Taking care of the ‘risky’ Business of humour

Adding humour to speeches and presentations is risky business. The speaker can fluff it. The audience can find it unamusing, confusing, or even worse — offensive. Whatever the negative outcome, poorly chosen or delivered humour can end up clouding the speaker’s message.

Fortunately, the opposite scenario is also highly possible. A little humour can warm up the atmosphere, make the speaker appear friendly and help listeners remember key points.

The secret of success lies in carefully choosing humour that will entertain the audience while keeping the speaker safe.

A good way to do that is to favour the kind of humour listeners like. As a rule people respond well to self deprecating humour. If the speaker can laugh at himself, he must be a good egg: or, at least that seems to be the reasoning. General Rick Hillier, Canada’s former Chief of the Defence Staff, likes to joke about growing up with five sisters. He claims he joined the army in self-defence.

Another way to keep things safe is to stick to humour that’s meant to draw a grin or a giggle rather than a belly laugh. The late John Cantu, a one-time comedy club owner, told speechwriters at the Ragan Speechwriters Conference in Washington a few years back to “aim for chuckles”. Comedians cycle hundreds of jokes through their routines in the quest for big laughs, he explained. And of course stand up comics are also trained performers. If your speaker’s idea of preparation is to read through the speech once or twice before an event, you might want to aim for the low end of the laughometer.

A third way to help your speaker in the humour department is to borrow it from others. For example: riff off a late night host: “The other night I heard Jay Leno say…”; describe a popular cartoon “Dilbert asked an interesting question the other day:…” or include a funny quote or wisdom from a bumper sticker. Just keep it short and sweet.

And one more bit of advice: Whenever possible relate the humour to an important point the speaker wants the audience to take away. Humour, like storytelling, is a great tool for reinforcing important points in the minds of listeners.

Think twice about including a joke

As for jokes, many speechwriters say avoid them. There is just too much danger in a flubbed delivery or a tepid response from listeners. Another danger with telling a joke is the audience may have heard it before.

But what if a joke perfectly encapsulates the speaker’s point? OK. There are times when telling a joke in a speech does work. If you decide to put one in, you can always acknowledge the fact that some people may be familiar with the joke by writing a preface along the lines of: “You may have heard the joke that goes something like this…”

Keep in mind that the longer the joke the funnier the pay off has to be to satisfy listeners. And today’s audiences are not known for their long attention spans. As a rule of thumb, corporate speechwriter Fletcher Deans says avoid jokes that take longer than a minute to get to the punch line.

Create your own humour

Look at the news if you want to find fodder for jokes says comedy writer Jon Macks. Macks, who is also a speechwriter, says ask yourself: “What’s stupid about this situation?” Once you identify the absurdity, see if you can use it in a sentence that begins with a phrase such as “It’s so hot that…” or “Taxes are so high that…”

Put humour to the test

When choosing humour for a speech test it. Only include it in the speech if you can answer ‘yes’ to the following three questions:
Does it suit the speaker? - Will the speaker seem natural as he or she delivers the lines?
Does it suit the topic? - Is the link between the subject and the humour obvious and appropriate?
Does it suit the audience? - Will the humour resonate with the people in the room?