Two Tips to Be Funny in Your Impromptu SpeechesSep 05, 2022
Impromptu speaking national champion, member of Western Kentucky University’s renowned speech and debate team, and ModernBrain coach Miles said it best. When asked how to stand out in limited preparation public speaking competitions, Miles laughed and implored his students: “Tell a joke. Just try it. The speaker who tries to show some personality is the speaker who the judges remember.”
Being funny is easier said than done. However, even judges who don’t find attempts at humor legitimately comedic may reward the effort and confidence it takes for a student to try and make a crowd laugh. Moreover, even if a judge might not find a joke funny in a one-on-one context, a reactive audience (which you’re more likely to encounter during in-person competitions than online ones) might respond to even substandard jokes with affirmation. This creates a form of social proof for a judge; if they don’t get the joke, they may not want to telegraph their lack of understanding, so they could give you the benefit of the doubt and positive feedback regardless.
The point is this: if you find yourself getting middling results in your limited preparation speaking rounds, try being funny! So long as you avoid intentionally controversial or offensive jokes, you have nothing to lose. Here are two tips for folks who need specific guidance.
#1: Observational comedy.
While many stand-up comedians employ this technique (if you’ve ever heard Jerry Seinfeld’s classic set, “What is the deal with airline food?”, you’re familiar with it), it has a specific meaning in spontaneous speech rounds. Telling relatable jokes about a shared experience, particularly one that happened to everyone at a tournament, is a great way to show that you’re paying attention to your surroundings and considering your judges’ feelings.
For example, the 2015 final rounds of a California invitational ran late; they were attempting to use early online balloting, but a series of technical glitches prevented a smooth rollout. The tournament’s Impromptu champion dedicated their introduction to expressing their comedic frustration with how late the tournament was going; they did jumping jacks to show how they was struggling to stay awake. To succeed with this brand of referential humor, pay close attention to things that happened at tournaments that both students and judges are likely to encounter. If it starts raining all of a sudden, if the door to the room squeaks loudly whenever someone opens it, if the lights sudden go out—making quips about your circumstances is a good way to get on your judge’s good side.
Additionally, you can make observations about your fellow competitors’ comedy. You should NOT try to insult them or minimize their messages. Rather, use the classic improvisational comedy rule of “yes-and” to add to their stories. For instance, one state impromptu final round went as follows:
- Speaker one told a joke about running for student body president.
- Speaker two mentioned the student body president idea while referencing the presidential ambitions of one of their examples. Then, they told a joke about being so gullible they’d believe that “gullible was written on the ceiling.”
- Speaker three responded to speaker two, saying that gullible was written on the ceiling.
- Speaker four responded to speakers one and two, discussing their attempts to run for student body president.
- Speaker six responded to speakers one, two, and four, claiming that they didn’t run for student body president—rather, they asserted themselves as “student body dictator.”
Notably, speaker five, who didn’t make any reference to others’ speeches, ranked last in the round. This speaker gave a topical, well-presented speech—but they just didn’t seem as willing as the others to “have fun with it.”
#2: The art of the fake-out.
You may be familiar with the comedic “rule of three”: the third thing in a three-part list should subvert expectations. For example, TV Tropes lists a cliche of “arson, murder, and jaywalking” to describe a “comedy rule [intentionally meant] to not finish strong, but to list some strong examples followed by a very weak example.” Using this technique in an introduction is a good way to get the audience on your side.
You don’t have to follow the rule of three to get humor from this concept. For instance, consider how the directors of the Star Wars film Solo introduced their decision to cast Woody Harrelson: “We couldn’t be more excited to work with an artist with as much depth and range as Woody. His ability to find both humor and pathos, often in the same role, is truly unique. He is also very good at ping pong.”
You can take this idea when describing many historic or contemporary figures in your speech. If the point is that they did something wrong, spend a few sentences describing very minor good things about them before revealing their big mistake. If the point is that they did something right, spend a few sentences describing their major accomplishments before mentioning something incredibly minor about them (“they cured a major disease, they won a Nobel Peace Prize, and they were just okay at playing chess!”).
There’s a plethora of practice techniques to help tickle your audience’s funny bone; these tips were just the tip(s) of the iceberg. To get more personalized coaching in speech, debate, mock trial, model united nations, economics, or college admissions, sign up for an interview below.