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Become a Better and Funnier Speaker

Lesson 6 of 15

Basic Comedy Writing Techniques

David Nihill

Become a Better and Funnier Speaker

David Nihill

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Lesson Info

6. Basic Comedy Writing Techniques


  Class Trailer
Now Playing
1 How To Watch This Class Duration:01:25
2 Class Introduction Duration:08:53
5 How To Replicate Top Talks Duration:13:41
7 How To Get Funny Fast Duration:19:40
9 Storytelling Tips Duration:18:04
11 Live Storytelling Critique Duration:27:12
12 Avoid Going Blank on Stage Duration:21:46
14 Managing Stage Fright Duration:11:08

Lesson Info

Basic Comedy Writing Techniques

So we're gunna number one, joke structure. So we're very much gunna force ourselves to be concise. Where most people go a bit wrong in storytelling, or with the joke telling, or like your boss, they telegraph the intention, number one, don't do that with stories here. So "I'm gunna start with a story.", and they start telling the story, I'm like, "Oh it's gunna be terrible. I'm out of here." Gone, right? Same with the humor, don't telegraph it, but set it up. So, the set up in this literally becomes the fewest words you can use to get to the funny part. So, in Ken Robinson's talk, what was the funny part? The one we just saw. What do you think was the main funny part in the TED Talk? Left the country to get away from the girlfriend. "Left the country to get away from the girlfriend." Perfect. That's the funny moment, so he's building up to that, and that's very intentionally at the end. So, the punchline, that's what the punchline is. There's a couple of little bits on the way ther...

e, but that's really the key, funny reveal to the story. A tagline is anything he says after the funny part, but it literally adds to it. It doesn't have to make it funnier, but it's just a little comment after the main laugh. But you very much identify; Okay what's funny in my story? How do I tell it? How do I introduce it in a way that people care about it? And I'll try do that in about three sentences. So, I sent you guys a little exercise earlier. Some of the people that took the class in the room, don't worry about it for the online folks. And its just to force you to think about it in this way. So, a lot of storytellers go sideways, because they get lost in unnecessary details. This forces you. I don't like quoting English people to often to be honest being an Irish person, but Shakespeare, "brevity is levity", its a good one. So, you treat the setup like someone paid you $100 to take out every word. So, if you ever write this out, look at it again and go, "I can make 100 bucks for every word I take out, what am I going to take out?" Nobody ever forces you to edit that content that way it's a little mind trick with yourself, but it actually works really well. What do I take out? We want to delay the funny part, exactly like Ken. So, once you identify it, we know our punchline, we know our funny part. How do I consciously move that until the end? That's what makes your timing look awesome. If your funny part isn't at the end, then people laugh while you're still talking, and then you stop them laughing. And you don't get that back again, cause you've said something, they're like, "Give me more!", and you shut it off. And then if you hadn't something funny to build on that you've kind of lost a really good moment. So, you want to allow them time to react. If they don't react, no stress. You were just telling them a story anyway. But if they do, then you sit back and kind of laugh it up. And you're gunna see a good example of that in just one second. Cause we combine that with the rule of three, something Irish people can't pronounce, (audience laughing) as most people are realizing now, the more I say it, the more you're gunna be like, (laughs) "really can't. Can't do it." So, I wish it wasn't the rule of three, but it is. (audience laughs) Three, I definitely can't pronounce it, is the smallest number of elements that your mind can recognize as a pattern. So, one I give you two, you're expecting three. So, I'd love you to think about it like this, and there's a great analogy from a comic friend of mine Rajiv Satyal. Smart fella, TED Talk, Google talk, all the rest of it, but his best way of breaking it down is, think of this as one, two, four. So, when I give you one, two, four, its a sequence. It makes logical sense, but your mind was never expecting four, it was expecting three. That's really the root of all comedy is; apples, apples, orange. One, two, four. That element has to be contradictory to the other elements. So, in tryna create a pattern and breaking the pattern, it builds a bit of tension that your mind is like, (chuckles) "that was kind of clever", a little bit. And that's all you have to do. If you change that structure and you don't apply it the same way, it ruins your timing. First part is funny, and then it goes down hill. You wanna build up to the funny bit, and that's why we do it one, two, four. We're gunna change the last element. So, I wanna show you one quick example with that guy that's not meant to be funny, but really is because of his serious leadership position, that we all kind of know and love as President Obama. And you'll see a great example of this. So, it's very much following a structure, is very much delaying the funny part until the end. Ask yourself, "how awesome does his timing look?" But also ask yourself, "if he changes around without "the rule of three, would it work?" So, if the funny element was at the end, what would happen? So, we'll quickly watch that one together. Great little example. There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example, the interior department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the commerce department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once their smoked. (audience laughing) Timing looks awesome right? He doesn't look back and he's like "I knew it was coming." You know, and obviously he has a team of comedy writers writing his stuff. I know a lot of the guys that write it. They are very experienced, they know what their doin'. Its not risky for them, because they have those structures and techniques. Right? They know the likely reaction, and they'll test it in some form. But what happens if he, did you see the pattern there, very much? Fresh water, saltwater, smoked. What happens if he says smoked at the start? He's a weirdo if he does that. (audience chuckles) You're all like, "What was wrong with him there today? "I don't know, he was off." Not exactly viral hilarity, but compared to what went on in congress that day, this was pretty epic stuff in there. They were loving it. And it was funny, and when NPR surveyed people after this presentation, or after this talk essentially, and the words they remembered are very predicable. They remember smoked and salmon more than anything else he said in a number of hours of content. So it is memorable. It creates that little dopamine spike that's like, "Give me more of this." And you start to pay attention, so we want to replicate it. So, its not just in here, I don't have to go far. We're in San Francisco here, and we have the Tenderloin, which is a wonderfully colorful neighborhood not too far away. You don't have to go long to find cool examples of the rule of three. This one, I'm going to show you that in a sec, but this one nicely illustrates just how pertinent it is between every aspect we have in life. So, zoom in on it a bit, you guys will have it after, but all these campaigns. Copywriters know that three is memorable, so they create elements and give it to us in packages of three. So, from anything from campaigns like, Obama, to just do it, to yes we can. All the way through to, member snap, crackle, and pop. And the Three Little Pigs, and The Three Musketeers, and you're thinking; one, "why can't he pronounce three still?" But two, "oh yeah, there was three of everything "when I was growing up. Why was it always the way?" It was The Three Amigos wasn't it. I'm sure you got ones coming to mind that could think of more, but it was always groups of three. And this back also to company logos, for the most part. Most companies are like, "lets give it to them in three." Even TED themselves; technology, entertainment, and design. There are exceptions. Some companies are so cool, they just go, "(scoffs) Creative Live, two. We don't care." (audience laughing) Two is fine enough. Nicely done Chris, were you behind that one? That was all me. That was a power move. Nicely done. But, this is the little example I love from the Tenderloin. "Free beer, topless bartenders, false advertising." (soft chuckle from audience) Not viral hilarity, but mildly amusing. What happens if "false advertising" comes first? It's just weird. And that's what happens when a lot of humor fails. If you don't pay attention to the structure of it, to build people up, to show them what you're tryna do, and you just give them the "false advertising" first, they're like, "You're a bit weird. What was that all about?" So, when I show you a great example of this combining what we talked about already. Again, President Obama, cause we want to disprove to people that you can't use humor at the highest levels, which you can obviously can. But the images, remember, very very power. This one combines it with another element. So, you have the element of one, two, three. But just watch for exaggeration. Exaggeration is a big part of comedy. And if you exaggerate, you must defy the realm of logic and reason. It can't be reasonable, it has to be blatantly that it just couldn't be possible. And I think this is a wonderful example of all those elements combined, and he knows it's gunna be funny. Meanwhile Michelle has not aged a day. (applause and cheering from audience) The only way you can date her in photos is by looking at me. (audience laughing) Take a look. Here we are in 2008... (cheers from audience) Here we are a few years later. (audience laughing) And this one is from two weeks ago. (audience laughing and clapping) Bringing the house down. That's a great little example right? Its funny, everybody in the room enjoys it. If he had to reveal those images at the same time, not really funny anymore. So you're building up to the change that you know is coming. If he looked a little bit older in the third image, its not funny. You have to exaggerate a lot. So, even if you're just naturally telling the story to someone, if you want to be clear about something like, "Aww I went to Starbucks, "and I was in line for like two hours." They'd be like, "That feasible, I've seen two hour lines." Even if you said, "I slept overnight just to get this coffee." They'd be like, "I slept overnight to get my car, "and my phone. That's kind of common as well "with like Tesla and Apple." And so, you really have to go for it. Like, "I was there for like six years.", And then they're like, "okay, now I know, "now I know he's not tryna be smart in anyway, "he's just exaggerating what happened." Its very much the same thing. So, lend self to conversation, just if you're gunna go with it, and try and be funny, go deep into it, and make sure it violates the realm of possibility. And that's why that one's super funny. Now I wanna show you these combined with a terrible joke. So, imagine you have to sit down and you wrote something that was blatantly just rubbish, but you wanted to put these rules in it, and you wanted to go and test it just to make sure, hey, does this stuff actually make sense? So, what I'm gunna show you is me telling a joke, that I'm embarrassed that I even wrote, and went and told. But you're gunna see it in multiple clubs. Some of you won't understand it, I'll explain it after, just so you're clear of the elements. But I just want you to pay attention to the reaction. And just ask yourself, "Do I know what they're gunna do?" Every time I say these words. Right? And that makes you very confident as a speaker, cause your like, "I kind of know what's gunna happen." You guys won't laugh, but the people in the audience here will. Silly example. I don't know a lot about California, I must admit. But does anyone else have this problem? Guys, you're hanging out with your girlfriend. She's always onto you to go to Napa, "I want to go to Napa." (audience laughing) "I want to go to Napa." So, I gave in. I was sick of listening to it, I said "Alright." and I finally brought her. And it turns out she doesn't even like auto-parts. (audience laughing and clapping) parts (audience laughing and clapping) didn't even like auto-parts. (audience laughing) auto-parts. (audience laughing and clapping) auto-parts. (audience laughing and clapping) Terriblest joke, agreed. Alright, who doesn't get it? I know its a bit wacky. Anybody? You're like, "I have no idea what that man was talkin' bout." Good. We'll explain it for you, and most of the people in the world. For the most part, where I'm from California, Napa, obviously a famous wine region, here the people love. When I even say the word Napa, the girls are automatically like, "I was in my dress. It was nice and warm. "I had a certain drink. Oh, I haven't been to Napa in ages." The mind is starting to create pictures. Right? What I'm really talking about is another Napa, where people go to change the oil in their car. So, not a good place to bring your girlfriend on a date in any way, shape, or form. Makes a big difference, if I don't have the key word, Napa, as the last word. Not funny anymore. Its just, what is this guy talking about? So, it's very much that proof that you're setting it up in a sequence. There's a set up. There's a punchline. The word is delayed until the end, and I'm violating a sequence when I do that. And my only question when I'm on stage when I say that is, Will they laugh? Or will they laugh and clap at the same time? I'm not sure. But I know that's going to happen no matter where I've done it, ever. If it's a locally based crowd. And knowing your audience is a big part of it. So you guys are kind of from all over. You guys are from all over the world, little bit different. But in a place in California that works beautifully, because it violates those sequences. Here's three quick clips from the world of TED again. Just to bring it back out a comedy club and show you that all these leading speakers are using this. So, I'm gunna show you a couple, but you can find all Gary Vaynerchuk's talks, Jon Acuff's talks, some of the worlds best speakers, their studying comedians. They want to understand these techniques. So, Gary Vaynerchuk, very openly will say, one of the famous marketing speakers there is, "I study comedians." He's influenced by Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock. They're the three main people he studies for public speaking. And by mastering what he's looking at, and being very cool and charismatic, he's always funny. And he goes on stage, and people pay him a lot of money to come and speak. Jon Acuff is one of my favorite business speakers. We're gunna see some examples from him today. Four or five time New York Times best-selling author, he told me he's watched 100 comedians for every business speaker he's ever seen. He really goes out of his way to recreate what these guys are doing, and bring it to a business environment. So, I just wanna show you three quick clips. They're using the same techniques. They're in a big TED environment again. And I just want you to recognize, I see what's going on here. So, this seems like it's a little bit heavy on the content side when you're watching it. You're like, "Oh this guys just showing us "loads of videos today. What's this all about?" Don't worry, we'll get into all the delivery stuff, but it's nearly unfair if I didn't show you this, cause you have to see this pattern, cause then there's no egg on your face, there's no embarrassment, and there's a level of predictability when you're crafting content, and its not just for public speaking. It works in written form, if you're doing any blog post, social media stuff, if you're doing any interviews, if you're in a meeting, any little bit of anything you drop. You start using these sequences and all of a sudden you have a different set of results. So quick look. So again, nice, short, audience reaction. He could have been, that was a years worth of work from AJ Jacobs, where he was tracing and proving that he was related to pretty much everybody in the world. And rather than tell you that, like someone maybe in the startup would tell you, "Oh we started out and we did a series A, "and then we did a series B, "and then we pivoted, then John left the company "and we tried to change their prospective." You're like, "What do you do? What are you tryna tell me here." There was a mountain of research there that he just put concisely into nice little joke that gave you a flavor for what was going on. And again it highlights that punchline/tagline. So that a little comment after the main funny bit. The main funny bit was his wife's side, when you see in the end. So you're seeing this structure the whole time within these TED Talks. And we can do this all day, but I think this is enough to give you an understanding of it. And I wanna back to this. So, this is the book I wrote from all this lunacy, right? And on the back a book is generally pretty boring. You do your best to ask famous people to say something nice about your book, and maybe they didn't even read it. Who actually knows? But you're expected to put them on there. So I have it on there. Normal... Noraml... "This book is great. I haven't read it yet, but David drew a picture when he was six years old of a penguin drinking beer in a Chinese restaurant and it was clear the potential for slight wisdom and misguided creativity were there" Marita Nihill, David's mother. (audience laughing) One, two, four. Apples, apples, oranges. And I'll be in Barnes & Noble or somewhere, and I'll watch when someone picks up the book, and they'll pick it up and they'll be like, (laughs) (audience laughing) And they kind of look around to see is anybody actually watching them. I know they laugh when they read this stuff, right? Even the publisher is like, "We can't do that! (laughs) Okay, maybe." (audience laughing) What happens if I put this first? I am a weirdo, that's what happens. Not selling any books, ever. They're like, "Why would you put your mother "as the first point of reference for your book." All of a sudden it makes-- You could of had David's mother, David's father, and then Charlie. We could of had that. David's mother, David's father, and then Charlie, but then it would be nutty. So that would (grumbles) you wouldn't laugh at the first one. I'm still a weirdo. You could try it, but its always, you're really knew the one, two. So your one is pretty much; logical, logical, illogical in that one, but kind of. It reverses it a bit. Yeah, you're right. You can try it. But this one is superior within that structure. Not my words of wisdom, but just normal, normal, strange. Makes a big, big, big, big, big difference. This particular one, I just want to illustrate that it doesn't always have to be three. Three is just the shortest, most effective way to get there. But it can be more. If the audience likes you, you can actually build the anticipation more by doing it, and it always has to be the last element, but it can be more than three. So, just in case anyone's online or in the chat room going, "Hey! Can it be more? Can it be five? Can it be six?" This is a great illustration of that, but its also a great illustration with a serious topic. So if you were like, "Hey. "I gotta talk about something serious. "Its health related. Its like cerebral palsy." This is about cerebral palsy. Have a look. This, I think is the highest, the most laughs per minute you get in any TED video. At least one I found. Off the charts. But she's a professional comedian as well. Really really talented, and an advocate for social conditions like this one. And illness' and all sorts of cool stuff. Very cool lady. But just watch that sequence. Its not three elements, but you're still with her and the tension is building. So, same principals again. You can go a bit further. They were already loving her at that moment in there talk. They're funny, and people will stay on board with you. But if you wanna do it rapperly, rapidly I should say, it's always one, two, three. Alright, with that switch of becoming one, two, four. But you can go longer. Just make sure it's the last element. So you can really keep going and keep going as long the last element releases the tension. So if you have a serious topic, that's a serious topic. You can still use humor to get attention. One of the most popular TED videos there is.

Class Description

Let’s just be real for a minute: most public speakers are boring. And aside from making your day a little less fun, dull presentations are bad for business.

Audiences have become conditioned to receiving information with a dose of entertainment, and that makes humor a critical tool for any professional communicator. We want our data with a punchline these days-- witness the success of The Daily Show or the stickiness of many of President Obama’s speeches for example.

It’s not just about getting some laughs to make yourself feel good; it’s about using humor to grab and hold your audience’s interest, making your message stickier and ultimately more persuasive. In a world full of bland, dull speakers, if you stand out, you win!

The good news is that humor is a skill, which means that it can be learned by anyone. The notion that we’re “born funny” couldn’t be more false: “being funny” is just a set of easily-replicated techniques (for example, the setup followed by the punchline) that anyone can pick up with a little practice.

Whether you are preparing for a business presentation, giving a wedding toast, defending your thesis, raising money from investors, this class will take you from nervous and sweaty to stage-ready.

Bestselling author, storyteller, occasional comedian, and Irishman, David Nihill will teach you:  

  • How top business speakers are using humor
  • One Sure Fire Way to Add Funny to any content
  • How To Replicate Top TED Talks
  • Basic Comedy Writing Techniques
  • Quick ways to get funny fast
  • How To Make Boring Things Funny (with guest Sarah Cooper)
  • Storytelling Tips that everyone can use
  • Advanced Comedy Writing Techniques
  • How to critique your own stories
  • Never go blank on stage with the memory palace technique
  • Content delivery tips for all levels
  • Manage stage fright  

As an added bonus, Sarah Cooper, a writer, comedian, and creator of the satirical blog, will be joining David to teach you how to make boring subjects more entertaining.

Learn more about David Nihill from his appearance on the “Profit, Power, Pursuit Podcast”!  



I always wondered why my favorite TED talks look so effortlessly off-the-cuff while commanding my undivided attention: Laughter. David's class taught me how "The end of laughter is followed by the height of listening." Applying stand-up comedy techniques to the art of storytelling makes information much easier to retain, and hence, easier to share with others. David handily makes the case for why the comedic structure is necessary and applicable in a variety of cases, ranging from business presentations to blog posts. After learning about the joke structure and funnel, I now hear/see them in action throughout my day. He also shares specific tips on how to "memorize" talking points while remaining totally flexible to last-minute time changes (e.g. "Your 20-minute talk just got chopped to 5 minutes. Go!") David covers specifically how to start your talk, end your talk, and where precisely to position your Q&A sessions to maximize audience reaction to the speaker. He supercharges this talk with so many actionable tricks and tips. Sarah Cooper makes a guest appearance sharing 4 tips that I found especially helpful for creating funny visuals. David's heartfelt honesty about the guts it takes to "get up on stage" - the vulnerability of it - really shines through. And now, I carry my "Funny File" with me at all times. This is a truly phenomenal class, both in content and delivery. Thank you for making me laugh, David and Sarah!

Kashif Rashid

Pretty brilliant. David is hilarious so he is definitely using his techniques. Its also easier to follow the class and want more when they are funny. I think most of the presenters on Creative live should be taking this class too . Make it funny so that learning becomes "fun"-ner

Philipp @PhotoAmmon Ammon

Brilliant lecture. David managed to keep me hooked, and I am pretty sure I will do so much better on whatever public speaking I have to do next As a photographer, I know this will help improve the way I look at talking about my work, and I think these kind of skills are vital to any artist. One little thing I didn't like about this was more of a technical issue. He uses videos as examples to the content he is teaching, but none of the CL links to the videos worked. I know its probably a copyright issue, but I would rather watch bad footage of the TV in the studio than nothing at all. Especially since I can't pause the talk and find the videos. Regardless, brilliant talk. Definitely watch it!