In 2019 I took part in the Toastmasters Humorous Speech Contest. An annual public speaking competition, where you perform a 5–7-minute speech which is marked by a panel of anonymous judges. You get a certain number of points based on your body language, speech structure, vocal variety, and of course….how funny you are. Then the winner goes through to the next round and does it again against more people trying to be funny in front of more judges until they win the whole contest. It is terrifying.

 

 

By the time I entered the competition I’d been doing standup for a little while and people had laughed at my jokes and I guess I thought I was kind of funny. But when I walked up and did my “humorous” speech for the contest on that cold September morning, I was not funny. I was nervous and stilted and wooden in my delivery. I was reciting something I’d memorised word for word the night before. It was dry and awkward and a total flop.

I got some incredibly honest and constructive feedback afterwards that confirmed my suspicion. It was not my best speech and it certainly wasn’t my funniest. I don’t know if I even need to say this but, I didn’t win.

However I have learnt more about being funny from my flops than I ever have from making people laugh.

I vividly remember the first time I really “died” on stage. It was in a room above a pub in Goodge Street on International Women’s day, I could even tell you what the front row was wearing, what the guy before me’s set was about, and what beer I drank afterwards to drown my sorrows. I remember every detail about that show. I was performing the same material I had done the week before, every word was the same. But this time none of it landed. No one even tittered. It was just deathly silence. I’m not exaggerating, I also have a recording. It’s tragic.

They call it “dying on stage” because it feels like that. Like you’re drowning. I cried all the way home and vowed never to perform again. I was so embarrassed it felt like physical pain.

But I had already booked a run of shows and so the next week I pulled myself together, and I got up and I did it again. The same material, word for word. And it couldn’t have been more different, I did so well I actually won an award for the best performance, voted for by the audience. I still have the tiny little plastic gold trophy on my shelf.

The only main difference was in how present I was with the audience.

The time I flopped the guy before me had joked about pushing a woman in front of a bus for not reciprocating his advances…on international women’s day. He was an absolute arsehole and he completely turned the crowd, the atmosphere was awkward and morose and no one was in the mood to laugh. But I walked up and didn’t even mention it, even as the only female performer of the night. I just carried on like nothing had happened. I didn’t read the room. I didn’t take a second to acknowledge what had happened and just carried on. Reciting my lines like I’d memorised. Pausing mechanically for laughs that never came.

The next show however I wasn’t talking at the audience, I was performing WITH the audience. I engaged with them, I spoke to people on the front row, I even tore down a few teenage hecklers from the back row. I had the same material but it was delivered in a completely different way. I wasn’t reciting words I’d memorized I was sharing them with the people in the room.

I realized that being funny had nothing to do with the material and everything to do with how you delivered and engaged with the people in front of you.

I know that now most of our public speaking is happening over video calls, engaging with an audience is completely different, but if I can give you any advice, it’s don’t memorize something. Don’t write it word for word. If you can’t be present with others in the room, be present with yourself.

I really believe that what makes us funny is what makes us, us. You are hilarious. Relax, imagine you’re in a room full of your friends telling a story. You make people laugh because you’re laughing with them not talking at them.

Dying on stage was a brutal lesson for me to learn, but it’s one of the most worthwhile. To everyone taking part in a Toastmasters Humorous Speech contest or any attempt at being funny in front of people in a space where you will be judged on the number of lols you can elicit, I salute you, its a tough gig out there but you got this.

Even if you don’t win I hope you learn something about yourself.

Even if you flop I hope you pick yourself up and get right back out there.

Even if you can’t hear us laughing, I hope you enjoy yourself.