Everyone wants to be funny. It starts with memories of the grade school class clown causing fits and giggles and taking eyes and ears away from the lesson at hand. We all learned early that, when it comes to getting attention, humor is foolproof.
That’s what started me down the path of stand-up comedy, and, 10 years later, toward working at Comedywire, a startup in New York City that helps companies and individuals add humor to their messages. Studies have found that when a good line makes someone laugh, that person is three times more likely to retain the message. Funny bones are directly connected to our brains.
With speechwriting, however, being the class clown isn’t always the best approach. It’s not just about getting attention; it’s about getting the right kind of attention. In many cases, you’re much closer to the teacher desperately trying to keep students’ interest than the class clown trying to shift their focus.
Here are three simple steps to consider as you write your next speech.
Step 1: Don’t Be Funny.
Seems counterintuitive, right? But the advice I offer my clients is to avoid adding humor at all when they write their first draft.
Why? When you’re giving a speech, your focus should always be on presenting a clear, concise message. Too often, speakers try to shoehorn a joke into their speech because they want their audience to laugh, but the outcome is more disjointed than complementary.
A common approach is starting the entire presentation with a joke, hoping to lighten the mood. Consider, however, that the first lines of your speech are crucial. That’s valuable real estate to give to a joke that may hit or miss. If you tell a bad joke, the entire structure of your speech could come crashing down.
Always think of humor as decoration. Your message is your foundation.
Step 2: Look for the ‘Handles.’
After your first draft is written, take a second look and find opportunities to insert jokes that augment your message. Joe Toplyn has been a head writer for former American television show hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno, and in his book Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV Toplyn talks about looking for the “handles” in a headline. Handles are words you can hold onto as you look inside your speech for opportunities to add wit.
One of my clients is a neuroscience professor. He, more than many, understands the value of humor on influencing minds. The problem is, neuroscience can be quite boring. Making complex terms relatable is a skill.
For example, read this line from one of his lectures: “The hypothalamus makes up less than 1 percent of brain mass, yet it is perhaps the most important 1 percent.”
In this case, we grasped onto the handle “1 percent” and considered what else his students might know about that reference. We added this line:
“The other 99 percent of the brain was responsible for the Occupy Hypothalamus Movement a few years ago.”
Referencing the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement that started in New York City isn’t the funniest line in the world, but it did get laughter from a very tough crowd of college students.
Step 3: Know Your Audience.
When it comes to writing humor, I can’t think of a more important rule than knowing your audience. As you punch up your speech, consider who you’ll be speaking to. What age is your audience? Do they share a common profession? Are there cultural barriers or nuances to consider?
People tend to laugh most at what they can relate to. A joke about econometrics will usually fall on deaf ears, but it will get you a standing ovation in a room full of economists. Keep in mind that the only thing that makes your speech different from everyone else’s is you. A common insight for stand-up comedians is that the one thing everyone in the room has in common is that they’re all staring at you. That’s why their first joke is almost always about themselves.
Always remember, if you’re having fun, your audience will have fun too.