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A tax man and a politician are both drowning... Using Humour to Convert

A tax man and a politician are both drowning.

You can only save one of them.

Do you go to lunch or read the paper?

Being funny, making friends, licking your elbow… all hard to do. But the good news, particularly if your funny bone popped out at birth, is that there are some key principles – a formula if you will – that you can follow to “be funny”.

They are all based on 4 principles:

* Getting the attention of the audience
* Building tension with them
* Misdirecting them
* Hitting them with surprise

So let’s take each one, somewhat unsurprisingly, in the order I’ve just listed.

Getting their Attention

Without their attention you cannot make be laugh.

Seems a bit obvious, but there you have it. Attention must be sought, it won’t just happen.

So first principle is get their attention.

Stand up comedians will constantly be taking their audience’ attention. They won’t speak when they can’t be heard. And you must do the same.

In a big old world of people trying to grab people’s attention, you must grab it.

And when you’ve got it – keep it.

So a funny headline with a dry page of copy just won’t cut it. You need to keep the rhythum.

Building Tension

Where tension exists – humour exists. Comedians are probably the last people in the world who can openly talk about racism, sexism and so on.

And people will (mostly) still laugh, when in a normal conversion they wouldn’t dream of it!

Being bold and skirting on topics that raise tension will allow you grab attention and keep it.

And then having raised the tension, you can break it.

Jon Buchan (a comic writer who inspires me) gives a great example of tension building and then breaking it.

“I’ll be honest, you’ve never heard of me. I got your email off a list.”

This gets attention and raises tension, which you then need to break.

“But at least you’re list worthy!”

It breaks tension and addresses the elephant in the room.

Go for issues and topics that perhaps are avoided. These are all targets for tension – call them out.

Misdirecting them

A classic set of joke formulas can be covered as misdirection. You lead the reader down a path, and BAM!

You shoot off at a tangent, to where they weren’t expecting.

The joke at the start of this topic is a great example of this.

Surprising them

You’ve got their attention. You’ve built tension. You’ve misdirected them. Now surprise them.

Surprise must be, well (and this may shock you), a surprise! “Tell me a joke” is a dreadful thing to ask someone, because you know that a punchline is coming.

You need setup, commentary and then… surprise.

Formulas for Humour

So with these principles in mind, are there techniques to writing humour? Well, indeed there are!

As you’d hope in a topic about writing humour. It would be one short, sharp topic otherwise.

And to get your new career as a comic writer started, we’re going to focus on some key techniques that comic writers employ to raise a laugh. Many even succeed.

Comic Triples

Trying to write humour can cause sleepless nights and hours of frustration.

Membership of Alcoholics Anonymous is recommended.

The comic triples are based on three steps:

1. Setup (the preparation)
2. Anticipation (the triple, for example)
3. Punchline (the payoff)

For the triple, step 2, they can be constructed in several ways.

But why triples?

Well, for whatever reason, humans like three things. Three little pigs. Three blind mice. Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Photographers use the rule of thirds. As do artists.

Go figure…

The Rule of Three (or Triple Structure)

* Introduce the premise. And then…
* Normal
* Normal
* Surprise

Two fundementally basic statements followed by a third, disrupting statement that comes as a surprise.

An alternative is two ridiculous statements followed by a sensible one – either way the third is a surprise.

A classic example is from The Dick Van Dyke Show.

“Can I get you anything?

Cup of coffee? Doughnut? Toupee?”

Or something closer to home perhaps:

“I had everything a copywriter could want.

Laptop. Time. And an impressive alcohol problem.”

You can see how you can take any topic and create a triple from it with the introduction, normal/normal/surprise format.

If you are unsure what to create a joke from, use the industry or niche of your audience. People are very likely to find these funny.

Or if even that is not possible, joke at yourself.

Avoid making jokes of your actual audience, just their industry. And then the boundaries are limitless.

Let’s take the resturant industry. It’s not award winning, but would this raise a smile on a menu or from a waiter?

“Our fresh fish today is halibut, salmon, or canned tuna”.

Again, we have our introduction that sets up the scene (Our fresh fish today is) followed by normal (halibut), normal (salmon) and then surprise (canned tuna).

An alternative would be to use a silly fish, but do you find the above, or the following funnier?

“Our fresh fish today is halibut, salmon and goldfish”.

Canned tuna is more extreme, and hence more of an obvious surprise. Goldfish, whilst funny, needs the recipient of the joke to work whether the line is serious or not. Canned tuna, is enough of a disruptor to do the job.


Take a situation and turn it on it’s head. This plays big on the surprise element, and one of my favourites.

“I woke up in the hotel and the housekeeper was banging on the door, just banging…finally, I had to get up and let her out!”

“I went to my girlfriend’s house to beg her to take me back. I was banging on the door, yelling, “Stacy! Stacy!—which is weird, ‘cuz her name is Emily.”

And from the classic Airplane! movie (which, if you want to learn about Reverses, is a masterclass):

“Surely you can’t be serious.
I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.”


Perhaps the most widely used comic technique in the book. The concept is taking two topics that are not linked, and bringing them together.

An English bishop received the following note from the vicar of a village in his diocese: ‘‘Milord, I regret to inform you of my wife’s death. Can you possibly send me a substitute for the weekend?’’

The technique is also often used to humanise something that is not human.

“I don’t think horses know they are racing. I think the horses are standing there thinking. “I know there’s a bag of oats at the end of this trail and I want to get there first.”

Simple Truth

Sometimes there is nothing as funny as saying it how it is!

“I remember the first time I had sex. It’s right there on my credit card statement.”

And from the legendary Steven Wright:

“This morning, my girlfriend asked me if I slept good. I said, “No, I made a few mistakes.”

“My father was a bastard! He wasn’t a bad guy, he just didn’t know his Dad.”

Paired Phrases

By using the rhythms of antonyms, homonyms and synonyms, paired phrases introduce humour, often in conjunction with paradoxes.

“The L.A. Times recently said that you could buy
happiness for seventy-five thousand a year. I’ll take mildly pissed off for thirty-five.”

“Thank God I’m an atheist.”

And a favourite given to us by Microsoft…

“Click the ‘Start’ button to shut down the computer.”


Stand-up comedians thrive on pointing out to us ridiculous truths from the real world.

It works because we recognise it, as soon as it’s pointed out.

“Instructions for plugging in a USB stick: Attempt to plug in. Turn over, attempt to plug in again… turn over, attempt to plug in again.”

“Do you ever blow your nose and it is so successful, you just want to do it again?”

“…and why do we always look at the handkerchief after we blow our nose?”

“You ever see that commercial for Cialis? It says, “If you experience an erection that lasts more than four hours, call your doctor. Hey, if I experience an erection that lasts more than four hours, I’m calling everyone!”

And take it from the top comedians, behavioural observation can be hysterical.

“You know you’re in for a long night when your girlfriend says to you, “Can I tell you something and you promise not to get mad?”


With the right setup, these are perfect for surprises.

“I just broke up with my girlfriend. We had to, we were just not compatible. You see, I am a Capricorn and she was a… bitch.”

“I went to the doctors the other day and I said, ‘Have you got anything for wind?’ So he gave me a kite.”

“I’m in great mood tonight because the other day I entered a competition and I won a years supply of Marmite… one jar.”

With great power, comes…

Okay, you have the formulas. You’ve written what is, in your view, the most hysterical piece of copy ever created. And then nothing.

So more than ever, I urge you to test your humour with a sample of your target audience. And be sure it’s your target audience, not your friends and family. Not a warm audience in other words.

Be sure to get the correct answers to the following:

1) Does your target audience find it funny? [Yes]
2) Will your target audience be insulted? [No]
3) If not found funny, is your brand damaged? [No]

And please, please try it out. If you get humour right your conversion rate will rocket. Whether web pages, landing pages, cold emails or presentations.

It will truly make you stand out. Most people are scared of humour.

With a fair wind, a bucket of courage and some stolen jokes… you will be remembered.

Which is what it’s all about!

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