Some people just have funny bones; Ronnie was one of them

I love this quote from scriptwriter Barry Cryer, referring to Ronnie Corbett – a diminutive figure but a comedy giant. Corbett passed away in 2016, so his death is hardly news; but humour is a topic which frequently crops up with clients of mine.

They want to connect with their audience (whether that’s in a formal or social setting), but they’re unsure how to use humour or simply believe they’re not a funny person, full stop!

It’s true that not everyone has funny bones, but I do believe people can learn how to use humour more effectively in multiple business situations. Here’s a few ideas:

Use contrasts
A lot of humour comes from the difference between the way things should be, and the way they are. A client of mine got a big laugh the other day when she talked about dreaming as a girl of leaving her home town in Poland and having the life of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. One day she fulfilled her ambition of living and studying abroad and ended up in….Preston! She timed her slide beautifully and got a great reaction.

Learn how to tell a story
That Preston tale was a nice piece of misdirection, and it’s a technique used frequently by good storytellers. Here’s a great example this from Salma Hayek on the Graham Norton Show. There’s no room here to do justice to the art of storytelling but a good starting point is to become more curious about the world around you. This helps you build up your library and you’ll get better at finding the humour in everyday situations.

Did you feel out of breath walking up the stairs or did you nearly have a coronary? A little hyperbole can work wonders but deploy it carefully – if everything you refer to is “the best” or “tremendous” and “awesome” you start to devalue your stories and damage your credibility.

Closely related to the exaggeration principle, a well chosen analogy can raise a smile. Ben Elton and Richard Curtis came up with some terrific lines for Rowan Atkinson and others when they were writing Blackadder, many based on analogy. One of my favourites was from the final series, set in World War One.

We’ve advanced about as far as an asthmatic ant carrying some heavy shopping

Instead of telling jokes (rarely a good idea), relate an experience where things didn’t quite work out for you. I once heard a story about Gordon Brown (not a man known for his public wit) where he’d been asked to speak to a group of pensioners in Scotland. After half an hour of giving it his all he noticed the audience getting restless and staring at the buffet table. Apparently, he had misheard the organiser when she’d asked him to speak for “four-to-five minutes”.

Professional comedians have all ‘died’ on stage at one time or another. They learn from the experience and adapt their material and delivery until it gets a laugh. Take a leaf out of the comic’s book and practise telling your stories and delivering your lines. Timing is the key – watch English comedian James Veitch nail this TED talk about his favourite pastime: answering scam emails.

You can get away with murder when there’s a glint in your eye and a smile on your face. I don’t advocate laughing at your own jokes, but if you can find humour in the world around you (and much of it lies ‘between the cracks’) you’ll have a lot of fun selling yourself to others.