I wrote this article for Toastmasters International magazine, sent to members of Toastmasters around the world. My club, found at Earnestspeakers.com, is made up of a great group of folks.


Go for the Gold: Sure-Fire Ways to Win
Your Next Humorous Speech Contest

By Scott Roeben


What's keeping you from entering, and winning, a Toastmasters Humorous Speech contest?

Not too long ago, I won my first Humorous Speech contest. More accurately, it was series of contests—in my club, area, division and district. Winning a Toastmasters contest is a truly remarkable feeling. Toastmasters provides an excellent environment for healthy competition—a unique chance to put into practice what we spend weeks and months learning in our regular Toastmasters meetings.

The Humorous Speech contest is arguably the most challenging of all Toastmasters contests. Why? Primarily, it's because the humorous speech requires that a speaker be funny on demand. And not just once, but over and over again—as the speaker progresses from the club contest, to the area, division and district. The successful humorous speaker exhibits all the qualities required of effective speakers, as well as the ability to tickle the funny bone—no small feat as any comedian can attest.

There are a number of things I discovered on the path to winning my first Humorous Speech contest. These tips may serve as useful stepping stones for you if you're considering entering a Humorous Speech contest near you.

Do the Opposite

All right, I admit it. I'm not the best speaker in the world. I have no idea what to do with my hands. I pace. I have a terrible memory. But I had a secret weapon in my recent contests that overcame those unfortunate shortcomings—a strong concept. Sure, we're all striving to become compelling, engaging speakers. But it doesn't hurt to have a distinctive concept to help carry the day.

Keep in mind that in Toastmasters contests, each aspect of your speech is given a specific "weight" by the judges. The "Content" of your speech is 50% of your final score, "Delivery" is 30% and "Language" represents 20%. Given this, it's clear many contests are won and lost before the speaker ever arrives at the room on contest day.

My speech was titled "The Dying Art of the Complaint." In it, I implored the audience to rejuvenate the practice of complaining which has been in decline in recent years, especially with all the rampant prosperity we've been experiencing of late. Obviously, the speech was delivered tongue-in-cheek. The key to the speech's success was that I was saying exactly the opposite of what I really feel, in fact, what many people feel—that complaining diminishes our enjoyment of life. The humor came from speaking emphatically about something that was clearly ludicrous. "If things progress the way they have, there will be no complaining left," I proclaimed. "And that is simply not the kind of world I want to live in."

When you're developing the topic of your humorous speech, you might try "doing the opposite" of your first instinct. Give your speech an unpredictable twist. Want to give a speech on gun control? How about advocating that everyone have guns—even family pets? How about making an empassioned speech about eliminating taxes for the very rich? Or perhaps take the position that we should all watch more television.

Humor will come out of the absurdity of your position. Presenting the position that's the opposite of what you mean gets the audience engaged, and gives them something they didn't expect. Surprise, after all, is one of the fundamental tenets of humor.

Play It Straight

A key aspect to giving a humorous speech is for the speaker to not be in on the joke. Think about times when you've heard a joke delivered by someone who laughs at their own joke. Just doesn't seem as funny, does it? It's the same with a humorous speech. The humor is for your audience, not you. Play it straight.

In my speech, I spoke with utter conviction about the need for more complaining. "Complaining is the glue which holds us together as a society. It's what separates us from the animals." My serious delivery stood in stark contrast to the silliness of the words being spoken, which elicited a tremendous response from the various audiences. If the tone of the speech had been too light-hearted, it's doubtful it would have had the same impact.

Stick to the Game Plan

Any comedian could tell you about times when their material wasn't received as well as expected. It's the bane of a comedian's existence. Like the comedian, the Toastmaster faces potential peril when competing in a Humorous Speech contest. You prepare for weeks, polishing your opening joke, you rise when your name is called, you begin your speech, the joke is delivered just as it was rehearsed…and nothing. Silence, even.

Now, what?

The most important thing about not getting the results you expect is to not get derailed. Stick to the game plan. Simply move on. (Or as they said in a recent ad campaign: "Never let them see you sweat.") And under no circumstances should you resent the audience for not responding the way you feel they should. Many a performer has made the mistake of commenting on how uptight an audience is, or how they just don't "get it." Such comments only serve to antagonize the very same souls you're trying to win over. There's simply nothing worse than being part of an audience which is being berated by a speaker for not laughing in the right places. What frame of mind do you think that puts an audience in? Are they more likely to laugh at your next joke if you've ridiculed them and implied their "hammock doesn't quite reach both trees"?

Instead of getting defensive, just keep moving. If you've done the proper preparation, you'll have a number of opportunities for the audience to come around. A clever way to safeguard against jokes falling flat is to not have any jokes in your speech. That's right. Be Bill Cosby, not Rodney Dangerfield. The difference? Dangerfield's style uses one or two liners. Set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline. Every joke has to be a winner. Too much pressure, if you ask me.

But if you've ever seen Bill Cosby perform, he tells stories. Funny stories, but stories that do not rely on "jokes" per se. It takes the pressure off.

There's actually a popular theory in comedy circles, especially among sketch, play and sitcom writers, which puts forth that a joke should never be able to stand on its own as a joke. It should come so organically from the concept being delivered that it won't hold up on its own. Personally, I wouldn't dare give a humorous speech if I wasn't sure I had a couple of sure-fire jokes sprinkled throughout, but it's something to consider.

Don't Step on the Laughter

Here's a tricky one. Let's assume all is going according to plan. The audience is with you. You throw out a line: "My car is a convertible. I call it that because when I turn the key, it converts into a piece of junk." The audience responds. There is a delicate balance struck between a humorous speaker and the audience. If you speak during the laughter, one of two things will happen: 1) your next comment won't be heard, or 2) the laughter will abruptly halt so you can be heard. (From there on out your audience is likely to be inhibited—they won't want to miss anything, so they're less likely to let loose with laughter again.)

So, here's a good rule of thumb. Say the duration of an audience's response is a period of time measured from one to ten, with three or four typically being the peak of the laughter. You can avoid "stepping on the laugh" by waiting until about eight to begin speaking again. You don't want to wait until 10, as that's nearly silence—and that's too late because you'll lose your momentum.

Like I said, this is tricky. Which is why it's essential you practice your speech in a club setting before going on to a larger contest. In addition, you'll find that a small group responds differently than a large group, which is another reason the contest structure—club, area, district, division—works, because you deliver your speech to increasingly larger groups.

In time, you'll develop an ear for laughter, and only through repetition will you gain a sense of what rhythm works best for you. Remember, when you step on the audience's response, you're defeating the whole purpose of giving a humorous speech in the first place.

Vary Your Jokes

Avoid the trap of using the same kind of humor over and over during your speech. While a pun can work on occasion, for instance, a speech littered with puns alone is likely to fall flat.

To get a sense of what I mean by a "kind" of joke, I'll use an example I was given when a professional comedy writer read a sitcom script I'd written. His feedback was that there were too many of the same kind of joke—specifically, that I'd used too many "Hawkeye-isms." He was referring to the Hawkeye of M*A*S*H* fame, of course. When you hear the term "Hawkeye-ism," you already know what this writer meant. Hawkeye-isms are jokes that come from tricky wordplay. Hawkeye's quips were distinctive, and were delivered with a rat-a-tat cadence. The show's creator, Larry Gelbart, is known for his brilliance at writing funny dialogue, and left his thumbprint on the character we all know and love.

I, however, was guilty of falling into the rut of using the same style of joke over and over. Even though the jokes themselves were different, the repeated use of the same "style" of joke made the punchlines predictable—the kiss of death for comedy.

So, the idea is to mix things up. There are many different kinds of humor. There is physical humor (often underutilized by Toastmasters, myself included), and a variety of humor types and techniques to choose from—malaprops (the comic misuse of words), spoonerisms (an interchange of sounds, such as saying "tuna lick" instead of "lunatic"), exaggeration ("He's so dimwitted, it takes him two hours to watch 60 Minutes"), put-downs (refer to previous line), sarcasm, oxymorons (like "video library"), irony and others.

The bottom line? Keep 'em guessing.

The Rule of Three

Along with varying the types of jokes you use, it's also important to remember the Rule of Three. That's the age-old (and for good reason) guideline passed down through the generations from humorist to humorist—namely that three jokes on a given subject is fine, but no more. The next time you observe a speaker you admire, who makes you laugh and who seems to have the perfect sense of what to say and how, pay attention to how many jokes he or she gives to punctuate any particular point. That's right. Three's the limit.

Of course, every rule has exceptions.

Except this one.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, "There are no hard and fast rules about humorous speaking." First, you should stop talking to yourself. More importantly, don't tempt fate. Breaking this rule often leads to dire consequences. It's a bit like gravity. You can deny its existence, but you pretty much know where the bowling ball's going when you toss it into the air.

Incidentally, the Rule of Three also applies to how many examples you should give on any topic within your speech. If you put forth a concept, support it with three (or fewer) examples.

Again, no one's quite sure why the Rule of Three works so well—it just does. Then again, no one's quite sure why the "k" sound in words is funny. It just is.

Save Your Best Joke for Last

There's a temptation to throw out all your best material right away—to get the audience on your side. But it's far more important to have a great closer. That final payoff is what the audience (and perhaps more importantly at a contest, the judges) will remember.

How can you tell if something's funny? Tell it to five people before you ever step foot into your club contest. Consider it market research. Humor is, after all, subjective, but five glazed-over looks in response to a "humorous" observation may indicate the material isn't hitting the mark. Don't expect that something miraculous will change that unpleasant reality on the day of your speech contest. Listen to feedback, and pay close attention to the feedback you receive from your evaluators—to ignore their guidance is to flirt with disaster.

I once read a great answer to the question "What's funny?" The book said: "The source of the ludicrous is the unexpected subsumption of an object under a concept which in other respects is different from it." I have no idea what that means. But "ludicrous" and "concept," after all, have "k" sounds, so who's going to argue?

Master the "Callback"

A key comic device is the "callback." The callback is simply a reference to something that was presented earlier in the speech. Callbacks give a humorous speech a sense of cohesion, and rarely fail to bring a positive response from an audience—either because the callback is intrinsically funny, or at the very least because it's something familiar.

In my speech on complaining, I gave some useful tips on how we can complain more effectively. The four "tips" I espoused to improve the quality of our complaining were: 1) ignore the facts, 2) when you complain, exaggerate, 3) always compare the present with the past and 4) never do anything about your complaint.

Each of these "pointers" was followed with examples. Then, at the end of my speech, I plead with audience members to get out into the world and start complaining, and to begin with complaining about what a terrible speech I'd given. I then asked, "Why should you use my speech as an example?" After a pause for effect, I explained, "Simple, remember Tip #1? When complaining, you should always ignore the facts." This reference, at the end of the speech, served as an effective callback, giving the speech a sense of circularity and closure, and served double duty as a solid closing gag.

Find Friendly Faces

During your speech, seek the support of fellow club members. The effect of being able to look out into an audience and find friendly faces can't be overstated.

Contests are an interesting phenomenon. While you sense that everyone wants you to do well, the competitive component of the festivities is readily apparent. It's natural that each club wants their representative to win, and while the unwritten Toastmasters code would never allow a club member to verbalize their personal bias, it sometimes comes out in unsuspected ways.

For example, at our area contest, one of my competitors in the contest actually sat at a table directly in front of the stage, and was munching on food the entire time I was speaking, doing her best to distract fellow audience members and/or the judges…or me. While this type of behavior is truly rare in Toastmasters, it's a good idea to invite as many friends and fellow club members to your contests as possible. They'll give you the benefit of the doubt when a joke falls flat, and their enthusiastic applause is certain to pump you up before, during and after your speech.

And by the way, I took absolutely no satisfaction in the fact that the speaker who tried to sabotage me did not go home with the winner's trophy. Really, I swear.

Watch the Clock

As Toastmasters, we pride ourselves on being disciplined when it comes to time. However, humorous speeches, unlike other kinds of speeches, rely on a widely varying time aspect that can have a serious impact on your chances of winning a contest—audience response.

If you do your job correctly, your speech will elicit gales of laughter. The problem? It's impossible to know exactly how much time that laughter will add to your speech. In contests, going over the allotted time can result in disqualification.

In most cases, this will mean you'll want to build in some time for audience response. If you prepare a speech that runs seven minutes without breaks for audience response, you're in trouble. (The typical time limit in Humorous Speech contests is 5-7 minutes.)

A safe bet is to "pad" your speech with lines or ideas which you can easily discard on the spot if you find the audience reaction is unusually good (meaning, you're getting more laughter than expected). Keep these lines self-contained. Run through your speech with and without them. Don't be afraid to drop even some of your best material if you find yourself going over time. Remember that no matter how good your speech is, if you go over the time limit, you're out of the running. Do you want that trophy or not?

Discover the Seed of Truth

No matter how absurd or silly a topic you choose, the most memorable and resonant speeches—though funny and entertaining—also hold a seed of truth for the audience to take home with them. They have an underlying theme, or position that just plain sticks with audience members.

In my speech about complaining, many of the concepts were intentionally outrageous. But the core message—about how complaining erodes our experience of life—was something people found meaningful to them. It was clear the humor helped deliver a concept people could ponder long after the speech ended.

The difference between a merely funny speech and a funny speech that wins contests is that the winning speech provokes and inspires, and can stand a critically important test—a winning humorous speech would still be provocative and inspiring even if all the humor were removed. Just because it's a humorous speech doesn't mean it can or should be frivolous. Going for obvious or easy laughs isn't enough. Seek out the message, the story only you can tell. Just think of humor as an "idea delivery device," nothing more.

Go for the Gold

So, what are you waiting for? There's a funny person in you waiting to get out. Remember, it's not money that makes the world go around—it's laughter.

The best piece of advice you can receive about winning your next Humorous Speech contest is this: Dive in. That's right. Be fearless. Just follow some of these pointers and you're bound to have that Humorous Speech contest trophy sitting on your mantle. Unless you don't have a mantle. In which case, you should just carry your trophy around with you at all times.

Hey, it works for me.

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