By: Susan Dugdale | Last modified: 12-15-2020 | First published: 01-01-2009
Have you ever wondered how to use humor effectively in speeches?
What gets a laugh? What doesn't, and why?
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 ...
The ability to make people laugh, to use humor effectively, is mutually beneficial for the speaker and the audience.
Humor creates a bond, a sense of closeness. The audience relaxes, they're at ease. They feel good, energized, alert and eager to hear what you have to say. They like you and they're more likely to remember what you talked about later. If your subject is serious they'll appreciate you for leavening it with well-placed appropriate humor to break the tension.
Use humor well and you will leave the audience impressed with your speaking skills.
But what happens if your audience doesn't respond?
What if your carefully polished laugh lines aren't
caught up, and they fall to the floor, to wither and shrivel?
What if your audience shuffles in their seats, folds their arms, raises their eyebrows, and looks 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.
Plan your humor around your audience. Always.
To make humor work well you need:
A humorous story, anecdote or joke told without knowledge of your audience because you think it is
funny is dangerous. They are often the ones likely to
lurch sideways, 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 always a reliable indication that everyone else will find the same type of humor amusing.
Do some digging. Ask. Find out as much as you can.
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 have the consistency of concrete or similar observations.
Use humor that doesn't isolate and target a segment of the audience: all the blondes, males, females, English speakers, people of Italian descent, people who have a commerce degree, or Sunday afternoon yoga practitioners ... A descriptor that separates and intentionally sets one group up to laugh at another is not nice.
Use humor that doesn't rely on coarse language or profanity to make its point.
Use humor that avoids taboo subjects: religion, politics, race, class or sex.
Using humor effectively often means using yourself as the subject, if it's relevant to your topic, and kindly.
Nobody wants to hear or see you putting yourself down harshly. 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 poke fun 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. Your 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.
These stories do not have to be about big life events to work. Those small incidents where we are brought up short are very effective in the right place.
For instance, here is a story about what happened one late afternoon, after I'd finished teaching for the day, and had picked up my son, then aged four, from child care.
On the way home we called into the supermarket. We were standing in front of a chiller cabinet full of frozen desserts: ice cream of all flavors, different sorts of gelato, and yoghurt. A woman next to us opened the door and took out a large tub of chocolate flavored yoghurt. My son was amazed. He looked up at me, and then told her loudly, "My mother says that's full of sugar and complete rubbish!"
Yes. Quite. I was deeply embarrassed as was the woman with the rubbish yoghurt in her hand. My zealous 'better than thou' food snobbery was outed, right down to the indignant intonation.
We're human. We all have stories about ourselves to use. ☺
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.
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. (Scroll down for rehearsal tips.)
To test have several people listen and give you honest feedback. Listen
to it. 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 humorous throwaway comment or a story to fall flat.
Integrate any joke/humorous remark or story you use 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 material into your subject, forget it. Please.
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!
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.
Weave your humorous material through your speech while keeping the ratio of laugh-lines to information balanced appropriately for your topic, audience, the type of speech and its purpose.
For example, if your speech is primarily to entertain rather than inform, it may be right to use more humor. Judge each situation carefully.
Live into the story you are telling to make it seem as if it were happening again in the 'here and now'.
If an angry voice is needed. Use one. If wheedling is asked for. Whine, like you really mean it. This gives the audience the 'feel' of the situation. They will grasp it and its 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 covering pitch, tone, volume and rate will help you identify where you need to place your effort.
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.
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 it could be three
characters in an anecdotal story eg. a variation on the classic: 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.
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.
Make a distinction between the humor and yourself.
Are you funny or is the story you are telling funny?
For example, a comedian 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.
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.
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.
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 unasked for torrent of information, a hanging pot plant right above him let go of its hook in the ceiling. It crashed spectacularly to the floor showering him in earth, plant and shards of pottery. The class, dissolving into mirth, fell off their chairs laughing and I heard someone say; 'I reckon that's instant karma, Jason.'
Fortunately only his pride was hurt.
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 do you confuse a blonde?
Answer: Put her in a circle and tell her to sit in the corner.
When you use humor well you benefit, along with your audience.
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 irony, try some physical humor.
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!
Understanding how and why humor works:
The psychological and physiological benefits of humor: