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The humorous speech

By: Susan Dugdale | Last modified: 05-19-2021

When funny is NOT enough: lessons learned the hard way

It was that time of year in the Toastmasters' Calendar for the humorous speech contest.

Who would enter?

I decided to. I hadn't entered that particular contest before, despite having given numerous humorous speeches, sometimes, intentionally. It would be a challenge, a stretch and who knows, it might even be a laugh!

So what happened?

I chose a self-deprecating topic, one familiar to most people, procrastination. My version of it poked fun at myself for the game I play over NOT writing the novel, play, short stories, or poems, I promise myself I will. 

Black and white comedy and tragedy theater masks

I mixed the ingredients carefully.

There was:

  • melodrama - exaggeration and hyperbole
  • a pun or two
  • absurdity
  • characterization - the taking on of other voices in storytelling
  • use of gesture & deliberate movement around the stage
  • seeds of truth - enough to make it real
  • use of alliteration
  • examples of irony
  • rhetorical questions - to hook the audience
  • interactivity - an invitation to join with me in singing
  • changes of pace - slow, medium, fast and very fast
  • changes of pitch & volume
  • use of the dramatic pause

In short I included ALL the elements I know make up "funny" in a humorous speech.

I've written about many of them on these pages:

I threw everything I had into it. And then some.

 Oops! I forgot an obvious and vital ingredient

Unfortunately I forgot one element. 

And that one teeny-tiny oversight was the largest of them all.

I'm tempted to write its name in a very little font because I'm embarrassed. This is definitely from my "should-have-known-better" file, which is, alas, quite large.

I forgot to PRACTICE

Quite simply, I did not practice enough. And definitely not enough with an eye on the clock.

If I had, I would have realized my speech was too long. The result was inevitable. I got disqualified for going over the time allowance.

Laughing is time consuming

What I hadn't thought through was the laughter.

People laughing take up time! You have to wait for them to finish chortling before you go on.

And neither had I thought through my own capacity to respond to laughter.

I got bigger and better in delivery; encouraged and emboldened by an appreciative audience. The "biggerer and betterer" I got, the longer I took. Until ...

... suddenly there was the red light. For those of you who don't know, the red light in Toastmasters means STOP. No more. Shut your mouth. Sit down.

Black and white comedy and tragedy theater masks.

My take-away lessons

Here are my lessons, learned the hard way:

1. Time waits for no man (or woman), not even funny ones. A time limit is finite. In a Toastmasters Humorous Speech Contest that is 7 minutes and 30 seconds. 

As that famous old Shakespearean wind-bag Polonius ironically says; "Brevity is the soul of wit".

2. Practice may have made perfect but I'll never know because I didn't give myself the opportunity to find out.

3. Practice as if you are performing and if possible with an audience.

4. Practice with a stop watch but more than that, know the time you are taking for the introduction, middle and end so you can adjust them if necessary.

5. Be prepared to ruthlessly cut if you find you're over time. Start with any multiple examples you've used to illustrate a main point. The weakest of these go first. Repeat until the entire speech is comfortably under the time limit, including pauses left waiting for laughter to subside.

Practice, practice and then practice some more ...

You'll know what I'll be doing next time the humorous speech contest around.

And there will be a next time because one of the many benefits of Toastmasters is that there is no real or permanent failure. There is experience and experience can be learned from.

My career as a humorous speaker may not have begun triumphantly but it is not over yet!

Black and white comedy and tragedy theater masks

Image: vintage court jester. Text: How to find the right kind of funny for speeches

How to write great funny speeches
All the information and resources you need to get yourself started writing a humorous speech

Additional resources on using humor

The text for my speech is here*. I converted it into a PDF with the thought that others may appreciate learning what-not-to-do from it!

(*Note added many years later.
On re-reading this I'm happy to say I still like a lot of it. However if I was ever to use the piece again, I would edit it mercilessly. I know my own writing weaknesses, and I know one of them is adding words. One more example. One more synonym because I like the sound of it. Those would go. Out. Gone. Cut. Good bye.

I would also update some of the examples because they are no longer current and therefore may not be known by the majority of the audience. When you don't know about something and someone is joking about it, it's not funny at all because you have no reason to laugh!)

Black and white comedy and tragedy theater masks