Flex Your Funny Bone!

To get the girl, deliver the yuks. Women’s brains show higher activity in reward-related regions when reacting to a joke, according to a recent study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The research supports the idea that women have evolved to appreciate humor and look for a funny guy when choosing a partner.

Having a hard time cracking her up? Don’t bail yet. You can learn to be funny, says comedian Gavin Jerome, who teaches comedy courses at Iowa State University. “People think that using humor is a mystical process—a divine intervention granted by the comedy gods to a handful of people. Nothing can be further from the truth,” he says. “Humor is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it will become.”

Even if you’re not trying to impress the ladies, being funny can help you score points with everyone from your boss to your bartender. It’s a crucial life skill—and here’s how to hone it.

1. Believe You’re Hilarious

While it might seem like a simple concept, believing you have the ability to become funnier is the first step in developing a better sense of humor, says Peter McGraw, Ph.D., director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“If you have a fixed mindset and you tell a joke and it doesn’t land, then you say, ‘I’m not funny,’ ” McGraw says. “But if you have a growth mindset and you tell a joke and it doesn’t land, you say, ‘How can I get better?’ That’s a powerful motivator. It helps you persist in the face of failure. Unfortunately with humor, there’s a lot of failure.”

2. Know Your Audience

Before cracking jokes during a dinner party or a work function, consider the crowd. Jokes that may be funny to one group of people may not translate as well with another. Jerome suggests tailoring the content to your audience by using local references and demographic norms. “Tweak your material and speak the language of your audience,” he says. “Comedy is easier if your audience feels like you’re one of them.”

Jerome also recommends tackling topics that are universally relatable. Jokes about relationships, flying on an airplane, and dealing with traffic are good places to start. But bringing up touchy subjects such as politics, race, or religion could easily offend someone. “It’s better to make humor inclusive—not exclusive,” he says. “The safest topics are broad ones that don’t force people to take a position.”

3. Tweet Your Best Bits

If you’ve written a few one-liners and you’re not sure if they’ll hit the mark, test them out on Twitter. If they land online, there’s a good chance they’ll kill with a crowd. “Twitter is a nice place to experiment because it’s an opt-in situation,” says McGraw. “These are people who chose to follow you. They are an audience that likes you and gets you.”

Your followers are also likely to give you honest feedback, says McGraw. Use it to rework your material and make it better.

4. Prep Your Punchline

Common knowledge says that hinting at your punchline during a joke might ruin the surprise and squash your chance of getting laughs. But a new study in Cognition & Emotion suggests the opposite may be true: Researchers found pre-exposing punchline words up to 15 minutes before the eventual joke led to increased funniness ratings. That means actually spoiling the ending of a joke can produce a bigger reaction under certain circumstances.

5. Don’t Rush It

Many would-be comedians fail because they let their nerves get the best of them, and rush through jokes. But taking your time to find your comedic voice is an essential part of the humor equation. “It’s all about timing,” says Jerome. “So many beginner comedians rush through everything. If they just take their time and set up their punchlines, they’ll be a lot funnier.”

To hone your timing, learn when to pause during jokes. Practice and experiment with the length and placement of pauses until you feel comfortable with the structure, Jerome says. “Comedy isn’t so much about knowing when to speak—it’s knowing when not to speak,” he says.

6. Make Yourself the Target

The easiest way to get laughs is to be self-deprecating, both McGraw and Jerome say. That’s because when you turn yourself into the punchline, you’re unlikely to offend anyone. “Standup comedians use this technique when they start their sets,” says McGraw. “It gives them more license to say what’s wrong with everyone else. If you’re not above being critiqued, you can critique others”

7. Don’t Try Too Hard

If you’re looking to incorporate humor into your personal and professional life, it’s better in small, quick increments when it fits the situation. Conversational humor should feel like it’s coming off the cuff. Trying to force it, Jerome says, is one surefire way to turn people off. “So many people try to do too much too fast,” he says. “An audience will resist humor if they think you’re trying to be funny. Adding just a little bit when it’s relevant is really powerful.”