successful humor
This new MTI blog series aims to help you and your readers sharpen your skills in communicating faith matters to secular readers – skeptics, seekers, and the spiritually disinterested.

Humor can help you effectively communicate faith to skeptics, seekers and the spiritually disinterested.  Consider this…

A number of years ago, my wife and I wrote a book about love and sex that had a hot title: Dynamic Sex: Unlocking the Secret to Love.  (Hot title; sensitive and respectful “PG” presentation.)

Our publisher had us promote the book at a booksellers convention.  We spent an exhausting day on the convention floor.  Late that night, after a reception crowd had thinned to mostly authors and our publisher, we stood in a circle engaged in conversation.  I left her side momentarily to attend to a matter.

Upon returning to the circle, I walked up behind my wife and began gently to massage her shoulders from behind.  She seemed to enjoy that, so I started to put my arms around her waist to give her a little hug.  At that point, I looked up at the other side of the circle and saw … my wife.

I had my hands on the wrong woman!

They were about the same height, same color of dress and hair.  I turned red-faced and said, “Well, what do you expect from someone who writes a book called Dynamic Sex?”!

Now, I assure you that my motives were proper, but my analysis of the situation was flawed….

From humor to faith

Perhaps this true story made you chuckle or smile.  Or laugh.  Or blush.  Or roar!  Stories like this can help you connect with nonbelievers and open doors to Gospel conversations or opportunities to write about spiritual matters.  Humor can break the ice, dissolve tension, and establish emotional connection.  It can help you come across as caring, likeable, fun, real, credible.

But once you’ve got attention, you’ll need an appropriate transition to the spiritual.  How about something like this after the “Wrong Woman” story…?

“… Now, I assure you that my motives were proper, but my analysis of the situation was flawed.  Often things are not what they appear to be.”

“For instance, for many years I believed that the only reality was the physical, material realm.  When people talked about a spiritual realm, I considered that purely imaginary, fictitious.  But then some friends presented some evidence that prompted me to re-evaluate my perspective.  What they told me was….”

Skillfully-crafted humor can help your users, readers, listeners – and your coworkers – understand, enjoy and remember your important points and thirst for more.

This article includes more fun stories to focus on four elements of successful humor, three ingredients of good material, plus a formula for developing and adapting humor in your communication.  Links for more info will come at the end.  Here we go!

Four elements of good humor

Good humor benefits from four elements:  Good material, a knowledge of your audience; good delivery or presentation; and a positive self-concept.

“Sometimes people ask the secret of our healthy marriage.  It’s really quite simple.  We take time two evenings a week to go to a restaurant.  A nice dinner, some candlelight, soft music, a slow walk home.  She goes Tuesdays; I go Fridays.”

If you know that your audience is familiar with the ebbs, flows and challenges of romantic relationships, you may suspect they’ll identify with the “Tuesdays / Fridays” counsel above.  It may strike a chord and qualify as “good material” for them.  If you present the quip succinctly (the above is 42 words) – and strategically placed in your article, speech or conversation – it may delight.

Attempting humor involves risk.  Your readers or listeners may not like your story, or think it is funny.  Fear of failure cripples many aspiring communicators.  A positive self-concept frees you to take these risks.

Three ingredients of good material

Good material benefits from a commonly understood situation, a buildup of tension, and the opportunity to release that tension through introducing a sudden and unexpected twist.

A university student took a final examination shortly before Christmas.  The exam consisted of one extremely difficult question.  The student agonized over the test and finally realized he didn’t know the answer.  In desperation, he wrote on his paper: “God only knows.  Merry Christmas!”

When the professor returned his paper, the student read the following notation: “God gets an A, you get an F.  Happy New Year!

In this example, if readers / listeners are familiar with education, the story can work well.  Suppose, though, that the A-F grading system is not part of their culture (which perhaps uses only numerical grades).  Or maybe Christmas is not a common holiday for them.  They may not instantly catch the humor.

The story itself can build up tension, aided in oral communication by voice, diction, facial expression, timing, and gestures.  In written communication, writers often must rely on tapping existing tension – perhaps in readers who’ve experienced test anxiety.

The twist (God’s grade vs. the student’s) comes suddenly, and perhaps by surprise to many readers.  The punch line generates amusement or laughter because it is such a quick emotional twist.  Individual listeners and readers also may delight in the fact that they have personally deciphered the twist; part of their laughter may be an expression of self-delight.  The skillful humorist will work hard to craft stories and lines that are easily understood, build or tap tension, and contain sudden and surprise twists.

A formula

My late wife, Meg Korpi, and I loved to laugh.  As world travelers, sometimes we laughed about language translation complexities.

60 Minutes television veteran Mike Wallace, speaking through an interpreter, once asked former Russian president Boris Yeltsin if he weren’t being a bit “thin skinned” in his sensitivity to media criticism.  The interpreter goofed, telling Yeltsin that Wallace had said, “You are a thick-skinned hippopotamus.”

Shortly after we married, a speaker at a Miami meeting I attended told of efforts to translate a biblical love poem into the language of a Kenyan tribe.  The phrase, “Your beauty is like that of the lily,” did not connect with the rural East Africans, for whom lilies were mere cattle fodder.  Their culture highly esteemed the cow, not the flower.  On the advice of tribesmen, the translators rendered the romantic phrase: “You are a black cow in a herd of spotted cattle.”

The speaker relating this tale suggested I use that compliment on my new bride, without explanation.  Since Meg was returning to California from Philadelphia that evening, I left the cryptic greeting on our home answering machine.  A few hours later, my Miami phone rang.  Her first words:  “And you are a thick-skinned hippopotamus!”

Suppose you want to fashion a humorous story from a true situation.  How do you do it?  Word choice is crucial.  Based on the principles we’ve discussed, here are some practical steps.  As you read each point, consider the above story about Meg and me and think about how the formula steps would apply in constructing it.

  1. Identify the incongruity. This is what ultimately will trigger the laughter, so have it clear in your mind from the start.  Is it a situation?  A relationship?  A twist?  An odd phrase?  An exaggeration?  Define it specifically.
  1. Determine the feasibility. Do you think it will be feasible to communicate the situation to others so they will understand?  Some stories are quite funny to those experiencing them, but require too much detail to prepare the uninvolved listener.  The humor is lost in confusion.
  1. Paint the picture. Describe the situation that the audience needs to understand to eventually comprehend the punch line.  Pay careful attention to colorful details and descriptive words.  Ask yourself if your words will grab and hold the listener’s or reader’s attention.
  1. Build the tension. Can you include details that will arouse curiosity?  Anticipation?  Excitement?  Can you use a bit of drama?  Do it!  Remember, the greater to build-up of tension, the louder the laughter as the tension is released.
  1. Fashion the punch line. Make it short; powerful; easy to say, listen to or read, and understand.

Work hard at developing material.  For speakers, write your story using the words you would use to tell it aloud.  That will force you to think through the impact of each word and phrase.  Try out your story on friends and ask their advice afterward.  When you have honed the story satisfactorily, practice it so you can deliver it effortlessly.  Make it seem natural.

Tradition has it that Mark Twain said, “It takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech.”  Effective communication takes work, but the effort spent on polishing your humorous material will be well spent.  In eternity, readers and listeners may thank you for helping open their hearts to considering Jesus.

Want to know more?

Gratis online resources:

by Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2023 Rusty Wright

Photo by Surface on Unsplash

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