Posts Tagged ‘humor in speeches’

What CEOs Should Learn From Commencement Speeches

Spring is my favorite part of the work year, because I really enjoy writing commencement speeches. Working on one last month, and thinking about what makes these speeches special, I realized that a good commencement address can do more than inspire graduates and their families. Commencement speeches can also teach most CEOs could learn a lot about public speaking from too. In particular:

Know Your Audience

The best commencement speeches are closely attuned to the concerns and interests of the audience. Good speakers not only connect with the graduating class but their parents and other loved ones, as well. In fact, the best speakers (or their writers) research the graduating class so they can highlight at least a couple of key events that happened during the school year.

CEO’s who want their speeches to have an impact should also take the time to learn what their audience is thinking. And, they should make sure key parts of their speech resonate with what’s on the minds of their listeners.

Make it Personal … and Funny

If you scroll through any list of best commencement speeches, you’ll find that the speakers shared personal details from their lives. Moreover, every one of them used humor — most of which was self-deprecating.

For CEOs, getting personal is a great way to connect with audiences, to show them you’re a human being just like they are. Granted, humor can be risky, but with a little work and practice, making gentle fun of yourself can be an effective way to get the audience on your side, too.

Inspire ‘Em

And in conclusion…. every, and I do mean every, good commencement speech ends with a bang! A rousing close that calls on the graduates to do great things, be the best they can be, refuse to let haters hold them back, and so on.

CEOs should remember that every audience wants to feel inspired at the end of a speech. Every corporate leader should try to end each speech with a vision for the company, a call to action for all employees, a dramatic new proposal for change, etc.

Try to be as inspiring at the best commencement speakers, and your speeches will get the results from the audiences most crucial to your success.

I Tried Stand-Up, and Improved my Speeches

Many thanks to Vital Speeches of the Day editor David Murray, for publishing my piece on the lessons speechwriters can learn from the craft of stand-up comedy. In the article, I describe how–after years of fear of failure–I finally took the plunge and tried my hand at stand-up. Wisely, I took a course first, which was superb, taught by our wonderful teacher Chris Coccia, a Philadelphia comic. The big surprise was how much the class and the experience also taught me about speechwriting. You’ll find the complete post here.

Back to School/Summer Round-up

pencil-918449_640If you’re an executive with an association, chamber of commerce, or other nonprofit, I highly recommend you check out the Institute for Organization Management, a program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The Institute is designed to help leaders take their management skills to an even higher level, by offering a curriculum of courses and lively discussion at university campuses around the country.  Click here to learn more. I had the chance to teach a couple courses this summer (on communications and branding) at the Institute session at the University of Georgia. It was a wonderful experience for me, and I could see how much the attendees were learning and connecting.

I also got the chance this summer to work with Pete Weissman, a true thought leader himself who heads Thought Leader Communications. It was a bit like a graduate course on financial services, but with tighter deadlines.

In addition, with any luck, my drafted words will be heard for the first time ever by a Chinese audience this fall. In researching a presentation for a U.S CEO this summer, I learned some surprising things about speeches by China’s leaders, which I will share in a future post.

And finally, check one more item off the bucket list. I took a stand-up comedy class, and did a five minute set at The Improv here in DC. I was on the same stage where once stood everybody from Dave Chapelle to Jim Gaffigan. The biggest surprise was that I learned some lessons about speech writing, as well as about telling jokes. Stay tuned for those, too.

(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.