There are lots of public speaking related books that have a chapter about “how to use humor in a speech.” Also, most of them suggest that you “start with a joke.” Of course, it seems like a good idea, because everybody loves a good laugh and everybody loves a chuckle.
So, how to use humor in a speech? Here are some quick tips: Never start your joke by saying, “I’m going to tell you a joke,” and never laugh at your own jokes. Also, keep it short and simple and try not to insult your listeners.
This is the very short version, but there’s more to it. Therefore, let’s dive in and see how to use humor effectively in your speech without it being awkward.
Table of Contents
Why is humor important in a speech?
Using humor in a speech is best when it doesn’t seem like you’re trying to be a standup comedian. It should seem natural, especially if you’re making fun of yourself and it seems spontaneous.
What are the values of using humor in a speech?
The best thing about humor is you’re getting people to laugh, which means a lot of good things happen:
- You create a connection with your audience and they’re paying attention to you
- If the humor is funny and appropriate, then your audience will respond to you. And, they’re responding with a type of approval.
- With good and funny examples, you keep your audience awake and listening to every word you say
- Using humor in your speech is one of the best ways to make your main key points be memorable
- The best thing about using humor in a speech is that your presentation has turned from a monologue to a dialogue
So, that’s all good stuff if you get people to laugh.
What are the dangers of using humor in a speech?
I don’t want you to feel tremendous pressure to be a funny character in your speeches and presentations. Now, if you can use humor, it is on your message and you’re happy with it, then, by all means, use it. But be very careful.
Therefore, here are some dangers of using humor you should know about:
The joke is not funny
Nothing is more contrived than starting a speech off with some kind of joke (even if it’s a little bit funny) you found in some kind of joke book. People are like “Ehm… I guess I’m supposed to laugh now.” It doesn’t seem authentic; instead, it seems contrived.
Your joke insults someone in the audience
There are lots of topics that can insult someone in the audience (race, physical appearance, gender, job, sexual orientation, etc.). Therefore, you should consider your jokes carefully. Otherwise, you may end up staring at an angry audience.
Humor may work well in a live presentation but may seem mean if you read it from paper
Sometimes, humor is a subtle attack on someone and it might work if people can see a smile on your face and a twinkle in your eye, but if they’re reading it the next day in text, then it could just make you look mean spirited.
Too much humor can impact your speech
If you use too much humor in your speech and tell jokes all the time, then you may not be taken very seriously and this can be a problem if you talk about important stuff.
So, be very careful about using humor. I’m not saying be humorless, but it can often boomerang back and hurt you.
What are the types of humor in speeches?
Here are some of the most effective types of humor you should know about.
#1 Make humor at your own expense
One of Murphy’s Laws says, “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” As I said, there are lots of topics that can insult someone in the audience and now you are wondering whether to even try to make jokes in your speech.
But, there is always at least one person in the audience who will not be insulted by your joke – and that person is you. Therefore, make fun at your own expense, since those stories tend to feel more real and are usually the best kind of humor to use. Especially if the stories you talk about are about your failures and somehow instructive.
Also, if you know that you’re not the funniest person in the world, then the best way to use humor in a speech or presentation is to make fun of yourself. Talk about bad things that have happened and what you learned from them.
#2 Use funny quotations
One of my favorite quotes for getting attention and sparking interest from the start of my speech is this: “The human brain is a wonderful organ. It starts to work as soon as you are born and doesn’t stop until you get up to deliver a speech.”
Finding funny quotations is an easy task. Just search Google for “Funny quotes about…” And you will find lots of great stuff. For example, if I look for “Funny quotations about using humor in a speech” I will end up on this site, which is full of great quotations.
#3 Twisting of famous quotations
If you find a famous quotation that can somehow be adapted to your speech by twisting it, then do it.
For example, if you talk about peace and love then, “Make love not war. Condoms are cheaper then rifles” is a pretty good twist to use.
#4 Use similarities
You can use similarities and quotations together. For example, “Winston Churchill once said that a good speech should be like a woman’s skirt – long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”
I have used this quotation many times with great success. The trick with this quotation is to pause slightly before saying “…long enough to cover the subject..”
#5 Use small exaggerations
John Grisham said once that, “There is no story in the world which cannot be improved with a small exaggeration.”
For example, “This guy was as big as a basketball player; he weighed 300 pounds. Now, since I am very short, it was like looking at a skyscraper during our face-to-face conversation.”
#6 Irony can be good if well placed
The irony will work especially well if it is about something you did, or if it is at your own expense. Be careful though – there are lots of people who do not recognize irony as a type of humor.
#7 Puns can be very effective
One of my most favorite puns about public speaking is, “If we talk about whether Jack was an able speaker, then I guess he was able enough to stand up all the way through his speech.”
#8 You can turn the phrase
For example, “Light travels faster than sound. That’s why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.”
#9 Dry humor (or deadpan)
If we talk about dry humor, then we talk about your deliberate display of no emotion, and therefore it is not always obviously funny. Usually, dry humor is used to contrast the story with the topic at hand. Some examples of dry humor can be found here.
How to use humor in a speech without it being awkward
Sure, everybody loves a good laugh, and everybody loves a good chuckle. The problem, though, is that there are some people who are better at it than others. Also, there are lots of people who are not particularly great at telling jokes. Therefore, here are some good tips about how to use humor in a speech without it being awkward.
#1 Never start a joke by saying “I’m going to tell you a joke”
If you start your joke by warning your listeners ahead of time, there will be a legitimate expectation that your joke should be fun. But what happens if the joke is lame or if the audience doesn’t get it?
For example, you think that you made the best joke ever but the only reaction you got after your joke was the sound of the ventilator under the ceiling, going “whoosh-whoosh-whoosh.” And that’s awkward for everyone.
Instead of saying “I‘m gonna tell you a joke,” say “I‘m gonna tell you a story” or “For example…” This way, there are no expectations for the story to be funny, and you can deliver it without any problems.
#2 Never laugh at your own jokes
Once again, you told the best joke you know and you laugh about it. But, once again, your audience is sitting there, not understanding your joke and looking at you and thinking, “Well, this guy/gal seems crazy.”
So, try not to laugh at your jokes (if possible).
#3 Don’t try to be funny (especially if you know you’re not)
I have a friend who is an enthusiastic joke-teller. The problem is, though, that he is not very good at it, and listening to him telling jokes is as entertaining as watching paint drying on the wall.
So, if you’re not naturally humorous, don’t spend a lot of time and effort researching and writing jokes and shoehorning them into the presentation. You don’t have to, because you can still be effective without the jokes. Just remember, “Make a point; tell a story” is always an effective approach.
#4 Know your audience
If you have conducted a thorough audience analysis (which you can read about here) then you know what the sensitive topics are that you should avoid during your speech. This way, you won’t insult anyone with your jokes (although you never can be sure).
#5 Learn to tell stories
If you have small children, you probably read them bedtime stories, right? Now, instead of reading the stories from the book, try to make up some stories on the go. The more you practice, the more entertaining those stories get, and usually, from then on, your kids will demand those stories every night.
In case you don’t have kids, you still can learn by reading lots of books – write down great metaphors or quotations, etc. During your speech preparation, think about how to use those in your speech.
#6 Keep practicing
No story is at its best when it is told the first time. If you tell stories to the audience, make notes about how they reacted, whether they liked it, etc. Next time, think about how to improve this story with a small exaggeration, irony or other types of humor we talked about earlier.
Final words: how to use humor effectively in your speech without it being awkward
As you see, humor in a speech can be a double-edged sword. If you do it right, you can engage your audience and make your key point more memorable. If you fail, though, it can be very awkward both for your audience and yourself.
Therefore, keep using these tips I wrote about today, and I am pretty confident that you’ll succeed.
Now, go and tell somebody a good joke.