Adding Humor to Stories That Sting

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Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, author, and comedian who teaches you how to harness the power of your story to connect, engage, and get results. In this blog, Kelly focuses on the business of professional speaking. Kelly’s post day is Friday. If you aren't sure how to comment on this story, click here.

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This story isn’t funny – so how do I add humor?

Speakers often ask me how to add humor to a sensitive subject. Good question.  Even though your topic is serious, doesn’t mean you can’t add humor. In fact, your audience needs humor. As it happens, I’ve been working on a story that gives a good example of how I add humor to story that isn’t so funny to me.

The Pig…by Kelly Swanson

I’m in an airport the other day, standing in yet another line, waiting to board another plane in another city I can’t remember…surrounded by a sea of yoga pants and bored expressions lit up by cell phone screens…all waiting for our number to be called – in the airport terminal….where good moods go to die, chatty neighbors are frowned upon, and weary flight attendants think about what could have been.

And something made me look up. Gut instinct. Divine providence. Hot guy in the vicinity. Yes, I’m married – but some days I like to window shop. And there he was. Right there. Two feet away. I could have touched him. And despite the fact that it had been 28 years, six cars, four jobs, three apartments, two houses, thirty pounds, a muffin top, a second chin, two boyfriends and a husband later….I recognized him as if It were yesterday.

The guy who gave me my first kiss.

And a million emotions washed over me – and in that instant I was 18 again. A freshman in college. Not the person you see before you today – but a shy girl with a bad haircut, way too much eyeshadow, coke bottle glasses, and thighs that could not handle corduroy for fear of the friction causing sparks. The Pink Zebra. Let me explain. I was tucking my son into bed the other night when he says, “Mom! Why do zebras have stripes?” I said, “So they don’t blend into the pack. If the zebra sticks out, the predator will find him and eat him. You don’t want to be the pink zebra – or he’ll come after you. And eat you.” I knew. Because I was the pink zebra – and they ate me alive. My whole life I had been trying to paint over the pink so I could black and white like the others.

I was frozen in that airport. He was still just as hot, and I was still just as awkward as I was back then. Yes, that’s late for my first kiss. I told you what a geek I was. I had never been to a party, only drank once, and that was an accident, and I was the only freshman who wore panty hose to class. So yes it was late for my first kiss. And had it not been for Budweiser, it probably would have been even later.

I saw this guy as soon as he came into the frat party. I was pretty sure I heard a choir of angels. The crowd just magically parted as he walked through and I could only stare – truly understanding now why stalkers do what they do. Tall. Perfect hair. White teeth. Faded jeans that fit in all the right places. The kind of guy who inspires paintings. The kind of guy who doesn’t even see girls like me. But when he walked by, he paused, looked at me, and SMILED. I probably reminded him of his pet ferret. That one moment, and he now held my heart in his hand.

I didn’t mean to stare at him so much he finally asked if he knew me. I didn’t mean to trip over his feet on my way to the bathroom. And I didn’t mean to pull out my notebook and start writing a song about him. But two hours later, when we found ourselves sitting beside each other on the faded lumpy couch underneath the Grateful Dead poster and blinking Budweiser light and he leaned over and kissed me right before he passed out with his head on my lap – well, when I swore I would never leave his side – I meant that.

Thank goodness we were in the middle of a party and had witnesses – or I wouldn’t have believed my luck. I would have sat there forever on that lumpy couch cradling my new love if my friends hadn’t come to get me. “You’re being creepy,” they said. “Put his wallet back!” I left a stickie note on his face with my phone number and name. He didn’t even know my name! He was so struck with the same magic I was, that he forgot to ask. By now, I knew his name, his address, what kind of car he drove, his shoe size, and what his grandmother gave him for Christmas two years ago.

The next 48 hours were the longest hours of my life as I waited for him to call. What if I wrote the numbers wrong? What if he lost the stickie note? What if a wayward semi struck the phone lines on my street and the phone is not working? We didn’t have cell phones back then so I spent 48 hours by my phone. I didn’t move. I didn’t bathe. I didn’t eat. I hired friends to guard the phone when I went to the bathroom. I didn’t walk away…just in case he called.

Then I realized it. He’s not going to call right away. He’s playing it cool. Nobody calls that quickly. That would seem desperate. He’s going to wait and just see me in the cafeteria on Monday. Which is why I camped out at that cafeteria on Monday. I got there at 10am – just to be sure I caught every single person who came in to eat lunch that day. There was only one place to eat on campus (I know, it’s hard to imagine) so I knew he HAD to come in. I chose a table not too far from his frat table – and made sure my back was to the table. I didn’t want to appear desperate.

I had spent three hours doing my eyeshadow alone. My glasses were so clean they sparkled. My panty hose color – smokey passion mist. I had scheduled my friends to eat in intervals so I would never be seen alone. Need to play it cool.

At 12:14 he walked in. I knew because I felt him walk in. Because the energy in the room shifted. Because the crowds parted. And because my friend said, “He’s here.”   Don’t turn around. Let him come to you. Thank goodness for Cosmo. I breathed slowly. In and out and sang our song. Tonight it’s very clear as we’re both standing here There’s so many things I wanna say I will always love you I would never leave you alone

I am a man who would fight for your honor

I’ll be the hero that you’re dreaming of

Gonna live forever – knowing together – that we did it all for the glory of love
“He’s coming over,” my friend whispered. “Act natural.” Act natural? As if. Natural never got me anywhere. I was going to act sexy. I was going to act witty. I was going to….He’s coming……………………..He’s going.


He didn’t stop. Maybe he didn’t see me. What’s he carrying above his head? Is that a pig? A big plastic pig? What’s up with that?


It got really quiet at our table until somebody finally whispered, “The guy who carries the pig is the guy who hooked up with the ugliest girl. He’s got to carry it around all day.”


Suddenly I wasn’t hungry anymore. Needless to say, he never called.


It’s funny how we care so much what others say about us – think about us. How we let THEIR beliefs become our own – how we let them enter our heads – how we let them write our story. Because that day – I let him write my story.


A day later and everybody forgot about him carrying the pig. Everybody but me. You see he carried the pig for one day – I carried it a lot longer. I let it become part of my story. The story that said I wasn’t pretty enough. And when my teacher told me my paper wasn’t that great – I carried that around too – the pig got heavier. And when I didn’t get that job I really wanted after college – the pig got heavier. It was like everybody got to write a line of my story – until there was no room for me to write anything. I carried that pig around for a long time.


And when that guy broke up with me – my first REAL love – after college – and I really knew what a broken heart felt like. Well. I remember camping out in my room for days –– wearing the same bathrobe – surrounded by empty Boones Farm bottles and a smog of cigarette smoke – while my roommates opened the door every once in a while and threw food in – and I’m wailing and crying like my world was over – we did it all for the glory of love. The pig had won.


I found this book lying on my dresser. I can’t remember who bought it for me. It had been sitting there collecting dust for who knows how long. And something made me pick up. And start to read. And through my tears, I read the words that changed my life. The simple words that until now I had never heard before. Your life is 10 percent what happens to you – 90 percent how you choose to react to it. What? I can’t choose what that guy did. But I get to choose how I let him make me feel? What? And in that moment I realized – that I couldn’t change what he did – but I got to decide whether I was going to let it bring me to my knees in despair. Any tears I shed from here on out, were MY choice. I got to decide how I was going to feel. Not him.


I had come to that place – standing on that cliff – where I realized I had a choice – I could let them write it – or I could write it. That there’s no room for both. That I got to choose who was going to write this fairy tale. Me or them. And as long as I let them write these things, then that was going to be my life. They were in control.


And that was the day I chose to put down the pig. Forever.


Here’s the deal. Life is always going to bring you pigs.

  • People who think you’re not pretty enough.
  • Not smart enough.
  • Not the best one on the team.
  • People who think your ideas are stupid.
  • People who entice you to go down the wrong road.
  • People who encourage you to blend in – to be like them
  • People who delay your dreams and shoot down your ideas


There will always be someone carrying the pig – and in the moment it will hurt. And you can’t always control that moment. But you control the next one. Don’t pick up the pig. Don’t let them take residence in your head. Let them walk on by. Let them carry that pig. It’s not your burden – it’s theirs.

People hear this story and they want justice. They want the guy to get what he had coming to him. Please. He doesn’t even remember me. At all. He doesn’t even remember carrying that pig. People want this story to have a happy ending. And it does. But the happy ending doesn’t come when I get payback. It doesn’t come with me keying his Camaro or shaving his head in his sleep. It doesn’t come in finding out his wife has a double chin and a beard.  No!The happy ending comes with ME. That’s the only way I can guarantee a happy ending. The happy ending comes when I put down the pig – or refuse to ever pick it up at all.

My happy ending was when I stood there in that airport terminal and smiled at him. And he smiled back. And I didn’t care what he thought. Because he wasn’t part of my story.

I was laughed at my whole life – for the way I looked – the way I dressed – for my ideas and my dreams. I never fit anywhere. I was the pink zebra. I was different. I didn’t fit the world’s definition of beauty, intelligence, success. I still don’t. But guess who’s laughing now. All the way to the bank. All the way to my dreams. Turns out that being pink isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, it’s everything.

So go out there. And be pink.

Play the game. Learn the rules. And then break them. And to all you pink zebras out there – be very very careful – to guard your heart – protect your vision – cherish your character – and keep ownership of your story. Because it will be hard – when you’re surrounded by zebras who can’t see what you see. Be very careful, that you don’t turn to the black and white zebras for advice on how to be pink. They can’t tell you. Because they don’t know. They aren’t pink.It doesn’t matter to me what the world thinks. Because I’m not here to please the world. I was created to be much bigger than that. I was put here to do something great. And so were you.

In every situation you will write a story about yourself. That story will dictate your beliefs, your attitudes, your decisions, your action steps, and your destiny. The story you write will become the story you live out.

Change your story. Change your life.

I’m Kelly Swanson. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.