funny, it often backfires horribly, with what seemed so funny when you told that joke among your friends last week instead just draws blank stares from the room. Yikes! Maybe they just didn’t hear it, so you try the punchline again. Nothing. Hmm. OK, let’s try one more….

That gurgling sound you hear in the background is the sound of a talk, going down, for the final time. Or, in some cases, it’s drowned out by the “whooshing” sound of flames erupting in the back from somebody who really did not care for the supposed joke, because it wasn’t really all that funny, and in fact it was downright offensive.

I know: You want to be funny. You really, really want to entertain the audience as much as educate them, and that’s a good thing, generally. (Actually, it’s almost always a good thing—if it can be done well.) But, like many things speaking-related, it’s never as easy as it seems on the surface, and if you’re committed to a speaker persona of one who will make the room laugh, then you need to commit to learning the “science” of being funny.

Being funny is no joking matter

No, seriously—you think standup comedians are funny by accident? Or that they’re just somehow more talented? No way. They practice, and I don’t mean with their friends. The funny people actually go out and practice their jokes on strangers. Many of the world’s funniest comedians continue to do stand-up in small, out-of-the-way clubs, where they can try their newest material, judge the results, and tweak it (the material, the delivery, the pacing, whatever) in time for the next show. In fact, some of them will even play around with the material during their “big” shows (in Vegas, for example), because nobody ever goes to the same stand-up comedian’s show twice in a row, right?

Let me be entirely transparent with you—a few years ago, I had a small accident while I was in Riga to do the keynote at the first RigaDevDays show. The full story is here if you want to read it. The admission of honesty comes in the fact that by the time I wrote all that down, I had my “story” (that is to say, the entire joke, all however-many-pages of it) down to a near-science. I knew exactly where I wanted to pause for breath, where I wanted to pause for effect (to let people either relax before the next big moment of tension, or to help build the suspense back up, and so on. I wouldn’t call it memorized, but it was damn close.

Why? Well, partly because it’s kinda funny, and partly because it’s a way to help defuse what could’ve been a really sad story into something that we can all enjoy. (I mean, seriously, I had a shard of bone broken off from my upper right arm while I was abroad in a country whose language I spoke not one word of. There’s some horror stories that start that way.)

But the more salient question is, How? How did I get it to the point where, if I tell it just right, I have people laughing so hard they have tears coming out of their eyes? Easy: I practiced it. Over and over again, watching their body language, watching how they paid attention at parts and sort of “wandered off” at points. (Keep the former, speed up through the latter.) The first time I told it, it was much more factually-driven; now, it’s all about getting to the punch lines, after suitable build-up.

How does one get to be the funniest person in the room? Practice, practice, practice.

Want to know something else? While most of the world finds Venkat Subramaniam to be an incredibly funny speaker, I don’t. Not because I don’t like the guy—far from it, he’s one of my closest friends in the world. I don’t find him funny for the same reason that his kids don’t find him funny (or why my kids don’t find me all that funny): I’ve heard all his jokes before. He’s practiced, just as I have, year over year, and discovered (as I have!) that sometimes the joke you didn’t intend is actually the funniest joke.

Some basics of humor

So assuming I haven’t turned you off of attempting humor in your presentation entirely, let me leave you with a few tidbits on what being funny really means.

Let me start with an example; suppose I walk up to you at a conference and say, “What did one programmer say to the other? Byte me!”, chances are good that you’re going to just kind of sit there and look at me and wonder what the hell I’m doing. It’s just not that funny. Why?

  • Most humor is rooted in truth. Frankly, the funnier jokes are the ones that have some basis in reality, and particularly, a reality that is shared and felt closely by its audience. The classic stand-up line, “Take my wife…. please!” only worked in the Vaudeville world, where “Take my (whatever)” was a common and classic opening line to a bit, and it only worked in audiences where husband-wife tension was all-too-common. It doesn’t work all that well today largely because neither of those two things is really all that common anymore. “Byte me” doesn’t work because while we do deal in bytes all the time, we don’t see the spelling of it out loud, and the context here isn’t obvious so as to recognize the antonym.

  • Most humor relies on surprise and/or a “twist”. Consider the classic joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side!” Or my sister’s favorite joke when she was about five years old (through about 15 or so—she loved this one looooong after it was funny): “Why did the elephant stand on the marshmallow? So he wouldn’t fall into the hot chocolate!” Both of these jokes rely on the “twist”, the surprise that comes out of nowhere, relying on some tangential angle of the word or phrase or situation that isn’t where we expect the joke to go. “Byte me” works maybe a little bit here, in that we don’t expect programmers to be hostile when they just walk up to each other, and “Bite me!”, the word play starting point, is pretty obviously a confrontational phrase.

  • Humor can also rely on a surprise interpretation of the normal. Consider a classic: “How many (whatever)s does it take to change a light bulb?” Here, the “twist” is that we’re going to interpret something about this everyday situation differently. Such as:

    • Actors “Only one. They don’t like to share the spotlight.”
    • Feminists “One! And it’s not funny!”
    • Software developer “None; the lights are fine here on my machine!”
    • Armies “At least five. The Germans to start it, the French to give up really easily after only trying for a little while, the Italians to make a start, get nowhere, and then try again from the other side, the Americans to turn up late and finish it off and take all the credit, and the Swiss to pretend nothing out of the ordinary is happening.”
    • Psychologist “One, but the light bulb really has to want to change.”
    • Administrative assistants “None. I can’t do anything unless you complete a lightbulb design change request form.”
    • Technical support “None; we just need to reboot the room.”
    • Consultants “That’s in our 2017 Report, ‘Light Bulbs of 2017’ and is available for download for USD$1.995…” and so on. In each case, we take their stereotypical behavior and apply it somehow to the situation at hand. And notice how the joke is built off of the stereotypical behavior—that’s the seed of the “truth” that makes the joke funny.
  • Never laugh first at your own joke. This is just awkward. If you can’t keep yourself from laughing at the punchline that’s in your head before you tell it, you should abandon humor as a mechanic immediately. Seriously. Nobody, and I mean nobody finds funny the person who laughs at their own jokes first.

  • Much humor is in the timing, body language, and tone. If you are not comfortable with these three things, you will have a very hard time being funny in front of a crowd. These, far more than the actual words used, are what convey humor. In fact, sometimes the funniest moments can come when you, the humorist, say little to nothing at all. Consider: A student walks late into my class, apologizing, and says, “Sorry I’m late, the rain made traffic a mess of the roads today.” At that exact moment, a shaft of sunshine streams down through the window and bathes the floor in front of him in warm, beautiful light. I don’t even have to say anything—I just pointedly look at the floor, then back at him, then back at the floor, then back at him, then at the floor again….. By this time, the room is giggling, because they can see where this is going. Quirk an eyebrow at the student, make eye contact for a few seconds, then slowly turn back to the projector, and just move on with the lecture. Not a word, but the room gets the joke.

  • There’s two kinds of humor: Routine, and “organic.” Routine is your practiced material. “Organic” is what the standup comedians use when they pick up on things that are happening during their time on the stage. (This is when the comedian will point at somebody and say, “Hi, who are you, where are you from” and then use that as the source material for a short bit.) The best comedians will often incorporate some of both into their performance, and certainly presenters can do so as well. A number of years ago, I was doing a session in St Louis, and cracked a joke which one of the audience members found funny. And she had one of the loudest, most room-filling laughs you’ve ever heard. I commented on it, too: “Wow, that’s like the most obnoxious laugh I think I’ve ever run across. And I do this show every year in thirty cities all over the country.” She—and the rest of the room too—found that hilarious, and from that point forward, every time she laughed, the room got a double-dose of laughter, from those who found whatever-I’d-just-said to be funny, and from those who found her laugh funny.

  • Laughter is contagious, but it has an incubation period. Most people attending a technical talk don’t expect a speaker to be funny. You will frequently need to “seed” the room early with humor (much of which will fall flat, by the way) if you are going to get them to laugh. Every quarter, when I teach a class at UW, the first week or two is a little rough—the students aren’t expecting an instructor who is actively looking to work humor into the material, and many of the jokes either bypass them completely or a few will get the joke and smile, but not laugh. There’s a point, however, where one or two will giggle or make some sort of audible noise, and that essentially breaks the surface tension of the room—after that, the laughs can come more freely. This is why stand-up clubs put their worst/newest comedians on first, on the grounds that these folks will “warm up” the room (no matter how bad they are), and then graduating in skill until by the time you get to the headliner, the room has laughed a fair amount, and is fully “primed” and ready to go. In a presentation, you will have to do this work yourself, and it’s often a good idea to find little ways to inject humor into your pre-talk routine; sometimes I will fire up a text editor and make comments to the audience through the text editor while I’m being introduced or before the talk begins. The people in the room can see it, they’ll laugh or giggle, and that will draw more eyes up to the front, and so on. More to the point, it gets them a little “warmed up” to the idea that this is not going to be dry and boring.

  • Try a few improvisation classes. No matter where you live, there’s someplace nearby that offers a class on improv comedy. (Like, real improv, where audience members shout out suggestions for the troupe to use to make funny.) Take a few. There’s a lot of tricks and tactics that you can use to recognize organically-funny moments and leverage them.

  • Be ready to accept the consequences of failure. If you aim to be funny, and you alienate a portion of your audience, it can go very, very badly for you. (See Neward, Ted, and Keynotes, CodeMash, 2012.) Be ready to accept that as a consequence, and never, never try to use “But I was trying to be funny! It was just intended as a joke!” as an excuse. If you offend, you offend, and you owe an apology. If you are not ready to admit that your attempts at humor didn’t go over well with some percentage of the audience (no matter how large or small), then you should not attempt humor. Period.

Let me leave you with a story. This isn’t exactly how I’d tell it were I trying to be humorous with it; it’s far more instructive as an example of something that was funny but entirely inside of a particular context.

That time, in Poland…

A number of years ago, I was doing a conference in Krakow, Poland. I was there with Linda Rising, Michael Nygard, and Venkat Subramaniam, among others. (The reason I mention these three names is that they’re relevant to the story—the others are not.)

Mike, Venkat and I were scheduled to do closing keynotes. Yes, keynotes, plural—while there was a few tracks for breakout sessions, the organizers had decided that they wanted to have a single track in the afternoon of the closing day, and Mike, Venkat and I, in that order, were it.

This was actually in balance to the previous day, which had offered a pair of opening keynotes, one by Linda Rising, who was the victim of some unfortunate misunderstandings. You see, this was Linda’s first time in Poland, and she was trying to build some rapport with the audience by periodically asking her audience, “Do you have those in Poland?” Unfortunately, judging by the Twitter stream during her keynote, the effect was much the opposite of what she’d intended—many of the attendees were a little (to a lot) offended by her questions, as they felt that somehow this was making them out to be some backwards Third World nation or something.

For closing keynotes, Mike did his thing, and the audience was awed by his analysis. Possibly a little OVERawed—they were polite in their applause, but it was a litlte muted.

(Establishing a baseline here: the audience is engaged, but they certainly weren’t jumping out of their seats with energy.)

Then, Venkat stood up and did his thing. And oh, man, did he wake up the crowd. They laughed at his jokes, they grinned at his commentary, and they even chuckled at a few things that he really hadn’t intended to be funny at all. I remember one time he was talking something about the Java type system, and he pointed at the screen and mock-shouted, “That’s not a String!” and the audience howled. I have no idea why they found that so funny, but man, they did.

So now it’s my turn. (Thinking to myself, “Jesus, Venkat, why’d you have to be so funny? Now I’m only going to look terrible by comparison!“, I was about to begin. Suddenly inspiration struck.)

“Before I get started, let me tell you a story,” I began. “When I was in high school, I used to play trombone in a jazz band. One of the fundamental rules was that you never want to solo after the saxophone player does a solo. The saxophone is just such a sexy instrument, anything that guy plays is going to sound better than anything you could possibly do. So, thank you, Venkat ‘Saxophone’ Subramaniam, for your keynote, and….” The room laughs.

(I figured that would be the highlight; I was wrong. WAY wrong.)

At a certain point in the talk, I start asking the audience some simple questions. One of them is a fairly simple math problem about calculating the dimensions of a rectangle, using a farmer’s farm as the rectangle in question. (Knowing the difficulties Linda had accidentally had with this crowd, I went in with this next bit entirely in mind.)

“Let’s try another problem. Here we see that we need to discover the dimensions to a rectangular area. So imagine a farmer needs to caculate the dimensions of his farm…. Oh, wait, do you have farms in Poland?”

The room giggled a little—they could tell where I was coming from with that—but from the back of the room, a heckler cries out, “Not a square farm, no!” The room laughs a little more.

“Oh, right, sorry. So, imagine a GERMAN farmer has a farm….”

The room explodes. Falls out of its collective chair, laughing so hard. From that point forward, I had them laughing just by affecting a German accent every once in a while.

Best. Keynote. EVAR.

Analysis

Mike Nygard, after the talk, said he absolutely could not believe what I had just done. “There is no way that should’ve worked,” I think was how he phrased it. “You just insulted every German in the room, and the whole audience thought it was hilarious!”

First of all, there weren’t that many Germans in the room; this was in Poland, and frankly, Europeans don’t seem all that willing to cross national lines when they attend conferences. Not sure why, since almost all technical software development conferences seem to be done in English regardless of where they’re held, but that’s only tangential to the story. Fact is, there probably were a few Germans in the audience, and they laughed alongside their Polish counterparts.

Thing is, by taking Linda’s accident of the day prior, I really had only intended to try and “rescue” that particular situation by making a little humor out of it by taking it to more and more absurd lengths. Of course Poland has farms—every country in Europe has had farms since roughly the Stone Age. It was a tacit acknowledgement that some of the prior day’s interaction was a little silly, by going even sillier and over-the-top. I was deliberately exaggerating and going out to the absurd end of the spectrum to try and draw a laugh.

But the GERMAN crack, totally ad-libbed, was the coup de grace. In one word, I’d effectively played on the historical (and to a much lesser degree current) tensions between two rivals, Poland and Germany, by playing on the stereotype of the “engineer German” whose farms are, of course, always perfectly straight and perfectly rectangular, because that’s how we do farms in Germany!

(“How many Germans does it take to change a light bulb? Ein! Was ist zo funny?“)

If you’re in Europe, you can always fall back on national stereotypes as a source of humor. Kinda like redneck jokes in the US.

(“HEAVEN is where: The police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French and it’s all organised by the Swiss. “HELL is where: The police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and it’s all organised by the Italians!!“)

Summary

If you’re going to work humor into your talks, make sure you can be funny in other situations, among people who are not familiar with you or with your usual repertoire of jokes. If you can’t make others beyond your closest social circle laugh, then you need to work on your humor skills some more. Here’s homework: Go watch a standup routine, but instead of enjoying the routine, try to analyze the jokes and discover what makes them funny. What bits worked? What bits didn’t? Then, take a class on comedy, either standup or improv, and try your own hand at it.

And if you get good at it, well, maybe you can quit your day job.