TEDxTuesdays, a weekly-ish 'zine about TED-style messaging.

TEDxTuesdays: Insights from... The TED Talk Whisperer (30jan24)

Published 4 months ago • 3 min read

THE HUMOR BUFFET. (The secret to TEDster joking.)

As a TED-style speaking expert, I’m often asked about talk humor.

I always turn to Gene Wilder.

Willy Wonka knew something about humor and captivating an audience. He once observed:

“A little nonsense, now and then, is relished by the wisest men.”

That said, I’m not a fan of heavy-handed, scripted humor in a talk. Performing stand-up comedy is a heavy lift. (Google “Jerry Seinfeld” and “practice” to learn more.)

And yet, "too serious" can often mean too mind-numbing.

That’s why a recent engagement with a CEO's commencement speech included only a handful of polite, scripted — but rigorously tested — chuckles.

And yet, here’s the secret, we paired those pre-determined jokes with what I call the “humor buffet.”

You see, reading the response of your audience is an important skill. And pairing that ability with (seemingly) off-the-cuff humor is a practiced art.

If they’re laughing, it is great to have the option of keeping the fun going — or not.

Instead of stepping to stage inflexibly scripted, consider creating a selection of “humor dishes,” just in case there's an appetite. You can then read your audience and sprinkle additional chuckles around your tried-and-true quips.

As TEDster Sir Ken Robinson shared in conversation about the design of his breakaway talk:

“It’s important to have rapport with the room. It’s like jazz, I think, or improv... I have some notes in my pocket with just some bullet points, and it’s like a set list is how I think of it, because every audience is different and every occasion is different.”

Consider Sir Ken’s talk about schools and creativity. About 45 seconds in, he asks the audience a question and then cracks a joke about his chosen field:

I have an interest in education. Actually, what I find is, everybody has an interest in education. Don't you?
I find this very interesting. If you're at a dinner party, and you say you work in education actually, you're not often at dinner parties, frankly.


If you work in education, you're not asked.


And you're never asked back, curiously. That's strange to me. But if you are, and they say, "What do you do?" and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They're like, "Oh my God. Why me?"


"My one night out all week."


But if you ask about their education, they pin you to the wall, because it's one of those things that goes deep with people…

Sir Ken popped off one joke and quickly returned to the buffet three times before returning to the topic at hand!

Yet don’t ask the audience to gorge on comedy. Only offer more IF you find the audience is responding. Laughing. Wanting more. (Hopefully they will be.)

Otherwise, leave that array of comedy dishes untouched. Don't be a not-so-funny, wannabe comedian.

You can return to the buffet another time if the audience is still hungry.

After all... “A little nonsense, now and then, is relished.”

DEVIN D. MARKS is known as The TED Talk Whisperer. His firm, CONNECT to COMPEL, has served 100s of TED, TEDx, and TED-Style speakers. The result: 100s of millions of views. His team helps leaders, just like you, catalyze ideas.

You can reach Devin at 617.804.6020, or DM him here.


As head of TED, Chris Anderson has had a ringside view of the world’s boldest thinkers sharing their most uplifting ideas.

With his new book, Infectious Generosity: The Ultimate Idea Worth Spreading, Chris looks at one of humankind’s defining but overlooked impulses – generosity. He thoughtfully explores how we can super-charge its potential to build a hopeful future.

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Pick up a copy here.

Related TED Talk here.

Short TEDster Insights

Here's a quick video that unpacks a bit of life behind the TED stage:

Ready for TEDx Success? Find the Worth in Early Arrival.

Here's why I show up 4 days before your live event and how we'll be prepping together.

video preview

Become a Breakaway TEDster!

When you're ready to take center stage (or center screen), let me know. Whether you're working on a TED Talk or a commencement address; an all-hands preso, or a keynote, you will want to be:

[ ✔] 5Fold-Focused
(5 factors here)
[ ✔] Story-Wrapped
(3 factors here)
[ ✔] Action-Igniting
(7 factors here)

And those three priorities make the TED Messaging Method so very, very connecting and compelling.

To begin a conversation, click here:

Let the world LIVE your message!™

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TEDxTuesdays, a weekly-ish 'zine about TED-style messaging.

From... The TED Talk Whisperer, DEVIN

I help niche execs, experts and authors master the TED stage and "short talk" messaging style. (TEDx clients enjoying views in the many, Many, MANY millions.) LET THE WORLD LIVE YOUR MESSAGE!™ #tedtalks #tedx #tedstyle #publicspeaking #speechwriting #pitches #presentations #messaging #branding #publicrelations #events #conferences

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