Getting serious about adding humor to your public speaking

8 tips from author David Nihill

David Nihill wants you to be funnier — that is, to be confident and captivating enough to wow your audience rather than lulling them into a stupor. So who is this David Nihill fellow, exactly?

For a while, he was known as Irish Dave, a persona he adopted during the year he dedicated to getting over his terrible fear of public speaking by doing stand-up comedy. (He describes himself as a former “nervous, sweaty mess,” and readily acknowledges this wasn’t the best-sounding plan he’s ever had.) During this yearlong experiment, Nihill met a host of talented comedic copywriters who he now partners with to help companies create more engaging (less boring) content. He’s still Irish and still calls the Bay Area home, when rental rates permit.

He also happens to have a new book coming out called, Do You Talk Funny? 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (And Funnier) Public Speaker. (You’re invited to attend his book launch event at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center on March 9). Below, he shares eight tips from his book on becoming a funnier, more compelling speaker.

Tip #1: Use the rule of 3
“This rule is a basic structure for jokes and ideas that capitalize on the way we process information,” says comedian and TEDx speaker Tim Lee. “We have become proficient at pattern recognition by necessity. Three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern. This combination of pattern and brevity results in memorable content.”

Tip #2: Draw upon your real-life experiences
The safest humor involves personal stories because they are guaranteed to be original and can be easily practiced and perfected. As Ricky Gervais says, “As a creator, it’s your job to make an audience as excited and fascinated about a subject as you are, and real life tends to do that.”

Tip #3: Find the funny in pain points
“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it,” Charlie Chaplin said. While he likely didn’t mean customer pain points, the same wisdom applies.

Tip #4: Think fails and firsts
Where do you find the funny? “So many people ask me for help creating a funnier speech,” says former world public speaking champion Darren LaCroix. “They want to know where to ‘find funny.’ I suggest starting by looking in the mirror! Start by looking at your fails and your firsts. The first time you did something wrong. Audiences love the humility and openness.”

Tip #5: Think fun over funny
“Making people laugh is only one type of humor; Getting them to smile is another,” says comedian and TEDx speaker Andrew Tarvin. “When starting out, focus on making things fun as opposed to making things funny.”

Tip #6: Screen your jokes
“Presentations have an extra advantage over most traditional standup sets — a giant friggin’ screen that the audience is starting at the whole time you’re onstage,” says Sammy Wegent. “And in a world where funny Photoshopped images, memes, and GIFs dominate our devices, visual humor has never been bigger. So don’t just say funny things in your presentation. Show funny things, too.”

Tip #7: Like Jerry Seinfeld does, use inherently funny words
Some words are funnier than others and can be amusing without any given context. Words with a ‘k’ in them are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. L’s are not funny. When writing his bit about Pop-Tarts, Jerry Seinfeld took foods from the ’60s in all their strange, frozen, unhealthy forms and narrowed his focus on Pop-Tarts. Why Pop-Tarts? Because Pop-Tarts sounds funny. “The Pop-Tart suddenly appeared in the supermarket … and we were like chimps in the dirt playing with sticks.” According to Seinfeld, what makes the joke is, “you have got chimps, dirt, playing, and sticks. In seven words, four of them are funny. Chimps. Chimps are funny.”

Tip #8: Jokes are: 1, 2, … 4!
“They look like they’re about to establish a pattern, but then break it just when it’s about to become one,” says Rajiv Satyal. “In this example, you thinking I’m counting but when you hear ‘4’, you realize I was doubling the numbers. It makes sense in retrospect. (But they’re not 1, 2, … 7! That would just be random.) Jokes work due to the element of surprise. Too many business presentations are stuff people already know (1, 2, … 3!) or stuff people don’t know what to do with (1, 2, … 7!). Give ’em something both memorable and fun.”

Join David Nihill in celebrating the launch of his new book, Do You Talk Funny? 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (And Funnier) Public Speaker — along with some lively discussion accompanied by beer, wine, and snacks — at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center on Wednesday, March 9 at 6:30pm. Register now to attend the launch, space is limited. We look forward to seeing you @theCenter.

David Nihill is the Founder of FunnyBizz, a community, writer platform, and conference series where business meets humor to brin an end to boring content. His work has been featured in Inc., Lifehacker, The Huffington Post, Fast Company, and Forbes. A graduate of the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, Nihill does wear a tie — but only to bungee jump.

The Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center is a San Francisco-based non-profit that educates, innovates, and connects current and aspiring entrepreneurs. We provide access to quality resources, including mentors, training, and networking.

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