20 Tips to be Witty

Here’s how to sharpen your wit and be quicker in your conversations. What we’ll go through:

  1. Becoming a quick thinker
  2. Knowing what to say to be witty
  3. Avoiding the pitfalls of using wit

For tips on how to be funnier overall, I’d recommend my guide on how to be funny in a conversation.

Part 1. Becoming a quick thinker

Part of wit is timing – to quickly come up with things to say. Luckily, you can practice becoming a quicker thinker.

1. Do this naming exercise to become a quicker thinker

Wit is often about associating in an unexpected way. If your friend has started lifting weights and looks like he’s added a pound or two, a witty remark could be “I see that the steroids are paying off”. It’s witty because it’s an unexpected association. Here’s how you can practice this ability.

Step 1. Name objects around you as quickly as you can

Look around the room and see how fast you can name objects. Lamp, plant, window, chair, etc. This exercise helps you practice finding the right words faster. Charismatic people average under one second per object.[1] It’s surprisingly hard!

Step 2. Make unexpected associations

Instead of naming the objects with their correct words, come up with associations. This trains your brain to make unexpected connections. It’s not about being funny, nor about memorizing words. It’s about speeding up your ability to associate.

Lamp -> Searchlight
Plant -> Jungle
Chair -> Butt parking
Etc.

Being quick at associating helps you make quick, witty remarks in real life. If your friend bought two plants for her apartment, you might make an unexpected association and joke “I feel like I’m inside a jungle”.

Step 3. Repeat the exercise daily

Naming and associating objects daily for 2-4 weeks can help you become both quicker at associating and talking.

2. Practice your witty response afterward

Think back to a situation where you weren’t witty but wanted to be. Now that you have time to think, what would have been the perfect response to give? When you come up with a good response, what components did it have? What can you learn from analyzing it?

It’s not about memorizing witty responses, but working up your skill to more quickly come up with future ones.

3. Take improv theatre classes

Improv theatre is about improvising instant reactions. I took improv classes for a year and it helped me become a quicker thinker. I thought I would only meet extroverted people there who were already quick thinkers, but the truth turned out to be that most people go there because they want to learn to loosen up.

Part 2. Knowing what to say to be witty

1. Watch TV-shows

TV-shows, especially sitcoms, are full of wit and fast remarks. Watch some, and pay attention specifically to wit in conversations. Don’t try to remember the actual lines. Rather, try to understand the underlying principles and how you can apply them. Below are some of these principles.

2. Make unexpected associations

The exercise in the previous chapter helped you make unexpected associations faster. These can be used in different types of wit. When I asked my friend “Do you want food?” and he responded “No thanks, I’m trying to quit”, it’s an unexpected association. He found a connection between asking if he wants food and asking if he wants something like alcohol or cigarettes.

3. Use obvious misunderstandings

When your friend at dinner asks if you can hand him the butter and you hand him the flower vase next to it, it’s funny because it’s an obvious misunderstanding. If there’s a way to very clearly misunderstand a situation, it makes for wit.

4: Remark on the obvious

Seeing the obvious in a situation and pointing it out can be funny. In a quiet elevator stage-whispering “it’s so quiet” is funny because it’s a remark about the obvious.

5. Use irony

When my friend and I ended up next to a busy motorway, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath and said: “I can feel the calmness”. It was funny because he associated the situation to its opposite.

6. Connect similar words of different meaning (puns)

Words that sound similar but have a different meaning are funny. An example is when you’re cooking and referring to oregano as origami. It’s witty, yes, but not overly funny. These are called dad-jokes and can quickly get old. Use this type of wit with moderation.

7. Focus on the conversation rather than what to say

Witty people act on instinct rather than by thinking “What’s something witty I can say?”. When we get nervous we tend to end up in our heads. Rather, focus your attention on what happens around you: The group, your surroundings, the conversation you’re having. Use the things that are happening right in that moment as inspiration for your wit.

8. Be brief

Wit is most effective when few words are used. When we played games at a friend’s party we got divided into three competing groups. My group got the last place. I said “at least we got third place” and people laughed. Saying “My group got third place so I think that’s good” would have been less effective.

9. Have an easy-going tone

When using wit, especially when it’s unclear if you’re joking or not, use an easy-going tone. I sometimes make the mistake to dead-pan which makes people uncomfortable. If you’re making jokes involving others, it’s even more important to show with tone and facial expression that you shouldn’t be taken seriously.

10. Be self-deprecating with things that don’t matter to you

Being able to joke on your own behalf is a good trait, and you don’t risk stepping on anyone else’s toes when doing so.[3] However, joke only on your behalf about things that don’t matter to you. If you’re terrible at soccer but agree to join your friends game for fun, you can joke about your inability to catch the ball. However, avoid joking about things that matter, like being worthless or a bad person. If you do, that can signal a bad self-image.

11. Say what you think is funny rather than what you hope can get others to laugh

Don’t think “I wonder if they’ll laugh about this”. Say what you think is funny. Being witty in an attempt to be rewarded with laughs can end up being needy. Rather say things because you think they are hilarious and that you want to share them with the group.

12. Pay attention to how people around you are witty

If you know someone who’s good at wit, pay attention to how they do it. See if you can find patterns of wit I’ve explained in this article. Pay attention to when they joke, what tone they use, what they joke about, and what they don’t joke about.

Part 3. Avoiding the pitfalls of using wit

1. Know that trying to be witty can be too much

Use wit if you want to match the jargon of a friend group by being able to “shoot the shit” and do quick remarks. However, trying to be more witty all the time can come off as try-hard.

An attractive film character like James Bond is seldom witty while someone that gets on people’s nerves, like Deadpool, is witty all the time.

2. Being a quick thinker makes you more charismatic, but not more likable

An interesting study shows that people who can name objects faster are also seen as more charismatic.[1] However, they aren’t seen as more likable. It’s easy to use wit the wrong way and step on people’s toes. It’s safer to joke about situations rather than people.

3. Avoid trying to be witty by memorizing lines

Wit is a quick, spontaneous reaction to a specific situation and can’t be canned. In this guide, I’ll talk about how to train your wit rather than learning funny lines.

4. Avoid wit all together before you know the people around you

Save wit for people you know well and who knows you. If you say the wrong thing or step on someone’s toes, they will have more oversight if they know you. Some people just don’t appreciate wit. You need to get to know them to know what they like or don’t like.[2]

5. Make sure your jokes aren’t made on someone else’s expense

It’s easy to make a joke about someone, get rewarded with laughs, and then feel tempted to make more jokes about that person. That can quickly get old for that person. Just because everyone laughs doesn’t mean that you should make certain jokes. Don’t make several jokes at the expense of another person. It’s much safer to joke about situations rather than people.

References

  1. von Hippel, W., Ronay, R., Baker, E., Kjelsaas, K., & Murphy, S. C. (2016). Quick thinkers are smooth talkers: Mental speed facilitates charisma. Psychological science, 27(1), 119-122.
  2. Merolla, A. J. (2006). Decoding ability and humor production. Communication Quarterly, 54(2), 175-189.
  3. Gkorezis, P., & Bellou, V. (2016). The relationship between leader self-deprecating humor and perceived effectiveness: Trust in leader as a mediator. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 37(7), 882-898.

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