How to Write a Joke (And Make a Presentation) Like Jerry Seinfeld

You remember Jerry Seinfeld, right? He was the star of that hit TV show back in the 90s and he’s still doing stand up, movies, TV, and commercials from time to time.

Seinfeld recently disclosed his approach to writing a joke, in this case a story about Pop Tarts, in a New York Times video.

Since stand up comedy is really another form of making a speech or giving a presentation, there’s a lot of application here for presenters. Here are a few observations.

Spend time planning. Seinfeld reveals that he’s worked on this joke for about two years. The close-ups of his handwritten notes evidence many revisions and edits. No doubt, since stand up is a performance art, the joke changes from one gig to the next. Seinfeld probably incorporates these iterations into his revisions as well. You may not have two years before your next presentation, but you probably don’t have to deliver it tomorrow. Give your presentation time to simmer–it will be better. And did you notice that he does all of his writing on paper?

Get attention quickly. Seinfeld says he likes “the first line to be funny right away.” Since most of us, by experience, have learned that most presentations are going to be boring, capture your audience’s attention with something unexpected. Like this pastor who drank three beers at the beginning of his sermon.

Include concrete details. Seinfeld paints vivid pictures with his words:

  • “When I was a kid and they invented the Pop Tart, the back of my head blew right off.”
  • “We had orange juice that was frozen years in advance that you had to hack away at with a knife just to get a couple of drops and it felt like you were committing a murder before you got on the school bus.”
  • Eating Shredded Wheat was like “wrapping your lips around a wood chipper. You had breakfast and then you had to take two days off for the scars to heal so you could speak again.”
  • “alien spacecraft”
  • “chimps in the dirt playing with sticks”

Avoid business-speak and jargon in your presentation. Use real words that paint pictures for your audience. Steve Jobs’ presentations, in fact, were notable for their refreshing lack of jargon (but perhaps also for their overuse of superlatives).

Set up a contrast. The joke works because Seinfeld draws an exaggerated contrast between the bleakness of breakfast before the Pop Tart and the awesomeness of life after. Contrast is an essential component in a presentation since it helps make your points memorable. Seinfeld mentions that, in comedy, the “wronger something feels, the righter it is.” That’s contrast.

Finish strong. Seinfeld says, “the biggest laugh has to be at the end.” Many presentations end with… nothing. That’s my last point, thanks for coming. Any questions? When you finish a presentation, you have an opportunity to challenge your audience to do something. Finish with a call to action, an invitation to make a change.

Now that you’ve seen how Jerry Seinfeld wrote the joke, watch the video below to see him deliver it. The Pop Tart joke starts at 1:17 (and notice the transition from the first story into the Pop Tart joke–very smooth). This appearance was recorded two years ago and some of the parts Seinfeld mentions in the NYT video aren’t included–more evidence that the joke has grown and changed over time.

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