These covert hooks are based on the broader principles in the previous section, but they are more specific and actionable. They generate laughter with so little skill or effort that using them can seem like cheating. Don’t feel guilty. Exploit them for all they are worth. The more they appear to arise organically from the situation onstage — whether or not this is true — the stronger the laugh.
Delegation — letting them be funny for you
This is perhaps the most neglected way of creating laughter in our presentations. You might not be a naturally funny person, but there are plenty of people in your audience who are. First though, you need to build their trust in you and demonstrate that you want them to interact with you. Next, give them time and space to respond when they feel ready. And then once they do contribute, you must support their attempt to encourage similar humorous call-outs. With some audiences though, you will need to judge carefully how much freedom you want to give them during different parts of the presentation (2.1).
One way of triggering amusing suggestions from the audience is to set up an early situation that some of them won’t be able to resist responding to. For example, in the demo where the tin appears to roll uphill (2.3) someone will often suggest invisible thread as a possible explanation in the first half of the routine.
Later, when I have a volunteer onstage to check I’m not giving it a sneaky push, I will, as an aside, ask them also to look to, “see if I’m using any invisible thread.” By pausing briefly at this point and looking vacantly at the audience, I can usually elicit the call-out, “But it’s invisible thread!” This challenge will generate a big laugh because it came from one of their own. I show my enjoyment of their quick-wittedness. Then, as I recover, I suggest that they feel around the tin instead to check for thread, shooting my challenger a mock defiant look.
Reacting to situations
Most of the laughs in my presentations are generated by my reacting to and commenting on the incidents which arise onstage, whether these are engineered, recalled or spontaneous. I use the comedy hacks outlined in 7.2 to inform when and how I respond to the situations I encounter. It never fails to amaze me how many laughs I can provoke from observations which are not funny in themselves, but which are fast, authentic, surprising, universal, or which reveal a pattern. For example, when students in the corridor bang the assembly hall door as they pass, I swell with pride and boast to the audience, “Word’s obviously got around how good the show is … everyone’s trying to get in!”
You just need to remain constantly alert to spot these humour offers when they happen. Don’t over-think your response, simply respond in the moment.
If you watch an experienced performer, it’s fascinating to observe how much laughter they can milk from simply slowing down and holding their nonverbal reactions to something that has happened onstage. You can imbue almost any emotion into a long “look” that you give the audience, depending on the situation which triggers it. For example, throwing the crowd a resigned look when you are outsmarted by your volunteer or an expression of panic when a demo goes hilariously wrong.
As with sharing anecdotes below, these small touches of physical humour can be used alongside all of the techniques in this tool. These visual hooks create variety and prolong the laughter wave without you having to cut it off so they can hear you. When they are used in this subtle and complementary way, they are a powerful type of covert humour.
Physical comedy can also be deployed in a more extreme form — usually, but not always, for younger audiences — when it becomes overt humour, e.g. strong mugging and slapstick (7.5).
Can you share any memorable and instructive stories from your experience of using humour in your presentations? I’m compiling a collection of stories and examples of hooks from readers for HOOK wisdom, a future free resource to complement this book. You can find out more and submit your stories about using any hooks here.
Short stories related to your learning point can be a compelling way of communicating ideas and making them memorable. These anecdotes are gently amusing rather than overtly funny. For example, stories about what got you so interested in the topic (self-disclosure); the surprising inside track on how a mathematical discovery was first made; a humorous incident which happened the “last time” you did this demo; the real-life struggles of a famous historical figure. Often the humour in an anecdote will come from the audience recognising, in the story, the universality of a simple truth in all of our everyday experiences.
Stand-ups often use three storytelling techniques to increase the laughter as they share the tale:
- the present tense is usually funnier than the past tense — telling the story as if it’s happening to them now, onstage;
- physicalisations — acting out small details of the action with their body to help the audience form a sharper mental image;
- characterisations — portraying elements of the postures, gestures or voices of the main characters in the story without attempting a full impersonation of them.
“With a joke a laugh is a must. But with an anecdote it is a bonus.” James Humes (author)
Audiences generously reward any attempt to personalise your humour for them — no matter how feeble it may sound to you. You can adapt your normal script, by dropping in relevant references to — the venue; the time of day, week or year; recent local or national events; or to popular culture interests.
The more of your group who are aware of the allusion and the more recent it is, the bigger the laugh. However, with references to popular culture, you need to bear in mind how quickly trends change in the life of a child. It is easy to appear out-of-date. This is never a good look, unless you’re deliberately going for social humiliation and want to provoke the audience to mock you as a hook.
For example, I used to perform a demo with an aluminium rod where I could produce one extremely loud note by rubbing it between my fingers with the rosin powder used on violin bows. I told the audience that the rod could sing and, “I’m thinking of entering it on the X-factor [or the current TV singing contest]. Well, when I say sing … I mean it can make one note. … Which is more than you can say for [current worst act in the competition].”
The rule of three
A common pattern used throughout comedy is the rule of three, where something occurs in a sequence of three. For example — item A; related item B; and then unexpected and unrelated item C. Items A and B establish the pattern and C then disrupts it.
A popular example of this hook in science shows is when the audience is asked to vote on the outcome of a demonstration they are about to see — “Hands up if you think the orange is going to sink? Hands up if you think it’s going to float? And … hands up if … you’re tired putting your hands up?”
Referring back to an earlier incident in the presentation is one of the easiest ways of generating a laugh. These call backs are like comfortable shoes. They are the comedic gift that keeps on undeservedly giving. In fact, they often get a bigger response each time they are used. The more apparently spontaneous the event to which you call back, the funnier the audience will find it. For example, after the spectator has suggested “hamster” in the uphill tin demo (3.2), I refer back to hamsters two more times later in the show, e.g. in another science magic effect, I ask if they think there might be a hamster inside controlling it.
As you can see, the call back line is usually not that funny by itself. Its power derives from three main sources — the satisfying spark of recognition it fires in their brains; admiration for your quick thinking to make the connection; and how it makes audiences feel privileged that only they understand the shared meaning it holds.
Your mistakes are funny to children. In terms of comedic return-on-investment, you get at least two laughs for the price of one — first they laugh at your mistake; then they laugh at your indignant over-reaction to them laughing at you. All the presenter-in-trouble techniques outlined in 4.5 have strong elements of humour embedded throughout them.
“What makes people laugh at slapstick is not falling off the tightrope, but what you do to stay on.”
Ann Hale (humour researcher)
Look, but don’t see
As I discussed in detail in 4.5, this is one of the strongest hooks any presenter can use with an audience of young children. Few techniques will create as much laughter as look, but don’t see routines.
Pulling a tablecloth from underneath a set of dishes is a classic science stunt. When I’m performing this routine for younger audiences, I place the tablecloth on the table in such a way that once I’ve turned my back to get the plate and cutlery, it will slip off. Young children love spotting this before I appear to.
I can escalate their reaction by pretending not to see where the tablecloth has gone, despite their shouts. With the youngest children, it’s possible to repeat this hook several times whilst struggling to set-up the demo. Each time they become more amused with your inability to get the tablecloth to stay on the table. At this age, each time they will enjoy the game more.
As well as empowering them and providing humour, this device also acts as an internal hook as it subtly emphasises how slippery the tablecloth is. This helps them when we discuss, later in the routine, how the demo worked.
We’ve all been a victim of wanting to laugh uncontrollably, or corpsing, at some point when something unexpected happens during the presentation. This is contagious and appealing to audiences. It can often be the highlight of your presentation for them. Part of the appeal comes from them seeing how much you obviously love your job. They also enjoy witnessing your agony as your professionalism to carry on with the presentation is fighting an increasingly futile battle with your human need to fall about laughing. They’re getting to see the real person behind the presenter mask and to savour a moment that no other group will get to experience. Genuine corpsing is performance gold.
Young children are gloriously unselfconscious and can behave in unexpected ways (6.5). I’m sure many of us could fill a book with anecdotes of the wonderful and weird things our child volunteers have done over the years.
One of the most effective ways of engaging adults in shows primarily aimed at children is simply through using the hooks in this toolkit to provoke these natural responses from children. When this happens, often you won’t need to say anything — exchanging knowing looks with the adults in the audience, acknowledging that you both recognise the behaviour pattern, can be enough.
If you do give any verbal commentary about these “children being children” behaviours, this should be delivered in a sensitive way which does not demean the child. These gentle asides should be — short; playful; observational rather than judgemental; and about the behaviour, not the child. For instance, when you are trapped in a “Why? Why? Why?” inquisition with a determined 5-year-old, good-naturedly asking them if they have thought about becoming a detective when they grow up can acknowledge the behaviour to the adults without belittling the volunteer.
Social relationship humour
Human beings are fascinated by other human beings. Any time your volunteers or audience interact with each other, there is a rich vein of covert humour to be mined by watching their social behaviour. If you make any observations here, your comments don’t have to be funny in themselves, they just need to be universal.
Adolescents are particularly enthralled by how any form of relationship is revealed when their friends interact as they attempt a challenging activity under pressure on stage.
In an electricity game show for secondary schools, I used to employ a commercial game about reflexes as a way into discussing the difference between electric current and voltage. Four student volunteers had to compete to press a button on a joystick they were holding as soon as possible after a buzzer sounded — the last person to react would automatically get a small electric shock.
Even though the sensation would be minor, it was amazing to watch how the students wound themselves up to the mock danger of the game, with only a little assistance from me. Their peers in the audience were always equally transfixed and amused by the human drama playing itself out in front of them.
Putting an adult in jeopardy
Children find it funny seeing adults they know placed in positions of mock emotional or physical jeopardy (6.5). This hook needs, of course, to be managed so that the carefully selected target does not actually feel humiliated, no matter how much they play up to the indignity of the situation. The audience also needs to believe that the volunteer is not at risk of being seriously harmed.
Self-deprecating humour [ADVANCED]
In informal education, it’s safer to make yourself the target of your jests, if you can. When used well, gentle self-deprecating humour serves many purposes — it makes you more likeable, transparent, vulnerable and relatable. When overdone, though, it can either evoke pity or appear manipulative.
To use this hook effectively you need a good understanding of how others perceive you. With older groups it’s better to use this kind of humour to make fun of your personal qualities, rather than target your professional competence.
Faux corpsing [ADVANCED]
Given the impact of corpsing, it’s not surprising that experienced presenters sometimes exploit this by pretending to laugh or corpse in response to a situation, which looks inadvertent, but which they engineer in most of their presentations. They can milk this faux corpsing hook for some time depending on the situation.
This is an extremely high-risk hook — if you can pull it off convincingly, your trust bank will soar, as the audience think they are getting to see your real character. But therein lies its danger. Human beings have highly evolved systems for detecting authenticity in emotions and if they see through the device in any way, you can instantly bankrupt your trust reserves. Furthermore, they might even think — “if they have to pretend to enjoy their job, maybe this subject is as boring as I thought it was.”
The chain reaction of chaos [ADVANCED]
This is a sustained use of the presenter-in-trouble psychology (4.5), where one mistake escalates until it results in apparent chaos — and you become hilariously overwhelmed by your fate. At each stage, as you appear to lose more control of the situation, your increasingly exasperated reactions elicit louder and louder laughs. Staged panic is funny.
It is only possible to use this hook in certain routines and it requires careful staging and timing to pull it off convincingly. A typical narrative structure is when the attempts of the presenter to fix the problem backfire in a logical, but unexpected way, and only succeed in making the original situation worse. Another structure is for each attempted solution to trigger a bigger, but entirely different, problem. You will see these patterns in many classic clown routines.
In a chemistry demonstration, commonly known as “elephant’s toothpaste”, a chemical is added to a soap solution so it creates lots of foam which then pours out of the container it was in.
One way of presenting this demo is by setting it up secretly so you know the foam is going to spread far beyond the volume of the flask. In the routine, however, you stress how carefully you’ve measured the ingredients and how confident you are that any foam will stay inside the flask.
After you’ve added the chemical, turn your back to the demo table and let the audience see the foam slowly rise and start to spill out of the vessel. Eventually, you “catch on” and desperately try to stop the reaction, but it keeps growing, no matter how much foam you scoop away with your gloved hands or how many plastic bin bags you cover the container with. The more you appear to lose control, the funnier it becomes.
Develop a supporting improvised cast [ADVANCED]
Experienced interactive presenters use endowment (6.5) and re-incorporation (2.3) with specific spectators, as well as their volunteers onstage. Whenever a spectator gives you a strong reaction which you comment on as an aside, ask for their name if you think you want to bring them into your improvised cast later on.
These are audience members you confer higher status on by interacting with at various points throughout the presentation. You are subtly giving them permission to call-out in future, provided it is in keeping with the character you first endowed them with. They are foils for you to interact with. Your cast helps to co-create an interactive experience for everyone and feed the illusion of spontaneity in a controlled way. You’ll see stand-ups exploit this technique after they do some crowd work where they have extended conversations with particular members of the audience in a segment of the show — usually those brave souls sitting in the front row.
In your context, each improvised cast for a given type of audience will have a similar collection of characters. For example, the parent in a family show who seems bored; the student who can’t help audibly gasping whenever something surprising happens; or the cynical teenager who keeps asking you challenging questions.
This technique, however, requires sensitivity and an overtly teasing attitude in your persona. Otherwise it can look as if you are embarrassing innocent individuals for an easy laugh, like a lazy stand-up. Your improvised cast should always feel flattered by your attention even though you may be teasing them as their endowed character. Remember to thank the main stars in your cast publicly at the end of the presentation.