Each of us has unique skills that we can use in our life and work. Sometimes, however, it takes a while to figure out just what those skills are.
Early in my career, I heard other speakers talk about how they customized every presentation they did. They would interview people, read organizational documents, and then adjust the content so that it tied their material into the theme of the meeting and the challenges for that particular audience. I’ve always admired people who can do that. In fact, I’m amazed that pastors can create an entirely new sermon every week. To them, I say, “Amen!”
For a few years, I tried to customize my humor by writing specific material before each presentation. For instance, if I was speaking to a group of nurses in a large health care system, I would learn all I could about the system, I would read their internal newsletters, I would interview several members of the nursing staff, and then I would write specific humor based on the information I had gathered.
But the humor typically fell flat and I got the sound of crickets rather than laughs. I finally realized the problem—I was trying to write inside humor as an outside humorist. Since I didn’t work within the organizations, I didn’t truly grasp the subtle idiosyncrasies that would have made the humor more relevant to the people who did work there.
So, I had to figure out a way to use my humor skills differently. In other words, I had to customize the way I applied them.
It turns out that I can see humor in the moment better than I can see humor before the moment. So, I took advantage of this skill and began to write funny lines while attending the conferences and meetings where I was speaking. For instance, I’ll go to the reception the night before my presentation. Or I’ll listen to the speaker who precedes me. And if I’m lucky, I’ll have the last presentation of the day and get to watch all of the speakers ahead of me. In each scenario, I’ll start my presentation with a few references to things that happened—and since the audience was there too, my comments are not only funnier, they’re more relevant to the listeners. This has made all the difference in the world because I am no longer guessing at how people experience their work. Instead, I I’m commenting on an experience that we all shared.
Here are a couple of examples:
Once, I spoke to a large audience of mostly women. On the first day of the conference, the emcee mentioned that because of the number of women at the event and the shortage of restrooms, the convention center had converted the closest men’s restroom to a women’s restroom. The men would need to go, so to speak, across the convention center to the only other available men’s restroom. When I was finally introduced, I ran onstage and pretended to be out of breath. I said, “Whew! I almost missed my introduction. You see, my cab from the men’s room was late.”
The line got a great response because it brought to light something everyone had heard earlier in the day but then exaggerated the distance in a funny way. I think this made a much greater impact than something I could have written ahead of time because it was so relevant to that particular moment.
One of my favorite in-the-moment lines occurred after I watched a speaker deliver a presentation on conflict management. Prior to his presentation, when his title slide was projected on the screen, he leaned over to me and said, “Oh, no, I just noticed I have a typo on my opening slide.”
The slide looked like this:
June 21,s 2010.
So, there was an accidental “s” in the date. He simply laughed it off when he went onstage and gave a great presentation. During my part of the program, when I was referring back to his presentation, I said, “Well you probably noticed that John had a typo on his opening slide. He was actually quite unnerved by it. Just before he went onstage, he leaned over to me and said, “Does that comma make my ’S’ look big?”
I could have dropped the mic at that point as the audience burst into laughter. Even John was laughing. And once again I was reminded that I’m much more effective when I focus my humor on the present moment.
You see, there are many ways we can customize our gifts and skills for what we do. I believe it is this very uniqueness that makes us stand out in the crowd. So we need to find ways to tap into those qualities in both our work and personal lives.
For example, if you are a natural salesperson, are you in a role where you can sell ideas or products? Or if you are great with people, are you in a role where you can use your people skills to organize or facilitate groups and teams? Or if you are a good writer, are you in a role where you can put your writing skills to work?
Using our uniqueness doesn’t mean that we have to find a job where that’s all we do. It simply means that we should be on the lookout for ways to use our particular skills—rather than just doing what everyone else does.
I’m not that good at pre-writing humor. And for a while, I thought I had to develop my material that way because that’s what others did. Luckily the absence of laughter suggested otherwise. That’s when I realized that if I customize my skills and use in-the-moment humor instead, I get more laughs and less crickets.
And to that, I say, “Amen!”