Humor in speeches: How to play with fire

It’s not enough to craft a zinger, devise a pun or lampoon a pop-culture icon. You must fit the jest to the occasion, the audience and your speaker. Here’s how to strike while the irony’s hot.

One terrific perk of speechwriting is that it lets you indulge your sense of humor. Nearly every time you write a speech, there’s a chance to include at least one joke.

That’s not something most other communicators get to do nearly as often. (Try slipping a one-liner into the annual report some time. Let me know how that goes.)

It isn’t an indulgence—or at least, it isn’t just an indulgence. Humor has real communication power. It humanizes your speaker, builds rapport with an audience and can help overcome hostility, suspicion and resistance to new ideas.

Written or delivered badly, however, a joke can work against your speaker, which gives us a responsibility to use humor carefully and sensibly.

We have a duty, after all, to help our speakers deliver their stories as authentically and effectively as we can. We have a secondary duty to the audience, because inflicting a dud on them is inhumane.

If you believe, as I do, that jokes have a tiny soul that can be redeemed by laughter or scorched by indifference, then we have a duty to the jokes themselves: to hone them to razor sharpness, and not to send them out to die needlessly if we don’t think the speaker can deliver them.

Here’s what I do to give those jokes—and the people delivering them—every chance of success:

Fit the joke to the speaker.

The joke doesn’t just have to be one your speaker can physically deliver; it has to be a joke your speaker can credibly deliver. A 68-year-old bank CEO with a deft little Macklemore lyric parody isn’t fooling anyone.

Know what your speaker can and can’t do.

If your speaker can’t tell a joke to save their life, then don’t make them. If they can’t make an offhand remark sound anything but stilted and rehearsed, don’t make them deliver one. If their strength is anecdotes concluding with a wry observation more likely to inspire a chuckle than a guffaw, then write those. Play to your speaker’s strengths.

Respect your speaker’s comfort zone.

Sometimes there are instances when I’ll push a speaker, but I won’t fight for a joke—not anymore. Just a note of unease is enough to make an audience lose confidence in the joke, and once that happens, confidence in the speaker is next to go.

Conversely, a joke delivered with confidence lets an audience relax, feeling as though they’re in good hands, and gives your speaker a welcome burst of positive energy.

Respect your audience’s comfort zone.

Humor often pushes boundaries, helping you to move an audience to see things in a new way. It’s probably the most powerful way to break down walls between speaker and listener.

As powerful as that is, it’s also dangerous; push just a little too far, and instead of laughter and self-revelation, you’ll get silence broken only by the rustle of awkward squirming. Push any further, and it’s torches and pitchforks-or, worse, hostile tweets.

Know your audience’s sense of humor.

Comedians know that material that kills with a college crowd might well get cricket noises in Las Vegas, and vice versa. Keep the tone and language consistent with your speaker’s sense of humor.

Use reference points that they’ll relate to: pop culture jokes that reflect the music, TV and other entertainment media they watch and listen to, for example. (My wife has finally convinced me that many 20-somethings aren’t conversant with the “Friends” oeuvre. Tragic.)

Fit the occasion.

You want your joke to fit your speech well. Too many speakers, told to open with a joke, shoehorn in something about a farmer and a prairie dog on a golf course.

Does your speech to a room full of pipe-fitters need a joke about four-inch flange-spreaders? No, but (a) if you have one, I’m impressed and a little frightened, and (b) whatever jokes you do tell should resonate with the theme and message of your speech.

Advance the narrative.

Make your joke carry its own weight. Even if it gets a good laugh, if it stops the flow of your speech dead, then it’s done more harm than good. Call out something intrinsic to the joke that reinforces the point you’ve made or leads you into the next section of your speech.

Pace yourself.

Make sure the joke fits in with the emotional rhythm and pace of the speech. Jokes provide a release of tension, and a joke can stall you if you’re building to a crescendo. The exception is when the crescendo is itself a joke; laughter can build on laughter marvelously.

Some laughs aren’t worth it.

No ethnic “humor.” No sexism. No homophobia. If there’s a chance your joke will be mistaken for something offensive if it’s taken out of context or if someone tunes in halfway through, cut it.

If you have to set out an elaborate rationale for the joke’s acceptability, cut it. If your description of the joke includes the word “harmless,” cut it. If you have a faint inkling that your joke’s a little raunchy for this crowd, cut it.

You’re writing for a speaker, and artistic performance risks that a standup comic might take aren’t the goal here. Neither your speech nor the audience is served by an offensive joke, whether it’s intentionally so or not.

Be kind.

Good-natured jokes are the likeliest to endear you to an audience without alienating them, but it’s the jabs that people most often remember. Jokes can be sharply critical without being mean. The moment you come off as bullying or hitting someone when they’re already down, you’ll lose your audience—and you probably won’t get them back.

If, however, you can tell even a critical joke with grace and clear good will, then you’re well on your way to building a solid, durable relationship with your audience—the kind that keeps them listening long after the punchline.

A version of this article originally appeared on Rob Cottingham’s blog.

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