The right amount of well-placed and appropriate humor can make your speech a smashing success!
Using humor effectively can be tricky. We’ve all sat through functions where the speaker is a John Cleese wannabe who hardly belongs on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Not to suggest that public speaking must be a laugh fest, but injecting just the right joke at just the right moment into an address can really capture your audience’s attention and goodwill. Humor can also serve to sharpen your speech’s focus and maximize its impact.
As an experienced Off-Broadway musical comedy director, actress and writer, I’ve mastered many comic stage skills in my time. The great thing about such theatrical tricks is that they can be easily and seamlessly incorporated into virtually any speech or report you may be called on to give. Learning a few simple humor-oriented speaking tips can also calm those butterflies in your stomach and give you a sense of control over your presentation.
Let’s get you comfy with comedy by reviewing some basics:
Feel Free to be Funny
A confident, relaxed attitude is the first thing you need to master. Yet the idea of trying to be funny in front of your colleagues probably makes you feel anything but relaxed. This is normal. Randy Farias is a seasoned stage actor who specializes in comic roles. He explains: “Everyone in the world is nervous in front of a large group of people. If you try to clamp down on nervousness, your focus becomes the nervousness instead of the subject you’re trying to present.”
So acknowledge that the thought of being funny gives you the jitters, then work to become calm and self-assured. It’s important to understand that you really can’t fail at being funny. Resolve that your goal is not to be so hilarious as to knock Mr. Bean out of show business. Instead, all you want to do is share a funny, positive moment with your audience. If they laugh along, terrific; if not, it isn’t the end of the world. You deserve credit for trying to spread great vibes, no matter what!
Still, if your sweat glands are going into overdrive as you take the podium, plan ahead. “Indulge in the energy created by nerves,” advises Farias. “If you stumble at first, comment on it and laugh at yourself. It’s honest! The audience will laugh with you, not at you.” Don’t apologize, but do share the humor in it.
It’s also very important to tap into your Toastmasters training. Memorize and try to relax by following these tried and tested Toastmasters tips:
- Focus on your message, not on the audience.
- Visualize yourself giving your speech.
- Realize that people want you to succeed.
What’s Your Humor Style?
Many people assume they shouldn’t crack a joke because they feel they are not naturally funny. But the fact that you possess the ability to laugh is proof that you have the tools to be funny.
Everyone has a sense of humor; what makes the world so interesting is the fact that everyone’s sense of humor is unique. Some folks laugh their heads off at slapstick skits while others chuckle at romantic comedies. It’s easy to identify your natural style of humor; just zone in on what kind of comedy you find truly funny. Chances are good that the type of stuff you laugh hardest at is the type of humor you’ll be most comfortable delivering.
Really, it’s just a matter of being yourself. Randy Farias agrees heartily with this. “Children are some of the best models for comedy,” he says. “They don’t filter anything before they speak or act. They’re honest with how they feel, they show it, and that often makes children very, very funny. I try to take that same tack when performing comedy.”
Comedy works when it isn’t forced. So don’t try to imitate a slapstick comedian – or even your favorite speaker. Don’t practice funny faces into your mirror, or put on weird, silly voices. Plan to face your audience as yourself. When thinking about the kinds of jokes you might include within your speech, think anecdotes – everyday situations your entire audience can relate to. Simply tell a funny tale in your speech the same way you’d relate a funny story to a friend, and your humor style – be it absurd, ironic or acerbic – will shine through naturally, with no obvious effort.
Plugging Humor into Your Material
Once you’ve identified the particulars of your humor, what specific process do you use to work it into your speech?
Start by writing the body of your address, leaving out the jokes initially. Your overall message is more important than anything else. Think of the humor you want to insert as an accent to, not an aspect of, your main message.
Once your speech is factually complete, read it over carefully. Make note of sections that can benefit logically from a bit of levity. Once you find such a section, play around with a few options of how to highlight these points with humor.
“Humor is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point
without drawing blood.” – Mary Hirsch
If your speech revolves around specific work issues that everyone present is well-versed in, for instance, having a bit of fun with the given circumstances will probably go over very well. However, it’s extremely important, especially in a professional setting, not to employ controversial or offensive humor, which I guarantee will backfire on you. Never resort to using any humor that is racist or sexist in nature. And unless you perform stand-up comedy in an adult-only nightclub, refrain from using off-color or profane jokes as well.
Your Toastmasters training stresses the importance of knowing your room and your audience. Researching what the audience demographic will be is invaluable when it comes to predicting what type of humor will work. Similarly, the Toastmasters concept of knowing your material will help you feel prepared. Write your jokes directly into the copy of your speech and practice, practice, practice! Memorizing your speech, jokes included, will help you deliver it most naturally, as will trying it out in advance in front of family and friends.
Should You Use a Straight Man?
Jerry Lewis famously worked with comic foil Dean Martin in many classic movie comedies. But in a public-speaking situation, is it really advisable to employ someone else as a straight man for your humor?
In certain circumstances, it can work, but you must evaluate and set up such a scenario very carefully. My Off-Broadway show pulled up an audience member onstage and into the production every single show, and it always appeared funny and spontaneous. In reality, however, each person we used was a “plant” – usually a friend of a cast member who was asked ahead of time and given plenty of preparation. This ensured that the show ran smoothly.
If you have a funny idea you’d like to employ in your presentation using another person, follow our tried-and-true theatrical sleight-of-hand and use a plant. Don’t spring any improvised surprises on your cohort. Also, don’t do a 10-minute routine with this person – you’ll bore your audience, and the message will be lost. Just one short, well-placed joke will suffice.
If your speech is meant to honor or introduce someone who is present, you may be tempted to employ this person as your straight man. Will it work? It depends on the person. Is this individual stuffy and serious or fun-loving and spontaneous? If the latter description fits, then include him or her in the levity.
Here’s an example of how you could do this: Say that a local political candidate has accepted an endorsement from your organization. Today a luncheon is being held to make his acceptance official, and your job is to introduce the candidate to your group and to the local media. Your written speech naturally highlights a long list of the candidate’s accomplishments. Let’s assume, though, that during his most recent public appearance, he sang the local college football fight song notably off-key. Chances are your candidate might want to make light of such a minor embarrassment, if given the chance. So, ask him in advance if you can poke some good-natured fun at him in your remarks. He’ll probably agree, as it could work to his advantage and defuse any bad publicity.
Sarcastic humor is a big mistake, however. The last thing you want to do is make fun of a person you’re supposed to respect. Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you wouldn’t like a particular joke to be told about you, then don’t tell it about someone else.
They say timing is everything, especially in terms of delivering jokes. How important is pacing the humor in your speech? How exactly do you employ the practice of good comic timing?
Randy Farias boils it down: “Simply be honest with the situation,” he says. “Allow the moments or moment needed and make the correct reaction choice. There’s a saying that acting is not acting but reacting, which is never truer than in comedy. That’s where the timing resides – that moment of truthful processing.”
You can easily translate this smart philosophy to your speech. Take in your environment – listen to what your audience gives you – and react to it. This will give your speech a natural rhythm and the proper pacing. Give the audience time to laugh. But speak faster or with more spirit if you sense a lull in the crowd. Let the situation reveal itself to you, and follow its lead in regard to the timing of the humor you use within your speech.
Points to Remember
Here are a few more hints that can help your humor work smoothly:
- Smile and make eye contact with various audience members.
- Don’t laugh at your own jokes.
- Avoid improvisation, unless you’re feeling very comfortable with how the speech is going..
- Customize your material. What works for one audience may not work for another.
- Know when to leave ‘em laughing. Don’t run on too long. Always leave your audience wanting more.
Enjoy how fun it is to be funny. Plus, use it as a learning tool. What jokes and delivery techniques worked best for you? Which didn’t? This type of information will pay off when it’s time to use humor in your next speech.
Lisa Mulcahy is the author of Building the Successful Theater Company. She is a Manhattan-based multimedia writer with extensive experience in theater.