I’m working on the Entertaining Speaker series for Toastmasters and I recently completed speech number three: Make Them Laugh. I ended up going a fairly different direction than what I wrote here … but I’m too lazy to re-write this for the sake of the blog. Just know that a large part of the speech was the terrible joke at the end, which I have NOT written out because: 1, I already knew it, and 2, if I ever meet someone in person and they make the mistake of asking me to tell this joke to them I will relish the opportunity. It is truly a terrible joke, and I love telling a very long version of it.
Enjoy the speech?
Make Them Laugh?
This speech is for ‘make them laugh’ from the entertaining speaker series, and frankly, I find that ridiculous. Make them laugh!? Make them LAUGH? As though that is not perpetually my objective.
As someone who strives to be funny more often than not, I can tell you that it warms my heart when I get a good laugh, it makes me happy in the moment and later. But, I’ll add, as someone who strives to be funny, I have been not funny … A LOT.
A lot a lot.
Part of that is sense of humor – it’s a subjective thing, and I have something of an odd one.
I can’t tell you any secrets behind humor, or how to make a speech funny, but I can tell you two things: first, times I have thought, ‘this’ll be good’ … and it wasn’t, and having experienced that particularly cruel silence after a failed joke MANY TIMES, I can also tell you how to handle it like a champ.
I had managed, somehow, to successfully interview for something called the Engineering Leadership Development Program at my last company. It was competitive, and a fair amount of work. The program lasted three years, and during that time you worked your regular job, and then took night classes, and got a master’s, and had a big work project that was all on your own time. One week every year we had a conference where all these type A high-strung, highly competitive people would get together, take classes, and size each other up.
And also, I was there too.
The program was oriented towards young engineers, I think you had to have less than five years of experience to join. In one of the conference classes the instructor was telling us how we really had more experience than we thought … I found the lesson corny.
He had everyone say how much experience we had and then he wrote the number on a flip chart. ‘Four years, 1 year, 2 years, etc.’ Up went the numbers. Then he asked, with the skills of a very unmotivational motivational speaker, ‘and how much experience does that add up to?!’
I immediately answered, ‘three?’ Because that was SO CLEARLY the wrong answer … and that’s the joke. Right? (big sigh)
Welp. Instead he replied, with the tone of voice you’d expect someone to use on the slow kid in class, ‘oh, it’s higher than that, keep counting, buddy!’
There’s a bright note, though. Which is that I find it very funny, now, that I told a joke that failed so miserably in such an annoyingly competitive environment.
And my failures at humor continue to this day. Toastmasters speeches have provided me plenty of opportunities to reflect, after I leave the stage, and think, ‘huh, no one laughed at that.’
My favorite example of that was my Tall Tales competition speech. I know that is a unique environment because everyone is competing and it’s a tense situation … but I really wanted people to, most of all, find my speech quirky and amusing. In my speech I talked about my grandpa and I spotting a bunch of aliens coming to Earth, us going to investigate, and then, what do you know, I’m involved in an intergalactic dance off. And part of that I ACTUALLY DANCED.
I thought, ‘this is so weird! And strange! And fun! The audience will really enjoy this change of pace!’
In the back of the room were Liz, Melanie, Jodi, and my wife, smiling and offering encouraging vibes. But eeeeeeeveryone in front of them? Not so much. I found myself dancing, doing the ‘string knees’ as I stared out into pair of eyes after pair of eyes staring blankly at me.
It was very strange, and I am happy I got to experience that.
Generally my failed jokes aren’t in classrooms, or during speeches. The vast majority are conversational. When I told my wife about this speech idea I said, ‘I’m trying to think of times I told a joke and no one laughed’ and she said, ‘oh yeah! There was a terrible one you told the other day!’ She said that excitedly. Love, eh?
The good news is – there are ways to handle these situations.
You could take a sort of … aggressive, quickly fading to a small, simmering self-pep talk approach … ‘That was funny!! That was funny. Right? That was funny.’
You can try to join in with everyone else in not enjoying the joke … even though you just told it. (Step to the side.) ‘Dude … lame joke.’
How about a diversion? (Point like you’re following a bird flying by) ‘Is that a change of subject?’
And of course any combination of weird noises … (Clear throat weirdly for a bit) ‘Hairball.’
My point! If I even have one … Is that humor is ridiculous. ‘Make them laugh’ is ridiculous. There are tried and true ways to go for safe humor, any sitcom can show you that. A lot of those jokes rely on stereotypes and tropes that you’re already so familiar with that you can predict how a joke will end.
That’s not a bad thing, either. Sometimes it’s fun to go for a ride to the punch line even when you know it’s coming.
BUT! You also have to be true to yourself. If you don’t find your speech funny, how will others? Make them laugh is a gamble, make yourself laugh is much more fun. With that in mind, I’m going to close with a joke.
Let me warn you, I have told this joke a few times, and it has NEVER gotten a laugh. It’s gotten a few amused hmph’s … but no outright laughter. But I love this joke, and you all are stuck sitting there listening to me.
<high school prom joke>