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Lesson 12 – Incorporate Humor into Serious Content or Tragic Stories (Preview)

In this lesson, you learn to:

  • Use simple techniques to find humor in serious or heartbreaking stories
  • Find the subtle balance of incorporating humor into tragic stories, while maintaining the essence of seriousness
  • Incorporate some of the lessons that we have already covered

Many people feel it’s odd to incorporate humor into serious stories or content. To help you understand the importance of incorporating humor, imagine you’re at a funeral service for a lifelong friend.

This person “lived life” with you. You grew up together, shared fears, overcame challenges, and celebrated life’s nuances.

Picture yourself standing at the pulpit delivering the eulogy in an old church. The dimly lit building is packed to standing room only. Your friend lived a fun-loving life.

Which of the following eulogies would the congregation prefer?  Which one is most likely to have his spouse come up to you and say, “thank you for celebrating his life.” Most importantly…which one would your best friend prefer?

  • You struggle at the pulpit to maintain your composure. You weep uncontrollably as you describe how much you will miss him. The family of your friend and the congregation fight back tears and there are occasional bursts of wailing. You read through the written eulogy and feel exhausted by the time you get to the last word. You finish and there is silence apart from the sound of suppressed crying. You brought the congregation to an emotional low and they leave feeling heavy with sadness.
  • You walk up to the pulpit and you start with, “Today we are going to celebrate a life well lived. I have so many stories about my best friend, and they show who he was as a person and how he impacted most of the people in this church. It would be a travesty if I did not share some insight into the fun-loving, quirky aspects of his life.” As you share some appropriate funny stories the smiles, laughter, and tears light up the church. The energy from the congregation helps you maintain your composure, you start speaking from you heart, and the notes on the pulpit remain unused. As the funeral procession leaves the church, family members gently pat you on the back and thank you. You feel proud that you gave your friend a personal “send-off.”

The second option is clearly a better choice. Ultimately, great speakers provide an experience for their audience, no matter what the situation. So how do you achieve that? To start off, let’s watch a brief video to help us understand the importance of this:

Let’s look at a process that can be applied to speeches that involve serious content or heartbreaking stories. Finding humor helps you connect with the audience at the emotional level. Bringing them on the “emotional roller coaster” of drama, tragedy, misfortune, with snippets of lightheartedness can be extremely powerful.

Any of the humor techniques identified in this course can be applied to find humor in serious or heartbreaking stories, but I’ve found that a combination of the following three steps are most effective:


Write out your content. Identify the different sections, parts, or “scenes.” Step into each “scene” and ask yourself:

  • What is ironic in this scene?
  • What character traits do the people in this scene have?
  • What unusual distinguishing features do they have?
  • Is there a funny story about one of the characters?
  • Is there a funny story that one of the characters told you?


Incorporate Embellishment! Step into each “scene” and ask yourself how you can embellish to improve the audience experience:

  • How do I feel?
  • What could I smell that is unusual?
  • What could I see that could be quirky?
  • What could I hear that could be unusual or annoying?
  • What crazy or quirky things could I incorporate?
  • What could annoy or frustrate me?
  • What could be ironic about what is happening?
  • What are the “norms” that could be “flipped” to shock?
  • How can I embellish this story to build tension prior to triggering laughter?

STEP 3 (See Lesson 8 on the Humor Rule-of-Three)

Utilize the Rule-of-Three formulas:

  • Set-up + Set-up + Twist

Remember! The “set-ups” are two items that are similar or closely related in some way. The “twist” is typically something absurd or very different that “fools” the audience!

Here’s a Quick Video Recap of the 3-Step Process:

Let’s take a look at two examples of how I incorporated humor into serious stories:

In this excerpt, I share a very personal story relating to my father’s death, cremation, and subsequent throwing of his ashes at his favorite fly-fishing spot in Ireland. See how I add humor by telling my mother’s funny story.

In this excerpt, I share a very serious story when I came close to getting sacked at work. I’m about to go to the angry president of a company to get him to shut down a generator that I felt was on the verge of a catastrophic failure. My recommendation was very unpopular, as it would cost millions in lost revenue to shut down the machine. Notice how I find humor by explaining how the president looked.

Are you ready to try it out for yourself? Let’s start with brainstorming some Rule-of-Three items for a serious topic: Cancer.

The following is how I approached it:

  • I filled in the left-hand column with “small” items relating to cancer
  • I filled in the middle column with “big” items
  • I filled in the right-hand column with “absurd or crazy” items
  • I then looked for two items in the “small” or “big” columns that relate to each other and had a natural (logical) flow. (See the items highlighted in green.)
  • I then looked in the other two columns to find something of non-equal weight, absurd, or crazy that will give me a punch line. (See the item highlighted in green.)
  • I then connected the three and made the final wording concise. (See the items at the bottom of the chart.)

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Back to: Finding the Funny: How to Create and Deliver Humor in any Speech or Presentation
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