Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and coaches. The following is a Q and A I had the pleasure of conducting with him last week, that was subsequently published in Forbes. Nick Morgan: I ran across David Nihill the other day when he sent me his book and begged me with tears in his virtual eyes to say something nice about it. Actually, that’s what everyone else does. David just sent me the book and didn’t ask for anything, which was so charming that I immediately sat down and read his book.
There’s a lot in it that’s funny, and a lot that’s useful for public speakers, so I thought he should get the full Q and A treatment. Here goes.
Why is story telling so important to being funny — I thought it was all about punch lines?
David Nihill: It is about both, but ultimately it comes down to being memorable. Many of us will have been to a comedy club and laughed hysterically at the comedian, but struggle to remember his/her name or what exactly was said. The same applies to business speakers. When they deliver information as a series of facts or opinions, it’s hard for our brains to recall them all.
Our aim as public speakers is to be more memorable and have our audience spread our message for us. The best way to do this is by wrapping the information in a story. Better still, in a funny story. As our good friend Science tells us, we are wired to appreciate it. We are wired to love laughter. Our brains make this so by releasing dopamine. Dopamine feels awesome, so by making your audience laugh during your presentation or speaking event, you can actually make your audience feel good, giving your speech a natural endorphin-fueled evolutionary advantage over those who opted for a typical, boring business presentation, and ultimately be more memorable.
Morgan: How do you find the funny if you’re a very serious person?
Nihill: Surprisingly high numbers of very successful comedians are also very serious people off stage and their approach to finding the funny is often methodical. Award-winning speaker and humorist Jeanne Robertson says, “Humor is not about one-liners or being able to tell jokes. It’s about accepting things about yourself that can’t be changed and finding the humor in situations around you.”
Great stories often come from seemingly mundane topics, and the humor within often comes from a surprising twist in an otherwise everyday occurrence. The best way to find the funny is to start to take note of, and physically record on your smart phones notes section, occurrences you find funny. If you find it funny, there is a decent chance others will too. Now you just have to document it and tell people.
I would suggest starting with stories you already like to tell and are comfortable telling to friends and family. Identify where they laugh, i.e. the key funny part, and then see can how you refine the words in getting to that part of the story. Only keep details that are essential for introducing your story. If it doesn’t directly set up your funny part, cut it. As Shakespeare said, “Brevity is levity.”
Morgan: What’s the secret for writing funny stuff?
Nihill: If only there was one! Comedy writers tend to do several things that business speakers can certainly replicate.
For example, once they lock onto something funny, standup comedians, top TED speakers, and even Presidents tend to follow the same structure for writing it:
1) Set-up: establishes the premise of the joke by providing the audience with the necessary background information.
2) Punch line: this is essentially the laugh line.
3) Taglines: (optional) they are essentially additional punch lines delivered after the initial punch line
The set-up leads the audience in one direction and the punch line surprises them by suddenly going off in a different direction. That twist, that element of surprise, is a punch line’s chief ingredient.
Another secret: write with the rule of 3. This rule is a basic structure for jokes and ideas that capitalize on the way we process information. We have become proficient at pattern recognition by necessity. Three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern. This combination of pattern and brevity results in memorable content.
And here’s another: always write in the present tense: You never want to write, “I was walking and I saw.” It should be “I’m walking and I see.”
And another: use the bookend technique. Good comedians will reference their opening stories at the conclusion of their shows. This technique gives performances a feeling of completion and symmetry.
Finally, use inherently funny words. Believe it or not, some words are funnier than others and can be amusing without any given context. For example, words with a K sound are funnier. Why? I have no idea. They just are.
Morgan: A lot of speakers try to wing it — to be spontaneous in the moment — does that work for comedy?
Nihill: Most comedians will invest an estimated 22 hours of work for every minute of a one-hour special show (normally produced yearly). When they appear to wing it, it is often something that appeared spontaneous the night before, and the night before that.
This is the essence of what I call rehearsed spontaneity. Comedians put in a lot of work and analysis behind the scenes to test out various formats and wording to lead into a core joke premise. This moment that seems so spontaneous is often anything but. The best comedians and presenters have topics in mind that they are well prepared on and wish to discuss. The mastery in their delivery comes from steering the audience in the right direction to arrive at just what they had planned to talk about.
Sometimes they go off script and off experience all together, but it will nearly always be within a structure. There is a saying in comedy that “a tight five is better than a sloppy fifteen.” Yet business presentations worldwide fail to abide by the same principle. Instead, there tends to be a lot of sloppy fifteens. Why? The necessary stage time, structure, and conscious editing in order to make maximum impact just aren’t there.
Morgan: What are your tips for successful delivery?
Nihill: There are many things comedians do so much better than business speakers. Below are a few that can be easily implemented.
– To avoid going blank on stage, use the Memory Palace.
– Develop a strong opening line by acknowledging the obvious. If you are visibly nervous, have a fresh stain on your shirt, have a foreign accent, or anything else unusual about yourself that the audience might fixate on, address it right away to get some laughs, and then move on so the audience can focus.
– Rehearse your first 30 seconds the most. Smile and make eye contact with as many people as you can in the front rows.
– Start strong and finish even stronger.
– Step forward to emphasize your main points and punch lines. Small changes in delivery like raising your voice at the end of a sentence have a big, big impact.
– Practice presenting at home with a bottle in each hand. This gets you accustomed to speaking with your hands out, which might not feel natural at first.
– Make sure you are fully visible. If there’s a podium try to get out from behind it. Often the audience needs to see you to fully trust you.
– Give the audience time to laugh.
– Always plan to finish a minute before your time limit.
Morgan: Thanks, David – great stuff, and a lot of tips that presenters can put to work right away.