I won the Best Speech award (again) at my Toastmasters club last meeting, for a humorous speech entitled Share The Love. I love delivering funny speeches, because I get to make people laugh, I'm able to live in the moment, and I get distracted from self-consciousness by the story-telling. In short, I get to feel free. Plus I can tell immediately that the audience is engaged when they laugh. Even if they're not laughing, they seem to be paying attention, and either way I'm in the zone having fun.
Now I know it was just a regular club meeting; it's not like I won a humorous speech contest or anything yet, that's coming up in a few week's time. But here's my process for writing and delivering a humorous speech:
Pick A Painful Story
The essence of public speaking is to tell a story, and make a point. Story-telling is the basis of the craft. So I generally start with a painful personal story from my own life which I've emotionally dealt with sufficiently to be able to laugh at myself. Being able to laugh at yourself is essential. The story needs to have a happy ending in which the pain is resolved in some way. If you're still traumatised by the story, the audience won't find it funny. If you can't think of a painful story, or you're just not ready to go there yet, pick a story about a situation you were in that you found genuinely hilarious. You need to be in the story; don't tell someone else's story.
If you don't think you have worthy personal stories of your own, you just haven't looked hard enough yet. Your personal pain is a goldmine of comedic material, and stories that may not have been funny at all for you at the time can be hilarious when told later. The more prepared you are to plumb the depths of your psyche and expose your pain and inner conflict, the funnier you'll be.
Run your story by a friend in normal conversation and see how they respond. Chances are that if the story meant something to you, you'll tell it energetically and get a positive response. Don't abandon the story if it falls flat first time; perhaps your friend is in a bad mood. Try it on someone else. After a few goes if people don't seem interested, pick another story. Don't tell your friends that you're testing a story on them. I told the story behind Share The Love to the friends from my public speaking practise group over coffee, and when they described the conversation as "very entertaining" I figured I was onto something.
Preparing The Speech
You want to be well enough prepared that you aren't likely to lose your place when delivering the speech, but not so over-prepared that your delivery looks staged and stilted. Professional actors spend years developing the skill of being able to deliver a monologue from a script as though they were sharing their own current thoughts and feelings. Trying to memorise your speech word for word like a script will kill your delivery; don't do that. You're telling a personal story that you've already lived, so you're not likely to forget the most important and impactful details, and that's what's important. This is another reason you should be telling your own stories.
I never write out the full text of a speech; partly because I'm too lazy, and partly because that way I avoid the perfectionistic tendency to try and memorise and deliver it word-for-word. I broke this tradition slightly with Share The Love and did write the whole story out because I wanted to post it on my blog. It also helped me get the story straight in my head, but the written story isn't the same as the speech. Even though I'd written the whole story out, I then broke it down into bullet points to create the speech from.
However, you do want to memorise your opening and the closing statements word-for-word. The opening is important because it's where you grab the audience's attention and let them know what's in it for them. It's also where you'll be the most nervous, so you want the opening line to be so deeply embedded in your psyche that it'll roll off your tongue no matter what happens.
For everything in the body of the speech, the important thing is that you cover the key scenes or events of the story, while remaining connected with the audience. You'll do this by reliving the story emotionally as you tell it. Break the story down into three major bullet points describing each key scene or event, and note them down on a small piece of paper. If you're giving a long speech or your stories are very short, tell more stories and bullet point each story. All the stories should have a common theme that aligns with the point you want to make in your conclusion. Generally speaking, you're better off fully fleshing out an interesting story than doing a half-baked job of trying to tell several stories in one speech without enough time to do each justice.
Make your speech conversational. Use the same words you would use if you were talking to a single person. Imagine yourself telling your story to a good friend. Asking questions helps engage your audience; use language that works one-to-one like "Have you ever felt so angry, you thought you might explode?", rather than one-to-many like "Who here has ever felt so angry, you thought you might explode?" One-to-many statements are common in public speaking, but you lose a personal connection when you use them.
Emphasise the dialogue in your story, rather than narrating all the time. Rather than saying:
"I told her that I wanted her to leave",
"I said to her: 'I want you to leave!'".
Telling stories in dialogue makes an enormous difference: it makes you relive the scene better, it helps you emphasise the traits of your characters, and it brings the audience along for the ride with you. Giving dialogue for your internal thoughts is particularly powerful. Instead of saying:
"I thought that I just wanted to kill her.",
"I thought: 'I just want to kill her!'"
This distinction may seem subtle when you read a story, but it makes a huge difference when telling a story on stage. Check out Craig Valentine's Edge Of Their Seats Storytelling program for more on this.
Your closing statement is the thing your audience will take away with them, so you want to memorise it too. The closing statement should make some point that links to the themes in the scenes and events in your story. I don't always know the point I want to make when I start working on a story; often the point becomes apparent the first time I tell the story to one of my friends, or in my practise group. Other people can give interpretations we didn't think of, which is another reason why it's good to run stories by friends before we tell them on stage.
Rehearsing Your Speech
To get good at anything, you have to practise. I tend to leave rehearsing my full speech until the day I'm giving it. Leaving everything to the last minute is a bad habit I picked up at Uni, but it seems to work for me. By this time I'm been thinking about the key events of the story for a few days, and visualising myself up on stage deliving it and getting lots of laughs; now it's time to tie the whole thing together and work right through it.
I rehearse in my lounge room, talking to my sofa. I pretend I'm at the real venue, starting from when I've been introduced. I try to ignore the voice in my head that tells me, "The neighbours will think you've gone crazy if they hear you!" My sofa has heard all my speeches numerous times, and is now a world-renowned expert on my personal neuroses. PS: Notice how I gave that internal voice in dialogue just there?
I generally rehearse each complete speech a few times, recording it on my Olympus digital voice recorder or my Sony Walkman MP3 player/recorder. Check the time to see if you need to leave things out, or expand on points in your story to fill the allotted time. I've never had to expand when preparing a typical Toastmasters 5-7 minute speech; I always end up with points I really wanted to keep that I had to leave out due to time constraints. The audience never notice the omission, and it's important not to go overtime. So long as you've include the key events, they'll get the connection to the main point that you end with.
Work from your bullet points here. If you've written the entire speech out, put it aside and work from your memory, jolted by the bullet points if necessary.
Again, don't overdo your rehearsals or try to memorise it word-for-word. Perfectionism will kill your delivery and you'll end up taking ages between speeches, slowing your learning rate. Seasoned actors know that there's a sweet-spot at which a show is ready to go on-stage: rehearse beyond this, and enthusiasm, motivation and performance quality actually drop. It's better to give 5 imperfect speeches than 1 perfect one, because you learn the most when you're actually up there delivering it. Besides, the perfect speech is one that connects deeply and impactfully with your audience, and reciting a memorised speech word-perfect rarely does this.
Delivering The Speech
Make sure someone is recording your speech. I leave my voice recorder on a nearby desk or use a lapel microphone, and my club videos speeches so I can review it later.
When it comes to delivering the speech, you're likely to be nervous. Take a deep breath, think about what the story means to you, and how you'd like to convey that to the audience in a way that's fun and engaging. Your aim is to enjoy yourself as you entertain your audience. Focus on connecting with them and giving them something of value. Take your focus off you, and put it on the story and the audience.
If you don't feel confident going on stage without notes, take the bullet points of the key events and scenes in the story with you, not the full text of the speech. You can't remain connected with your audience if you're reading from a script, and if you lose your place up on the podium you'll find it remarkably hard to pick things up again on a page full of tiny text. Bullet points are the way to go, memorised if possible.
After you walk on stage, pause as you glance around making eye contact with a few members of the audience. Don't forget the people down the back, if there are any. We're all inclined to rush at this point; pausing builds anticipation and the eye contact builds connection. Then, deliver your memorised opening line as you continue to make eye contact with the audience.
Next, dive into the story. Relive it as you tell it. Move around as you move from scene to scene; don't move on stage unless it's purposeful. Like an actor, you should only move when something in the story makes you move. Same deal with hand movements and gestures; they should arise from the story, not from nervousness or from arbitrary rules in the Toastmaster's manual.
Don't try and make your speech funny... the humour should arise naturally from the story. Emphasise the painful parts of your story, or the parts that you found funny. Exaggerate a little if you like, particularly with your descriptions of things. I generally find that the slightly paranoid interpretation of things that popped into my head naturally when the actual events occurred does just fine when told without much exaggeration. You'll be exposing part of your psyche by doing this, but the audience are likely to find it piss-funny when they discover what actually goes on in your head. If it's embarrassing, you can always say that you exaggerated for the purposes of better storytelling. We'll know the truth though, and to be honest, the more paranoid and embarrassing, the funnier you'll be.
Work on being present, rather than being perfect. Leave pauses for laughs. Timing is hugely important in a humorous speech, and the worst thing you can do is talk over your audience's laughter. Pay attention to how they are responding, especially if they laugh when you're not expecting it or at times that seem inappropriate. Don't get defensive if this triggers embarrassment for you; you wanted to make them laugh, right?
Go easy on yourself. Developing a great story takes time. You can't expect to totally nail it the first time you tell it on stage. Be patient with the process. I am my own worst critic, and really need to be reminded of this a lot.
Listen to the feedback you get, and take note of the points you find helpful. Keep in mind the calibre and attributes of the person giving the feedback. Take on feedback that is congruent with attributes of the person giving you feedback that you aspire to. For example, if a comedian gives you feedback on your use of humour, you might want to consider it more highly than feedback from someone who doesn't see themselves as, or aspire to be, funny.
Professional public speakers tell the same stories over and over in front of different audiences, tailoring and improving them each time. They prepare enough that they know they can confidently deliver the story without becoming bored with it, and each presentation is slightly different.
Listen to the recording of your speech a few days later to see what things you would do differently to be more present and connected with your audience, and to improve your comedic timing. Also listen for key points that you may have missed or forgotten; but remember that chances are something you thought was a vital omission actually didn't make that much difference to the audience.
Down the track when you want to deliver the same speech again, or to tell the same story in the context of a different speech, listen to your previous performance to remind yourself the main points, scenes and events. By listening to your old storytelling efforts and working on the rough parts, you'll naturally refine and improve each time you tell the story. I keep a directory on my PC for each story, complete with MP3's, videos, text and other material related to that story. I'm building up a library of developed stories that I can slot into speeches whenever I want to illustrate a relevant theme. Your stories are your intellectual property, and companies take intellectual property very seriously. Only you can deliver your stories most effectively since you've lived them, and they're what distinguish you from other speakers. Don't treat your stories as one-off disposable items that you're done with after each speech.
Now of course there's always more to learn, and I didn't come up with this process all by myself; it's a combination of what I've learned at Toastmasters, and from world-class public speakers Craig Valentine, Darren Lacroix, and Paul Blackburn. If you want to really advance your public speaking ability, the most powerful training material I've come across, which I highly recommend you get your hands on, is Craig and Darren's Own The Stage program.