Three Reasons to Learn a Formula

At a humor workshop I attended recently, Judy Carter taught us a formula for creating a joke around something mean that someone said to us.

The steps were: 1. Remember exactly what words were used, plus the tone and body language, so you can act it out. 2. Backtrack: what negative personality trait does this comment reveal? (Critical? Controlling? Depressed?) 3. What would be the most unsuitable, most ridiculous profession for someone with that trait?

Using these elements, she gave us a formula for delivering a very funny joke. How do I know the formula worked? We tried it, and everyone who followed the formula got a laugh. The people who didn’t flopped. Even I, renowned for my inability to deliver a punchline, was able to get laughs by following the formula.

So, here’s the surprising part: how few people tried the formula! I was the only person at my table of nine who followed the steps. Everyone else just tried to make up his own funny line. Puzzled, I asked why? The answer: “We don’t do formulas.”

Why not? Formulas contain the condensed wisdom of experts. They provide a roadmap that avoids three problems:

  • Bogging down: Novices get mired in unnecessary details. Judy’s formula ensured that the setup was short and sweet. Nothing kills a joke faster than an  setup that drags on.
  • Getting the order wrong: Necessary information has to go first. The punch line has to be last! If you deliver infomration out of order, you kill the joke.
  • Not knowing to stop: It’s harder than you think to shut your mouth and let the audience laugh.

This is not just for comedy. The formulas I teach in Thinking Tactics provide the same benefits as Judy’s. Consider the basic formula for dealing with confusion:

  1. Gather Data (what do I know? what do I need to know? what else is relevant?
  2. Challenge First Thoughts
  3. Sum Up

This formula stops you from bogging down: Rather than focusing on what you’re confused about, you go straight to getting clear on what you think you know. Much easier.

This formula stops you from getting the order wrong: It makes you gather data first, before you criticize. This stops you from criticizing your ideas prematurely, which can shut off important information.

This formula helps you know to stop: In class, I teach you that all you need to clear confusion is a good next step, which you get by summing up. You don’t need to answer every question. Knowing this helps you move on rather than go in circles trying to answer the unanswerable.

So, next time some expert offers you a formula he or she has worked out, give it a test drive. See how it works. After you’ve had some success, you can better understand why it works–and then adapt it to your particular style.