How to use humor effectively in speeches

'Funny Side Up' graphic of a boy laughing

Have you wondered how to use humor effectively in speeches?

What gets a laugh? What doesn't, and why?

It's tricky!

Most of us, myself included, want to effortlessly entertain as well as inform. We know and appreciate the gifts humor brings. There's audience rapport; their bright-eyed eagerness to hear what you have to share, their easy readiness to laugh, the way they lean forward to catch your next comment ...

But what if they don't?
What if your carefully polished laugh line isn't caught up, and falls to the floor, shriveling?
What if they fold their arms, raise their eyebrows, and look away?

Use the links below to move around this long page easily. They'll give you a good starting point toward understanding how humor works.

How to avoid the pain of not being funny

  1. Know your audience
  2. Safe speech humor
  3. Integrated humor
  4. How to rehearse humor

Lastly: the difference between a joke and contextual humor

And for those of you who are unsure whether or not to risk adding a laugh - The benefits of using humor in a speech.

Know your audience

'Funny Side Up' graphic button

Plan your humor around your audience.

To make it work well you need to know:

  • the approximate age of your audience

  • And their general interests
    (Clue: What unites them to come together to listen to you?)

A joke told without knowledge of the audience because you think it is funny is dangerous. They are often the ones most likely to implode leaving you stranded.

How do you know they won't find it offensive?
How do you know they'll understand it at all?

Humor varies from person to person and group to group. What we find funny is not a reliable indication that everyone else will find the same type of humor amusing. Do some digging. Find out as much as you can.

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Use safe humor

The audience is not your target

Use humor that doesn't use the audience as the butt of the joke. 

This is not the time to make jokes about audiences so thick their brains are the consistency of concrete or similar observations.

Avoid dividing an audience

Use humor that doesn't isolate and target a segment of the audience: blondes, males, females ... any descriptor that separates and sets one group up to laugh at another.

Keep out of the gutter

Use humor that doesn't rely on coarse language or profanity to make its point.

Stick to safe subjects

Use humor that avoids taboo subjects: religion, politics, race, class or sex.

Focus the laughs on yourself

Using humor effectively often means using yourself as the subject but in a kindly way, making sure it is relevant to your speech topic.

Nobody wants to hear or see you putting yourself down consistently. You may laugh at your foibles or quirks publicly but not prostrate yourself for a whipping in front of an audience. That will embarrass them.

When you laugh at yourself in a balanced, truthful way you are giving the audience permission to laugh with you, not at you.

You are also inviting them to identify with you, creating openness and trust. The audience will be more likely to listen because you're reflecting or showing them an aspect they know to be true of themselves, as well as you.

All humor is based on two fundamental premise:

We have to believe whatever is being told or shown to us is 'real'.

We expect one thing to happen but another occurs. The outcome is always a surprise.

Laugh about what you know

Use subjects you've earned the right to joke about.

For example an over weight person may make comments about being large,
a disabled person can joke about the difficulties they encounter on a daily basis or a woman can laugh about the trials of child bearing, provided she has had a child.

A safe guideline is, if you don't know it, as in having lived it, don't jest or make light of it.

Blend your humor

Weave your jokes or humor into a small story or anecdote related to your topic while keeping the ratio of laugh-lines to information balanced appropriately for the style of speech.

For example:
If your speech is primarily to entertain rather than inform, it may be appropriate to use more humor. Judge each situation carefully.

Remember the rule of three

The rule of three works in all areas of presentation. It can be three examples to illustrate a point. It could three repetitions of the same word or phrase for emphasis, a device often used in oratory or three characters in an anecdotal story. (An Irishman, Australian and an American!)

Three in storytelling is a naturally believable number whether it be words to describe people and their actions or the events themselves. The first usage sets whatever it is up in the audience's mind as possibly believable. The second, reinforces it and by the time the third instance comes along, the audience has accepted it as truth. Three, works!

Test and refine

It is better to have several strong anecdotes in your presentation rather than a string of weak ones.

Always rehearse and test the humor you plan to use.

To test have several people listen and give you honest feedback. Listen to the feedback. It maybe that the subject is wrong for the situation, or perhaps your delivery needs work, or your language choice needs altering. Any of those could cause a joke to fall flat.

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Integrating humor 

Integrate any joke/humorous remark you make into your speech or presentation.

If you're thinking of telling the joke because you think it's a good one and bound to get you laughs but it has nothing to do with your speech topic, leave it out. It might be hilarious, but it is not relevant. Unless you find a plausible, believable way to link the humor into your subject, forget it.

Introducing humor

And if you do want to tell a joke or add humor and IT IS relevant make sure it is not introduced along the lines of:

'Have you heard the one about ...?'
'This is really funny. You're going to howl with laughter.'
'There was this Irishman/Scotsman/Australian...'

None of these openings show the humor is blended with your own material and the second one is particularly nasty if your audience sits poker faced!

Stick to your speech purpose

Unless you were briefed to be a comedian, don't attempt it. This doesn't mean don't use humor. It means stick to your speech purpose and find the humor from within that subject matter. The audience is not expecting a stand-up comedy routine from you.

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Giggle, Chortle and Smile

Read content suggestions (with examples) about what what makes great funny speeches and ...
Choose yourself a fun speech topic from this light-hearted list of 60 ideas.

Keys to rehearsing humor in your speech

Use an expressive voice

1950s retro graphic - a woman with a piece of string tied around her finger. A reminder to add variety - monotony is boring!

Live into the story you are telling to make it seem as if it were happening again in the 'here and now'. This gives the audience the 'feel' of the situation. They will grasp it and the emotional content more quickly.

If you need a hand, you'll find it here:
How to develop and use an expressive voice

These simple vocal variety exercises will help you identify where you need to place your effort.

Use simple pared down language

The less complicated the set-up and story, the more direct it is and the less chance your audience has of misunderstanding.

For help with how to enter or set up a story check this page on story-telling step-ups. You'll find examples of what not, and what to do to.

Practice, practice, practice and then, practice some more

Practice telling your story in as many ways as you can, and listen.

What happens if you speed up here, and slow down there?
What happens if you emphasize this word instead of that word?

As a general rule comedians point up the punch line. They give a cue to the audience that it is coming, preparing them to listen and laugh using a combination of slowing down, pausing and emphasis.

It's called finding 'the beat'. Miss it and nobody will laugh. Find it and the same joke that previously bombed will fly. The only sure fire way to locate it is through practice. After enough, you'll sense it and know when to slow, pause and stress a word.

To find out more about the dynamic inter-play of speech rate and pausing check in here: speech rate and pausing in speech.

Record yourself

  • Is your lead-in or set-up smooth?

    The 'lead-in' is the integration of the anecdote with the body of your speech. It is the bridge between your core information and the humor. Part of learning how to use humor effectively is to make it believable by introducing it as a part of the general flow of your speech. This makes it truthful in the ears and eyes of your audience. It also sets up the element of surprise as the audience will not be expecting your cunning comedic twist. A smooth set-up helps you achieve that.

  • Is your voice expressive?

  • Is your language simple, effective and easily understood?

  • Have you pointed up the laugh line?

  • Is the laugh line clear?

What's funny? Is it you or your story?

Make a distinction between the humor and yourself.

Are you funny or is the story you are telling funny?

For example, a comedian who has learned how to use humor effectively, does not laugh at his own jokes as it breaks the illusion of truth.

When you laugh at your own material you are on the outside of it, looking in, rather than BEING it.

Use simple large gestures

If you are going to incorporate acting into your story practice using clear decisive gestures rather than a flurry of small ones.

Think mime. It crosses audience boundaries easily through involving your whole body in the action. Everybody, regardless of who they are or the language they speak, understands the body language of weeping in despair, pulling your hair out in desperation, or swooning with love.

For an introduction to using gesture in speeches check this page on characterization techniques. You'll find exercises to help you.

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What's the difference between using humor and telling a joke?

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Humor is usually part of its context. In other words it is derived from the situation or setting.

Here's a wonderful and true story to illustrate.

Instant karma

In one of my classes I had a very mouthy, opinionated student. Whatever the subject he knew more about it than anybody else and he always made sure everybody knew, he knew. He corrected, interrupted, and sometimes jeered at his classmates.

One day in the middle of yet another uncalled for torrent of information, a hanging pot plant right above him let go of its hook in the ceiling. It crashed spectacularly on his desk showering him in earth, plant and shards of pottery. The class, dissolving into mirth, fell off their chairs laughing and through it I heard someone say; 'I reckon that's instant karma, Jason.'

A joke is often isolated from or very loosely connected to what is happening. It tends to be a pre-formatted story following known, well worn lines.

How can you tell when a blonde has been using your computer?
Answer: There is twink (white-out or correction fluid) on the screen.

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The benefits of using humor effectively

When you use humor well you benefit,  along with your audience.

Here's how:

  • Humor breaks through barriers- laughter can transcend age, race, gender, belief or class barriers

  • Humor relaxes your audience and puts them in a receptive mood. After you have made them laugh they are more likely to want to listen to you!

  • Humor alerts your audience to listen. They become more interested in what you're saying than what happened prior to them listening to you or what is going to happen afterward. It brings your audience into the now!

  • Laughter adds 'juice' to a presentation. It can enliven potentially dry or dull material.

  • Humor releases tension.

  • Humor binds people together: that is, humor based on common experience unites the group.
    Example: work-place humor.
    Almost every profession has its own humor. For instance, there are lawyer, teacher, doctor, and computer jokes. I'm sure with dedicated searching you could find jokes or humor about any type of employment.

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More about how to use humor effectively:

Put more and varied fare in your laugh menu.

Find out about differing types of verbal humor.
Your audience will appreciate it.

When you've finished discovering the joy of strategically using a sprinkle of malapropisms with a side serving of light irony, try some physical humor.

And continue to ...

PRACTICE telling your stories, PRACTICE timing and PRACTICE looking for the comedic or humorous element in all the events of your life.

If you're considering entering a humorous speech contest, please don't do as I did!

Read about what happened when I overlooked a critical element in my preparation. This was a humorous speech lesson I'll remember!

He's been there, done that & got the laughs to prove it!

Hollywood script writer turned comedic storyteller, Steve Barancik gives you the low down on humor in an exclusive write-out-loud interview.

Get his public speaking tips here.