Stainton's 10 Commandments of Humor
Copyright Bill Stainton. All Rights Reserved.
- 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 doesnít 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 donít 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!
- 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, Iím not saying you canít throw the occasional one-liner or ad-lib in for a quick laugh. But if youíre going to launch into a story of any length, youíd better not be doing it just to get a chuckle! If you are doing this, you are committing 2 egregious platform sins.
First, youíre setting yourself up to bomb! Think about it: if thereís an element of your presentation that exists solely to get a laugh, what happens if it doesnít get that laugh? You bomb! You know youíve bombed, the audience knows youíve bombed, and because the only point of the story was to get a laugh, youíve got nowhere else to go. Thatís 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, itís 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 youíre wasting your audienceís time! Unless you were hired strictly to entertain, the audience is expecting to get useful information from your presentation. Theyíre 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.
- Thou shalt avoid jokes
Öunless 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 thisómost people donít tell jokes well. I know I donítóand for heavenís sake, Iím 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, theyíre difficult for most people to remember properly, even without the added pressure of that unblinking audience. And if you donít have the joke down coldóand I mean so cold that somebody could wake you out of a sound sleep and you could still tell it flawlesslyóyouíre probably not going to tell it well.
But even if you do tell the joke well, that doesnít get around the second flaw: jokes are not unique! Unless you wrote the joke yourself, thereís a chance that at least a percentage of your audience has heard it before. If itís a good enough joke, other speakers are probably using it already. And really, do you want to be known as ďanother speaker whoís telling that stupid parrot jokeĒ?
The third flaw with jokes is that jokes exist solely to get a laugh (see Commandment #2). If it doesnít get a laugh, you bomb. Thereís no other option. The audience knows youíve told a joke, that it was supposed to get a laugh, and that it didnít. Itís called bombing, and itís a bad feeling. When you do it in front of 500 people, itís a really bad feeling!
- 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 speakersósee 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. Youíre 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 youíve already told dozensómaybe even hundredsóof times to your family, your co-workers, and your friends. Yes, youíll probably need to tweak them a bit for the platform, but by and large you know how to tell these stories! And third, if youíre following Commandment #2, youíre using your stories to illustrate your message. This means that even if the story doesnít 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!
- Thou shalt craft thy humor effectively
Although Iím a huge fan of using real, personal stories on the platform, Iíll be the first to admit that sometimes reality needs a helping hand. For example, reality doesnít always provide the perfect punchline with which to end your stories. So you make one up! Listen, youíre not Peter Jennings. Youíre not reporting the news. Youíre 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. Iíve had clients say to me, ďBut thatís not the way it happened!Ē To which I reply, ďYour audience doesnít know, and they donít care. And your audience is who youíre there for!Ē What Iím 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 thatís the way youíve got to go. Otherwise, youíre just serving yourself.
- 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 Iíve also seen pros who should know better abuse this one. Hereís the trap. Youíre not sure of a particular piece of humor; maybe itís something youíve just added, maybe it received a less-than-stellar response last time, maybe youíre just not used to using humor in your presentations. For whatever reason, though, youíre not positive this ďbitĒ 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, youíre 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 doesnít have an opportunity to laugh, even if they want to! This, as you may have surmised, is a no-no! Instead, youíve got to trust your material enough to give it a chance at success. This means getting to the end of the bitóand then stopping! Let the audience laugh! Youíll be surprised how often they actually will laugh, once you give them the opportunity! And if youíre following Commandment #2, and using your humor to make a point (rather than solely to get a laugh), itís not going to matter if the laugh doesnít 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 youíll find that, given the chance, theyíll come through for you nine times out of ten! Okay, maybe eight, but those are still pretty good odds!
- Thou shalt not be wed to thy humor
Hereís something I drill into my comedy writing and comedian clients: jokes are expendable!!! Donít fall so in love with your material (humorous or otherwise, for that matter) that youíre unwilling to let go of it if itís not working. I know of one comedian who has been using the same joke for the past ten years, and Iíve never heard it get a laugh! When I asked him about it, he said, ďI love that joke, and one of these days the audience is going to realize how brilliant it is!Ē I wish I had his kind of optimism! Hereís the pattern I use: Once I develop a new piece of materialóa story, letís sayóIíll try it out with a few friends. Iíll pay particular attention to the reaction the story gets. Then, Iíll go home and revise the story based on the response. Then Iíll try the revised version with some different friends. If the response is positive, Iíll try the story out in front of an audience. If it still works, itís in (although Iíll keep honing it). If, on the other hand, itís not getting positive response after two or three revisions, Iíll trash it! Hey, I can always come up with another story!
- 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. Letís be absolutely clear on this. A speakerís personal story belongs to that speaker, and nobody else! I donít 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 itís yours, and because youíll tell it in a way that nobody else on the planet possibly can, because it didnít happen to anybody else on the planet! If youíre using somebody elseís story, then sooner or later, somebodyís going to recognize it. And whether they call you on it or not, youíll lose credibility in that personís eyes. And theyíll tell other people. Is that really the kind of reputation you want? Wouldnít 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.
- 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. Youíll find youíre 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 youíll discover that youíve developed your own unique style. And then, if youíre really good, you can bet there will be somebody new out there listening, whoís emulating you!
- Thou shalt exercise thy comedic filter
What do I mean by ďfilterĒ? I mean the way you look at the world. And by ďexercising your comedic filter,Ē 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 whoís always rushing in saying, ďYouíll never believe what happened to me this morning,Ē and itís always something hilarious. In my experience, the things that are happening to this person happen to all of us; itís 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. Itís 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 Iíve got news for you: those cars were always there! You just didnít notice them before, because you didnít 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. Itís the same thing with comedy. If youíre actively looking for humorous personal stories, you will start to notice the funny things happening all aroundóand toóyou! 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!