Posts Tagged ‘humor in speeches’

(More) Advice on Humor

o-STAND-UP-COMEDY-facebookI 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.

How to Connect with Your Audience When You’re Famous

clear empty podiumNear the end of 2012, I was lucky enough to attend two events where the featured speaker did a masterful job of connecting with his audience despite a major obstacle: fame. Both of the speakers — former Senator George Mitchell and David Rubenstein, co-founder of The Carlyle Group – were much better known and more powerful than anyone in their audience. But both managed to break the ice and get the audience to identify with them, by using some clever self-deprecating humor.

Mitchell spoke to a small group at an event sponsored by TiE DC, a Washington DC area networking group. Mitchell has had a remarkably distinguished career, serving as Senate Majority Leader, leading negotiations on the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland, winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom, being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, etc. He didn’t start off by reviewing his historic deeds, however. Instead he began by telling a charming story about how he was brought back down to earth at a book signing. After a woman had Mitchell sign a copy of her book, she looked at his signature and said, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re not Henry Kissinger.”

Rubinstein spoke to a much larger audience, several hundred people at an event sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.  In 2011, Forbes put his net worth at a cool $2.8 billion. But the billionaire connected with those of us in the lower 99% by telling several stories about his early career mistakes and setbacks: politicians he worked for lost elections, his work in the Carter Administration “caused” high inflation, no one at his law firm asked him to stay on when he told them he was leaving, etc.

Thanks to their adroit use of humor at the start of their remarks, both speakers charmed and disarmed their audiences. They made listeners feel that we that we were part of a discussion among friends, instead of members of an anonymous group receiving wisdom from on high.