When Yankee great Yogi Berra died last week at the age of 90, the tributes and reminiscences were certainly not limited to people from the sports world. Berra, a three time MVP, was one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, but as the New York Times’ Bruce Weber noted, “[he] may be more widely known as an ungainly but lovable cultural figure, inspiring a cartoon character and issuing a seemingly limitless supply of unwittingly witty epigrams…” It’s no surprise, then, that in addition to sportswriters he was warmly remembered by entertainment writers, language analysts, political columnists, and others.
To which I have to add: he was also beloved by speechwriters everywhere. His “yogi-isms” –those great non sequitur quotes (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it….”) are a wonderful resource.
To be sure, as Yogi said put it, “I really didn’t say everything I said.” So it’s often safest to “attribute” the quotes to him.
Still, the quotes can be pure gold, not just because they’re funny, but also because they appeal to everyone. I can’t think of an audience they would offend, and invoking a beloved figure like Berra can help get even the most jaded listener on your side. Moreover, their folk wisdom quality is a subtle way for a speaker to let the audience know that, though I’m a CEO or world-class expert or earn lots more money than you, we can connect through Yogi.
One of my favorite clients was the head of a giant trade association. He liked to have two kinds of quotes in his speeches — quotes from famous philosophers and scientists, and quotes from Yogi. That told the audience that he was a deep thinker, but one of them, too.
Yogi’s life may be over, but his words and warmth live on.
I would bet that the question I get asked most often when I give a presentation is, how should I use humor in a speech? My quick answer: “very carefully.” As I noted in a post a couple years ago, using humor in speeches is risky, so proceed with caution.
But do proceed. Here are some guidelines on how to amuse.
Like just about every other speechwriter and presentation coach I know, I strongly advise against starting by telling a joke. Most jokes bomb; very few people are good at telling them; and they almost never sound natural or authentic. The result is that the first impression the audience has is that you are inauthentic at best and a phony at worst.
To prevent that from happening, keep in mind the very important distinction speech coach Christopher Witt draws between “a joke” and “humor.” “When you tell a joke, you’re trying to make people laugh,” he says. “When you use humor, you’re wanting to amuse them. You’re happy if they smile or chuckle.” And I strongly agree with him that the safest and most effective form of humor is self-deprecating.
The late John Cantu, who coached working comics and comedy writers as well as public speakers, thought long and hard about humor. You’ll find a lot of great advice on his SpeakerHumor site. Especially useful is his recommendation to speakers who are just beginning to get comfortable with humor: never use a bit of humor UNLESS it illustrates, clarifies, or specifically references the point you are trying to make.
So, proceed carefully, but do try adding humor to your speeches, talks and presentations.
Another great piece in Silicon Valley speechwriter Ian Griffin‘s terrific “Professionally Speaking” blog. This one is a guest post from U.K. media coach Alan Stevens, that is chock full of excellent tips on how to give a great speech. My favorite part of the piece, though is his concise list of things speakers should NEVER do. Such as…
- Start badly
- Fail to understand equipment
- Put too much on each slide
- Patronize the audience
- Use bad graphics
- Turn their back on the audience
- Speak inaudibly
- Use jargon
- Run out of time
- End poorly
The year is not even half over and already we have a leader in the competition for “The CEO at the Mic’s” Worst Speech of the Year Award. In May, former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld gave his first speech since the 2008 financial crisis. Fuld’s mistakes as CEO have been widely blamed for the collapse of the firm, which precipitated the near collapse of the economy.
Most observers were critical of the speech, marveling at Fuld’s failure to mention the thousands of Lehman employees who lost their life savings, and his total lack of remorse. “Whatever it is, enjoy the ride. No regrets,” Fuld said. One article on the speech was titled “Lehman Brothers ex-CEO Blames Everyone Else.” Fuld also lost his cool when he didn’t get the response he wanted from the audience and made clear he was angry at his listeners.
Mark Macias, who runs a global public-relations firm, Macias PR, summed up the speech this way, “In the future, I will probably use Fuld’s speech as an example of what NOT to do when trying to soften your image or reintroduce your brand to the public.”
Hollywood director Michael Bay set the bar high when he won our inaugural award in 2014, for his disastrous “presentation” at the Consumer Electronics Show. But Fuld’s performance could be tough to beat in 2015.
Andrew Gilman, President & CEO, CommCore Consulting Group offers some very pointed advice to clients who need help giving better presentations: speak like a human being. Too often, he says, presenters abandon their relaxed, natural speaking style and instead adopt stilted verbiage, awkward body language and other bad habits, which quickly put audiences to sleep.
That’s the spirit behind this great new video CommCore put together, which cleverly uses humor to show what can go terribly, terribly wrong if you don’t present like a normal human.