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Some consider humour to be the Holy Grail of public speaking. The old adage, ‘Always start with a joke’, endures like no other. Behind this is the idea that a well-timed gag will win over any audience and open them up to your message. But the role of comedy in public speaking is far more complex and subtle than this phrase would have you believe.
As a fledgling stand-up comic, I've experienced first-hand the thrills of winning an audience over with comedy and the crush of failing to do so. I've also developed an ear for humour in public speaking - keenly observing the effective and slightly less effective ways in which speakers make use of it.
So, should you start with a joke? And if not... how do you write a funny speech?
In my experience, not every speech needs laughs and not every speaker should chase them. Some people just aren't comfortable making light of the issues they want to talk about. And that’s absolutely fine. Unlike stand-up routines, powerful speeches don’t have to be funny. If you find yourself ‘crowbarring’ jokes into a speech for sake of it, stop. You’ll only damage your authenticity and lose the respect of your audience.
When trying to get a laugh, many speakers turn to puns and gags. Comedians like Tim Vine have got these down to a fine art. However, in serious speeches, they don’t always go down so well. I’ve noticed that puns tend to get audiences laughing and groaning in equal measure, so my advice would be to use them sparingly. David Brent, the nightmare boss from The Office famously delivered a whole speech using lacklustre one-liners. It wasn't his finest hour.
Audiences are more likely to warm to amusing anecdotes and observations that draw on your own experiences. These stories tend to feel more real, less forced and give your audience opportunities to connect with you as a speaker.
The kind of humour these anecdotes draw on may be slow-burning, but that’s not a bad thing. When I go on stage as a comedian, I’m expected to be funny from the off. As a public speaker, I’m given a bit more freedom. There’s no pressure to ‘trick’ the audience into laughing straight away. It’s important to realise that when delivering a speech, you are able to incorporate humour at your own pace. It makes being funny that bit easier.
One thing that stand-up crowds and public speaking audiences do have in common is an appreciation of self-deprecation. This famously British trait allows audiences to identify with your vulnerabilities and relate to you as a human being. If you’re dealing with a complex topic, it’s sometimes good to joke that even you have been overwhelmed by it. This gives your audience permission to feel challenged and keeps them on side.
When you’re trying to make it as a stand-up comedian, you very quickly learn to give yourself permission to fail. The same is true if you’re incorporating humour into your speeches. Failing to make people laugh is an important part of the process of finding your own style and developing your own sense of humour. If you’re nervous about falling on your face, I’d advise that you give a ‘funny’ speech to a small audience first and if things don’t go it plan, it’s a lot less painful!
Attempting to make a room of people laugh can be a daunting prospect, but it needn't be. If you’re open to experimentation and prepared for the odd awkward silence, you’ll be well on your way to finding your comedic voice.
Freelance journo & desperate wannabe comedian. Writes for New Statesman, HuffPost & others. Frequently tries to be funny. Very occasionally is.
You can find him here @jamesevans42 and at http://thecharadian.net/. Want more on how to write an amusing speech that'll get your audience rolling?
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