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The following article by a District 3 Toastmaster appears in The Toastmaster, March 2002, A Special Humor Issue

Why Are We Laughing?

By Ellie Marek, ATM

If you want people to remember what you say, no matter how serious, you will succeed far better if you sweeten it with humor. So what makes us laugh, and where can we find this wonderful humor resource? First we have to learn to think funny.

1 Quotations are an excellent way to begin. You don't have to be a great wit to bring home your message with a powerful but funny quotation. One of my favorite sources is the series compiled by Robert Byrne: The 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said; and so on, for four volumes and counting. Reading books of witty quotations has been a rich source of ideas and laughs for me. Find the quotes that fit your own style (or weird quirks) and use them to bring home your message.

2  Look at the world around you. Then picture it through the twisted neurotic frame of humor. God is the greatest comedy writer of all. Most of us humans just haven't learned to interpret his comedy. Will Rogers became the most beloved comedian of his time, (possibly all time) just by reporting what he saw. "I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts."

3 We love to laugh at euphemisms. This is really another way of reframing reality. Nobody gets "fired" any more or even "laid off." Instead, we have downsizing, rightsizing, and the newest term: brightsizing. Bank of America has a "release of resources." GM offers a "career transition program." National Semiconductor "reshapes;" Stanford University "repositions;" and Wal-Mart just does a "normal payroll adjustment." A Brit told me (in a very matter-of-fact tone) that he had been "made redundant." It sounded more interesting than some euphemistic terms for getting the boot, but still pretty awful. Surely the ultimate euphemism is "the mortality experience." I think I'd better let this rest in peace.

We laugh because it provides more healing than tears. Often the victims of oppression have learned to laugh at the stupidity of blind prejudice. Mariam Makeba, the great South African singer, was exiled for 25 years.

Now she laughs when she talks about the book-banning that took place under apartheid. The government banned the book Black Beauty, never bothering to find out that it was the story of a horse.

When people work under great tension or deal with matters of life and death, the laughter may be raunchy, and it's apt to be pretty silly. The greater the stress, the greater the need for laughter. We know now that there was laughter in concentration camps and among the POWs in the Vietnam War. Mother Theresa insisted her workers have a time set aside for laughter after their day's labor in India. If it relieves the tension without creating new tension, the laughter serves a good, healthy purpose.

5 We laugh at ourselves, our follies and foibles. Only when we can laugh at ourselves can we forgive ourselves for being human and get on with the business of living well. When we can laugh at our obsessions, they assume manageable proportions. It is this kind of laughter that keeps us balanced between fanaticism and apathy.

6 Move your message forward with humorous stories. The most powerful way to lighten and strengthen your message is by telling a humorous, but relevant story. The best stories are almost always personal anecdotes that allow the audience to identify with the speaker. Set up your story with a strong visual image. Lead your audience through twists and turns that build tension. Follow the twists to the payoff. Have the punch line tell a truth - but an unexpected, often absurd truth.

Laughter is a habit, and like any good habit needs to be carefully cultivated. Whether you laugh to get oxygen to your brain, to keep from crying or to release the floodgates so healing tears can flow; whether you laugh to ease the pain of helplessness in a sometimes cruel world or because there are still pockets of love and joy all around us - cultivate and cherish that habit of laughter. 

Ellie Marek, ATM, is a member of Park Central Club 3527-3 in Phoenix,
Arizona. More about Ellie

Reprinted with permission

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