What is so funny about public speaking? Well, nothing really. On the other hand, a speech that includes some timely and well delivered humour can be especially gratifying for both speaker and audience. Dottie Walters said “Begin with a laugh and end with a tear.” The judicious, strategic, and appropriate use of humour in speaking can help the audience have a positive feeling about: 1) the subject, 2) the speaker and 3) the speech itself.
Many people are hesitant to use humour in speeches for a variety of reasons. Some people think that humour is never appropriate for speeches. Some people shy away from it because they do not feel that they are funny. Some people do not use it because they are afraid that, if no one laughs, it is another chance to be rejected. Some do not use it because it may take a bit of extra work to include relevant humour in a speech. Some are afraid of the risk, as humour can backfire. You should not be afraid to use humour. With the right planning, preparation, and practice, you can be an effective purveyor of the comic arts. You may find that both you and your audience will be better for it.
Becoming proficient in using humour to connect with audiences and get your message across is not easy. Grady Jim Robison noted, quite correctly, that “Humor is not easy—it just looks that way when well done.” Many people will say that they cannot tell a joke or do not have a sense of humour. Using humour, whether a joke, funny story, or other bit of amusing material is a skill which can be developed. There may be some people who are more naturally adept at it; however, nearly everyone can learn how to inject a bit of humour into their speeches.
Scholars and practitioners have studied the value and challenges of using humour in public speaking for many years. Consider the information in the following table:
Humour and Audiences: Positives and Negatives
- Humour is an effective attention getter. You have just a few seconds to make the audience want to hear more. Humour can be a wonderful tool to do exactly that. If you can make the audience laugh or smile at the very beginning, then you will have them anxiously awaiting what you have to say next.
- Humour is an effective attention keeper. Audiences can drift away, especially in an age when attention spans are shrinking. Sometimes you have to rein them back in. You can do this with a bit of humour.
- Humour can be used to break the monotony. Sometimes you will be dealing with a technical or tedious bit of information that requires a lot of explanation. When this happens, people may begin to get restless. Perk them up with some humour.
- Humour can be used to help your audience remember. Information retention is aided when connected with a piece of humour or a good story. The key is to make sure that it is actually connected to the information you want them to remember.
- Humour can be used to help your audience have a positive feeling about the message and about you as a speaker. They will likely also have very positive feelings about the event itself and about themselves. Humour can be used for affinity building with your audience. The more they like you or feel connected with you, the more open they are to your message.
- Humour can be used to diffuse tension or to soften the blow of a serious or controversial point. Sometimes you will have to make a point that your audience needs, but may not want to hear. You can use humour to make that point. You can deflect criticism with humour. William K. Zinsser once said, “What I want to do is make people laugh so that they’ll see things seriously.”
- Humour can offend. Avoid humour that uses sexist, racist, or demeaning language. Avoid profanity and vulgarity and sexual or “toilet” references. Be sure that your language is context-appropriate. Speaking at the Kiwanis club is not the same as speaking at the comedy club.
- Humour can make your topic seem trivial. The use of too much humour, especially irrelevant and silly humour, may cause your audience to lose sight of the importance of your topic. Consider how much and what kind of humour to use, particularly when dealing with sensitive or controversial topics.
- Humour can be mere filler. If it has no connection to the ideas being communicated or something that the audience is experiencing as the speech is unfolding (such as the room being too hot or the technology failing), it probably will seem trivial and distracting.
- Humour can be difficult to translate or understand. Word play can be especially challenging in multi-cultural audiences, but some humour forms simply do not land in every culture. Sarcasm, for example, ranges from non-existent to omni-present across cultures and some cultures use sarcasm with a dead-pan delivery, which can be very confusing, unless the irony is immediately clear.
- Humour can be culturally inappropriate. Some gestures, words, or phrases may have different meanings across cultures. In North America, the thumbs up sign means “all is well.” In some countries it is considered a vulgar and offensive gesture. What was once the “a-okay” sign of the index finger making a circle with the thumb and the other three fingers standing upright has unfortunate meanings in some places and can now also be easily mistaken for a relatively new racist gesture. Be careful!
- Humour can be irrelevant. If the humour does not connect with the greater message, it can become a distraction. Remember, you do not just want them to laugh, but to consider your entire message very carefully. They may become annoyed or fail to understand the point you are trying to make.
- Humour can be unfunny. Sometimes humour falls flat. It may be that they have heard it before or they do not get it or they just do not find it funny. Remember, humour is subjective. People laugh at different jokes and for different reasons. Sometimes they are preoccupied with other realities of life. Do not be disheartened. Move on to the next piece of information in the speech. Do not keep repeating the joke or try to explain to them why it is funny. They might be insulted and you are wasting valuable speech time.
As you can see, using humour in your speaking is not necessarily easy, but it is well worth the investment of time and energy. Stewart Harral noted, “Get a laugh and you’ve got an audience!” Using humour will take planning and practice. One worry of beginning speakers is the idea they must prepare original material and become professional standup comedians. This is not necessary. Certainly, if you have an aptitude for creating humour, then develop and nurture that talent and apply it to your public speaking. Original, fresh humour that comes from a speaker’s experience is always appreciated by an audience.
On the other hand, you need not feel as though you must create amazing pieces of comedy when there is much good, relevant humour available for you to use. Remember that humour is not just joke-telling. In fact, for most speeches, jokes are not really the best kind of humour to use. You can use amusing stories, light verse, funny lists, comical visuals, short quips, or ironic juxtaposition. Be sure to give credit to the source if it’s not original. The more you develop this skill, the more comfortable you will become. You may even find that you are a gifted humourist. At any rate, your audience will likely appreciate the effort.
This appendix was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.