September 3, 2009

How to Be Funny When You Need to Be Funny

As a storytelling and speaking coach, one of the most gratifying aspects of what I do is helping people with their comedic timing. Natural comedians have an instinctive ability to know when to pause and for exactly how long. For them, timing is like the syncopation of music. At its best, comedic timing is the interplay of inflection, gesture, pacing, attitude and rhythm. It’s like jazz with words instead of notes.When I’m coaching a student, I may work with them on their timing of a funny line, phrase or sequence many times until the student feels the rhythm of the timing. It is impossible to do this on paper.

After working with hundreds of students on their stories and presentations, I have come to one definitive conclusion. Most people are already funny. So what’s the problem? The problem is they (and perhaps you?) have spent so many years trying NOT to be funny (i.e. trying to be taken seriously) that they have forgotten what their funny looks, sounds and feels like. My job is to reveal to them what is already there. And it’s not always easy.

The Challenge – To Be Funny on Demand

The challenge of humor is to be as funny on demand, in a speech or presentation, as you are when you’re just goofing around with your friends and co-workers. That means you must be able to objectively identify your natural humorous behavior and wit when it happens naturally. You have to know what it is. In other words, you must objectify your neurosis, categorize your quirks and capitalize on your insanity. To be funny on demand, you have to stop trying not to be funny and let your natural goofball play in public.

Let’s face it, we’re all a little weird. Whether you are an uptight anal-retentive neurotic or a “loosey-goosey” cornucopia of creative excesses, you are, (to those who observe you from the outside), uniquely quirky and weird. If you intend to be funny, your unique sense of humor and comedic rhythms are good. That means that you have something to work with. You don’t need material, you ARE material!

Two Ways to Be Funny Immediately

Two elements that will help you to take what you have going for you and make it funnier are: exaggeration and playfulness.

In comedic terms, exaggeration simply means that you go farther. Take your idea, gesture or example and keep going – broaden it. Many funny folks exaggerate physically with their body or face. I have yet to work with a student who wasn’t able to find laughs simply by pausing at a specific moment and using their face or body to react to a line that they have just spoken. The aspect that many of my students are uncomfortable with is the time that is takes for physical comedy to work.

Physical comedy, whether it’s a gesture, a freeze or a facial expression, takes time. You have to deliver your sentence, fill the next moment with a physical reaction and then you can go on. And it always takes longer than most speakers think. If you observe yourself closely, you may discover that you are more animated off the platform than on it. In other words, you exaggerate naturally, and then tone it down for performance. That’s backwards. Exaggerate and you will get laughs.

You Can’t Be Funny While Trying to Be Taken Seriously

Playfulness is a quality, but also is an ingredient in comedic performance. Funny people have fun while they perform. The playfulness occurs on two levels. The first level is with yourself. The second level is with the audience. When the speaker has fun with his or her own personality, material and style, it gives the audience permission to laugh along with the speaker. We know this as self-deprecating humor. I call it self-loving humor. Without loving yourself, it is hard to make fun of yourself in a way that creates connection and safety with the audience. Once this level of safety has been created, your audience will allow you to be playful with them, as well.

I like to tease and poke fun at members of my audience. In order to do that, I have to pretend that they have given me permission to treat them like my buddies. I assume a familiarity and intimacy.  I know that this is assumed rather than earned, but I go ahead and joke and play with them as if I’ve known them for years. I can get away with this because of my playful style and joyous personality. They know I’m just having fun and don’t have a mean bone in my body. And…my joking and teasing is appropriate and strategic. It’s never off color or rude.

So loosen up, exaggerate and get playful!


Doug Stevenson, president of Story Theater International, is the creator of The Story Theater Method and the author of the book, Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method, formerly titled Never Be Boring Again. He works with individuals and organizations to help them choose, craft and deliver compelling speeches, presentations and stories, thereby engaging attention and improving retention.

His programs include, Get Out of Your Own Way, Emotional Eloquence – The Lost language of Leadership, Storytelling in Business is Serious Business and It Was A Dark and Stormy Sales Presentation – The Serious Business of Selling with Stories

His keynote speaking, corporate training and executive coaching clients include Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, Oracle, Bristol Myers Squibb, Aetna, Amgen, Volkswagen, Century 21, The Department of Defense, The National Education Association and many more.

Doug can be reached at 1-800-573-6196 or 1-719-573-6195 or at:

The Story Theater Retreat in Colorado Springs

The Story Theater Method

Presentations Skills and Storytelling Products and Packages

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