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.

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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.

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