Make Yourself at Home

The humor must be comfortable for the audience. Find out from your host, long before the speaking date, as much as possible about the composition of the audience. Stag or mixed, young or old, and with political, racial, and religious differences, audiences require tailored material.

For instance, this joke might lay a big egg if you cracked it in a meeting of Bible-thumping fundamentalists:

As one tropical fish said to another, "Okay wise guy. If there's no Cod, just answer me one question. Who changes the water in the tank every day?"

According to Ed Hercer, audiences want the speaker to succeed. If the speaker is enthusiastic, they'll be on his side, encouraging him with laughter. After all, they want their "just desserts."

But here are a few warnings. E. B. White once wrote, "Nothing becomes funny by being labeled so." Therefore, don't predict or fanfare humor. ("Hey, here's something funny!" The audience will be thinking, "Just tell us the joke. We'll decide.")

When you do humor, hecklers are encouraged to join in. In addition, technical difficulties are a constant hazard, so you might as well prepare your client for what can go wrong.

Hecklers may get involved with lines like "to make a long story short," yelling "Toooo late!" And don't ever say, "I just threw that in," because a heckler will shout, "Well, you should have thrown it out." If the mike goes dead and the speaker yells, "Can you hear me in the back?" and someone says, "No!" then the heckler will stand up and shout, "Well, I can hear and I'll change places with you."

During the question-and-answer period, discourage talking back to hecklers with loaded questions. First of all, they'll be getting the attention they want. More important, if you start with one there may be fifty of them, each with one good line. They always outnumber you.

Advise your client not to try and ad-lib with another comedian in the audience, because the pro will be faster on the draw. Besides, the comedian is probably there to watch your client speak (a compliment) and not to gratuitously take part in someone else's act. If you want to use the pro, pay him!

According to Fred Ebel, humor in front of a small audience—ten or twenty people—is very hard to bring off because each individual is afraid to laugh for fear of being conspicuous. The speaker should try to find the one person who's got a booming laugh, look at him and even wink at him once or twice. His laughter may be the catalyst that starts the audience laughing. Also, the client should get as friendly as possible with the senior official of the group. People will frequently "follow the leader." If the boss laughs heartily, it gives them permission to break out.

Let me tell you how I got elected. I was campaigning against the former incumbent and we were asked to speak at a farm festival. My opponent went first, but just as he was really getting going the rain started. Most of us ran and stood under a tree. But not him. He just kept talking to a few die-hard supporters who were left. Finally, a farmer walked over to me and said, "You certainly proved you're the smartest. None of us are ever going to vote for anybody who's too dumb to come in out of the rain."

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