Laughing All the Way to the Bank: Ways to Add Humor to Speeches

NSA/NC Meeting Report: Saturday January 12, 2013

Last Saturday the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association hosted NSA National President Ron Culberson, MSW, CSP and Howard Putman, CSP, CPAE, former CEO, Southwest Airlines.

Howard Putnam: Top-flight speaker

Howard PutnamHoward Putnam took a struggling airline called Southwest and turned it into one of the most successful companies in the world. At Braniff Airlines, he was the first CEO to successfully restructure a major airline into, through, and out of Chapter 11. Earlier he spent over twenty years with United Airlines, his final position being Group VP of Marketing.

Howard spent a couple of hours in conversation with Michael Soon Lee, CSP reviewing the reasons he has become one of the more successful celebrity speakers, sharing the platform with such people as General Colin Powell, Laura Bush, Bill Cosby, Terry Bradshaw, Rudy Giuliani, Coach Lou Holtz, Steve Forbes, and Dr. Robert Schuler.

When he retired from his corporate work and decided to become a professional speaker, an early influence was Zig Ziglar — a well-known motivational speaker who sadly passed away in 2012.

Zig advised him to:

  • Use the expertise from his past career as the foundation for his speaking career
  • Approach audiences from an emotional as well as an intellectual point of view
  • Develop substance for his speeches by:
  1. Hiring a coach who can give an unbiased outside view of his capability. Howard hired Juanell Teague
  2. Writing a book. Howard worked with an experienced writer to publish The Winds of Turbulence: A CEO’s Reflections on Surviving and Thriving on the Cutting Edge of Corporate Crisis.
  3. Joining the National Speakers Association.

Working with a Speakers Bureau

Howard shared that he is now a successful speaker booked two to three times a month at fees in excess of $25,000. He outsources the management of his bookings to Holli Catchpole of the Speakers Office, Inc who manages a select group of top-flight speakers.

Michael Lee pointed out that beginning speakers are in a Catch-22 situation with Agencies. Most Agencies will only work with established speakers. One option for speakers with fees at the lower end of the scale is Speakers Unlimited.

Ron Culberson: Funny man

Ron Culberson NSA National President and professional humorist Ron Culberson demonstrated simple steps speakers can take to add humor to any presentation that will make their content stick and increase the value of their speech for the audience.

He started with a few observations on the morning, joking that the title of Howard’s book reminded him of his last Taco Bell bean burrito.

Starting with a humorous summary of the meeting is a deliberate technique he recommends for any speaker who wants to let the audience know they are “one of them” who was listening to the event. Too many speakers ignore anything that happens before they speak.

In an era when content is instantly available to an audience able to Google it, speakers must create an experience — the more fun this is, the more memorable. Humor balances the serious information in your presentation. It creates a new perspective.

Discovering humor

Ron advised that material for humorous speeches is all around us in everyday interactions. He encourages us to ask “what might be funny about this?” and shared the humor he discovers in visits to doctor’s offices, family life, street signs, newspaper articles and more.

Think outside the box to discover sources of humor. Consider the many ways that you can answer the question “What is half of eight?”

Developing humor

The “Secret Formula” for developing humor is to look for congruent incongruence — or the surprising ways the unrelated ideas are related. He works with category lists to discover the congruence between topics such as golf and autos. This was in response to the news that Tiger Woods had crashed his car outside his home. A common term was “drive” which gave Ron the idea for a one-liner about Woods and a PGA award for the “shortest drive”.

Ron recommends we check out the Seinfeld movie Comedian. This shows how much effort professionals put into writing humor that works. Ron parsed his own material to show how adding or removing a single word can make a humorous speech work better.

10 ways to deliver humor in your presentation

Ron’s handout listed 10 ways to deliver humor in your next presentation:

    Verbal humor:

  1. Use funny quotes from people who already said something funny. It does not have to be anything more than “I read so-and-so said…” and if the content is funny you have generated laughter without the need to be funny yourself.
  2. Use jokes, but sparingly as they are now much more accessible to people via the internet. That said, Ron struck gold with a joke about a chicken and frog that he delivered to an audience of librarians.
  3. Use personal stories from your own experiences. This is most authentic form of humor.
  4. Visual humor:

  5. Use funny actions and facial expressions to make your appearance funny. It might be a hat or other item of clothing.
  6. Use fun props as visual aids. (Note: Ron’s business partner David Glickman elaborated on this in his 2006 NSA/NC presentation.)
  7. Use creative and funny slides.
  8. Add humor and funny clip art to your handouts.
  9. Experiential humor:

  10. Invite the audience to respond to funny questions or surveys. This can be especially effective in training sessions.
  11. Use volunteers to come up front and interact with them in a funny way.
  12. Design funny small group activities in which the audience creates the humor.

Ron Culberson’s Demo Video

In order to appreciate Ron’s comic genius and encouragement to audiences to do things well and make them fun, take ten and watch his entertaining and, yes, rather funny, demo video:

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1 Comment so far
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Good article and video. Best not to tell too many jokes though as it can be quite wearing to have a comedian onboard all of the time.



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