So many potentially funny or powerful punchlines are undermined by bad delivery. High speed and lack of eye contact are common detractors, as is the irritating tendency to make some sort of moving-on sound (‘er’, ‘arr’, ‘um’) to cover the embarrassment of having said something potentially funny or powerful.
Undermining your punchline ruins the experience for the audience (thus spoiling it for you as well) and it defeats the object of telling the joke or story in the first place. As with so many self-sabotaging habits, it originates as a protective mechanism but ends up causing a much bigger problem than it solves.
To be successful, a punchline needs to stand out from the rest of what you’re saying. It needs to be signposted and it needs space around it.
Part of the process of refining your talk is to identify and hone the punchline to each section or anecdote, so that you can deliver it in a way that allows the audience to appreciate it and take it in. This means pausing before you say it, saying it clearly and with the appropriate energy and style for what it is, and – crucially – pausing even longer after you’ve said it.
Part of the process of rehearsing your talk is to nail the punchlines so that you can deliver them with full confidence, looking at the audience through all three phases (pause, delivery, longer pause).
The Collins dictionary defines a punchline as “the culminating part of a joke, funny story, etc, that gives it its humorous or dramatic point”. It doesn’t have to be funny – it can be designed to elicit some other response than laughter – but it does have to affect the audience in some way. This is what leaves the speaker feeling vulnerable: what if the audience doesn’t react?
Here is where, in the absence of self-awareness and discipline, the defence mechanism kicks in. Instead of giving the audience opportunity to absorb the punchline and respond to it, the nervous speaker gallops through it, immediately looks away and either moves on to the next point or just makes a noise to fill the space where the audience response should have been.
If you’ve said something funny and/or important, have the courage of your convictions and be silent for a second or two. If you don’t give the audience space to react, they won’t, because they won’t want to miss whatever’s coming next. If you ride roughshod over their reactions throughout your talk, you’ll frustrate your listeners, who have no outlet for the feelings you’re stirring up in them. Give them a chance to laugh/gasp/murmur to release the pressure.
Even if what you’re saying isn’t likely to generate particularly strong reactions, if you’re hoping for any sort of response from the audience, do not pull the rug out from under them by looking away and making a noise.
It’s amazing how many seasoned and otherwise competent speakers – and even professional comedians – kill their own punchlines by saying ‘um’ or ‘er’ the instant they’ve delivered it. This is a recognised phenomenon in comedy circles and, while I don’t find the following sketch funny, it does show how widespread this awful habit is.