How To: Want to Be Funny? You Can't Go Wrong If You Name That Song

How To: Want to Be Funny? You Can't Go Wrong If You Name That Song

Want to be funny?

 By Malcolm Kushner

Most people consider public speaking more frightening than death. It’s a commonly cited survey result. It’s a cliché. And it’s not true.

If public speaking were scarier than death, it would be used as a threat in action movies. After capturing the hero, the bad guy would say, “If you don’t cooperate, I’ll make you give a speech!” But that never happens. The bad guy inevitably says, “If you don’t cooperate, I’ll shoot you.” That’s because death is a more powerful threat.

But there is one type of public speaking that is scarier than death – using humor in a speech. Ever hear someone say, “I couldn’t tell a joke to save my life”? That person would rather die than try to get a laugh in a presentation. And that person has lots of company.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way for anyone to inject humor into a speech about even the driest of topics. It’s the song-title technique. Let me tell you about it!

A friend of mine asked for my help on giving a speech to lawyers and accountants about the status of the U.S. estate tax. So we’re talking dry topic. Actually, more like a drought. Anyway, the status is uncertain because the American Congress made deep cuts in the estate tax until 2010. That means heirs of rich people who die get to keep a lot more money. But the cuts disappear if they’re not made permanent in the next year or two. And my friend wanted to begin his speech by addressing this uncertainty with humor.

Because the speech was in Memphis, the birthplace of Elvis Presley, I suggested he make a reference to Elvis. “How do I say something funny that relates to Elvis and the uncertainty of estate taxes?” my friend asked. That’s when I created the song-title technique.

I selected titles of Elvis songs that could be grouped into a common theme. Then I made it seem as if Elvis had recorded the songs in anticipation of the estate-tax debate. This is what I told my friend to say:

Here in Memphis you can feel the presence of Elvis everywhere – especially when you talk about the estate tax. Really. He died before the current reforms took effect. But he knew that one day Congress would have to decide whether to make them permanent. And he recorded some songs as a message to Congress. Here are the top 5 titles:

  • “It’s Now Or Never”
  • “Don’t Be Cruel”
  • “Keep Your Hands Off It”
  • “Walk A Mile In My Shoes”
  • “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?”

Elvis also recorded some songs if the estate-tax law doesn’t pass. The top 5 are:

  • “Tell Me Why”
  • “Reconsider Baby”
  • “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”
  • “Hearts Of Stone”
  • “Easy Come, Easy Go”

As you can imagine, this went over very well. The audience appreciated any effort to spice up a topic as dull as estate taxes. And my friend was off to a great start with his speech.

What if you’re not speaking in Memphis? No problem. This technique isn’t limited to Elvis Presley’s birth place. It will work anywhere people are familiar with Elvis – which means just about anywhere in the world. In fact, the song-title technique can work with any well-known musician or group that has recorded a large number of songs.

A good example is the Beatles. Everyone knows who they are. And they have a long list of song titles that you can group into themes.

So let’s say you’re going to make a training presentation. You have to teach a group of people something really complicated – a computer program, details of complex new legislation, medical procedures, whatever. You might begin by saying:

It may sound strange, but I feel the Beatles are here with us today. Because they recorded some songs on how you may feel about learning [topic of your talk]. The top three titles are:

  • “The Long And Winding Road”
  • “It’s All Too Much”
  • “Help!

Fortunately, they also recorded some songs about how I feel. The top three are:

  • “I Want To Hold Your Hand”
  • “Ask Me Why”
  • “We Can Work It Out”

The beauty of this technique is that it doesn’t require any special comic delivery. Anyone can use it successfully. And the research required – finding lists of song titles – is easily accomplished with a quick Web search.

So the next time you want to use humor in a speech, you don’t have to fear the experience more than death. Just remember the songs that Frank Sinatra recorded for you:
“High Hopes; I’ve Got The World On A String;” and “(The) Best Is Yet To Come.” 

Malcolm Kushner is the author of Presentations For Dummies and curator of the museum of Visit his web sites at and