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3 Takeaways from Tapped to Speak LIVE

I hosted my first ever large live event June 7 and 8th in New York City, called Tapped to Speak LIVE. The goal: Give people the insight, tools, and conditions to discover their TED-worthy talk.

And since it was my first time, I did what anyone with big dreams for their first event does—namely, get ambitious with the scheduling and hit everyone with a firehose.

Though it was a fantastic firehose at that, and the program was teeming with speaker talent and tools and there were firecrackers of inspiration going off so much it was like the Fourth of July in there.

And so while I can’t replicate that event here for you, I can give you three takeaways that could be useful as you think about your own work, your own speaking…and reason to join us next year!

1 | Know the real reason you’re on stage 

Attendee John Hagen’s a-ha moment!

And it’s not just because someone asked you to be. It’s also not just because you’re getting paid or you want to look smart or have a bigger career. All those things play into it, fine—but what became abundantly clear over the course of the two days, and speaker after speaker hit the same point:

You are there to serve. Period.

Public speaking is a service, not just a platform. And the speakers who approach the podium that way make a far bigger impact and have better speaking careers than those who don’t.

(P.S. Never use a podium. Seriously. Why would you take your place on stage in full view of everyone, only to crouch behind a box with just your head sticking out?)

2 | You can’t tell a story that still owns you

Sarah Montana on wielding your story responsibly.

You might have a story to tell, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to tell it.

In her session on how to wield your personal story responsibly, TEDx speaker Sarah Montana taught us that the stage is not the place to get to the bottom of your story.

That means while you may have a story, it doesn’t mean you’re ready to share it. Ask yourself, do you feel compelled to share it so that you can get it out and figure it out? Or do you feel ready to share it from a position of having found peace with it? (Guess what the right answer is.)

Serving your audience means NOT dumping unsorted emotional baggage onto them and hoping that in the telling it’ll get resolved (it won’t). You can only tell a story when you own it and it no longer owns you.

(If you haven’t watched Sarah’s TEDx talk, “The real risk of forgiveness and why it’s worth it,” it’s a must. There’s no story so personal and hard that you can’t tell, IF—and it’s a big if—you’ve come to terms with it.)

3 | Public speaking is an exchange of energy, not just information. 

Comic Cam Hebb brings the laughs.

I know. This sounds a little woo-woo. But it couldn’t be more true. When we think about creating “a talk” it’s easy to get hyper focused on “what will I say”—in other words, what information can I impart?

But while content is critical, and has to be good, it’s not just ‘content first, delivery second.’ You must bear in mind what you want that audience to feel, think, and do from the start—and all of that inspires the talk itself.

Think about the last time you were totally turned off, bored, angered, or annoyed by a speaker. It’s how they made you feel, based on how they couched and communicated information, and what assumptions that speaker made about you.

To think you’re just teaching or giving info to your audience is to undermine your value as a speaker. You’re not there to dispense words. You’re there to change the way they feel about a topic, an industry, an issue, themselves. If you haven’t done that, you haven’t done your job.

Are you ready to craft your powerful signature talk?

Of course, we’re doing this again! It was amazing. Hold the dates for Tapped to Speak LIVE – April 4 & 5, 2019! We’re still figuring out details, but tickets go on sale very soon!

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Why You Should Stop Trying to Inspire People

I work with people of all backgrounds and businesses who have something to say and are dying to say it.

They want to do media and launch podcasts, give TED talks and write books. They want to “put themselves out there.” If there were two words that literally every person says to me, it’s that they want to “help people.” That’s not unique, but it’s a good direction to head in.

There’s another thing they want to do: “inspire people.” In a post-Oprah world, it’s no wonder that this is a common goal. They see authors and thought leaders and everyone else signing copies of their books and strutting around the TED stage, and it looks like those people are up there with a single goal: to be inspiring.

That might be the effect, but I don’t think that’s why you get up there to begin with.

Inspiring people isn’t a bad intention, don’t get me wrong. But I think when we set out to inspire, we’re missing a step.

I’ve wrestled with this for a while—why it sticks in my craw, why it bugs me, why I feel like even though it seems great it’s the wrong goal. And the reason is this: It presumes I need inspiring, and that only you can fix my lowly, sordid self.

I don’t believe that’s what moves people.

When I teach people to craft their killer talks, I beg them to NOT to try to be inspiring.

Be the opposite: Be vulnerable and honest and self-deprecating and real. Be willing to show how you struggled and messed up and why you’re no different from the rest of us. 

In his (amazing) book, The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Chris Anderson talks about how the pursuit of “inspiring people” is a little too on the nose:

“Inspiration is like love. You don’t get it by pursuing it directly. In fact, there’s a name for people who pursue love too directly: stalker.”

And there it is. The reason “I want to inspire people” doesn’t work (in a talk, but really, anywhere) is because it’s more about what YOU want, not what I need.

And if you assume I need what you want, you’ve jumped a few steps, and you’re no longer leading with message, but agenda.

I think of inspiration as a little like self-esteem: You can’t give it to someone; it must be earned. It’s a byproduct of vulnerability, wisdom, courage. Your willingness to take a risk will inspire us far more than anything you do “to” inspire us.

When I had the opportunity to pitch my TEDx talk idea (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) to the organizer of TEDxKC, I never, not once, said I wanted to do it to inspire people. Are people inspired by TED talks? All the time. The good ones, anyway. But it’s not because people got up there with the sole purpose of inspiring you; they had something they wanted to say, some truth they’d come to, some struggle they’d had, and wanted to share it.

The last thing I wanted to do was “inspire people to follow their passion.” I’d always felt that “follow your passion” was unhelpful advice, and I knew I couldn’t be the only one who rankled against it. I didn’t go in to “inspire” people with my brilliance, but to share how I’d struggled with an idea, and how I’d ultimately come to terms with it. I had the sense I wasn’t alone, and I was right.

So? Don’t go in to inspire. Instead, make it a point in all that you do, whether it’s writing, speaking, leading, managing, delivering, to tell us the truth, to show us the work.

To change the way we see a thing. Share your own contradictions, complexities, and struggle. Take us with you down the path of your own discovery, so we can see how you got there, what decisions, and mistakes, you made.  

That, to be sure, will be the most inspiring thing you can do.

 

(Psst. There are still seats available for my transformational, two-day, in-person workshop event, Tapped to Speak LIVE, April 4&5, 2019 in Boston. Click here to learn more and snag your seat.)

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3 Things that Keep Good Speakers from Being Great

If you’re a speaker, or would like to be, chances are you watch other speakers with a very keen eye.

Maybe you scrutinize the bio. Watch the way they carry themselves on stage. Maybe you judge them based on how relatable they are, or how useful their content is. 

And if we’re being honest, you may wonder how we measure up. Could I do that just as well as she is? Could I be maybe even better? Why aren’t I up there, by the way?

I thought the same thing myself, every time I was at an event. Sometimes I was blown away by the speaker. But most of the time, not.

As my own speaking career grows, I have had the opportunity to see and work with even more speakers. And I see the same mistakes over and over again that hold good speakers back from being great.

1 | They underestimate the power of story.

Nothing compels and connects like story. Meaning: narrative examples of other humans. Versus, say, statistics.

If you’re about to get up in front of a group of people, realize, they’re going to pay closer attention to stories, and care more about them than pie chart. Never sacrifice story to put in more information, because stories are what help us digest and interpret information. A bar graph with 12 pt font is the death knell of attention.  

2| They think their topic is interesting (or boring).

Ah! A common mistake that everyone makes. There IS no such thing as a boring or interesting topic.

It’s true.

You can make anything interesting, and anything boring. It’s all in the positioning and articulation of the talk. BUT. If you think your topic is too boring—or already interesting—you’re not doing the work to make it compelling. I’ve seen one person make Excel spreadsheets look like fun, and another make sex toys look like a snooze. 

==> Want to do this yourself? Click here to learn about Tapped to Speak LIVE, the two-day event that helps you craft your TED-worthy talk. 

3| They assume the audience is on the same page.

They are not. Assume the audience has zero context for what you’re saying—even if they’re in your industry.

That doesn’t mean you patronize or talk down to them. But it does mean provide enough context that we can follow you, because we’re really not. In fact—sorry—what were you just saying?

Assume we’re intelligent but are walking in cold (because we are), and we’re also very distracted. If someone stops following you, what you’re saying, or what you mean, they don’t listen harder. They tune out. 

A great talk isn’t one that’s delivered by a sales consultant or a bigger personality than you. It’s one that’s both universal…and uniquely yours. 

This means that as long as you have a very clearly articulated and relevant point and do the work to make it matter to your audience, trust me, you’re doing more than most. Some people stroll on stage and pop open a can of spam. And everyone knows it.

I can’t say it enough: Your stories, your insights, your ideas—not cliche, not motivational mumbo-jumbo—has the power to change the way someone sees their work, their job, even their lives. Make it count.

 

Join me for Tapped to Speak LIVE, a transformational, two-day in-person workshop event, where you’ll learn to develop your TED-worthy talk. Space is limited! Learn more here.

 

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Are TEDx talks played out?

I was at a party last year that was attended mainly by authors, agents, and PR people. And one of the authors heard that I helped people create their TEDx talks.

“Isn’t TED kind of played out,” she said, poking at her gin and tonic with a straw. It wasn’t a question.

“Why do you say that?” I ask.

“Well, because it’s like everyone has one now.”

I paused, then said carefully, “You just published a book, right?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Well….why? I mean, aren’t books played out? Doesn’t everyone have one by now?”

“Good point.”

I tell this story because she’s not alone. With the rise of TED (as with the rise of anything), the more people like a thing or want a thing, there’s always a group of people who now think it’s no longer cool or relevant.

Say, if you were way into the Dave Matthews Band in the 90s, and decided that after “Under the Table and Dreaming” album, anyone who was into them was a chump.

Insert any trend. Skinny jeans. Soy lattes. The list goes on.

Not only do more people watch TED talks, tons of independently organized TEDx events have cropped up all over the globe. TED has become the gold standard for public speaking, and more people not only consume them, but give them.

After the canon of TED talks went globally viral (and anyone you talk to about their fave talks will name one of them), there was an explosion in TEDx talks, and so it’s unlikely you’ve seen them all. And it’s unlikely that they’re all amazing (they’re not).

Now that there is more of an opportunity to give a TEDx talk than ever before, you might think that they’ve lost cache, value, or relevance. Nope.

TEDx talks remain a pretty strong calling card for the public speaking world…and it will work for you IF YOUR TALK IS GOOD. It’s a bigger pot than it was 8 years ago, but cream still rises.

And no, not all TEDx talks are amazing just because they’re given on a TEDx stage. It’s a real mixed bag. Because TEDx events are independently organized, what you’re seeing online is the result of one person or team’s decision and curation. Period.

There are lots of factors at play as to why some get viewed more than others. But it’s safe to say that the good ones get shared, and the views mean something.

Think of it like book sales. Sure, there are also lots of bad books out there that were published by mainstream publishers. Some you don’t like will sell a ton and garner millions of readers. Others won’t.

Bottom line: A TEDx talk is still worth doing—and that means it’s worth doing well. Here’s why:

  1. It’s instant cred. Like it or not, having a TEDx talk matters. I’m not saying you have to be the next Brene Brown to give one, but fact is, the TED brand connotes value, even if your talk doesn’t set the world on fire. What do they say about what you call someone who graduated at the bottom of their medical school class? Doctor.

    TEDx is a media brand—and to get on that stage, you have to have passed someone’s test. Just as you must to gain the approval media gatekeepers to get booked for this or that show, or have your book put out by a major publisher.

    My life changed after my TEDx talk, no doubt. Even before it had millions of views. Having it, and having that thing to share, mattered. Especially when people were wondering if they should have me speak at their event. I don’t even have a speakers reel yet, and I have kicked myself for that for years. And then I realized–that TEDx talk is all people needed to see.
  2. It’s a powerful thought leadership platform. If you want to be known for what you think, for your story, your idea, the TEDx stage is a great place to share it. Why? Because when you’re on that stage, it’s not about your business or brand or what you’re selling. It’s all about the IDEA. Thought leaders are known for how they think about the world, and if you want to change the way people think, the TEDx stage is the place to do it.

    Not all TEDx talkers are thought leaders, and not all thought leaders have TEDx talks. But if you see yourself as a thought leader, you’d be nuts not to consider doing one.
  3. It forces you to get to the heart of your message. It’s easy to get caught up in jargon, in industry language, to get “small” around your idea because you’re used to talking to a specific group of people most of the time.

    But a TEDx talk requires that you think bigger than your brand or your business. You need to have an idea that people who do not know you or your industry can relate to and take something from.

    A TEDx talk is its own animal. Chris Anderson does an amazing job of explaining that in his book, The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. He is the man behind TED as we know it today.

    Giving a TEDx talk requires that you share an idea. NOT just that something happened to you or that you did something good once. It requires that you extract meaning from a situation, a story, a truth. And when you do that? You can change everything. You could land on your idea for your next book, your next business even. You can reach people who want to meet you just on the basis of that idea.

I’ll tell you what IS played out: Cliche.

Now that there is a body of TEDx work out there, the onus is on new speakers to innovate, to share fresh ideas, or fresh takes on old ideas.

If you’ve heard it done a million times before, then you need to dig deeper into why this matters most. I’m not saying you can’t do a talk on a similar subject as another speaker; you just can’t brush up against easy platitudes and same-old advice.

In my experience, it’s not that someone doesn’t have a good idea; it’s that they don’t take that idea far ENOUGH. They stop short of meaning and originality, and settle with what’s familiar and easy. That’s cliche, and it won’t work.

Instead, your job as a TEDx speaker is to challenge an existing idea, to question the way we’ve always thought about things. To put something into our heads that gives us a new tool for thinking and perceiving the world.

Played out? Not a chance.

Want to up your speaking game in a big way, and maybe even craft and pitch your own TEDx talk? Click here to join me in Boston April 4 & 5 for Tapped to Speak LIVE,a transformational two-day event where you’ll learn how to turn your ideas, expertise, and personal story into a TED-worthy talk. Space is limited! (Trust me! I saw the room!)

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How to Prepare Your Talk Without Starting from Scratch

You have a big talk coming up. So you say to yourself, I’m going to sit down right now and write it.

You type one sentence: “Good afternoon.”

You delete it. You wonder if you’re a fraud. You wonder why you’re doing this. You wonder what to have for dinner.

Then: Oh would you look at that. I just got an email! I better go see what it’s about.

There isn’t a person who’s ever been asked to speak who hasn’t done this dance. Not. One.

Myself included. I also delay, procrastinate, worry. Except I have the best out ever. I can easily avoid prepping my talk—I’ll work on yours instead!

As a consultant who helps people identify their messaging and develop their talks, yes, working on yours is a whole lot easier than working on my own. But I also realize that sitting down to a blank page will stop anyone cold.

For most of us, sitting down to “write a talk” from start to finish just doesn’t work.

You’ve got to give yourself something to work with first; think of it as getting a lot of clay on the table so that you have something to shape.

So here are my tips for working on your talk–without writing it from scratch.

(And if you want a hundred more talk-writing insights, but live and in-person, come to my signature event, Tapped to Speak LIVE, happened April 4&5 in Boston!)

First, do a big ol’ brain dump.

Note, this is NOT the same as “writing your talk.” Fact is, you don’t know what you really think about a thing until you express it—it’s in the cognitive act of putting it into words that you give form to the ideas. You may even be surprised about what comes out. I know I often am.

Here are some prompts to use to fuel this writing session. Use whatever ones work for you, or do them all:

  • What I love about this topic is:
  • What frustrates me about this topic is:
  • The thing people don’t realize about this topic is:
  • The one thing I want the audience to walk away with and why:

The only rule is that you KEEP WRITING. If you hit the brakes as you do it, you will not get to the good stuff. Whether you type or handwrite, set a timer for 15 minutes and just write out your opinions and thoughts on the topic—in no particular order. Jot down any stories or scenes or examples that come to mind. But just a quick sketch–don’t get bogged down.

Remember, this is not for anyone to see but you. This blurt onto the page captures your first thoughts, which often prove valuable.

I started my TEDx talk process this way–I tried to get out of the way of my internal editor and just say everything, messy and loose and all over the place. Just to get it OUT of my head. Say the unpopular things. Say the things you really think.

The only rule is that you don’t hit the delete button and you don’t pause to reread or think about it. You keep your pen or fingers moving, even if what you write is nonsense. Don’t judge, revise, or edit. Just get it out.

Now, put it away and don’t read it until later. Let it sit. Like a good stew, those ideas will mingle and marinate and be better tomorrow.

Next: Get it onto cards (or stickie notes!).

Grab a stack of index cards or stickie notes. Whatever you prefer. Think of each one as like a tiny dish to hold a single mouthful of an idea. The only rule: You must do this by hand, with pen and paper, not on your computer.

Here’s why this works: In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon says he has an analog desk, where there is no digital equipment, just paper, markers, and other physical tools.

“The computer is really good for editing your ideas,” he says, “but it’s not really good for generating ideas…The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us–we start editing ideas before we have them.”

Here’s what to do now:

  • Identify your key ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Go back through your brain dump and pick out the ones you know you want to include. The rule is that each card gets ONE idea; i.e., “Companies overestimate the value of perks,” or “Searching for your passion is a waste of time.”
  • Sift and feel around for examples, stories, or anecdotes that you want to share. And you need several! A talk without scenes or stories is dry indeed. Write ONE story or scene per card. So you might write, “The day I quit my job,” or “what my father said to me”—you know what these things are. You just need a phrase to capture the idea so you can include it in the talk. What scenes do you want to show in your talk? What moments or stories matter?
  • Capture the evidence you want to share. What information will help create the frame and context for your talk? Maybe it’s a few statistics or other things, experts, case studies you want to include. Again, one per card— “Seth Godin quote about how to stand out,” “Domestic violence stat,” or “Client case study: XYZ company”

OK! Now you have a stack of cards, and you will continue to add more. In fact, spend a few days doing this. The benefit is it’s non-linear–so you’re not worried about what you’re saying in what order. Just capture the key stuff and put it in the stack.

  • Shuffle the deck. When you have a solid set of cards, start shuffling them, or put all those stickies up on a wall. Stare at them. Move them around. This is what’s so handy about using cards vs. writing out your talk first: You can physically manipulate them and look at them in a few different ways.
  • Experiment with flow. Move them around, look at them, and see how doing so changes the shape and flow of your talk. This is way more fun than trying to write it from beginning to end, which is too hard.
  • Talk it through. Once you have your cards in an order (and it can change), start talking them through, out loud, as if you’re giving the talk, but you don’t have to be all formal. Do it as if you’re telling someone a story (which, by the way, you are). The talk actually can take shape this way, without having to write down or memorize a script.

Rather than write a script and memorize it, practice talking it through with the cards. You’re not writing for your audience; you’re speaking! So practice speaking. Because every time you do, you’re burning it into your mind and walking those words across your tongue so that they get used to being there. You may never say the same thing the same way twice. That’s ok! You can’t forget your own stories and ideas.

(Tip: Those cards may be a clue as to where you might use a slide. You don’t need a slide for every single thought. Think of slides as a place for the audience to perch while you unpack your idea.)

Boom. You will have a talk on your hands, without blank page syndrome. That’s a win!

Speaking from the stage is one of the most influential things you can do for your career. If, that is, you can get the best part of YOU out of your head and into your talk. That’s exactly what you’ll learn at Tapped to Speak LIVE, April 2109 in Boston. Click here to join us!

3 Questions to Ask Before You Do Your Next Talk

There’s nothing like getting tapped to speak at an event or conference—it’s not only nice to be asked, but it speaks volumes about what people think of you: That you have something of value to share with their community, and they want it.

That said, there are three questions I ask myself before I accept, let alone begin to prepare, for a talk. And it isn’t, “When, where, and what should I wear?”

Nope. They’re questions that most people don’t ask before they dive in, and I believe you should to set yourself up for success. I like to ask the organizer these questions so I get a handle on who I’m speaking with, but also, I use it to generate my own questions and shape my content and approach accordingly.

(This is part of a live webinar I did recently called “5 Steps to a TED-worthy Talk” and I’m happy to share it with you because attendees found it so useful.)

1. Why are they there? 

There are lots of reasons people take a seat at an event. And they’re worth considering:

They paid to be there. If they paid their own money to attend an event, they want something in return, and expect something, right? What investment are they making—are you speaking at a business seminar or an event that’s more lifestyle focused? Are they there to rally together and change the world? Or is this meeting or community more focused on trying to maintain the status quo?

They paid a lot to be there. Then there’s the next level up—I’m talking not $50, or even $500 to be there, but like $5,000 or maybe more. We’re talking fundraisers, high-profile events. Now, if someone is donating that much money to be part of an event, it’s not because they expect, say $10,000 worth of content.

As Seth Godin says, when people pay to be somewhere like that, they’re saying to themselves and each other, “people like us do things like this.” Think about how what you’re about to tell them affects or touches their vision of the world, and their role in it. Especially if they’re there for a big cause, a pioneering effort, or perhaps something less grand but no less expensive.

They have to be there or else. Perhaps the group of people you’ll address have to be there because it’s their job, their managers mandating it, or it’s part of their own training and required.

I won’t purport to know what every group of required attendees thinks when they walk in a room, but that’s why it’s worth asking. Is this an event that’s highly anticipated, or deeply dreaded? Do they have high expectations or the lowest of low? This is how to gauge your own approach. Often I’ve found people who file in with zero expectations are sometimes the easiest to delight.

2. Why did they pick you?

The people who hired you or invited you to speak have their own goals and objectives, and they’re not necessarily the same thing. Do you know why that is? (And it’s not just cuz you’re awesome, even though you are.) I once spoke at an event of full-time employees in the HR business, and I was told, “We want you to motivate them enough to love their jobs, but not to leave.” Good to know.

Ok, so, do they want you to inspire the people there to be empowered and to create positive change? Or do they want you to inspire…compliance? There is no good or bad here, by the way.

We operate under the assumption that they want what’s best for the attendees and the organization. But what that is something they take the lead on, not you. So ask, and listen closely. Maybe they want you to wake them up—or perhaps, calm them down in the wake of organizational or industry unrest. Good to know.

3. Why are you there? 

I mean, aside from because they asked. Maybe they’re paying you good money to be there, and that’s great. But no matter what you speak about, chances are, you don’t do it for the money; you’re there because you want to exert some kind of positive influence, some change or fresh perspective or compelling information that can change the way they think and live.

So it’s important to be clear on your own intentions. Maybe it is a good gig and you do it every year, end of story. You have some contacts there and you like to keep them up.

But maybe this speaking event presents another, larger or longer-tail opportunity, in which you make inroads to do more work with them or to get a foot in the door in their industry.

Perhaps it’s an event in your own industry, and speaking there gives you a bit more clout and attention, and that’s a real plus. All great reasons! Just be clear when you’re going in. Because the way you approach a talk to people whose business you know is quite different from when you’re an outsider. Both have great advantages, if you know how to use them.

Bottom line, be honest with yourself about what is expected of you here, and also what YOU want to get out of it. The purpose and mission that drive your talk may not change, but the way in which you deliver it does, group to group. And the more mindful of that you are, the more powerful and effective you will be—and the more opportunities will come your way.

Want to learn how to create a stand out signature talk that gets you booked, again and again? Join me for Tapped to Speak LIVE, my two-day, transformational, live event happening April 4&5 in Boston. Click here to learn more!

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4 Ways to Get Laughs on Stage (even if you’re not that funny)

Of all the people you’ve seen get up in front of a room to speak, how many do you really remember?

Very few. And chances are the ones who made an impact probably made you laugh, too.

Solid content gets a nod.

But funny gets rave reviews.

Funny gets asked to speak again. And again.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to be a standup comic to get laughs. Or a joke writer. Or a ham.

Quite frankly, you don’t even have to think of yourself as funny.

Some people may are particularly gifted, sure. But other, I’d say most, great speakers get laughs because they work at it; they learn to use humor as a tool. And when you see it that way, you can learn to use it like anything else.

I interviewed evolutionary psychologist and humor researcher Gil Greengross, PhD, for a piece I wrote for Women’s Health magazine. And he explained that humor is not usually something made up by one person and consumed by another; it’s how humans relate. It’s something we participate in together.

“Humor is a fundamentally social phenomenon,” says Greengross. When you share laughter and humor with other people, you build up trust and camaradie with others.

He told me about this study, led by neuroscientist Robert Provine and published in the International Journal of Behavioural Biology, which found that in 99 percent of the cases observed, laughter functioned more as punctuation at the end of statements, in response to mundane statements, and nothing that would be deemed funny outside that context.

Aha!

That means humor isn’t always mass produced by pros—it’s made by hand, in the moment. If you’ve ever tried and failed to explain to someone why something was funny, after the fact, then you know this is true. “Guess you had to be there,” you say. Indeed.

This is great— because it means that you, too, can get great, real laughs in your talk, too.

Think your subject matter is too serious for laughs? Think again. A speaker who deftly handles a difficult or serious topic can actually earn big laughs—because in so doing, he gives the audience the much-needed chance to relieve tension.

So how can you get more laughs on stage? Here are some techniques I’ve used, observed, and put into practice for myself and others I’ve coached.

 

1| Don’t try to be funny. (Be honest instead.)  

You know who gets the most pained pity laughs ever? The person who is trying too hard. Please promise me you won’t do this. Instead, try being just blatantly honest. I know it works because I do it all the time.

I happen to think that people who are tagged as “so funny” are often just more honest than the next person. They say things other people would filter out. Fact is, I am a speaker who also happens to perform stand-up comedy—but doing stand-up didn’t teach me to be funny; it gave me a forum and format for what I already knew got laughs: Say things other people wouldn’t. I’ve been doing that forever.

This, by the way, is why a little self-deprecation goes a long way to winning over an audience.

When you make a comment or joke at your own expense, you’re showing the audience that you don’t take yourself too seriously; that you’re no different from them.

Because you’re going to appear high status on a stage, taking yourself down a peg or two makes you more relatable as a person. As opposed to an insufferable blowhard.

For instance: I joke in my TEDx talk (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) about how I was so down at one point early in my career that I spent every night sitting around in my underwear watching Seinfeld reruns. That got a laugh. Because the fact is, we have all done this. I still do it.


2| Go for specific over general, every time.
Note that in the above example, I didn’t say I sat around and watched TV. That would not have gotten a laugh. The laugh comes from the details: you can picture the person slumped there, staring blankly at the TV while Kramer comes crashing into Jerry’s apartment. It works because you can see it.


If you say in your talk that you were in such a bad mood and binged on junk food, that’s not going to get the laugh. But you know what will? When you admit that you started hurling unflattering epithets at the Verizon customer service agent while knee deep in a bag of Ding Dongs.

The funny is in the granular. Always. We laugh because that’s where we see ourselves most clearly. Don’t just say a thing: Fill in the rest of the picture and include the details that give the scene weight, color, and dimension.

 

3| Use pop culture references—carefully.
What makes pop culture references work is because, again, it lends specificity. It puts us in a place in time—a specific time, one we all shared and remember and perhaps are nostalgic for. It can get a laugh because it allows us to remember it and we feel included by it.


My rule is this: Know what purpose that reference serves. Is it a cutting commentary on something happening in our culture? Is it a great comparison to show how far we’ve come or how far we’ve stayed the same perhaps?

If you’re doing a talk that will be recorded and shared (say, a TEDx talk), you don’t want to make a reference to something or be too dependent on an example that’s exclusive or fleeting because then the talk has a more limited shelf life.

To make a pop culture reference that isn’t lost on half the crowd or meaningless six months from now, use one that has stood the test of time, meaning, is old enough that people will remember. The more mainstream the better, usually.

This is why a reference to Duran Duran is going to get more laughs from an adult audience than Drake. (Then again, it depends).  People love to be reminded of where they came from, their shared history, things they can laugh at now. Making just the right cultural reference, be it to older songs or movies, foods or fashions, or something we all used to be into but are embarrassed about now? That’ll get a laugh. Again, consider the crowd and what purpose that reference serves.

 

4| Take a hard left turn.

I said you don’t have to be a comic to be funny, but it does help to take a tip from the pros. I had the chance to study under comic Jim David, a very successful standup who has performed for decades. And he says that comedy isn’t a talent or a gift. He said joke writing is a mathematical equation, and anyone can learn it.

Jokes are, he said, simply a series of hard left turns. You make the audience think you’re going one way and then you make a hard left; it throws them off, and quite often, will make them laugh.

You see this technique lots of places, by anyone trying to entertain and engage someone else—so you see it in comedy sure but also compelling narratives and great advertising, novels, horror movies, you name it. It requires that you know what someone anticipates or assumes, and then–surprise!–go in a different direction.

Think about what your audience anticipates, and then, hang a left when they least expect it. When done right, your audience will be surprised and delighted to be along with you for the ride, and they’ll remember you long afterward, too.

 

Want to learn how to crush it on stage? Join me at Tapped to Speak LIVE, my transformational, live, two-day event, April 4&5 in Boston. Click here to learn more.