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Feb 27

Advanced Humorous Speaking – How Do You Define Bombing?

I did the first speech in the Toastmasters Advanced Manual; “Humorously Speaking” and it’s left me somewhat confused. So I figured I might be able to work out some of my thoughts about it here. In the process of analysing my speech I will offer up what I did, how I feel it went and where I can improve for next time so hopefully you can keep a look out for similar experiences in your speech or presentation.

The objective for the “Warm up Your Audience” module was to open a 5-7 minute speech with a humorous story which you personalise. Which is exactly what I did. I took a real life incident and attempted to extract the humour from it.

I’m going to include my own personal evaluation here as well as the one from my actual evaluator.

Positive Audience Response

What I noticed as I went through the speech was that I was getting the level of laughs that I was expecting. There were laughs and smiles, but the Positive Audience Response (PAR) wasn’t on the level I was expecting. Note: I describe what PAR is in my previous post on after dinner speaking. I know that instinctively without using the Comedy Evaluator Pro software.

There were a total of 32 audience members, a nice manageable size, but they were all seated in a semi-circle which is how the speaker previous to me wanted them. So I found myself constantly moving around the circle trying to gauge the laughter and reactions.

Audience Seating

I felt that if they were seated in a more traditional manner like a theatre or cabaret style and they were sat closer together it may have been easier for you to capitalise on the small laughs and smiles that I was getting.

Because of the way they were sat the laughs didn’t “infect” the other members of the audience. The audience looked more exposed as no-one was sat behind anyone else. They were all sat next to each other.

Now, I’ll just have to say at this point, that my fellow Toastmaster Will (who followed me doing the same speech module) was able to open with a big laugh under those exact audience circumstances.

But he did two very smart things…

He picked a topic which the majority of the audience could relate to; fast food restaurants. Mine, on the other hand, was about a promotional job that I had done. I picked something that wasn’t immediately identifiable with my audience, a cardinal sin which I had failed to notice. Big Whoops. Now, if my audience were other people who had done promotional work then the reaction may have been different.

Tip: make sure you know you’re audience and you’re not cracking jokes that will drop like a lead chicken feather. Your humour has to be relatable. For instance, jokes about the London underground are great in London, outside of London in the countryside they probably wouldn’t go over as well.

Will also opened with a personalised street joke, which was another great thing to do. I, on the other hand, incorporated my street joke into the promotional job story that ultimately didn’t work as well. He was able to open with a bang and keep them chuckling along, whereas I had some consistent chuckles which didn’t really hit the peak that I wanted.

“I was raised by Wolves”

I also felt that I went bizarre too quickly. I was saw an Eddie Izzard interview which he spoke aboout what his act was like in the late 80s and early 90s before he had break-through success.

His act used to start bizarre. He had an opening bit where he talked about being raised by wolves. The problem with starting bizarre is that oftentimes the audience aren’t with you. Especially if you’re still finding your audience. I’m sure Eddie can start bizarre these days and it wouldn’t be as bad a problem.

This is what I felt I did. I think I went bizarre a bit too soon. The cure then is to start more in the normal world, talking about everyday relatable subjects and then go bizarre. That way you’re able to take your audience with you on your flight of fancy.

Old School or New School?

I also decided to experiment with more physical comedy than I normally do. When I was first doing stand-up many years ago I used to be quite a physical performer. But what can happen, I think, is that you come across as being a bit too rehearsed and too demonstrative.

Having physical “act-outs“, or mini sketches, to emphasize your jokes is absoutely fine. This is one of the things that separates the old school style of stand-up from the new. The old school style involves the comedian just telling jokes. For instance, Dave Letterman, Bob Hope or Steven Wright.

Whereas the new school style has the comedian “show” their audience some of their jokes. Just watch someone like Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans, Bill Hicks or Craig Fergusson. But I felt that I had too many complicated physical jokes too close together. It can become warying and, dare I say, samey to the audience.

The cure for this would be to have perhaps one physical set piece in a 5-7 minute speech instead of the six that I had going on. In this case less could well have been more.

Having a quick watch of someone like Lee Evans or Eddie Izzard or though they come across as having a lot of physical jokes, they do mix it up somewhat. Evans is more physical than Izzard, but even so there are moments where the physical jokes get abandoned for the verbal humour. It helps to create more rhythm to the act.

My Toastmasters Evaluation

Hilary, my evaluator and President of Early Bird Speakers, thought I had great timing which helped the overall impact of my speech. She also thought the body language was good.

She felt, however, that I could’ve linked the jokes in with my theme more than I did. Perhaps the speech would have worked better if I’d included some key learnings and had valuable information that I could’ve passed on to the audience. I need to improve my structure so everything links in and takes the audience on a journey.

What Hilary also felt was that I was just delivering a series of loosely connected jokes instead of delivering a speech which has humoroous lines peppered throughout. The series of connected jokes is actually a module that appears later in the same manual.

Now I think about it what I’d actually done was create a piece of stand-up because the topics I used were relatively short. There was a general thread because they were on a similar theme, but essentially they were stand-up bits. Obviously this is not the objective of the speech.

Hilary suggested that there should have been more emphasis on the story element in the opening and throughout the speech. And that I should have ended on a bigger punchline and laugh. Whereas, as it was, I ended on a bit of a wimper (my words not Hilary’s).

Conclusion?

I completely agree with her. What happened, I felt, was that I became fixated on trying to improve my PAR score. If you’ve read my previous after dinner speaking post you’ll know that my PAR was 11 and I was trying too hard to get it up to the magic 15.

As a result what I ended up doing was trying to get to that PAR by creating a speech that was more stand-up-based than humorous talk. Whilst I have yet to run the recording of my speech through my “Comedy Evaluator” software, I know that my PAR score was significantly less than I’ve recently achieved.

So from that perspective I felt that I didn’t have a very good speech because of the mental approach that I had used. I wasn’t able to get the audience laughing in a continuous rhythm. Which means although it was written similar to a piece of stand-up ultimately as a piece of stand-up up it failed.

Cornfoozed

But what happened at the end of the night was that I won a Best Speaker Award. That’s why I said I was very confused at the top of this post. In an evening of Advanced Speeches I won the award even though I personally felt it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. But regardless of how I felt it went, the audience must’ve enjoyed it.

I’m reminded of some of the words of late humorist and M.C. John Cantu. In “The Busy Person’s Guide… Getting Paid to Make People Laugh” Cantu clarified the difference between a comedian and a humorist as he saw it: “a comedian basically does a very structured type of presentation.

“It is set-up and punch line, set-up and punch line… That is not an organic way fo speaking… You need to be getting a laugh every 10 or 15 seconds…. When you are a comedian, you have to have one killer joke after another…

“When you are a humorist, they don’t have to be that strong, because you are coming from a different perspective. It’s kind of the analogy I tell people: if you were a comedian giving desserts, you would be shoving one chocolate bonbon down the person’s throat after another. It’s all chocolate.

“But if you are a humorist giving sweet desserts, you could have some chocolate, some ice cream, some pie, some cake, a muffin, etc. It is a much softer, broader choice of options.”

He also spoke about a misconception that you can have that if you don’t get that many laughs then you’re bombing. This is exactly how I felt. Even though people were smiling and chuckling I didn’t get the level that I wanted. But at the end of the night the Best Speaker award proved otherwise.

So the takeaway from this experience is if you’re giving a speech or presentation keep everything tied into your theme and use personal stories and street jokes peppered throughout. Keep everything flowing together rather than a series of disjointed jokes (that’s a different ball game altogther).

If the audience is not laughing out loud constantly, but are instead chuckling fairly consistently and smiling that’s not necessarily bombing from a humorist’s perspective.

Although, personally, I want my audience laughing loud and long which is certainly a good goal to have. But it’s not the end of the world if that doesn’t happen. Why do I want this? Well, I want to make sure that my audience is entertained and had as much fun as possible whilst watching my speech.

The audience feels a different way to your speech than you do. I certainly learned that. In order to increase your chances, however, it is probably wise to have your audience seated closer together. That way the laughs can infect the other listeners and there’s a better chance of the laughs multilpying.

What you have to try and remember is to let the laughs come organically from your speech or presentation. Don’t try to force the laughs. If they come then they come. If they don’t, just move on as you’ll be bound to get them next time round.

Side note: If you’re looking for a great way to capture your sense fo humour for your speech or presentation, I can recommend using the approach as laid out in the fast start guide.

Make sure you record yourself either just the audio on a personal dictaphone or visually as well with a camcorder. You need to be able to look at yourself and figure out what it was that you did or did not do. You’ll have a record of your speech and you’ll be able to learn a lot from it for use next time.

I myself have a recording on dictaphone which I have yet to check and there was also a video made which I’d like to get hold of at some point so I can do an actual analysis and run through the Comedy Evaluator Pro software and then do a follow up post.

Note: There are affiliate links on this post. That means that if you purchase a product via that link I get paid a commission. It’s how I help pay the bills.

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  1. Freddie Daniells

    Hi Jason: Are you coming to either of the two workshops that Division B is hosting tonight and next wednesday. Tonight is Simon Bucknall, Uk and Ireland champion talking about some of the lessons he has learned. I know one of them is all about picking something that your audience can relate to, a deeper seated emotion that we can all agree with. Next week is the Andrew Brammer workshop on storytelling. All the details are on The London Speaker. There are very few tickets for tonights left so I would be quick if you want one! Best of luck with the Humorously Speaking manual.

  2. Jason Peck

    Hi Freddie,

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ve already got my ticket for tonight’s workshop. I’ve just got to check my emails and get the invite. I’ll be interested to see what Simon has to say. I normally pretty good at picking the right topic, I must’ve been asleep for this one. Still, I think it’s about finding the universal themes, within a personal story, which have a fairly broad appeal

  3. Melissa

    This is a very good post! I wouldn’t usually comment here, but I wanted to remark on something you said: “If the audience is not laughing out loud constantly, but are instead chuckling fairly consistently and smiling that’s not necessarily bombing from a humorist’s perspective.”

    I agree that it’s definitely NOT bombing. I think that since you aren’t acting as a stand-up in scenarios such as these, it is unfair to expect the audience to be in stitches through the entirety of your speech. There will be times when the content of your speech is important and highly charged (ie change management or other inspirational or business-geared themes), and you will need to maintain a level of decorum AS WELL AS keep your your audience engaged and attentive. Entertaining them is a bonus.

    Fortunately, you do have an innate ability to entertain (I can say that because I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you speak!), so that bonus is already built in. And, as evidenced by your award for this speech, you are also capable of keeping an audience tuned-in and engaged with your message. So…try not to beat yourself up about your PAR, because it really doesn’t apply to these speeches the way it does to stand-up. Apples with apples…

  4. Jason Peck

    Hi Melissa

    Thanks for making a comment on my blog, it’s very much appreciated. You’re absolutely right, it’s not bombing under those circumstances. I agree with that.

    However, I still think it’s still important to consider my PAR score because a PAR score’s not just restricted to stand-ups but can include humorous speakers too.

    What I think occurred is that I focussed too much on achieving that result and not on actually on entertaining the audience. I was still entertaining them, but the PAR score was in the back of my mind. Hence I didn’t do as well as I’d personally hoped.

    Lets see if I can incorporate some of these lessons for next time.

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