Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s new distance-learning portal RaganTraining.com. The site contains more than 200 hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses. For membership information, please click here.
David Glickman, co-founder and chief writer for Funnier Speeches, has a message for you.
“I represent a company called Amway,” he says, “and if I could talk to you for maybe 10, 15 minutes–.”
Well, not really. But Glickman does offer encouragement for speechwriters who have watched with dread as their leader shambles to the podium and drones on for an hour.
You don’t have to be Steve Martin to insert a little humor into your speech. Your audience will love you for it (really). And you can master techniques that will draw an appreciative guffaw from most audiences.
Why bother when you’ve got a serious message to sell? Because it wins over audiences and makes your speaker come across as human.
“In the first 60 seconds I was up here, I got five laughs, one of them before I ever came up on the stage,” Glickman tells his audience at a Ragan speechwriting conference. “Most of you don’t know me, but right off, most of you are in a good frame of mind to listen to what I have to say, because you’ve already laughed five times.”
Here’s some good news for those hoping to elicit chuckles from the crowd:
1. Content drives comedy, not the other way around.
Yes, it’s hard to write a funny speech. But it’s easy to write a serious speech and then spice it with humor later.
Don’t panic if your ponderous exec or droning politician calls for you to write a joke. Do what you do best, and add the humor at the end.
How? Read on.
2. “The more specific the humor, the more terrific the humor.”
Sure, you could search up a few generic jokes off the Internet, Glickman says. But a-priest-and-a-rabbi-walked-into-a-bar jokes don’t resonate like customized humor that’s relevant to your audience and what you’ve written.
“Here’s the cool thing,” he says. “The customized humor doesn’t have to work as hard. It is perceived as funnier because it’s in the area that your audience is involved in.”
3. Acronyms can be funny.
Glickman once wrote a speech for Omega World Travel, whose CEO is named Gloria. They were making some major acquisitions, with the usual adjustments that flurry of activity brings.
Glickman’s speech corrected the misimpression “that Omega is simply is an acronym: Opportunity Means Expanding Gloria’s Acquisitions.”
“OK,” he admits, “not so funny as we sit here today. But they were laughing so hard, they were pounding the tables. And there were no tables.”
It’s also possible to turn the name of a rival or competitor into an acronym, but people love self-deprecating humor. It shows humility.
4. Use “pop culture” references: movies, television, music, advertisements, books.
You may worry that the frame of reference for your executives (who tend to be middle-age or older) isn’t quite the same as your audience. The good news: Older references still resonate.
“There’s a greater chance younger people know old movies than older people are going to know very, very current stuff,” Glickman says.
One way to do this is to find books that are relevant to your topic, get Marketing to Photoshop the title, and create a spoof. Glickman admits he is no lawyer, but such tinkering is protected by the First Amendment as parody, he says.
One possibility is to slap a fake title on a “Dummies” book or “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book. His example drew a laugh: “Writing a Speech Without Being Given Any Goals, Any Theme, Any Context, and Any Notice at all FOR DUMMIES.”
“No one outside this room would get that joke,” Glickman says, but his crowd of speechwriters laughed appreciatively.
5. Take baby steps.
One guy who works in the nuclear industry told Glickman that in his line of work, humor isn’t allowed. (We, for one, are delighted to hear that.)
Glickman’s advice: Start with small steps. “Find the hardest thing to do in the nuclear industry and make it a ‘Dummies’ book or a ‘Chicken Soup’ book.”
6. Use three negative words in a row to create a fake law firm name.
You don’t always have to strive for belly laughs. A good chuckle will do. Try this:
“We’re not looking for the kind of leader who’s arrogant, brash, and condescending. Kind of sounds like our old law firm,” Glickman says. He pretends to pick up a phone: “‘Arrogant, Brash & Condescending—may I help you?'”
He adds that it’s “not hilarious as we sit here, but in context, the lines get a laugh.”
7. Your dull speaker will love you if you write funny.
“Laughter to an executive is a drug,” Glickman says. “And they’re going to keep coming back: ‘More. I need more. Write some more stuff like you just wrote for me.'”