Unless you’re delivering a speech in a comedy club, your speech probably has a serious purpose, whether the context is professional, civic or social.
If you’re speaking in a business setting, that’s especially true. Business, after all, is serious business. Should you use humor in a speech?
The bigger the business, the more serious it is. People’s livelihoods are at stake. Profits, not to mention losses, are no laughing matter. Corporate empires are nothing to joke about. Success and failure hang in the balance.
But excluding humor from speechmaking is a mistake, and it doesn’t matter if the speech is delivering good news or bad, whether it’s a few remarks at the summer picnic or at the annual meeting of officers and directors or whether the audience is a group of new interns or a gathering of industry veterans.
An injection of humor has a purpose – even more than one purpose – and they can be serious purposes at that. What are some of the uses of humor to improve a speech?
Humor is a bridge to connect with your audience. There’s a reason why we’re said to share a joke with our friends or to share a laugh. Humor connects people, and it’s particularly effective in a situation in which there’s a built-in divide such as the divide between speaker and audience.
When you share a laugh, a chuckle or even a smile with your audience, you connect with that audience on a level that’s intrinsically human.
Humor puts the audience on your side. As part of that bridge building, humor makes the audience your ally. Listeners see you as a fellow human being, not just as some sternly forbidding authority lecturing from on high. You’re now speaking to a more sympathetic crowd.
Humor eases the tension. “Procrastinate now.” The use of humor puts the audience in a more relaxed and receptive state. Surprisingly, a touch of humor can make your audience take your serious points that much more seriously now that you’ve given them evidence that you have some perspective on the matter at hand.
Humor makes you look good. If you can manage to deploy a bit of wit in a speech, you’ll look smarter, more confident, more secure and more in control. Even – or especially – if you’re delivering bad news, the ability to find even a scintilla of humor in a difficult situation shows people that all may not be lost.
Even gallows humor has that purpose. It shows that you can see things objectively and that all may not be lost when you can share a rueful chuckle. With humor, you have a chance to inculcate some shred of optimism at a time when pessimism could be sapping your listeners’ morale. And remember to always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.
Humor wakes people up and keeps them that way. You’re probably one of those naturally spellbinding speakers who hold the audience in the palm of the hand, so this need not concern you.
Mere mortals at the podium tend to drone on. Sometimes, it’s the subject that’s the problem. Sometimes, it’s the delivery. Whatever the cause, audiences tend to slip into lethargy mid-speech.
Humor counteracts the very human tendency to “zone out.” It’s the antidote to that human foible. It makes people tune in who might be tuning out. And it gives your speech a chance to compete with your greatest enemy, the ubiquitous smartphone that’s always begging for attention.
Those are a few of the reasons why deadpan seriousness isn’t the ideal approach for most speakers. Now let’s look at the tougher question: If humor helps, how do I do it?
Sadly, we don’t have a list of sure-fire side-splitters guaranteed to rescue even the dullest speech. We’re off the hook because there is no such list on this planet or any other where you might be booked to speak, simply because there are too many variables in play. If you’re disappointed, try Googling “jokes.” We’ll wait right here while you scrutinize the 320 million results you’ll find.
All done? In that case – provided you’ve stopped laughing and are still awake, not to mention alive – we’ll continue.
Even if we don’t have the ultimate list of jokes for every speaker everywhere, there are some useful guidelines for using humor in a speech.
1) Don’t try to be a stand-up comic. You’re not aiming to leave them rolling in the aisles. Most of us aren’t equipped to do that no matter how hard we try. In the context of a relatively serious speech, even a brief chuckle is a victory for better speechmaking.
2) Know your audience. There’s an obvious side to this: You’re likely to need different humor for an audience of high school students and an audience of retired astrophysicists. But there’s a slightly more subtle side: Beware of remarks that only a part of your audience will get. For example, if part of your audience is industry insiders and part is the general public, a joke that depends on obscure industry jargon can alienate the public faction, defeating humor’s role as a bridge.
3) In-jokes aren’t completely off-limits. As long as your audience is comprised of people who are actually in the relevant group, you don’t have to avoid in-jokes. In fact, they can acknowledge, affirm and even strengthen the group’s cohesion.
4) A joke that bombs is not the worst thing that can happen. That prize is reserved for a joke that outright offends. This is clearly not a problem for you, because you’re much too smart and perceptive to fall into that trap. For everyone else out there, though, be sure that your worst case scenario is nothing more than a quip that falls flat.
5) Don’t shy away from humor because your talk is hyper-technical. In fact, that’s the kind of talk that may need humor most of all, since there may be little else to humanize the speech and the speaker otherwise.
6) Don’t reserve humor for exclusively happy occasions. When times are tough, a little humor can put things in perspective. And when times are good, a bit of that same ingredient can nip any swelled heads in the bud. This doesn’t mean that you should tell the one about the talking penguin and Chairman Mao as part of a eulogy, but in other tough situations, an unrelievedly gloomy speech may only make things worse.
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