02 April 2017

This time, it's about humor. Or the lack thereof.

Recently, I watched a presentation by a speaker (nobody I will name, to protect the guilty) who tried---oh, so very hard, he tried---to be funny. But his jokes just weren't landing with his audience, and he grew visibly more and more nervous with every bombing joke, until finally he either ran out of material or ran out of courage, finished his talk, and bolted for the door as soon as he could.

It was really a painful process for everybody.

Which leads me to my next speaking tip: Don't be funny.

Or, rather: Don't be funny, unless you know how to be funny, and by that I mean you have actually studied how to be funny.

Don't quit your day job

It's a hidden desire we all (or many, anyway) have: to be standing in a group of laughing people, tossing off quip after quip, telling story after story, to peals of laughter and amusement. To be funny, it seems, is so easy---just find the right jokes, toss off the right comments at the right time, and lo-and-behold, everybody laughs, and who doesn't love somebody that makes you laugh?

(Matter of fact, remember, we learned that lesson in Aladdin? Genie tried to tell Aladdin to reveal his true identity to Princess Jasmine because "A woman loves a man who can make her laugh!" He refused, of course, and ended up having to out-trick the Vizier/sorceror/evil-genie at the end of the movie instead. Shoulda run with the Genie's advice, Al!)

Unfortunately, when the would-be comedian tries to be funny, it often backfires horribly, with what seemed so funny when you told that joke among your friends last week instead just draws blank stares from the room. Yikes! Maybe they just didn't hear it, so you try the punchline again. Nothing. Hmm. OK, let's try one more....

That gurgling sound you hear in the background is the sound of a talk, going down, for the final time. Or, in some cases, it's drowned out by the "whooshing" sound of flames erupting in the back from somebody who really did not care for the supposed joke, because it wasn't really all that funny, and in fact it was downright offensive.

I know: You want to be funny. You really, really want to entertain the audience as much as educate them, and that's a good thing, generally. (Actually, it's almost always a good thing---if it can be done well.) But, like many things speaking-related, it's never as easy as it seems on the surface, and if you're committed to a speaker persona of one who will make the room laugh, then you need to commit to learning the "science" of being funny.

Being funny is no joking matter

No, seriously---you think standup comedians are funny by accident? Or that they're just somehow more talented? No way. They practice, and I don't mean with their friends. The funny people actually go out and practice their jokes on strangers. Many of the world's funniest comedians continue to do stand-up in small, out-of-the-way clubs, where they can try their newest material, judge the results, and tweak it (the material, the delivery, the pacing, whatever) in time for the next show. In fact, some of them will even play around with the material during their "big" shows (in Vegas, for example), because nobody ever goes to the same stand-up comedian's show twice in a row, right?

Let me be entirely transparent with you---a few years ago, I had a small accident while I was in Riga to do the keynote at the first RigaDevDays show. The full story is here if you want to read it. The admission of honesty comes in the fact that by the time I wrote all that down, I had my "story" (that is to say, the entire joke, all however-many-pages of it) down to a near-science. I knew exactly where I wanted to pause for breath, where I wanted to pause for effect (to let people either relax before the next big moment of tension, or to help build the suspense back up, and so on. I wouldn't call it memorized, but it was damn close.

Why? Well, partly because it's kinda funny, and partly because it's a way to help defuse what could've been a really sad story into something that we can all enjoy. (I mean, seriously, I had a shard of bone broken off from my upper right arm while I was abroad in a country whose language I spoke not one word of. There's some horror stories that start that way.)

But the more salient question is, How? How did I get it to the point where, if I tell it just right, I have people laughing so hard they have tears coming out of their eyes? Easy: I practiced it. Over and over again, watching their body language, watching how they paid attention at parts and sort of "wandered off" at points. (Keep the former, speed up through the latter.) The first time I told it, it was much more factually-driven; now, it's all about getting to the punch lines, after suitable build-up.

How does one get to be the funniest person in the room? Practice, practice, practice.

Want to know something else? While most of the world finds Venkat Subramaniam to be an incredibly funny speaker, I don't. Not because I don't like the guy---far from it, he's one of my closest friends in the world. I don't find him funny for the same reason that his kids don't find him funny (or why my kids don't find me all that funny): I've heard all his jokes before. He's practiced, just as I have, year over year, and discovered (as I have!) that sometimes the joke you didn't intend is actually the funniest joke. But when you say something by accident that triggers the audience to laugh, you take note of it, try it again at another show or two, and if those audiences laugh too, you have yourself a joke.

Some basics of humor

So assuming I haven't turned you off of attempting humor in your presentation entirely, let me leave you with a few tidbits on what being funny really means.

Let me start with an example; suppose I walk up to you at a conference and say, "What did one programmer say to the other? Byte me!", chances are good that you're going to just kind of sit there and look at me and wonder what the hell I'm doing. It's just not that funny. Why?

Let me leave you with a story. This isn't exactly how I'd tell it were I trying to be humorous with it; it's far more instructive as an example of something that was funny but entirely inside of a particular context.

That time, in Poland...

A number of years ago, I was doing a conference in Krakow, Poland. I was there with Linda Rising, Michael Nygard, and Venkat Subramaniam, among others. (The reason I mention these three names is that they're relevant to the story---the others are not.)

Mike, Venkat and I were scheduled to do closing keynotes. Yes, keynotes, plural---while there was a few tracks for breakout sessions, the organizers had decided that they wanted to have a single track in the afternoon of the closing day, and Mike, Venkat and I, in that order, were it.

This was actually in balance to the previous day, which had offered a pair of opening keynotes, one by Linda Rising, who was the victim of some unfortunate misunderstandings. You see, this was Linda's first time in Poland, and she was trying to build some rapport with the audience by periodically asking her audience, "Do you have those in Poland?" Like relatively modern things, but since she'd never been to Poland before, she genuinely didn't know how closely Polish culture mirrored... well, ours (US). (To be fair, Linda, like me, grew up in the world of the Iron Curtain, and we were always bombarded with no "backwards" the Second World was, but still.) Unfortunately, judging by the Twitter stream during her keynote, the effect was much the opposite of what she'd intended---many of the attendees were a little (to a lot) offended by her questions, as they felt that somehow this was making them out to be some backwards Third World nation or something.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today was Mike, Venkat, and then myself, and then the show was over.

Mike did his thing, and the audience was awed by his analysis. Possibly a little OVERawed---they were polite in their applause, but it was a little muted.

(Establishing a baseline here: the audience is engaged, but they certainly weren't jumping out of their seats with energy.)

Then, Venkat stood up and did his thing. And oh, man, did he wake up the crowd. They laughed at his jokes, they grinned at his commentary, and they even chuckled at a few things that he really hadn't intended to be funny at all. I remember one time he was talking something about the Java type system, and he pointed at the screen and mock-shouted, "That's not a String!" and the audience howled. I have no idea why they found that so funny, but man, they did.

So now it's my turn. (Thinking to myself, "Jesus, Venkat, why'd you have to be so funny? Now I'm only going to look terrible by comparison!", I was about to begin. Suddenly inspiration struck.)

"Before I get started, let me tell you a story," I began. "When I was in high school, I used to play trombone in a jazz band. One of the fundamental rules was that you never want to solo after the saxophone player does a solo. The saxophone is just such a sexy instrument, anything that guy plays is going to sound better than anything you could possibly do. So, thank you, Venkat 'Saxophone' Subramaniam, for your keynote, and...." The room laughs.

(I figured that would be the highlight; I was wrong. WAY wrong.)

At a certain point in the talk, I start asking the audience some simple questions. One of them is a fairly simple math problem about calculating the dimensions of a rectangle, using a farmer's farm as the rectangle in question. (Knowing the difficulties Linda had accidentally had with this crowd, I went in with this next bit entirely in mind.)

"Let's try another problem. Here we see that we need to discover the dimensions to a rectangular area. So imagine a farmer needs to caculate the dimensions of his farm.... Oh, wait, do you have farms in Poland?"

The room giggled a little---they could tell where I was coming from with that---but from the back of the room, a heckler cries out, "Not a square farm, no!" The room laughs a little more.

"Oh, right, sorry. So, imagine a GERMAN farmer has a farm...."

The room explodes. Falls out of its collective chair, laughing so hard.

From that point forward, I had them laughing just by affecting a German accent every once in a while.

Best. Keynote. EVAR.


Mike Nygard, after the talk, said he absolutely could not believe what I had just done. "There is no way that should've worked," I think was how he phrased it. "You just insulted every German in the room, and the whole audience thought it was hilarious!"

First of all, there weren't that many Germans in the room; this was in Poland, and frankly, Europeans don't seem all that willing to cross national lines when they attend conferences. Not sure why, since almost all technical software development conferences seem to be done in English regardless of where they're held, but that's only tangential to the story. Fact is, there probably were a few Germans in the audience, and they laughed alongside their Polish counterparts.

Thing is, by taking Linda's accident of the day prior, I really had only intended to try and "rescue" that particular situation by making a little humor out of it by taking it to more and more absurd lengths. Of course Poland has farms---every country in Europe has had farms since roughly the Stone Age. It was a tacit acknowledgement that some of the prior day's interaction was a little silly, by going even sillier and over-the-top. I was deliberately exaggerating and going out to the absurd end of the spectrum to try and draw a laugh.

But the GERMAN crack, totally ad-libbed, was the coup de grace. In one word, I'd effectively played on the historical (and to a much lesser degree current) tensions between two rivals, Poland and Germany, by playing on the stereotype of the "engineer German" whose farms are, of course, always perfectly straight and perfectly rectangular, because that's how we do farms in Germany!

("How many Germans does it take to change a light bulb? Ein! Was ist zo funny?")

If you're in Europe, you can always fall back on national stereotypes as a source of humor. Kinda like redneck jokes in the US.

("HEAVEN is where: The police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French and it's all organised by the Swiss.
"HELL is where: The police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and it's all organised by the Italians!!")


If you're going to work humor into your talks, make sure you can be funny in other situations, among people who are not familiar with you or with your usual repertoire of jokes. If you can't make others beyond your closest social circle laugh, then you need to work on your humor skills some more.

Here's homework: Go watch a standup routine, but instead of enjoying the routine, try to analyze the jokes and discover what makes them funny. What bits worked? What bits didn't? Then, take a class on comedy, either standup or improv, and try your own hand at it.

And if you get good at it, well, maybe you can quit your day job.

Tags: speaking tips