Ep #18: Not Funny? How to Be a Successful Speaker Anyway

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We love to listen to people who make us laugh. Laughing feels awesome, no question.

Yet, it's not the only way to make your audience feel awesome… or inspired, or inspired and motivated – whatever you want them to feel.

The fact is, you don't have to be funny to be a great speaker. (Trust me, I know because I'm not all that funny.)

Tune in this week for why you don't have to be funny – and other awesome ways to engage your audience instead. I share three ideas which, with practice, will have you thriving as a successful speaker. You've got this, my friend!

Download my Getting Started Speaking Guide to make the most of this episode and take your presentations to the next level!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why we love a funny speaker (and why that's only ONE way to be engaging).
  • What really connects us with our audience, with or without humor.
  • Why being funny is not a prerequisite for being a captivating speaker.
  • 3 ways to engage your audience that can work just as well as humor.
  • An example of a talk that hooked me in without being even remotely funny.

Listen to the Full Episode:

Full Episode Transcript:

You are listening to the Beyond Applause podcast episode number 18.

Welcome to Beyond Applause, a podcast for mission-driven leaders, coaches, and creatives who are ready to share their expertise and stories through public speaking. Here's your host, Michelle Barry Franco.

Hello, hello, my speaker friends. So, you know I love to talk about Ellen, right? And that’s partly because I have a years-long crush on her, and it’s partly because she’s brilliant; which, by the way, is part of the reason I am crushing on her so much. But let’s talk about what makes Ellen especially captivating.

I think it’s because she says things like, “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 now and we don’t know where the hell she is.” See, that’s funny. She’s funny, and we love to laugh, right? And I get it, Ellen’s a comedian, but she does these monologues in the beginning and she is often making a point at various points throughout her show and in other places.

So the point is, we love to listen to people standing on a stage who make us laugh. And this is why so many of us who want to be captivating high-impact speakers worry that we’re not funny enough, because being funny is awesome. And yet here’s the thing; it’s not the only way to be a great speaker. And thank goodness because, frankly, I’m not that funny; which is also why I know that you can change lives and make a difference without being all that funny as a speaker, because I’ve been doing that for decades.

Not like Ellen would or not like any, sort of, comedian-based or hyper-funny speaker, but we’re going to talk about how we can do that. so that’s what we’re going to talk about today; how can you be a captivating engaging speaker even if you’re not that funny? And I feel like I’m kind of an expert at that.

So I remember setting in the audience at Wisdom 2.0 Conference just this past year and I was mesmerized while Tarana Burke told the story of watching her own movement, which she had started years before about sexual assault, blow up on social media with the hashtag #METOO.

She took us into her world deeply, like sitting at her dining room table just frozen in place, scrolling through the online postings. As she went through this rich description of both the external growth around her while this was happening, meaning the room she was in and where her daughters were and that kind of thing, where her kids were. She also took us into her internal world and what she was thinking as she’s seeing this hashtag blow up, that she had started years ago with sexual assault in mind.

So Tarana was not being funny and we weren’t laughing, but I was captivated and moved. You definitely don’t have to be funny to be a great speaker, but you do want to use strategies that we know engage your audience. And we want to take them on an emotional journey as we use these strategies.

So it is this kind of adventure, this emotional adventure, that keeps our attention, even when humor isn’t appropriate or just not our style. So that’s what I want to talk about today; how can you be captivating and engaging when you’re not that funny?

So, of course, we’re going to talk about three ideas for doing this, three ways of enhancing your speaking or approaching your speaking so that it is captivating and engaging. And the first one we’re going to talk about won’t surprise you because I talk about it all the time, but it is because it’s probably the most powerful form of human communication, and that is a well-told story.

So the power of a well-told story – in her TEDxBend talk from May of this past year, Cylvia Hayes, who I had the privilege and honor of coaching on her talk, describes a moment sitting in her tiny hot-tub in her backyard. And she’s slumped down, heavy with the weight of deep pain of a huge media scandal where she was at the center.

And then there’s this moment as she’s sitting in this hot-tub on this freezing cold night – a whole scene similar to hundreds of other times she’s been sitting in her tiny hot-tub in the backyard. But on this particular night, she describes this moment when all of her thoughts just fall away. It’s like the weight of all of the spinning and thinking just got too much and it fell away. And for the first time in all those hundreds of times sitting in that hot-tub, she noticed the steam billowing off the tub, the ice crystals on the trees, the silence and she describes this sense of all fear dropping away.

It’s a beautiful description and, of course, she does a much better job of it in the context of her whole talk. We’ll put a link to her talk in the show notes. But it’s such a beautiful example of storytelling. She’s telling us about this moment in time with the use of rich description.

This is a way to tell a story in a way that really pulls your audience in; take us into your world. Use rich description. Talk about those ice crystals, the billowing steam. Maybe it’s the small steady smile growing on your daughter’s face as she walked towards the skating rink for the first time or after she took a really bad fall.

Tell us what you were thinking. Give us a window into things that we wouldn’t be able to know even if we were there. So you could even give us some paradox here; like from the outside, I know I looked wildly confident, but my mind was screaming, “This is never going to work.”

So take us into your thought world. And again, remembering – if course, you’ve done an audience analysis, so you know, what are the thoughts, what’s the description that would most resonate for this particular audience? And maybe even like zooming in on this scene inside this story, like what were people doing that might have been missed if a person weren’t paying attention? And off in the corner, where she thought no one could see her, the part-time worker, staff member, was sweeping crumbs under the counter so she didn’t have to bend over and use the dustpan.

Zoom from the focus on you to another scene in that story. It’s this kind of richness that keeps us captivated and engaged, that takes us into your world. Now, of course, you don’t want to do this about everything. We talk about that with storytelling within the context of a talk. But you want to do it about things that matter where you really want to make a point.

So, all of that is another way to be totally captivating and mesmerizing when you’re speaking, so you can tell a great story, and even using storytelling.

The second thing I want to offer to you is to build intention and release through emotional variety throughout your talk. That sounds so, like, stale and boring, but it’s actually really fun and it actually happens a lot more naturally than you might realize once you put your attention on it.

So this is where you bring in both hope and despair, fear and confidence. You talk about past mistakes and future possibility. Great speakers who keep our attention use this kind of emotional variety. Nancy Duarte talked about this in her TEDx Talk where she basically maps out – she went into this intense study of the patterns inside of the structure of great speeches of all time.

And so she shares this contrast and it’s really powerful. Once you see it, you can see how easy it is to implement but how you might have missed it otherwise. So you definitely want to check out that talk if you haven’t seen it lately. I know I’ve recommended it before.

So tell us the story of your past, then tell us what life is like for you right now. This is what many of my clients, whose work is built upon their own story of transformation, do. They tell their story of transformation, starting with, “Hey, here’s how it was for me…” in a way that resonates for the audience, because they’re there to serve that audience to show them there is hope on the other side. “This is how hard it was. This is the despair, but I want you to know that there is hope because this is what life is like for me now.”

Cylvia Hayes’ TEDx Talk has these same elements; you’ll see. Share the struggles up ahead then contrast those with the possibilities. Describe the intense long nights studying for med school exams, then tell us what it feels like to help people heal and live full and beautiful healthy lives. So it is this kind of tension and release and this emotional variety that provides the juice, the momentum, for people to follow along on the adventure of your talk.

And when you build this kind of tension in and you use some of that storytelling – I’m talking about to do some of that – you’re going to have them just naturally moving forward with you in your presentation. They’re going to stay engaged because it is inherently engaging to have that kind of contrast.

And the third suggestion that I’ll make to you, and this is one that I just – we don’t talk about it enough and I’m going to talk about it even more coming soon, but be the most surrendered yet connected version of yourself. As I said, we just don’t talk enough in the public speaking world about how gorgeous and amazing our speaking impact and our joy as speakers is when we finally release the idea that we have to be anyone other than exactly who we are on stage.

Now, that does not mean we just step onto the stage and go stream of consciousness. Our stream of consciousness is not structured and organized and filtered in the best way for a particular audience. Your stream of consciousness is beautiful. It is a treasure chest of goodness, but that belongs in the brainstorming phase, right? And then you use, The Only Presentation Outline You’ll Ever Need, just like I talked through in the podcast last week.

So you’re going to use best practices, these ones that we talk about, but none of those dictates how you be on stage. So you use best practices because that understanding of the human brain and what lights it up helps us be more effective in our speaking. But the truth is, nothing connects an audience with us like being our true self, the fullness of who we are, with our absolute presence during the talk and attention on the audience.

It is that kind of connection that creates that almost indescribable human – I don’t know – it’s like a hand-holding. When we share our inspiration and stories that are designed specifically to make these lives better with that kind of connection, again, you have more of that natural moving forward along and the adventure of your talk.

And this might seem kind of funny for me to be talking about a talk or a presentation as an adventure, but I want to invite you to be thinking about it in this way. And I say that because adventures pull us forward, right, they’re kind of magnetic. And a really good talk has that element. There’s that, kind of, what might happen next? What’s the next unexpected thing? What new story that we want to keep moving forward with and contrast and story and you being connected and hand-holding with them is a powerful way to keep them captivated along that adventure.

People question me on this one and you may be thinking it too. “Are you sure? Because I’m just that dynamic…” And I say to them and I say to you, have you heard Eckhart Tolle speak or Tara Brach? I wouldn’t call them dynamic. Millions of people pay really nice money to see them onstage and they’re brilliant speakers and they are bringing their exact unique personal natural charisma to the stage. And for the right people, around the content that they are experts at but also heart-connected to, it’s perfect.

There are so many ways to be engaging and that’s true even within a content area, so not every person who talks about meditation or presence or mindfulness speaks in those terms. There are many different ways, many different ways to be charismatic.

The key is to know that when you really surrender to your own natural style of charisma, you will feel almost like a breaking open of your ability to connect with the audience and really say the things that maybe you’ve been afraid to say before, because when we have that armor up, when we’re trying to be someone that we’re not or when we think who we are isn’t going to be good enough or engaging enough, we lock in behind that protection so much of our best contribution.

We want to be connected and served and delighted as an audience and sometimes this comes from funny stories – usually ones we privately relate to so much that it lights us up to hear it said out loud, right? Other times, it comes from a content-rich how-to session on something that is totally gumming up our life right now.

Sometimes, it’s just an easy conversational style that seems off the cuff. Steve Jobs was notorious for this and he practiced forever. So having your own natural style doesn’t mean you don’t prep and practice. So you can have this easy conversational style with a few light laughs of recognition; maybe some humor shows up, right.

In fact, oftentimes, it’s when my clients relax, when speakers who are really working on finding their own natural charisma, when we relax into who we are, that actually some of the light humor that’s a natural part of the human experience as we’re sharing that with our audience, starts to rise up and you get these light laughs of recognition. And then the flow that comes from the contrast that is also part of our everyday, and when you’re aware of it, you can build it in.

When you add in these three things – or not even so much add in as just pay attention to these three elements of your speaking, you don’t have to be funny; I promise. I’ve lived it. So if something funny occurs to you that you think your audience will also think is funny, hurray, awesome. Otherwise, count on your stories, some naturally occurring contrast that you deliberately build into your talk, and your own most awesome speaking style.

It’s always connection and service that win with great speaking. So this is your time, my friend. Get out there and share your beautiful natural charisma style.

And if you want help getting out there faster with tools like How To Land On Your Core Message, The Only Presentation Outline You’ll Ever Need template that you can use over and over again forever, a guide for creating awesome slides, and more, you can go to michellebarryfranco.com/start and download that guide immediately.

So there we have it. That is all for this week. I already can’t wait until next week. You know I love being here with you. Please remember always, you were made for this. We know this because you can feel it. Take good care. See you next week.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Beyond Applause. If you like what was offered in today's show and want more, head on over to michellebarryfranco.com/start to get your free complete guide to stepping into leadership speaking right away.

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