Recently someone asked me how to give funnier talks. My first response was to recoil at such an insolent question: doesn’t everyone know that at the core of my shtick lies a unique and ineffable je ne sais quoi that can’t be packaged, bottled, or resold? But the truth was not that I couldn’t give advice; it’s that I didn’t want to. For if everyone knew how easy it was to keep an audience at least half-awake, how would people like me maintain their edge? By proving better theorems? Having something new and relevant and say? These questions answer themselves.
But because I love you, my readers, so deeply, and because I feel guilty about abandoning you for so long, I shall now publicly deconstruct the main ingredients of seminar humor, insofar as I’ve been able to find them. (A few ingredients are specific to theoretical computer science, but most are more general.)
- Make fun of people in the audience. (Of course, you have to do it in such a way that they’re flattered you’re ripping them and not someone else.)
- Ridicule bogus claims related to your topic, particularly claims that received wide currency in the popular press. (To be honest, I do this not so much because it gets laughs—though it does—but as a small service to humanity. If I can make one budding crackpot think twice before hitting “Submit” on a disproof of Bell’s Theorem, I will not have lived in vain. Of course, the ridicule should always focus more on ideas than people; and even then, a few in the audience will frown on it, considering it unscientific or unprofessional. Forty or fifty crackpots ago, I agreed with them. It’s only experience that hardened me into a vigilante.)
- Incorporate the audience’s shared experiences into your talk (without making a big deal of it, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world). For example, when it comes time to trot out an Alice/Bob scenario, have yours wryly comment on a previous talk, an excursion everyone went on, a current event (like an election) that everyone actually cares about more than the talk…
- Self-deprecate. (“My first conjecture was falsified. The following conjecture hasn’t yet been falsified, and is obviously true…”)
- Say things that recognize and comment on how neurotic the thought-process of theoretical computer scientists really is, by taking that thought-process to extremes. (“That’s off by a factor of 1010^120, which is only O(1) and is therefore irrelevant.” “For years, people tried unsuccessfully to prove this sort of impossibility result was impossible. Our result shows the impossibility of their goal.”)
- If your field is interdisciplinary, the humor potential is almost limitless. Are you a physicist? Ridicule the computer scientists. A computer scientist? Ridicule the mathematicians. A mathematician? Ridicule the economists. Chances are, enough differences in notation, terminology, assumptions, and underlying goals will arise in the talk to give you a never-ending supply of material. “Disciplinary humor” is a more refined, intellectual variant of ethnic humor, and is effective for the same reasons.
- Explain your results in an unusually vivid or graphic way. (“If, at the moment of your death, your whole life flashed before you in an instant, and if while you were alive you’d performed suitable quantum computations on your own brain, then you could solve Graph Isomorphism in polynomial time.”) This type of humor is my absolute favorite: on a plot with laughter volume on one axis and scientific content on the other, it’s way out on the upper-right-hand corner.
- If you’re using PowerPoint, take full advantage of its comic potential: wild animations, text that pops up on the screen to question or even flat-out contradict what you’re saying, a punchline at the bottom of the slide that only gets revealed when you press a key, etc. I love doing this because I have as much time as I need to “precompute” jokes (though I’ll then often elaborate on them extemporaneously).
- Banter with the crowd: if someone makes a crack at your expense, always respond, and even escalate the interaction into a “staged fight” (the rest of the audience will love it). If someone catches you in a mistake, or you don’t know the answer to a question, make a self-deprecating joke that acknowledges the situation even as it wins you sympathy points.
- Have high energy! Loud, lots of moving around, emotion in your voice … like you can’t wait to invite everyone along to the most exciting journey in the history of the universe. Not only is that good practice in general (at the least, it keeps the audience from falling asleep), it also creates a general atmosphere in which it’s okay to laugh at jokes.
- Pause a few beats before the punchline. (You can get better at this by watching professional comics.)
- Experiment! If a particular joke bombs, drop it from your rotation; if it brings the house down, recycle it in future talks. Of course, you should drop a joke once it reaches its saturation point, where much of the audience has already heard it in previous talks. On the other hand, if this particular audience hasn’t yet heard the joke, disregard your own internal sense of its being “tired”: it could go over just as well as the first time, or better.
- Steal ideas shamelessly from other speakers. (I mean their humor techniques, not their results.) Just as importantly, study the lame jokes other speakers use, so as to avoid them. (For example, I estimate that 94% of quantum computing talks include a heavy-handed comment about someone or something being “in superposition”; this has not yet gotten a laugh. Or the talks repeat stories about Feynman, Bohr, etc. that everyone in the audience has already heard a thousand times.)
- Tailor your jokes to the audience’s background. For instance, I have some jokes that work great in the US, but sink in other countries. Or work on physicists but not computer scientists, or vice versa.
- Make jokes about the country you’re visiting. Of course, this is subject to common sense: I’ve been known to resort to “zed” / “aboot” jokes in Canada, scone / royalty / powdered wig jokes in England, and neutrality / yodeling jokes in Switzerland, but I usually don’t make the first joke that pops into my head when visiting Germany or Austria.
- Take risks! Here’s an Umeshism: if some of your jokes don’t flop, then you’re not being bold enough. Do things that people can’t believe anyone would actually do in a talk. Most people seem to operate under the assumption that when they’re giving a talk, they have to be less funny than in regular conversation, when the truth is the opposite. If something comes into your head that’s funny to you, and it passes the most flimsy and cursory of offensiveness checks … out with it, and worry later about the consequences!
Three final remarks.
First, reading over the list, I can’t help but feel sheepish about how much one can do with such a crude and obvious bag of tricks.
Second, I only wish I applied this crude bag more consistently! Particularly when I have a new result and I’m excited about the proof, I all too often ignore my own advice and lapse into boringness. But at least I notice I’m doing it, get annoyed at myself, and resolve to be crasser, less mature, and less professional the next time around.
Third, you might feel that adding shtick to your talks makes you “shallow,” that all that should matter is the content of your results. In the relatively rare case where you’re addressing experts in your own sub-sub-subfield, that’s probably true: you can drop the funny business and get straight to the point. In all other cases, I’m almost certain the audience will understand your results better if you incorporate some shtick than if you don’t. But hey—it’s up to you whether you want to address an ideal Platonic audience (“more lemmas! no irrelevant distractions! yes! harder! faster!”) or the actual flesh-and-blood hairless apes who are dozing off in the seminar room while you speak.