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The 4-Step Formula for Seeing Humor in the World

A reprint from Speaker Magazine, the magazine of the National Speakers Association.

One of the most common questions funny people get is, “How do you ever come up with that stuff?”

As a professional humorist (as opposed to an amateur humorist or even an unprofessional humorist), I can tell you that there is a formula for seeing the humor in the world. It’s called Congruent Incongruence and it simply means seeing both the connections and the disconnections – at the same time.

For instance, before my presentation for a local healthcare organization, the executive director recognized all of the staff in the audience who “had not worked there for a year, yet.” When I got up to speak, I mentioned that I wasn’t sure if she was referring to people who had been there less than a year or people who had been there a long time, but haven’t done much work. It got a huge laugh from both the executive director and the audience.

The connection in this example was the concept of “not worked,” while the disconnect, and thus the source of the humor, was whether she meant not working, or employed, there, or not working since they’ve been employed there.

The key to finding humor is seeing the duality of the connected disconnectedness. We see it most commonly in oxymorons such as “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly” or “found missing.” These ideas are opposites and yet, joined together in concept.

But how can you find examples of congruent incongruence in your day-to-day life so that you can add them in your presentations? It comes from paying attention and constantly asking yourself, “What might be funny about this?”

In comedian and speaker Judy Carter’s book, The Comedy Bible, she says to ask ‘what’s weird, scary, hard or stupid about something.’ When you do that, you can see any situation from another perspective.

I call it the “dog whistle approach.” When a dog hears the high pitch of a dog whistle, it will usually tilt its head to the side. We can do the same thing. We can tilt our perspective to the side, so to speak, and in doing so, we see the situation differently – and often humorously.

For instance, if you see an ad in the newspaper that says, “Kids and Seniors Sale,” you might first wonder, “Why would anyone sell kids and seniors?” Then, you might ask yourself, “And why would the seniors cost more – especially since they don’t last as long?”

This specific ad was for airline tickets, but the humor comes from both the implication that they are selling people. See how this works? If not, perhaps you should just put this article down and slowly walk away.

Here are four suggestions to increase your potential for seeing the congruent incongruence in your own life.

1. Open your mind. In order to see the humor that’s all around you, you must first be receptive to the possibility. When you walk into an airport, assume that you will be inundated with funniness. Then, you will see more than you ever imagined. I watched a woman walk into the men’s room once. Had I not been paying attention, I would have missed her rapid and panicked exit, which was darn funny.

2. Write down everything. Since we sometimes don’t recognize the humor until we reflect on it later, I suggest writing everything down that has potential. Using Judy Carter’s questions, anytime something seems out of the ordinary, write it down. You never know what will seem funny later. The other day, I was thinking about Chai tea. I’m not sure why. But then it occurred to me that it would be funny if someone was drinking Chai tea while watching Tai Chi. Perhaps that doesn’t make you laugh. That’s okay if it doesn’t. You’re not my target audience!

3. Ask yourself, “Where is the congruent incongruence?” Once you have potentially funny material (or not), you can write more humor by searching for the congruent incongruence. When I write, I dump everything on the page so that I get my writing mojo on. Then, I go back and look for more humor opportunities. It doesn’t have to come out in the initial writing. That’s what editing is for.

4. Bounce your humor off someone. The best way to get even more mileage out of your humor is to bounce it off a humor buddy. David Glickman, CSP, and I run lines past each other to not only test their funniness, but to see if there is a better way to say something. I once wrote a joke that the state symbol of Florida is the blinking left turn signal (due to the older folks down there who are still driving). Originally, however, I just said “turn signal.” Adding the words “blinking” and “left” made a huge difference in the funny factor. Well, maybe “huge” is an overstatement.

These days, you must use humor to keep your audience engaged. If you look for the congruent incongruence in your life, you will find plenty of material. And of that leads to better presentations, which leads to more business. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself for the past 17 years.

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