Humour in Storytelling

Humour is one example of emotion in storytelling; it has many uses.  Here is the beginning of a traditional story I’m working on.  It’s a sad story and I’m telling it next month, if I can control my emotions!

The Story of a Sparrow

Daniel has second sight.  This is rare.  Young children often make friends with Folk.  Adults rarely hold on to the sight.  Only his grandmother held it and what happened to her?  And then of course, cats always have the sight!

Who are Folk?  They have different names around the world.  They occupy the same time and space as we do but have their own concerns.  They fear us but have no need to hide since we cannot see or hear them.  They fear Daniel but at the same time they’re intrigued.  And so they appear monstrous and deranged (in self-defence) or graceful and delightful (if they want something).  They’re rarely malicious; that’s our way.

The hardest part for Daniel is making friends with people.  It is hard to concentrate in a conversation, with some creature gurning over their shoulder.  Imagine Daniel’s delight when a couple of school mates invited him to join them on a bike ride to Ladybower.  It was a long hot summer and the boys had heard water levels were way down, exposing the drowned village of Derwent.

They stood peering over the wall into the depths.  The smell was a bit rank but OK and then Daniel saw a figure, dancing down by the ruins of an old cottage.  Just for a moment and then it was gone.  They all felt the cold wind and Daniel fainted.

His friends brought him round and accompanied him home.  He assured them it was the heat and the cold, the shock had unsettled him.  He was worried but not for his health.  What had happened?  He laid on his bed.  His cat walked through the door and hissed.

This was odd.  The cat could see Folk and was usually easy with them, although disdainful.  “What is it?”, he asked.  The cat spat at him.  Daniel looked around, there were no spirits in the room.  Unless …   He opened his grandmother’s chest and hunted for her mirror.

Emotional Control

Humour is possible in any kind of story, even tragedy.  Just as comedy does not have to be funny, tragedy does not have to be entirely serious.  Consider therefore the purpose of using humour in storytelling.  

At the beginning of my story, I use a little humour, to help my audience accept the absurd premise of Folk.  Humour is one way to do that.  It is gentle humour in keeping with the atmosphere of the story. It will be a performance story and so I’ll be able to convey humour through voice and gesture too. We all know cats see more than we do.  Humour cuts through the sadness and helps the audience appreciate the story – once I’ve worked out how to do it! 

Humour’s an excellent way to communicate emotionally, where your story is deeply moving or traumatic.  When you tell a moving story, it is important, as you move into challenging parts of the story, you show emotion.  If you seem to the audience to be too preoccupied with the story and not enough with the emotional response of the audience, it won’t work. 

Always consider the emotion your audience feels.  If you lose control, you embarrass your audience.  Even though you don’t lose control, if the audience thinks you have, it can be just as embarrassing for them.

Use humour at the beginning to reassure the audience.  They may not know the story but as it progresses, the fact that you used humour at the start reassures.

When to Use Humour 

It depends when or if you use humour.  Humour takes many forms.  A serious story might use humour but you would not expect to roll in the aisles. 

For some stories, humour all the way through may be appropriate.  But generally, for business, I would not encourage this.  You’re demonstrating a problem and how to solve it.  Usually, humour all the way through undermines your message. 

The beginning of the story is perhaps best place for humour.  This is where you build relationship and trust with your audience.  Laughter or at least a gentle smile, can go a long way.  Show the audience they’re in safe hands.  If they trust you, they willingly experience anything with you. 

Humour works part way through.  The audience does not know the end of the story, so use humour to point them away from the eventual outcome.  This builds tension where the audience doesn’t expect the big negative at the heart of your story. 

Don’t End with Humour

This is good advice ,even for comic stories.  Where stories are conceived as comic, perhaps ending on a big joke is OK.  But if you tell a story from life, using it in a business context, humour at the end undermines your message.

It is particularly bad, in a serious story.  Describe some traumatic story, then end with a merry quip?  Not a good idea.  Even if the end is happy, honour the story that has gone before.  Aim for a response of hope or affirmation, not a belly laugh.

I heard a story about someone diagnosed with a genetic disorder.  He has a future of gradual decline, he’d already seen in his parents.  His story begins with a hilarious account of the tests he experienced to get the diagnosis.  He was genuinely expecting an all clear and so the story pivots on the letter with the test results.  After that humour would be out of place.  He found an affirmative note by describing the daughter they conceived as a result of the diagnosis and how he looks forward to seeing her grow into an adult.

His emotional journey is almost slapstick humour, the tests were on his sperm.  Then the shock of the diagnosis.  Then the affirmation of the birth of the child.  A joke at the end would undermine the story.


What happens if your humour turns out not to be funny?  This is something many find worrisome.  Is it better to avoid humour if you don’t have a talent for it?

You don’t know for certain until you try it with your audience.  You may find carefully crafted humour results in stunned looks.  Or you say something in a certain way and everyone laughs.  The best advice is don’t laugh at your own jokes and don’t pause in anticipation of laughter.  You may have to pause for a very loud laugh.  But don’t milk it.  Some audiences smile inwardly, appreciate the humour and don’t express it dramatically.  You don’t need to signal an intended joke.  You wouldn’t expect everyone to burst into tears at a sad point in the story, so why expect gales of laughter?  Silence does not imply humour is not appreciated.

Different people have different tastes.  I prepare my tea listening to Radio 4 at 6.30pm.  Sometimes, programmes at this time are laugh out loud funny, sometimes I follow intently, appreciating the wit but don’t laugh aloud and sometimes I wonder why the programme was commissioned. 

Presumably someone in the BBC appreciates all these programmes.  That I personally find some of them incomprehensible, does not mean there aren’t others who appreciate them.  The same applies to your stories. 

Even if you deliver the story to a live audience, you cannot be certain how much it is appreciated because audiences don’t always respond with obvious emotions.  The big advantage to going live is, if you see your audience, you pick up cues.

But lots of storytelling is not live.  Written and recorded stories invite feedback through comments but you rarely have any idea how your audience responds.  If you deliver the story live, it may give you some idea about how it goes down with an audience.  Then you can prepare a recorded version, although this is not always practical.

Humour is one way to capture and hold attention.  Next time, I’ll explore other ways to build suspense.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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