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Using Humor Effectively

Estimated Lesson Time: 8 minutes

Laughter is said to be the best medicine known to man. With that in mind, the development of a good sense of humor and the ability to make people laugh can do more good for those you come into contact with than an entire pharmacy of drugs—unless, of course, the people are really sick.

Besides just making other people happy and feel good, humor can be used to make light of an otherwise awkward situation, and ease both tension and ill feelings while building rapport. In a speaking or writing situation, humor can keep an audience interested in what you have to say, thus helping you become a better communicator. If popularity is one of your goals, then humor is a very effective tool. It is difficult not to like someone who makes you laugh.

People have different senses of humor; this is why not all people find all the same comedians funny. Some people (such as myself) just about lose control of bodily functions when watching movies like The Naked Gun, while others just roll their eyes. Despite these differences, humor is recognized, and the effects of humor remain.

Here are some different kinds of humor that you can use. You may find that you are better at delivering some kinds of humor than others. If you have a natural talent for one kind of humor, work on developing it. You may find a good backup career in the process!

  • The Joke. This is a fictitious story or question that has most likely been told to you. Jokes are most appropriate when the content relates to your current discussion or the situation you are in. However, joke-tellers are like delivery boys who just carry the message and don’t write it, and most people recognize that.
  • The Funny Story. This is a true story (or one you believe to be true) about something that has happened to you or someone close to you. Try to avoid funny stories that happened to a “friend of a friend” because most times they are just not believable. Use the universal “humor license” and just say “friend”—the closer the relationship to the person or persons in the story, the funnier the story.
  • The Impersonation. Impersonations are only funny when you are impersonating someone who or something that your audience knows. Impersonations are also a bit risky especially when you do not want to offend the person you are impersonating.
  • Physical Comedy. If you have ever seen Chris Farley, Chevy Chase or Steve Martin in action, you have seen great examples of physical comedy. Physical comedy usually involves an exaggeration of the body and deliberate clumsiness to make others laugh. It is important with physical comedy to be deliberate enough, so others see you as funny, rather than just clumsy.
  • What Ifs. What if after reading the above paragraph on physical comedy, you got up to use the restroom and tripped? The thought of that is funny (unless of course you are at the fragile age where “a trip” means a trip to the hospital—in which case you should avoid physical comedy altogether). “What Ifs” are great for a chuckle and to lighten situations.
  • Sarcasm. If you have ever seen David Spade in a movie or TV show, you have seen sarcasm at its best. Or someone like Rita Ruder who says, “I love being married. It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.” It is important to note, however, that sarcasm should be used carefully, with those you know who can take such comments lightheartedly. Sarcasm is not generally seen as a positive quality, and very often it is used to express negative emotions.
  • Slapstick Comedy. My favorite example of a classic slapstick comedy is The Naked Gun series with Frank Drebbin, or just about any movie where Leslie Nielsen is the star. An example of slapstick comedy is when Frank is searching through an office for clues, opens a drawer and says “BINGO” then pulls out a Bingo game card. Slapstick is also known as excessive silliness, but I admire slapstick for its inherent genius.

Here are my ten “Rules of Humor.” Follow them, and humor will serve you well. Break them, and you will be the subject of other people’s humor.

  1. NEVER EVER take credit for someone else’s joke. Not only is it just wrong, but if you try to pass a joke or funny comment off as your own and someone hears you that knows it is not yours, it will make for a very awkward situation that even the best sense of humor may not be able to get you out of. If you repeat something funny that someone else has said, start with “As _____ would say...” or somehow otherwise make it clear that the joke is not your original thought. You can still use humor and maintain your integrity.
  2. Make sure if you tell a joke or say something funny it is to a new audience. Learn a lesson from your over-intoxicated relatives at parties. A joke may be funny once, but try to pass it off again to the same audience, and you will be on your way to comedic purgatory.
  3. Be appropriate. There is a time and place for everything and humor is no exception. For example, humor can be very effective at a funeral to make others feel better but telling jokes at the guest of honor’s expense may not be a good idea.
  4. Keep it short. Long-winded jokes and stories do more damage than good.
  5. Be smooth. Often the delivery is more important than content. Stuttering and messing up words can really make a mess of humor. My favorite example of this is Chris Farley in Tommy Boy when he is attempting to repeat his father’s “Bull and T-bone” joke (if you have not seen the movie, rent it!)
  6. Timing. Even the funniest joke delivered at the wrong time (too late, too early) can flop.
  7. Relevancy. Make sure the humor is relevant to the conversation or situation. Starting an insurance speech with a joke about getting a haircut just does not flow.
  8. Do not make jokes at other people’s expense. This can be very tempting at times, especially with “easy targets.” Hold your tongue and use your creativity to redirect your humor elsewhere.
  9. Don’t overdo it. Be funny, have a good sense of humor, but do not be a comedian. This is true for everyone except comedians who make a living by making people laugh. In everyday life, and especially business, you want people to take you seriously. Know when to be serious.
  10. Don’t be corny. Unless the members of your audience are frequent patrons of “Chuck E. Cheese’s,” stay away from the corny jokes. If you want to know what I mean by corny, pick up a package of kids’ Dixie cups—the ones with the “jokes”—and read the cups.

Realize that even professional comedians deliver jokes that fail. We often do not see these because their televised jokes are collections of their best jokes that have been proven. If you know how to respond properly to a failed joke, you can end up with a situation more humorous than if the joke had succeeded. Here are some things you can do when people fail to find humor in your joke:

  • Pretend you are holding a microphone in one hand, and while tapping the hand with your other hand’s two fingers, say, “Hello, is this thing on?”
  • Quickly cover up by asking a question.
  • Don’t laugh at your own jokes and people may not think you were trying to be funny.

Using humor effectively requires practice and self-confidence. Remember, with every joke that does not go over well, your art of humor will improve.


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Have a podcast or know someone who does? Putting on a conference? Dr. Bennett is available for interviews and public speaking events. Contact him directly here.

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  • Have you implemented this idea in your life? How has it been working for you?
  • Do you have any interesting stories related to this lesson? Do tell!
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    Year To Success
    Bo Bennett, PhD

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