Incorporate Humor in Your Next Speech By Stephen D
Incorporate Humor in Your Next Speech
By Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D.
Some speakers say, “I could never use humor in my speech; I just don’t
feel comfortable with it.” I believe that anyone can use humor and that it is
a valuable tool in speaking. Appropriate humor relaxes an audience and makes it
feel more comfortable with you as the speaker; humor can bring attention to the
point you are making; and humor will help the audience better remember your
point. It can break down barriers so that the audience is more receptive to your
First, let me make it easy for you to use humor. The best and most comfortable
place to find humor for a speech is from your own personal experience. Think
back on an embarrassing moment that you might have thought not funny at the
time. Now that you can laugh at the experience, you understand the old adage
"Humor is simply tragedy separated by time and space." Or think of a
conversation that was funny. Remember the punch line and use it in your speech.
Probably the least risky use of humor is a cartoon. The cartoon is separate from
you and if people don't laugh, you don't feel responsible. (Be sure to secure
permission to use it.) You're not trying to be a comedian; you just want to make
it easy for people to pay attention and to help them remember your point.
Here are some suggestions on using humor to make your next speech have more
1. Make sure the humor is funny to you. If you don’t laugh or smile at
the cartoon, joke, pun, one-liner, story, or other forms of humor, then you
certainly cannot expect an audience to do so. A key to using humor is only using
humor that makes you laugh or smile.
2. Before using humor in your speech, try it out with small groups of people.
Do they seem to enjoy it? Even if your experimental group does not laugh or
smile initially, don’t give up on the humor, because the problem might be in
the way you are delivering the joke or quip. I often use this line in talking
about the importance of listening. “We are geared to a talk society. Someone
said, ‘The only reason we listen is so we can talk next!'” When I first
tried that line, people did not smile; but I worked on the timing so that I
paused and smiled after “listen” and that seemed to work. I was rushing
through the punch line and did not give people time to be prepared for the
humorous part. It took practice to get comfortable with the piece of humor. Only
use humor in a speech after you are comfortable telling it from memory and have
3. Make sure the humor relates to the point you are making. Do not use
humor that is simply there to make the audience laugh. The humor should tie in
with some aspect of your speech. For example, I tell about my experience of
getting braces at age 46 and how difficult it was for me to get used to the
wires and rubber bands in my mouth. After I tell the story I make the point that
you may have not had the braces problem I had, but we all have challenges in
communicating well, and what we want to look at today are ways of making it
easier for us to be more effective in speaking. The audience enjoys the story
but also remembers the point that I'm making. If you don’t tie your humor to
your presentation, the audience may like the humor, but will wonder what point
you are attempting to make.
4. Begin with something short. A starting point might be to summarize a
cartoon and give the caption as your humor. A thought-provoking yet clever line
about a point you are making is another way to get started. For example, when I
talk about creativity and getting out of your comfort zone, a line I found that
worked well was, “Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s license.” In your
reading, look for lines that make you smile; consider how they might be used in
your next speech. Be careful about launching into a long humorous
story--audiences are quick to forgive a single line that may not be funny, but
they do not have much patience with a long anecdote that isn’t worth the time.
So start out with brief bits of humor.
5. When possible, choose humor that comes from people you interact with.
You do not have to worry about people having heard it before, and you will feel
more comfortable with what has happened to you. Find such experiences by looking
for a humorous line or situation. For example, I was making a bank deposit
recently at a drive-in window. When I asked to make a second deposit, the teller
said solemnly, “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to go around the bank a
second time to make a second deposit.” We both laughed and I may have a line
to work into a speech. If you have small children, listen for something they say
that might be funny to an audience as well. Art Linkletter made a great living
on the notion that “Kids say the darndest things.”
6. Don’t preview by saying, “Let me tell you a funny story.” Let
the audience decide for themselves. Look pleasant and smile as you launch into
your funny line, but if no one smiles or laughs then just move on as though you
meant for it to be serious. This approach takes the pressure off as you relate
the humor. Remember you are not a comedian entertaining the audience; you are a
serious speaker seeking to help the audience remember and pay attention by using
humor as a tool.
Humor is simply another way of making a point with your audience, and it can
help you be a more effective speaker. Look at humor as a tool in improving your
speech in the manner of attention devices, smooth transitions, and solid
structure. Remember, “A smile is a curve that straightens out a lot of
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is a professor of speech communication at Northern
Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He works with organizations
that want to speak and listen more effectively to increase personal and
professional performance. He can be reached at 800-727-6520 or visit http://www.sboyd.com
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