What I Learned from Toastmasters (Comedians)

“By the looks of it, the contestants at the District Humorist Contest must be funny enough to rival stand-up comedians.”

That was something I said to a friend of mine (at the start of the Humorist journey) as we looked down the long path from club to district. Never in a million years did I believe I would be among them. Over the years (yes, years) of trying new jokes and bombing those same jokes here is my vote for advice I would want to give to others. These are a few of the points I have learned from my experience in the Humorist Contest.

Take note of the audience size…and then forget it.
It is a well-known fact smaller audiences are harder to make laugh. The same joke that will get you half a smile at club level could have the audience rolling in the aisles at the District. Don’t feel discouraged if you aren’t always getting clear feedback on how you are doing as a comedian.

After I won the Area Contest, I was invited by another club to do the speech. My evaluator saw quickly my first joke was not making the small audience laugh. We worked out some techniques I could use to cue and help let the audience know I was giving permission for them to laugh. Division Contest came, I got up in front of the audience (estimated 70-80 people), approached my first joke, and WHAM! The audience exploded into laughter. I never needed to give my “cue”.

At the District Contest, in front of an estimated 250 people, I came across the same first joke. The audience’s laughter hit me with the force of a tsunami. For a split second I was thrown off, surprised, amazed they were laughing so hard, and insanely happy. They were laughing their butts off – this was great!

On the flip side, always aim to pump in 100% of your energy into every speech performance. It may seem like a Herculean task trying to gauge their feedback, but they all came to hear you speak. They deserve to have you give it your all, not a half-hearted attempt. Yes, sometimes it is much easier to get pumped up from a large audience, but a smaller audience deserves your absolute best, too.

The fear of bombing will never completely go away.
I don’ t know about other speakers out there, but this is a constant thought of mine. After 4 years in Toastmasters (the first 3.5 being a serious speaker), I still worry over how the audience will react, especially if I’m trying out new jokes. I could have spent hours writing, honing and practicing, but I can never be sure of the outcome until I try the joke on an audience other than my stuffed animals.

I feel as long as you work hard on your jokes, practice, give it your all, that is what matters. In the moment, do not worry about bombing; just shrug it off and continue on your speech. Analysis can come once you’ve done your speech.

You can’t win over everyone
I had the chance to meet up with a number of Toastmasters’ at an event several months after my win. One gentleman congratulated me, then dropped a mini-bombshell: although not an official judge that night, he was using the same judging criteria on all 10 finalists (a very common occurrence as I understand) and he did not rank me anywhere close to the top three.

I was far from angry: I was super excited. In a split second I had recognized this was a huge learning opportunity for me. Maybe he recognized something I had missed, something I could incorporate and improve on that would help my humour appeal to an even wider audience.

Just. Have. FUN.
Before the Division Contest was set to begin,a fellow Toastmaster literally pulled me to one side and gave me some advice. He told me he had been a judge at the District level for quite a number of years, and they were always looking for the same thing: they wanted to see the contestants having fun. On top of all the other judging criteria, were you having a good time?

Coincidentally, that was my mindset going though the entire contest experience. I didn’t set my mind on “I have to advance to the next level”, I set my mind on having fun and seeing how far I could push myself. Before every contest, I told myself this was likely the last time I would get to do my speech; I was going to go and give my best, one more time. That is the biggest piece of advice I want to pass along too; when you are nervous, or you are set in that mindset of “I have to make it to the next level.” you are likely going to make yourself tense.

Just. Have. Fun. Everything else will fall into place.

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4 thoughts on “What I Learned from Toastmasters (Comedians)

  1. Thanks Vivien, these are great tips. I appreciate the reminder about audience size – that’s very encouraging.

    Really like your idea of treating each round as your last, too.

    Our new club president’s encouraging me to enter the next humorous contest, so this is all very timely. I did a (very) short stand-up comedy course a few years ago, and at the end did a 5-minute gig in a pub, which went down quite well.

    One challenge for me will be to keep the subject matter and language suitable for a Toastmasters audience, which of course is very different from where the audience is ½ drunk and used to no-holds-barred stand-up. Might have to “clean up my act”, as they say!

    • Hi Craig, I’m very happy to hear you found the tips useful. I have done a couple of speeches in front of a small audience who didn’t even crack a smile, only to tell me afterwards they thought my speech was incredibly funny.

      I would love to encourage you to enter the next humorist contest too, plus you have prior stand-up experience which I imagine will also help you out immensely.

      Yes, it is true it is a lot safer (and probably more appropriate) to stick with the cleaner act for the contest. From a personal viewpoint, I think that gives the comedian more credit; I feel it is very difficult to write clean jokes that can appeal to a wide audience range. All the more power to those that successfully do.

      Please keep me informed about your bid for Humorist Champion!

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