Comedy Techniques From The Best TED Talks

Every one of the top 10 TED talks gets laughs using techniques that you can replicate. Let’s take a look at a few

Humor work spreading (1)

There’s a good chance you don’t want to be a comedian. It’s pretty scary. I can tell you that first hand from a year plus doing it in researching my book. More likely is that you would like to do a TED talk , a TED style talk or maybe you have already done one and just want to up the engagement in your next one.

More and more public speaking experts are being forced to attempt to explain humor to their audiences as our society moves from information to infotainment, and it becomes a proven ingredient in great talks. Humor drives engagement. There is just one problem. Regular public speaking experts are not the most qualified to do so.

All too often they focus on style, not technique. Studying comedy styles is great but if you’re attempting to add humor to your own presentations, this information is about as useful as giving a Macbook Pro to a goat. You can copy Chris Rock’s style, but it’s much more likely to get you thrown off a conference stage than on one. Style is how you carry your self to the performance. Technique is what gets you through.

Every one of the top 10 TED talks gets laughs using techniques that you can replicate. Let’s take a look at a few:

Use Funny Images and Videos
Here we have the 2nd most viewed TED talk of all time with Amy Cuddy. The video Amy uses here is already socially proven and viral content. My favourite part in this example is the change in her own body language before this sequence of images and video. It feels good to make people laugh and her own body language and confidence in delivery show this as a clear before and after.

Often the quickest way to be funny in your next talk is to use already proven images and videos. This you can do 100%. Go on Imgur or Google Images and find an image that conveys a point rather than just telling people about it. Treat the image like the punchline and build up some anticipation before you reveal it. Remember the image is the funny part. Not what you say after revealing it.

Let The Content Be the Punchline
This talk from Frans de Waal is the ultimate example of the content stealing the show.

You may not have monkeys like Frans you don’t have to deliver the funny. Your content can do it for you and you can just add to it.

Seth Godin takes this even further in his talk Broken. It gets 3.4 laughs per minute with 58% of those laughs linked to the use of funny images. Watch here. I could go on but I think you get the idea! Use funny images 🙂

https://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_this_is_broken_1

Build Expectations Up in One Direction and Take the Other
Tim Urban’s talk here gets about 2.6 laughs per minute. Approximately 35% of those laughs come from the use of funny images, set up in a way that makes them even funnier. Often causing a flip in expectations. Note the build up of the image as likely complex to cause a flip of expectations when the simplified image is revealed. The build up causes the laugh once the obviously less complex image is revealed.

You hopefully will recall the rule of 3 as used by President Obama combined with the flip in expectations (giving folks 1,2, 4 rather than 1,2,3). Read the full post here. The same techniques are at work in the following examples:

Start Strong and Use the Rule of 3
The structure of a joke very much follows this rule. Here it is in full effect along with demonstrating the power of a good strong start with Luis von Ahn. Here Luis does what comedians often do to get a laugh: acknowledge the audiences likely feelings towards something. The use of self-depreciating humor also makes him instantly likeable as the joke is at his own expense.

Break the Sequence
Luis got a great laugh above by flipping people’s expectations. Larry does the same here but he uses a sequence to do it, combined with the rule of 3 and he also makes sure the joke word is the last word, allowing people time to laugh. The 3rd element in the sequence breaks the pattern.

Break any Sequence
Does the sequence always have to be 3 items to break the pattern and get a laugh? The answer is no. 3 is the quickest way but this you can see Maysoon Zayid here. The important part is you break the sequence with the last element. Make that one is the twist. Ideally pausing before you say the final element for effect. This gives the audience their que to laugh as shown by Maysoon with this line:

“If there was an Oppression Olympics, I would win the gold medal. I’m Palestinian, Muslim, I’m female, I’m disabled, and I live in New Jersey .”

Tell a Story and Better Still a Funny One
Below you have Sir Ken Robinson delivering two short form stories. Ask yourself does it look like he has told these stories before. Does he know where the audience will likely laugh? Does he stop to facilitate this laughter? Does he tell them in a way where he flips peoples expectations?

This you can replicate. You might have noted his stories are not even strongly related to his topic. But a loose connection works just fine. If you have a story you like telling build your talk around it. Get in in there. It will be the most memorable part. Note where people usually laugh when you tell it to friends and family and then tell the story in a way that delays this until the end. When they laugh be sure to stop talking and let them laugh. By doing so your timing looks great.

Ok, one last example before I leave you. I get excited with all this examples you know. They are everywhere you look!

This is my own person favourite TED talk. It’s the 11th most viewed of all time and the start is a really great story that is only loosely linked to his topic. In fact its a whopping 21% if his talk overall. Watch it and take note of how many techniques he is using from the world of comedy that you now should be able to identify and maybe even replicate.

The world is a funny place and your existence within it even funnier. Often all you have to do to be funny is document it and tell someone, no matter the stage you are on.

Style is personality and personality should not be copied. Jerry Seinfeld says, “The whole objective of comedy is to be yourself. The closer you get to that, the funnier you’ll be”. This cannot happen by studying someone else’s personality and trying to merge it your own. You are you and, whether you recognize it or not, you are pretty cool…maybe more Urkel than Ellen, but cool at least in your own way. You can turn that cool into funny buy learning the techniques — not the styles — of professional comedians, and applying those techniques to your own talks.