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.
for the Gold: Sure-Fire Ways to Win
Your Next Humorous Speech Contest
keeping you from entering, and winning, a Toastmasters Humorous
too long ago, I won my first Humorous Speech contest. More
accurately, it was series of contestsin my club, area,
division and district. Winning a Toastmasters contest is a
truly remarkable feeling. Toastmasters provides an excellent
environment for healthy competitiona unique chance to
put into practice what we spend weeks and months learning
in our regular Toastmasters meetings.
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 againas 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 boneno small feat as any comedian
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.
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 shortcomingsa 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.
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
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 feelthat 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
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 gunseven
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.
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
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.
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.
to the Game Plan
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.
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"?
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.
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.
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
Step on the Laughter
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 inhibitedthey
won't want to miss anything, so they're less likely
to let loose with laughter again.)
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 silenceand that's
too late because you'll lose your momentum.
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 structureclub, area, district, divisionworks,
because you deliver your speech to increasingly larger groups.
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.
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.
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 jokespecifically,
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.
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 predictablethe kiss of death
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 frommalaprops (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.
bottom line? Keep 'em guessing.
Rule of Three
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 humoristnamely 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.
course, every rule has exceptions.
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.
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.
no one's quite sure why the Rule of Three works so wellit
just does. Then again, no one's quite sure why the "k"
sound in words is funny. It just is.
Your Best Joke for Last
a temptation to throw out all your best material right awayto
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
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
evaluatorsto ignore their guidance is to flirt with
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?
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 audienceeither because the callback is intrinsically
funny, or at the very least because it's something familiar.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 contestaudience
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.
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
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?
the Seed of Truth
matter how absurd or silly a topic you choose, the most memorable
and resonant speechesthough funny and entertainingalso
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.
my speech about complaining, many of the concepts were intentionally
outrageous. But the core messageabout how complaining
erodes our experience of lifewas something people found
meaningful to them. It was clear the humor helped deliver
a concept people could ponder long after the speech ended.
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 testa
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.
for the Gold
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 aroundit's laughter.
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.
it works for me.