It’s the Way I Tell ‘Em!

by John Carry

A few years ago I signed up for an online teaching course and midway through it, I was set a question which went something along the lines of ‘What, in your mind, makes a good lesson?’

This got me thinking. I had once seen an interview with Mickey Spillane, the author of the Hammer detective books where he was asked what, in his opinion, made a good novel. His reply was that it should be like a good joke and have a beginning, middle and a punch line.  The same I thought, could be said of a good EFL lesson!  However, the trick is not just to tell a good joke, but to tell a good joke well!  So, just how does one go about telling a joke well?  After some thought and a bit of research, my findings were as follows:

1. Know your audience. 

Telling a political joke to a group of 6 year olds won’t get you many laughs! It’s probably also advisable to be aware of any religious beliefs your audience may have before going down that road. Cultural awareness is also useful if you want to avoid offending your audience. However, a good knowledge of the listener’s interests is handy and will ensure that they already have some knowledge of the subject, which may help towards the desired outcome: if the listener doesn’t understand the topic, they won’t understand the joke (see point 4).

2.  The setting

Jokes always work better if your audience is relaxed or is sitting comfortably and in an environment that is neither too hot nor too cold. Standing at a bus stop in a blizzard would not be a good time for a joke.

3.  Choose the appropriate framework

The framework will largely depend on the material as most jokes have their set format. A ‘knock knock’ joke would be hard to tell as a one liner but a skilled joker might just be able to pull it off. However, your audience will also be a deciding factor. Once you have chosen the subject matter and are sure that the listener is in the right frame of mind, choosing the right framework is the next step.

  • PPPP: Preparation – Participation – Punch line – Personalisation (usually abbreviated to PPP)
    This is probably the most commonly used framework and consists of preparation on the part of the joker and a certain amount of audience participation before the punch line is delivered. The listener is then free to personalise the joke, practice and perfect it.
  • TTT: Test – Tell – Test 
    Probably not as successful as PPP but works with the right material and audience.
    Test: ‘Did you hear the one about the man who bought some tortoise-shell shoes?
    Tell: ‘It took him half an hour to walk out of the shop!’
    Test: ‘Do you get it? Tortoise…!”  half an hour…!
    Often confused, to disastrous effect, with Talk-Talk –Talk (a shaggy dog story would be a good example!)
  • Guided discovery
    This is where the joker sets up the victim (a bucket of water balanced above a slightly open door for example). The victim is then lead towards and through the door, discovering the punch line for himself.

4.  Sourcing your material

There are plenty of jokes already in existence which, by the time they finally reach your ears, would have been edited and fine -tuned to perfection. Anyone new to the noble art would be best advised to start here before attempting to write their own material.

5.  Avoid telling any joke you don’t understand

In order to tell a joke well, a good understanding of what you are talking about is essential. If you don’t get it, then nor will your audience. If the listener doesn’t get it, then you have either gone in unprepared or have lost them somewhere along the way (point 6)! ‘No, I didn’t get it either!’ is not a good way to end the session.

6.  A good introduction 

A skilled joke teller knows how to engage his audience from the start, an introduction with an opening line: ‘Did you hear the one about the man who bought a pair of tortoise shell shoes?’ for example will gain the audience’s immediate attention. He then sets the scene, building up interest and activating the listener’s passive knowledge of the subject. This is the most important phase of the joke as if the listener has little or no knowledge of the topic, the joke will fall flat on its face.

7.  Don’t lose the listener

Our joker will guide his audience along, checking to make sure he hasn’t lost anyone along the way: ‘are you with me so far?’ until finally arriving at the punch line.

8.  Avoid detours

Don’t be tempted to go off on a tangent about your Uncle Fred’s visit to China last autumn and how he got his head stuck in a subway train door, or you may lose your audience’s attention!

9.  Put yourself in the listener’s shoes

Make it as dynamic as possible; you don’t want your audience to fall asleep before you reach the end. Make sure you can be heard, don’t mumble or speak too fast. If they can’t understand what you’re going on about, then don’t expect them to stick around for the punch line.

10. There must be a punch line or strong conclusion

Even if you’re improvising, you must have a clear idea of where you’re heading. There’s nothing worse than a shaggy dog story that rambles along for what must seem like an eternity to the listener only to find that it’s all been a pointless waste of your valuable time. If you have laid the groundwork correctly, the delivery will be a success and the listener, after picking themselves up off the floor and regaining their composure, will go off to tell someone else, albeit it their own style and in their own words.

So, the next time your DOS takes you to one side and quietly tells you that your lessons are a joke, shake her by the hand and thank her for the compliment.  After all, the art of telling a joke is, well, an art! It requires a skill that only the fortunate are blessed with – you either have it or you don’t.

Author’s Bio: John has been teaching at IH Madrid for seven years, and is currently the Director of Studies for the business department. He has wide-ranging experience of different course and group types and has worked with companies such as el Fondo de Garantía de Depósitos de Entidades de Crédito, BMW and Instituto de Empresa. Prior to working in ELT, John completed an apprenticeship as an Engineer before graduating in Product Design from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, London. He worked for a number of engineering companies before moving to Madrid in 2000.