How to tell a funny story

“I’ll tell you a funny story.” It’s a common enough line. What’s less common is for it to be followed by a genuinely funny story. That’s a pity, because a good anecdote or two can really make a speech. And often, ‘anecdote’ is more accurate than ‘story’. You don’t need a big cast of characters or a sprawling plot. Just a brief outline of an incident with an entertaining conclusion will hit the spot. If you get it right, that is.

Whatever we call them, well-crafted little narratives can be a succinct and entertaining way to draw out someone’s character. For example, a best man can capture the groom’s hopelessness with numbers by recalling the time he took charge of splitting the bill on a night out, with disastrous consequences. That’s a lot funnier than just calling him a dunce. Or they can evoke a time and place: a story about someone dodging 1970s school dinners can spark nostalgia among older listeners and grim fascination among younger ones.

The key thing to understand is that even the ‘best stories’ don’t tell themselves. A clumsy telling can ruin what would otherwise have the audience eating out of the palm of your hand. Conversely, with a bit of wit and warmth, even the least promising of anecdotes can be made to sing. So, here are a few top tips.

  1. Less is more

One or two anecdotes bring a ten-minute speech to life. Five or six tend to clutter it up. There’s only so much the audience can take in, and the last thing you want is a groan as people realise you’re launching into yet another shaggy dog story. If you cram in too many stories, they’ll compete with one another in the listener’s mind, with the likely result that they don’t enjoy or remember any of them. So pick your favourites and polish them to perfection.

  • Keep to the point

By the same token, unsuccessful stories are typically stuffed with unnecessary detail, irrelevant explanations and convoluted formulations. British readers of a certain age will remember the comedian Ronnie Corbett, whose notoriously meandering armchair monologues had fans chortling. Not because the content was funny, but because he had the charm to get away with the fact that it wasn’t. They broke the mold after they made the diminutive Scotsman. Don’t try to be Ronnie Corbett! That means every word should be there for a reason.

  • Set the stage

It’s important to establish everything your listeners need to know at the start. A common pitfall is the sudden backtrack to provide necessary information; more forgivable in an impromptu speech, but surprisingly common even in written ones! (Learning after the cheese incident that Tommy’s girlfriend was a vegan is too late!) A related mistake is ‘burying the punchline’, where you give away the payoff before you’ve explained why it’s funny. In a speech, if not so much on the page, it’s essential that the punchline comes at the end. That means you need to get all the elements in place early on, so the action can flow and the audience can enjoy the ride.

  • Focus on the action

It’s crucial to identify the key elements of your story so you can prioritise them, and cut out anything extraneous. It might be an interesting fact that the dentist was Lithuanian, but if the story pivots on the fact she only had one leg, that’s the point to emphasise! Equally, if the crux of the matter is someone being late for an exam, the cause of the delay is likely to be more relevant than the minutiae of the exam’s subject. Unless it isn’t! The key is to think it through and decide what to go big on. Don’t just chuck in everything you remember.

  • Weave your story into the speech

A good story should not emerge from nowhere, like a song in an old-fashioned variety act. Ideally it should illustrate something you’ve already mentioned, as well as flowing from what’s come immediately before. Eg, rather than, ‘Next up, I’m going to tell you the story about the hen do…’, the audience will be more engaged by something like, ‘Speaking of Vik’s sister, she also knows a thing or two about balloons…’ While people might remember a story in its own right, they’ll enjoy it all the more if it’s cleverly woven into the speech as a whole.

The common thread in all these tips is the importance of preparation and thinking things through. Try to put yourself in the audience’s shoes and ask if they will get the point of your story and find it funny. You need to take them on a journey, and not leave them in the dark as you giggle your way through your own favourite anecdote. Not, that is, unless you want to be the hero of someone else’s story about a car crash wedding speech!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *