Stainton’s 10 Commandments of Humor

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1. Thou shalt target thy audience

This is the first and great commandment! You must know who your audience is, and choose your humor appropriately. This doesn’t mean just knowing who the group is, or even who the individuals who comprise the audience are. It means understanding the occasion, knowing the back-story of the group, assessing the dynamics of the event. I was speaking to a group whose venerable and much beloved founder had just passed away the week before. Now, I don’t do a lot of death related material, but you can bet I went over my entire presentation with a fine-toothed comb just to make sure there was nothing that might offend this audience, given the situation. I also made sure to work my way into the humor a bit more gently than I normally would. The point is that without this information, I could have gotten myself into a deep, deep hole!

It’s also important to know your audience so that you can gear your material specifically towards them. For example, one of the workshops I offer is called How the Pros Write Comedy. I’ve delivered this workshop to many groups, and while the basic information stays the same, my approach – as well as the examples I’ll use – will vary depending on whether I’m speaking to, say, a group of television writers or the editors of a religious newsletter (which, incidentally, turned out to be one of the best and most creative groups I’ve worked with!). The key to remember is that every audience is different; therefore, to one degree or another, every presentation you give should be different as well!

2. Thou shalt use thy humor to make a point

There was a time when I thought everybody knew this, but I continue to see speakers telling jokes whose connection to their message is peripheral at best. Now, I’m not saying you can’t throw the occasional one-liner or ad-lib in for a quick laugh. But if you’re going to launch into a story of any length, you’d better not be doing it just to get a chuckle! If you are doing this, you are committing 2 egregious platform sins.

First, you’re setting yourself up to bomb! Think about it: if there’s an element of your presentation that exists solely to get a laugh, what happens if it doesn’t get that laugh? You bomb! You know you’ve bombed, the audience knows you’ve bombed, and because the only point of the story was to get a laugh, you’ve got nowhere else to go. That’s not a good feeling. If, on the other hand, that same story is designed to exemplify one of the points of your presentation, it no longer matters if it gets a laugh!!! Sure, it’s nice, but the story no longer depends on it.

The second egregious platform sin of using a lengthy story just to get a laugh is that you’re wasting your audience’s time! Unless you were hired strictly to entertain, the audience is expecting to get useful information from your presentation. They’re investing their time, and they expect a return on that investment. When you use humor to make a point, you are providing both good entertainment and a good return on your audience’s investment.

3. Thou shalt avoid jokes…

…unless you tell them really, really well! Let me rephrase that. Unless other people have told you that you tell them really, really well! Look, we might as well be honest about this — most people don’t tell jokes well. I know I don’t — and for heaven’s sake, I’m a professional! In my mind, jokes have three serious flaws that make them a risky choice for all but the most seasoned and confident platform speakers.

First, they’re difficult for most people to remember properly, even without the added pressure of that unblinking audience. And if you don’t have the joke down cold — and I mean so cold that somebody could wake you out of a sound sleep and you could still tell it flawlessly — you’re probably not going to tell it well.

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But even if you do tell the joke well, that doesn’t get around the second flaw: jokes are not unique! Unless you wrote the joke yourself, there’s a chance that at least a percentage of your audience has heard it before. If it’s a good enough joke, other speakers are probably using it already. And really, do you want to be known as “another speaker who’s telling that stupid parrot joke”?

The third flaw with jokes is that jokes exist solely to get a laugh (see Commandment #2). If it doesn’t get a laugh, you bomb. There’s no other option. The audience knows you’ve told a joke, that it was supposed to get a laugh, and that it didn’t. It’s called bombing, and it’s a bad feeling. When you do it in front of 500 people, it’s a really bad feeling!

4. Thou shalt develop personal stories

Personal stories, or anecdotes, neatly bypass virtually all of the problems inherent to jokes. First, your personal stories are unique to you. Your audience will not have heard them from five other speakers (unless they are five very unethical speakers — see Commandment #8). And because you’re telling stories that happened in your life, you’re letting your audience “in.” You’re revealing something of yourself; thus, you are helping the audience to create a personal bond with you.

Second, your personal stories are easier to remember. You’re not likely to forget what comes next, because you were there! (An added benefit to this is that you’ll probably sound more spontaneous and conversational when telling the story, because instead of simply reciting something you’ve memorized, you’ll literally be “re-creating” the event each time you tell it!) Also, these are the stories you’ve already told dozens — maybe even hundreds — of times to your family, your co-workers, and your friends. Yes, you’ll probably need to tweak them a bit for the platform, but by and large you know how to tell these stories!

And third, if you’re following Commandment #2, you’re using your stories to illustrate your message. This means that even if the story doesn’t get a big laugh, it still has use as an example, and you can just move on as if everything is exactly the way you planned it to be. Believe me, this works!

5. Thou shalt craft thy humor effectively

Although I’m a huge fan of using real, personal stories on the platform, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes reality needs a helping hand. For example, reality doesn’t always provide the perfect punchline with which to end your stories. So you make one up! Listen, you’re not Peter Jennings. You’re not reporting the news. You’re trying to get a larger message across to your audience in the most effective way possible, and sometimes that may mean stretching the truth, eliminating details, or adding characters. In short, you need to think of reality as the starting point for your story, and embellish accordingly.

Now, some people get caught up on this point. I’ve had clients say to me, “But that’s not the way it happened!” To which I reply, “Your audience doesn’t know, and they don’t care. And your audience is who you’re there for!” What I’m saying is that your job, your obligation, is to get your message across to your audience in a way that has as much meaning for them as possible. And if one version of your story stretches the truth a bit, but adds more meaning (or memorability, or significance), then that’s the way you’ve got to go. Otherwise, you’re just serving yourself.

6. Thou shalt let the audience laugh

This can be a particularly tough commandment for people who are just starting out using humor in front of an audience. But I’ve also seen pros who should know better abuse this one. Here’s the trap. You’re not sure of a particular piece of humor; maybe it’s something you’ve just added, maybe it received a less-than-stellar response last time, maybe you’re just not used to using humor in your presentations. For whatever reason, though, you’re not positive this “bit” will get a laugh. So what do you do? You get to the end of the bit (the punchline), and immediately go on to your next sentence. In other words, you’re assuming there is going to be an awkward silence instead of a laugh, and you make a pre-emptive strike by covering up the anticipated silence with your own voice! The audience doesn’t have an opportunity to laugh, even if they want to!

This, as you may have surmised, is a no-no! Instead, you’ve got to trust your material enough to give it a chance at success. This means getting to the end of the bit — and then stopping! Let the audience laugh! You’ll be surprised how often they actually will laugh, once you give them the opportunity! And if you’re following Commandment #2, and using your humor to make a point (rather than solely to get a laugh), it’s not going to matter if the laugh doesn’t occur. In that case, you are simply pausing to let the story (and message) sink in, and then continuing with your presentation. The audience will never know that they muffed their line! But I think you’ll find that, given the chance, they’ll come through for you nine times out of ten! Okay, maybe eight, but those are still pretty good odds!

7. Thou shalt not be wed to thy humor

Here’s something I drill into my comedy writing and comedian clients: jokes are expendable!!! Don’t fall so in love with your material (humorous or otherwise, for that matter) that you’re unwilling to let go of it if it’s not working. I know of one comedian who has been using the same joke for the past ten years, and I’ve never heard it get a laugh! When I asked him about it, he said, “I love that joke, and one of these days the audience is going to realize how brilliant it is!” I wish I had his kind of optimism!

Here’s the pattern I use: Once I develop a new piece of material — a story, let’s say — I’ll try it out with a few friends. I’ll pay particular attention to the reaction the story gets. Then, I’ll go home and revise the story based on the response. Then I’ll try the revised version with some different friends. If the response is positive, I’ll try the story out in front of an audience. If it still works, it’s in (although I’ll keep honing it). If, on the other hand, it’s not getting positive response after two or three revisions, I’ll trash it! Hey, I can always come up with another story!

8. Thou shalt not steal

I wish I could write that this one goes without saying, but some people seem to think that once a story is told on the platform, it becomes public domain. Let’s be absolutely clear on this. A speaker’s personal story belongs to that speaker, and nobody else! I don’t care if their story would be perfect in your presentation. Come up with your own story! Believe me, it will be better. It will be better because it’s yours, and because you’ll tell it in a way that nobody else on the planet possibly can, because it didn’t happen to anybody else on the planet! If you’re using somebody else’s story, then sooner or later, somebody’s going to recognize it. And whether they call you on it or not, you’ll lose credibility in that person’s eyes. And they’ll tell other people. Is that really the kind of reputation you want? Wouldn’t you rather have the reputation of somebody who has a range of personal stories that are unique, well crafted, and perfectly suited to your own unique message? The choice is yours.

9. Thou shalt develop thy own style

This is something that only comes with practice and experience. The way it normally happens is that you start off by emulating the style of those you admire (not by taking their actual material, however – see Commandment #8!). You emulate their speech patterns, their phrasing, maybe even their clothing style. Eventually though, pieces of your own personality start creeping in, almost without your knowing it. You’ll find you’re more comfortable with a certain delivery, and with a certain type of humor. Your audiences will respond better to some things than to others. Your job as a speaker is to listen to all of this internal and external feedback, and to let the changes happen. Eventually you’ll discover that you’ve developed your own unique style. And then, if you’re really good, you can bet there will be somebody new out there listening, who’s emulating you!

10. Thou shalt exercise thy comedic filter

What do I mean by “filter”? I mean the way you look at the world. And by “exercising your comedic filter,” I mean opening yourself up to see the comedy that is always present in the world. Have you ever known somebody to whom funny things just seem to happen naturally? This is the person who’s always rushing in saying, “You’ll never believe what happened to me this morning,” and it’s always something hilarious. In my experience, the things that are happening to this person happen to all of us; it’s just that this person notices them, remembers them, and tells us about them! This is what professional comedy writers do all the time. Since their livelihood depends on funny stuff, they become naturally attuned to it.

It’s like when you buy a new car, and all of a sudden you notice that on the road there are now hundreds of the exact same car you just bought! Has this ever happened to you? Well I’ve got news for you: those cars were always there! You just didn’t notice them before, because you didn’t have that particular filter activated. It became activated when you actually bought the car. It was fresh in your mind, and you were open to it. It’s the same thing with comedy. If you’re actively looking for humorous personal stories, you will start to notice the funny things happening all around — and to — you! And when you do notice them, please, please, please record them! Either on an actual voice recorder (I carry a digital one with me all the time!) or in a notebook. Otherwise, you will forget them, I promise. And when you’re doing this for a living, you can’t afford to let the good stuff get away!


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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