“She laughed. She cried. She came home changed.”
That’s what we’re aiming for. We want people to come home changed, and that usually means that we need to appeal to different emotions in your talk. I’ve talked before about the different elements that go into a talk, and the ways in which we can plan our talks so that we build towards the one major change that we’re encouraging people to make. (I have a great audio download and handout that walks you through preparing a talk, giving you a skeleton of a talk you only need to flesh out, right here!).
But here’s the issue: if our purpose in talking is to take people through a process where their hearts and ears and minds are open to hear from God, we have to earn their trust. You can’t just start your talk telling people what they need to do differently. They’ll tune you out! You have to instead earn their trust by opening up to them, telling them stories, showing them that they really do have a problem they need to solve, and showing them that you have walked that road, too.
Implicit in that, though, is a bit of humour. It’s hard to get people to bond with you or listen to you unless there is even a little bit of humour involved.
However, I recently received an email from a speaker who was concerned about this. She’s written her talk, but it’s about a very heavy topic. Most people, when they come to hear her, will be aware that that is the topic (think grief, or depression, or mental illness, these sorts of things). You can’t really make that funny, can you? Or should you?
It’s an excellent question, and I want to try to address it.
1. First, let’s re-evaluate what we mean by “funny“. When I’m saying you should add humour, I don’t mean that your talk should thus be a comedy routine. Absolutely not. For instance, a big part of my testimony concerns my son who died. That is not funny. Not in the least. It’s certainly not a comedy routine.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t give people a chance to laugh. You can throw in small anecdotes that make people smile. I tell a story, for instance, about my daughter when she was 3. She was at a playgroup, and she didn’t believe in sharing, and so she’d hoard all the toys she liked in a corner, guarding them. But here’s the point: the whole time she was guarding them, she wasn’t playing with them, either. And we do the same thing in our lives. We’re so busy clutching things because we’re scared God’s going to take them from us that we don’t enjoy them.
It’s only a small story, but it relates to the overall point I’m making. And I act out the story, and it always gets quite a laugh. It’s still making a serious point; but it’s a little more lighthearted.
It doesn’t mean that the talk is a comedy routine; it does mean that you’re adding a few anecdotes every now and then that make people smile.
Movies do that, too. Have you ever noticed that? Whenever there are really heavy points in a movie, there inevitably is something, even if it’s something small, that makes you smile. Often in the saddest movies there will be one character who is just there to add some lightheartedness to an otherwise bleak situation. If the movie didn’t have that kind of comedy release, it would just be too difficult to watch the rest of it. Because we’re able to smile, we’re actually able to take in the depths of the pain and hurt easier. If there are no opportunities to smile, we, as observers, tend to close off our hearts or our emotions, so that we don’t enter too deeply into the darkness. We protect ourselves. Give us a reason to smile, though, and you get through those natural defenses.
So even if your story is very difficult, you can, and should, still add an anecdote every now and then that can make people smile. It isn’t diminishing your story; it’s actually enhancing it. And you can make sure that anecdote still tells the same point.
2. You don’t have to be a comedian to tell a funny story. Telling a joke is very different from telling an anecdote or relaying a story. Some people just can’t tell jokes. I hardly ever tell jokes in my talks, but I am funny. Jokes have little to do with your talk; they’re just there to make people laugh, and they often make audiences uncomfortable. Telling stories, though, makes audiences automatically more comfortable, because they sense that you’re not preaching to them.
To be funny, you just have to find a story that make you laugh. Now practice telling it. Do so in a mirror. I have very precise ways in which I tell stories that I have found worked. Sometimes you have to speed your voice up, sometimes you have to slow down. Sometimes you use body movements, sometimes you stand perfectly still. Humour really is an art that is difficult to teach. You just have to try telling the story several times to see which ways make people laugh the most. Then, when you find that way, tell it exactly the same way every time. It sounds boring, but you get used to it, and then you tell it better.
Here’s one of my humour routines, for instance. This is all leading up to my big point that we feel guilty about stupid things because we’re afraid to let go and let God determine our priorities. It’s three minutes long, but it illustrates what I mean:
I use that same routine pretty much the same way when I speak. But by the end of the talk I’ve become significantly more serious. But I won the audience over with that humour.
If you don’t feel like you’re a natural comedian, don’t worry. You don’t have to make them laugh for twenty minutes straight. Every now and then, just use a few anecdotes that make people smile. It disarms them, so it’s easier for them to listen to the serious stuff.
I have heard people use humour really effectively even when talking about persecution, or depression, or abuse. These things are not funny. But when we show that we can also laugh, we show that God has done a work in our lives. It isn’t negating the pain to add some humour; it’s simply showing people that we have survived, and that God is still there.
If you’re trying to find those anecdotes, often movies or literature provide funny ones. And just check your own life for the things that have made you laugh.
But remember: mixing laughter with the serious stuff helps people take in the deeper message. So do try to include some humour, even if it’s only a little bit. You help everyone listen to you more!
If you want more information on how to include humour, and exactly when to use it in your talk, my audio download “Crafting a Life Changing Signature Talk” can help. Find more information here!.