David Nihill hated public speaking so much that he wrote a bestselling book about it: Do You Talk Funny? 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (and Funnier) Public Speaker. When I first met him -- oddly enough at a TEDx party -- I was immediately engaged by his wry sense of humor delivered with a charming Irish accent. So few people are actually funny that I wanted to know if David was born with this gift of the guffaw.

"Not at all," he said. In fact, Nihill overcame his public speaking fears by pretending to be an accomplished comedian called "Irish Dave," and for one full year, he crashed as many comedy clubs, festivals and shows in the US as possible.

"In a year, I went from being deathly afraid of public speaking to hosting business conferences, regularly performing stand-up comedy, and winning storytelling competitions in front of packed houses," says Nihill.

How did he do it? By learning from some of the best public speakers and stand-up comedians in the world. Ever in search of being a better public speaker, I interviewed Nihill on my podcast to get his take on how to give a spunkier speech and funnier talk. Here's some of what he had to say:

Ask yourself key questions about your story.

Prevailing wisdom for being a great speaker is that it's critical to tell stories. Nihill says that once you have a story that you feel is funny or enjoyable, the next step is to ask yourself:

  • What is the key surprise in this story?
  • What is the funny bit?
  • Where do people normally laugh when I share it with family and friends?
  • Where do they normally react?
  • How do I get to that particular point of the story in a more effective manner?

"I was once telling a story that included a sheep being in a car," says Nihill. "Now while this is something that would be a bit strange in California, it would not be in Ireland where I'm from."

Nihill says that he had to think through how to tell that story in a way where the timing would reveal the key word "sheep" at the end. That made a massive difference because it allowed the audience to follow the timing of the story and kept the surprise until the last minute.

In practice: Take a story you think might be funny or entertaining, and try putting the funny bit in a few different places to see how it comes off.

Let the laugh (or the point) rest.

One of the things business speakers most often do wrong is hitting on something funny, and then running right over it. For example: after the delivery of the funny word or idea (say "sheep," for example), don't just keep talking over the laugh. That stops the giggles right in their tracks. By allowing the laugh to sit there for a bit, it will continue to its natural ending point.

Nihill is also quick to point out that this is not just applicable to humorous items. "If you have a key metric in your speech, for example, "We have an 80 percent year-on-year growth rate," you want to structure it to say that key element in a way where you slow down, pause, put it at the end of your sentence, and then give people time to let it sink in.

Use visual humor.

In Tim Urban's TEDx Vancouver talk about procrastination, he gets a whopping 2.6 laughs a minute. As an element of comparison, the movie The Hangover comes in at 2.9 to 3 laughs per minute. What's Urban's secret? He is using funny content including images.

In another example famous marketer Seth Godin gets about 57 percent of the laughs in his funniest TED talk from the use of humorous images.

Nihill says that the key to using funny images is the same as with jokes. "It's all about the setup," says Nihill. "One of the things I see going wrong at conferences is the speaker will put up an image and just stare at it waiting for the laugh or say, "Hey, isn't that funny?"

Instead he suggests that it's not what you say after the image is shown that makes it funny, but before.

"You have to treat the image like the sheep in the car," says Nihill. "The image is the key reveal to the sentence that comes before it."

Studies have shown that our attention span deteriorates after 9.59 minutes and often does not fully recover. Luckily other research has found that there is a strong positive relationship between using humor and levels of attention and interest.

In short, the next time you find yourself on stage -- put a few well-placed sheep sitting in a car in your story. It's sure to tickle their funny bone and keep them coming back for more. Bah.

Published on: Jan 26, 2018