The Power Of Humor In Storytelling With Kelly Swanson

by | Nov 19, 2020 | Podcasts

SWGR 549 | Humor In Storytelling


The major challenge any speaker faces is not diction or content, but the ability to connect with the audience. Using humor in storytelling engages their emotions and allows them to relate with everything you say. Elizabeth Bachman is joined by award-winning speaker and storyteller Kelly Swanson. They discuss how every compelling presentation must take advantage of stories that make people laugh and keep them glued to what you have to say. They also go deep into what makes a person authentically funny and why having a speaker trainer give you informed feedback is a great strategy for improving your presentations.

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The Power Of Humor In Storytelling With Kelly Swanson

Serious Advice From A Funny Speaker

Before we begin, I’d like to invite you to take our free four-minute assessment on That’s where you can find out how you are strong in your presentation skills and where perhaps you might need a little bit of extra support. My guest is the wonderful Kelly Swanson. Thank you. Kelly is one of the first people I wanted to interview. She was busy in all the various things she has going that it’s taken me until now to nab her for an interview. Kelly, I’m delighted to have you here.

It’s nice to be here. I wish there was a better reason for me having all this new time on my hands, but silver lining is that I do get a chance to sit down with you and your group. You’re one of my biggest fans, Elizabeth. It’s my pleasure.

I realized that people don’t often hear when they’ve made a difference in somebody’s life. Kelly, you gave me a line that I have been using for the last few years. I was telling a story. It was a good story. You said, “Tweak this.” I went, “Perfect.” I’ve been using that line for a few years. You made a big difference.

Thank you. That makes me feel good. It also points out to the power of a good line. I’m sure you know with many of your clients that often we underestimate the power of each word that we say and how it’s put together. If you’re still talking about a line years later, that’s proof-positive.

We still use Shakespeare so that’s been going on for several centuries. Before we start off with your official bio here, this is the short version because she’s done so many things. Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, comedian, motivational speaker, Huffington Post contributor and cast member of The Fashion Hero television show, which is airing on Amazon Prime. She’s also the author of Who Hijacked My Fairy Tale?, The Land of If Only, The Story Formula, and The Gutsy Girl’s Pocket Guide to Public Speaking. She was a featured entertainer for Holland America Cruise Lines, a keynote speaker for the International Toastmasters Convention, and has keynoted major conferences and corporate events from coast to coast.

Kelly’s wacky wit and powerful stories have charmed hearts and tickled funny bones for several years. In addition to her role as a funny motivational speaker, Kelly teaches people how she does it by sharing what she’s learned about connecting and engaging to have more influence in business through the use of one tool, strategic storytelling. Sharing her own powerful journey through short story and the formula she discovered, you come to that magical place where the art of story meets the business of persuasion. Thank you, Kelly. Welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me.

SWGR 549 | Humor In Storytelling

Humor In Storytelling: Emotion is key because that’s how somebody feels about you, your product, and themselves.


I’d like to start off with the question I ask all my readers, interviewers and guests, if you could share the stage with somebody who’s no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be listening?

You’re not going to be a fan of mine after I answered this question. To be transparent, anybody reading, I already had an idea of what questions she was going to ask me. In my mind boiled it down, as I tend to do, I changed the question. That tells you who I am. It came down to me who, if you could meet somebody in history, would it be, and what would you say when you’re sitting there talking to him? I went through all these, “Who should I say?” I’m like, “I should say Gandhi.” Who are the people I should say? I went through the list of if I want to be an intellectual, I should choose somebody maybe from history or Shakespeare. I was like, “I’m a storyteller. I should choose Shakespeare.” I went through all those and I couldn’t land on anything. I said, “Let’s be selfish. If you can meet somebody in history, you know full well you’d find Elvis. You’d find Lucille Ball. You’d find Carol Burnett. She might not be dead yet. You didn’t say, you said history. That could be yesterday.

I went through all these people that if I could find them and sit down, what would I say? I went, “No, I don’t want to do that. That’s an interview. I could read a book. It’s probably written down somewhere.” Welcome to my brain. I went, “Maybe I want to go to a time in history.” I’m like, “What time would I want to go to? Would I want to be there at a revolution. Would I want to be there when something’s invented?” I got all twisted up over that. Humor is everywhere. I’ll tell you the trigger. As I was thinking of this, I’m scrolling Facebook to see if there are any answers there. If maybe somebody already asked and answered the question, and I could steal theirs. Do you remember the movie The Greatest Showman? I love that. I don’t know what they call it when you’re green-lighting a movie, you’re hearing the songs for the first time and you’re trying to sell it.

There’s a video when the bearded lady, I don’t know her name in real life, is singing the song, “This Is Me for The First Time.” Elizabeth, I’m sure they’re in New York City. They’re in some dumpy classroom-looking place. They’re all in jeans and t-shirts, sitting around conference rooms tables. She sings it for the first time. The other people are getting up. The atmosphere and the energy become electric. I tell you that video is better than any scene in the show, in my opinion, because you’re watching these people as they see the show take birth. I went, “That is my answer for Elizabeth.”

I would not choose someone and I’m not even sure I’m going to narrow it down to what time in history. I would want to sit in the room where creation was happening. It could be in that room. It could be in the room with the writers from Seinfeld when they wrote one of their most famous episodes. Not just watching, if this is imagining, why can’t I add that element where I get to be, as they said in Hamilton, in the room where it happens. It’s not exactly what you asked and it’s many more minutes than you wanted me to explain it but that’s the trip I took to answer your question.

What I love about asking this question is you get such interesting answers. It gives a little glimpse into who the person is. I was asked this question way back at the beginning of my opera career. I’ve thought about it often since I’ve used this question many years. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to have a comedy panel with Shakespeare, Moliere, Oscar Wilde and maybe Cole Porter. It was somebody from four different centuries.

First of all, they wouldn’t be able to talk to each other because the English language has changed. Humor has changed or maybe even just Oscar Wilde and Cole Porter. We get a couple of gay boys together. It would either be the most fun ever or the absolute worst dinner party you’ve ever done because each one would want to be the only star, and they would all hate each other. That one might happen to that kind of thing.

The key to persuasion is not in telling people what to do but in making them want to do it. Click To Tweet

Comedians are not known for being funny in their personal lives all the time. I’ve often heard that some of those dinner parties where comedians are invited can turn out to be the most depressing things. Comedians aren’t necessarily in private who they are on stage. I thought that was interesting. I’m a nutcase though. I’m funnier off stage than I am in what I create in my own opinion.

This is why I’ve got you here then. I’ve got something that’s unscripted, but partly things that you’re talking about a lot. I’ve been wanting to talk about using humor and stories as a tool. Since what I do is help people present themselves in business, why is storytelling important in business? Why is humor important?

It’s a great question and one that I get a lot because people assume that humor and storytelling is what happens in the entertainment world and has no place in business, speeches, presentations or sales pitches. The answer to your question is, I’m going to answer first with a question to anybody reading and whatever business you’re in or whatever role you have, how important is it for you to persuade someone? How important is it for you to get someone to do what you want them to do? Whether it’s to buy something you have, whether it’s to embrace a vision you have created internally, whether it’s to get burned out staff and people rallied again and inspired to serve their customers. I would make the case that every single one of us is in the business of persuasion. Whether it’s on our job description or not, we are constantly trying to influence other people with an idea, a product, a call, whatever that is.

If anybody’s already nodding to that, then the next statement I would make is that the key to persuasion is not in telling people what to do but in making them want to do it. It’s not in just giving them the information. It’s in how it’s wrapped. It’s not just in changing the way they think, but it’s also in changing the way they feel. Those aren’t my opinions. Those are basic tenets of persuasion. I would bring you to the place where we all would agree that our ability to persuade is based on how well we are able to connect and engage with our listener on an emotional level. Emotion is key because that’s how somebody feels about you, your product and themselves. I would then take it. If connection and engagement is important and if science says and proves that data can’t do that, then what can? The research is now backing all of this up, that story is one of those greatest tools you have to wrap data in an emotional way, to connect and engage with that person you’re trying to influence.

Humor is also another tool. Humor to me is valuable because we’re trying to get past crossed arms. The person in our audience, our buyer, they don’t automatically trust us. That’s not the natural intent. We need to get them to believe us. The cardinal rule of sales has been around forever is that people buy from people they like, trust, believe and feel like they know. Humor, if done well and not offensively, allows you to become more human to them and become more likable. They buy you first. That is critical. One thing that many people in their presentations whether it’s sales presentations or speeches or whatever, they tend to forget and jump straight to “Here’s what you need to know” without developing that trust or getting the buy-in for why it matters. That’s a long-winded way of saying why story matters and humor to me is a component of story.

One of the things that I’ve often said, I work with a lot of people who are smart about something complicated. They hire me when they need to be more concise or more compelling when they’re speaking. Quite often I get a pushback from someone saying, “Use a metaphor, tell a story.” They go, “Yes, but these are all experts.” They don’t know that. My thought is if you’re a human being, you grew up learning from stories. Stories were what teach us things. You grew up on fairytales. You grew up on children’s books. You grew up on Barney even or something like that. It connects to your emotional core and buying decisions are emotional. We do know that one.

In many industries, the spokesperson for that industry, financial planning, for example, IT, upper echelons of academia, doctors and healthcare people. There are a lot of people who speak an entirely different language than the person they’re talking to. It’s English, but your vocabulary, your context, the words you use are different. Your financial planners are a great example. They know this. They know that the person listening to them, their eyes are glazing over and they have no idea what you said.

Humor In Storytelling: They’re not just stories to tell. They are stories to impact the world.


It’s the same thing with IT. When your industry has its own terms and vocabulary, you forget that. What I love about it is that story gives your listeners a context they can understand, an analogy. When you step inside this story, for example, a guy that sold computer services. He said, “My people don’t understand at all what their computers are doing. It’s confusing.” I said, “Let’s create a story about a refrigerator. Explain me what it is you do using an analogy.” He said, “It’s like a refrigerator in a commercial bakery. Everybody’s buying stuff and they’re throwing it in. It’s getting spoiled and they’re wasting money. Nobody’s watching the refrigerator. That’s what I come along and do. I clean out your refrigerator. I save you money.”

I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what this guy did. When he told me that story, I believed him because I can understand the context of a refrigerator and buying ingredients. It’s universal. It’s something we can all relate to. Here’s how persuasive it is. I’ve got no idea if he’s even right, but I believed him because if this was true over here, then I assumed it would be true in his case as well. You bring up a brilliant point about story finding common ground in a context that your listener can understand.

One of the things that I’ve loved about you is you tell stories about an imaginary town and the stories have lessons in them, which is what the stories we learned as kids are, the little engine that could say, “I think I can.” That teaches a kid to keep trying. This isn’t exactly what I had planned to ask you, but I have the opportunity. I’ve got you. I’m going to ask you to talk a little bit about the town that you discussed and the world that you have created.

That’s weird. We’re going there, Elizabeth. Long story short, I’ve been a writer my whole life. Not a good writer my whole life, mind you. It’s taken me a while to become even good enough for my own standards. I was also a picked-on kid growing up. Not to give you too many details, we all have our own story of our childhoods. My main theme was being by myself and be invisible. I don’t know, I’m making it sound gloomy.

You were picked on. You were bullied.

Yes. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I spent all my time reading and writing. I had a town of characters and these stories that I loved. In a weird way, they were my companions. Take what you want with that. They were just for me and the older I got, I would write stories of these ordinary people. They were based on people. They were based on things I saw. A fictional town, fictitious town or however you say it, gave me the freedom to talk about people. You wouldn’t know who I was talking about. I could put it in Prides Hollow, but everybody says, “Are these stories real? Are the people real?” I’m like, “Yes, they’re real. I could see every one of them.”

The stories are real. They happened. They happened to have happened to somebody else. It’s like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon was my Prides Hollow. They make me laugh. They make me feel good. Maybe people can understand what I’m saying, but I can sit at the computer and they begin to talk. I stepped back and my husband is like, “What are you laughing at?” I’m like, “You have got to see what Harriet did when she learned to drive.” They almost surprise me as much as anybody else. All that, I’ll wrap it up by saying that’s always been something in my head and in my world, and something for me. I would tell my stories at family reunions. I became an English major because I didn’t know what else to be.

Humor, if done well and not offensively, allows you to become more human and more likable. Click To Tweet

The only ambition for me was get married and have kids. I thought that’s all you did. You went to college, met a husband, whatever, game over. My life didn’t work out that way. After college, I took a writing class with a bunch of teachers. We had to tell our stories. I told one of them and they get a big deal. They’re like, “Your story is great, but the way you tell it’s even better. Will you come to our school?” I started telling them to kids. I went to the National Storytelling Festival. I saw storytellers who I’d never heard of them before. Somebody said, “You should check out Garrison Keillor.” I started reading his stuff, and Stuart McLean out of Canada. I went, “That’s what I want to be. I want to tell my stories,” which you could imagine how proud my father was to hear that my college education was going to go to this.

What I’ll say finally is many years ago, I entered the speaking business. Out of the storytelling world, I took a look around and I said, “Nobody’s doing anything like this. This is weird. It’s too different. They don’t want me to be this. I need to be something else.” I buried every one of my characters. I stopped telling their stories. I stopped writing them. I started going to try to be a funny motivational speaker. I was successful and a lot of doors opened. I don’t regret that journey, but every year, every decade I kept saying, “How I wish I could tell those stories again.”

I want to bring them back, but where do they belong? Long story short, COVID hits. I do everything I know to do business-wise. I’m at the end of my rope like everybody else is. What do we do now? I went, “I’ve spent a long time creating a living. Now it’s time to create a life. I’m going to bring them back. I’m going to write. I don’t care if nobody likes them.” I know we’re on a tangent here but you opened the door. It’s time to do what’s been on my heart. The scary thing is talk about the worst time ever to do it, to pick something not marketable. I don’t care. I’m going to do what brings me joy. Launch them on YouTube, come out as an artist for lack of a better way to put it in conjunction with Patreon and build up followers.

I’ve already got the first two episodes filmed. I’m writing the others. The video people are working on it. I don’t know if people will like it. For the first time I don’t care because they bring me such joy. The last thing I’ll say the whole show is about bravery. An old man dies and leaves everybody in Prides Hollow money on the condition that they do something brave. Every episode are the things that people did to be brave. It’s not just stories, which morphs the discussion back into story as a tool. They’re not just stories to tell. They are stories to impact the world, to help them think, “She’s telling my story.” To help people go, “What would I do if I were brave?” and to push them to a new place. Thank you for asking. Sorry, everybody, we got off tangent, but I believe things happen as they should. You might have heard what you needed to hear.

I love what you said about story being a tool, “Here’s how we can do this.” Especially when things are tense, there’s a chance for people to get lost in your stories and maybe learn something. That’s the other thing. You’re learning that it’s not a cop show with a chase. In 25 minutes, you’ve arrested the killer and everything’s resolved.

It’s also not a hero’s journey. I always tell people we’re not writing for TV. We’re not writing novels. We’re not writing movies. Put that whole world aside. We’re not going as deep as a hero’s journey as this happened. We’re in business. Our goal is to persuade. The story is a tool to get a reaction. You need to know what you want the tool to do. What do you want them to think, feel or do as a result of hearing this story? Every story has a point to it. The biggest shift that I have to get people to cross is this isn’t just creative writing. We are using this to find a character that mirrors your buyer, where the conflict mirrors what your buyer is going through, the emotions are similar and you’re using the words they use. It is strategic. One could say manipulative because you could pluck their emotions in a much deeper way by using story effectively.

A basic way is that any decent sales brochure or any sales enrollment conversation is going to have the story of the satisfied client. The person who was having a hard time, and then they came and hired you or they bought your product or they did what you wanted to do. There was a happy result that happened.

SWGR 549 | Humor In Storytelling

Humor In Storytelling: The story is a tool to get a reaction. You need to know what you want the tool to do.

When people say, “I don’t know what stories we should tell in business.” I’m like, “The customer testimonial, all day long, tell the customer story. It’s critical.”

Let’s talk a little bit about artistic license because I was thinking about comedy. There’s the old story that Groucho Marx as he was dying said, “Dying is easy. It’s comedy that’s hard.” It may or may not be true. Knowing Groucho Marx, the chances are somebody fixed it, cleaned it up, but made it a good line. Do we care if it’s exactly true as long as it’s a good line?

I don’t think we care. I will often say, “I’m not paid to tell the truth. I’m paid to entertain.” I’m going to have a flip side of that. When people will come to me and say, “Make this story better, but you’re not allowed to change one detail of it because I will not change anything. This is exactly the way it happened.” I’m like, “Fine, pick a different story because that one is boring or at least tell me what you’re thinking in your head.” First of all, I can’t tell you where your line is and what’s okay to lie about and what’s not okay to lie about. Some lies to me are not okay. You don’t tell a story about being in the military if you weren’t. You don’t tell a story about having cancer if you didn’t.

The thing about lying is the further you get away from your real truth, the harder time you’re going to have selling it. They say when you lie, stick to the truth as much as possible so that it’s authentic. Even if I get off on a tall tale, I’ll still try to keep to what I do know so that you stay in the realm of believability. You also have to be careful when you lie, you want to get details right. We’re working on a story, the woman’s teenage years. I said, “Put a poster on the wall. Put Van Halen on the wall or whatever to describe your room as a teenager.”

We came back and she said, “I’ve changed that part.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because he wouldn’t have been on the wall that year, the timing was off.” Even though an audience might not pick up on it on a subliminal level, something may feel off. It doesn’t add up. The more you start lying, it’s exaggeration. When I talk about chub rub and my pants rubbing together. I sounded like I was running over kitten tails. Was it technically that loud? If I tell a joke that my husband’s favorite song was this, but I changed it to say it was this. I don’t think at the end of the day, nobody cares.

It’s funny because half my stuff is true and people don’t believe it anyway. They’re like, “That didn’t really happen, did it?” A big question that people want to know is how much I can stretch the truth. One thing I’ll say is you’re telling this story as soon as you told me that it was a Tuesday and it was a Wednesday, you’ve already let the cat out. You’re already probably not remembering this exactly the way it was anyway. I don’t know.

I also think that if you’re going to use stories as a tool, you start with the end. How do you want it to end? If you’re going to use a customer testimonial, you want them to say what you want them to say. One of the things that my trainers taught me right at the beginning when I was starting to talk about business and business training is that you can do a composite. If you’ve got a customer who had said something great at the beginning of the story and someone who says something great at the end of the story, you’re going to change their name anyway so you could combine them. I’ve had speaker clients who go, “That’s not exactly what happened.” I said, “Yes, but you’re going to tell the story. It’s going to make more of an impact if you shape it.”

It's not a funny joke that makes stories funny; it's the truth in them. Click To Tweet

I also feel like if you decide you’re going to tell a customer testimonial, and you’re going to flat out lie, “We helped this customer. He was going through this week.” I can’t explain it, Elizabeth, but we can sniff that out. We can feel when somebody’s laying it on too thick or I don’t know exactly how to put words to it. You want it to be true but yes, you can take some liberties or I don’t know. I’m talking myself into a wall. It’s a slippery slope. A lot of the times people are worried about things in terms of lying that don’t matter. Nobody cares that it was Thursday instead of a Tuesday.

Being authentic is who you are in the message you’re giving and then shaping the message so that it lands for that particular audience. That particular audience will understand because they’ll understand on a basic level what you’re talking about on a basic cultural level. The part I was trying to get to was how much work it is or how you need to practice in order to be funny. You want to practice anyway, but how much practice it takes to create a good story and then tell a good story?

Humor is hard. It’s hard to teach it. It’s hard to learn it. It’s hard to be funny when you’re not, which is why I always tell people don’t bother. Don’t try to be funny, just try be fun. What does fun look like for you? The whole goal of this is not for us to become stand-up comics. Maybe that’s your goal, but the goal is to connect and engage with our audience and create a compelling presentation, to use every skill and talent you have to keep them hooked in to what you’re saying. I read many books on comedy and these formulas. I’d try to do them. It wouldn’t work. To this day, I can’t teach humor or follow the formulas or write a funny line per se. When people call me and say, “Will you punch up my keynote?”

I say, “No, I can’t.” I may see where humor could be and where funny moments exist but I can’t write jokes. Sometimes I’ve gone to people and said, “Punch up my keynote or give me a bunch of jokes.” It doesn’t work. I’m like, “I wouldn’t say that. This doesn’t make sense. I hate this. This isn’t funny. I don’t know how to deliver it in a right way.” First of all, you said story, some ways to add humor for all of us, one is PowerPoint. If you’re using a visual behind you or whatever, PowerPoint is a great way to add funny pictures, cartoons, if they laugh, smile, you get credit. Show them a funny video.

That’s one easy way. Another way is in the stories. A lot of times, it’s not a funny joke that makes my stories funny. It’s the truth in them. It’s you knocking your neighbor and going, “That is true.” Every humor starts with truth. It starts with pain and your frustrations and whatnot. I look at stories. A lot of it are the details. I’ll describe a character and it makes somebody laugh because they can see that person. It’s not that the line itself was amazingly funny.

Another way to be funny is to tell us what you’re thinking within reason and censor yourself. Some of us already have a sarcastic inner voice and to step out of your story. Especially if you’re not going to change a little bit of your story, you can comment on what you said. I call it breaking the fourth wall. When you’re not just performing, you’re now talking to your audience. Sometimes I’ll stop and go, “I love that sweater you’re wearing. That is a pretty color on you. I wonder if I can pull that off.” They laugh because humor is doing something they didn’t expect.

Another time a photographer came up to take my picture, I stopped and I posed. I was like, “Don’t get my butt in it. You need a zoom lens for that.” Everybody laughed. It wasn’t even that funny. Don’t you believe every time a photographer came up to me after that, I would do that again? There are little ways that’s breaking the fourth wall to inject humor in there. Much of my humor comes from my father. He says funny things. Somebody said, “How old is your mom?” Somebody said, “I don’t know, 60.” My dad said, “You know that’s 90 and 1 years.” We all laughed. I went and I wrote it down.

SWGR 549 | Humor In Storytelling

Humor In Storytelling: The further you get away from your real truth, the harder time you’re going to have selling it.


When you hear people saying something funny, bumper stickers, these funny little one-liners that you can throw out that they don’t have to directly relate to what you’re saying. You pop them out. It’s easier said than done. One thing I also do that this helps people reading is I believe at the beginning of every presentation, if you’re a stranger coming in front of a new audience, whether you’re giving a speech or you’re in a sales presentation or a chamber meeting as a vendor standing up for the first time, that you’re trying to create trust and rapport.

Everybody would be well-served to have something little at the front end what I call the about me monologue. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but you come up with a list of weird bullet points. You could even say, “A little bit about me before we get started so we can get acquainted. You need to know I have an addiction to Grey’s Anatomy. I liked McDreamy. I liked McSteamy or whatever. I was a Monopoly champ in fourth grade. I got three kids and not one of them is worth anything.” You could get somebody to help you to do that.

If you had a couple of minutes on the front end of any presentation where you said, “They already heard the bio,” that’s the professional part. You become human to them and one easy way is to talk about where you’re from and come up with some funny things about, “You know you’re from Portland when,” and you can look it up on the internet. Maybe you say, “You grew up on a farm.” Go over the internet and google “ten signs you grew up on a farm,” and use some of them. I’ll tell people I’m from the South. Usually I’ll say, “Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. In case you can’t tell from my accent, I’m from Jersey.” They all laugh because it’s not what they expected. That’s another way to get humor, “I know what you’re thinking. Motivational speaker, I thought she’d be skinnier.”

That gets a huge howl because half of them are not expecting their motivational speaker to be plus sized. I know they’re going to laugh at that. I’ll say, “I’m from the South. You may not be there. Let me tell you a couple of things, you know you’re from the south when,” and then you can say whatever it is, “Where I come from, you can say anything about anybody as long as you started off by saying, ‘You don’t want me to be ugly.’” You throw in a couple of, “I’m just saying,” and you wrap it up with three little words, bless your heart. I may talk a little bit about that. I believe that we’re wherever anybody is from or how you grew up or maybe if you’re from another country, it’s fun to create those fun things when you’re from another country. You’re almost poking fun of where you’ve come from and you’re allowed because it’s yours. Those are some good ways to easily add humor and loosen up your audience right away.

Kelly, this has been so much fun. I know there’s much more people can learn from you and can do from you. Tell us what’s one thing we should think about, for people who are worried and they don’t know how to be funny. You said something about fun before. Can you leave us with one thought of how to deal with humor and how to use it?

I’ll go on a smaller scale rather than a bigger. Humor can be easy. Don’t try to be funny. Don’t try to be somebody you’re not. Take your own personality, your own quirks, whatever you do that makes people laugh and exaggerate it. If you want to connect and engage, the answer is not in changing your personality or trying to do something that doesn’t fit. I believe in coming out of your comfort zone, but for the right reasons. One thing I would say is when you’re focusing on being more fun, focus on being more relaxed and more conversational. I wouldn’t try to strive for funny because I think you’ll land on it. Strive to be conversational, to talk to your audience in the same way you talk to the person beside you in line at breakfast, in the hallway at that same conference. Try to have that same level of banter that you would at the table.

If you are extremely shy, then as you would in regular networking situations, you may have to come up with some ways, some planned things you can say to get the conversation going. This is very much like networking and people who have to come into a room with some canned things they can say. It’s just that on the stage they’re not going to talk back. My quick and easy answer is, and if this goes against what you’re teaching them, you could help them find the middle place, Elizabeth, I believe in writing the way you talk, and then talking the way you talk.

Don't try to be funny or somebody you're not. Take your own personality and whatever you do that makes people laugh, then exaggerate it. Click To Tweet

Speeches are not a performance. They are a conversation between two people. I believe that some of you reading, you already have the personality it takes. You just have to bring that person to your writing and to the stage. You as their coach and consultant can explain to them how to do it because knowing you need to do it, doing it, putting it to paper and delivering it as you know is not something you feel it and you got it and you go off and do it. You have to work at it. If you need a coach, get one. Elizabeth is brilliant. I’m going to give you a plug. Get somebody. I don’t work on my car myself. I’m going to get somebody who has already worked on hundreds of cars. Get somebody else to do it. I don’t feel the need to do things, but I had my theater show punched up. I brought three comedians to look at what I’d already created to see if there were any places for humor.

That’s the other thing. It helps to have somebody else listen, and somebody from the outside. We tend to be too close to our own material. We know the inside. You have to have someone from the outside who can say, “That’s great. I didn’t understand that connection. I imagine it was clear to you, but you do have to spell that part out,” and tell us.

I’d love to say something about that, Elizabeth. You will relate to this. You would have known it way before me. When I did my theater show, I hired a director. I had never hired a director because speakers don’t hire directors. They tend to not be part of the process that we hear. I’ve got a director who sat in an empty room and said, “Show me your show.” I did it like a speaker and stood in one place or moved. He was like, “We’ve got some work to do.” Someone who sat on the side and went, “I don’t understand what you say by that. I don’t understand what that means. Did you mean to come across this way? You look harsh when you say that.”

It was the coolest thing. I was like, “Why did I never get somebody to do this?” In many years as a speaker, I would have been much better. There are things in your story that you don’t understand. Even me as a storyteller, there were things I didn’t realize because I’m close to it and in it. A lot of times it’s simply connecting the dots where you’re like, “How did you get from that room to that city?” You’re like, “This happened. I changed jobs. You need to tell us that because we were confused.” It’s great. I wouldn’t call them directors. You call it a coach. That’s something I wish I had done a long time ago for my speaking career.

The great thing is in a lot of ways, speaker trainers are very much like directors. It’s the same thing. The cool part is you don’t have to figure it out all by yourself. It’s always going to change when you’re in front of an audience. One of the things that I find as a director, for instance, I’m always aware of what the audience might be thinking, but I’m also aware that as I get comfortable with it, I’m going to lose my perspective too. It’s finding someone. After you’ve been working with your trainer or your coach, get somebody who’s got fresh eyes and fresh ears, who can give you an unbiased opinion, someone who’s not already familiar with it.

Not your mama or your partner. You need to get somebody who is fresh and who’s not afraid to tell you what you need to hear. Sometimes we go, “I was terrified. I did not know what that director was going to say. I’m sure he was going to go, ‘You’re awful. I can’t believe anybody ever paid you to speak. This is crap.’” It’s scary because it’s your baby, it’s your words, it’s your story. It never turns out that they rip you to pieces. It’s always stuff that you can easily add. It’s exciting when you see, “You’re right if I add this word,” that’s the biggest thing I bet you would agree. People don’t realize when they’re working on their presentations or they’re working on speeches or whatever, how every word are like notes in music. Every word matters where you put it, where the pauses are. You may not labor over every word like I do, but the words matter. Sometimes you can go, “If you took out that word, but you added this word, it can get a much bigger laugh.”

For example, one of my friends was working on a story where she was riding the tram at the airport. She’s busy and she’s in a hurry. She’s this and she’s that. She’s holding a book. I said, “Do me a favor. First, tell me what book you’re reading.” I’m a big fan of setting a scene. I said, “It doesn’t matter, but tell me what book you’re reading. It will make it a little richer. I went, “Tell them you were reading Shades of Grey. You’re going to get a laugh.” You could tell she was like, “I’ll tell them I’m reading Shades of Grey,” and the line was better. It doesn’t sound as funny here but sure enough, she comes back and she went, “You would not believe. I said I’m on the tram. I got my such and such and my Shades of Grey. They busted out laughing. I can’t believe how one word made such a big difference in the impact on the audience.” I was like, “Imagine if you worked on a lot of the words, what a difference it could make.” That’s what we’re trying to do is impact that audience, whether it’s a standing ovation that gets you or having them line up to buy your book or stay awake.

SWGR 549 | Humor In Storytelling

Humor In Storytelling: One word can make such a big difference in the impact on the audience.


What I find is I talk about polishing your soundbites. We’re getting to speaker geek territory here. If you’re doing conversations and you’re in presentations a lot, you don’t necessarily have to get every single word polished. If you’re doing a keynote speech, yes. In general, you’ll have your taglines, your stories, your short nuggets that you can drop in there. It’s important to get those right. Those are truly polished and that you can understand them. The one that Kelly helped me with, the story she was helping me with, when I tell the story of when I first walked on stage at the age of five and my mom said I was the best damn bunny rabbit to ever grace the stage of the Hillside school and I was hooked.

To be absolutely honest and truthful, the first job I had, I was a frog with a papier-mâché frog hat. I went, “Ribbit, ribbit.” Frog is a word that you speak in the back of your throat and is a word that’s hard to understand. Bunny rabbit has consonants and it fits together. Even rabbit is hard. If you say bunny rabbit, everybody understands. I did play a bunny rabbit when I was six, not when I was five. There is that much of truth in it. It’s polishing it so that people will understand.

I call them tweetable sometimes because they’re the things people tweet from your speech, the phrases they pull out or the bumper sticker. Having those anchors is very important. Even in business, it’s speaker geek talk, but it’s in a presentation in business. It’s that phrase that they can hang on to and repeat, remember and it lands. Have you ever heard somebody speak and then you go back to tell somebody about it, and you can’t repeat any of it? It’s also very helpful that I like stories to have one, but I also like in every module of content to have that power phrase, that one sentence that you get it. A keynote I’m working on right now, I’ll say, “The quickest way out of the dark is to be somebody else’s light.” That’s an example of one. I’ll make sure I say it right. I won’t say, “If you want to get out of your own rut, I’ve always found that the fastest way is to focus and serve somebody up,” see how that gets all that you want them tight and powerful. Less is more.

Kelly Swanson, thank you so much for coming on the show. I’ve been a big fan of yours for many years. I’m so honored to have you join us here.

The feeling is mutual. Thank you. I’d love to come back sometime. Thanks, everybody, for reading. I appreciate it.

I will bring you back in any time. We’ll have to do this again.

This has been Speakers Who Get Results with my wonderful guest, Kelly Swanson, funny motivational speaker. I want to remind you that if you’re interested in honing your presentation skills, take our free assessment. It takes about four minutes at I’ll see you on the next one.


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About Kelly Swanson

Master the art of connection and engagement through the Power of Strategic Storytelling.

We live in a crowded economy, filled with noise and distractions, and it’s getting harder to be heard above it all. The key is not being louder than the noise, but being trusted through the noise. Story is your greatest tool to attract business, establish trust and rapport, close sales, turn customers into fans, create engagement with your team, and motivate people.

In our fast-paced digital world, people crave CONNECTION and ENGAGEMENT more than ever. Words are your greatest asset to form this connection. And STORY is your greatest tool. I teach the core components to crafting stories that connect and engage, no matter what your industry or platform.

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