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May 2024
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Topical One-Liners Bring Levity and Instant Audience Connection

By Nick Jack Pappas

Woman laughing

Every night, millions of viewers tune into late-night TV talk shows and spend their last minutes awake hearing the voice of someone they trust. The power of late-night hosts is their ability to relate to audiences—you can harness that same power in your speeches.

The opening segment of most late-night talk shows is the monologue: a brief, funny rundown of the day’s news. Of course, you shouldn’t recite an entire monologue before your speech, but adding one great line that relates to your subject will get the audience on your side right away.

The reason is both emotional and practical. Emotionally, a topical one-liner makes you feel like a friend because it keys into what people have been talking about that day. Practically, it’s easy to pull off. Topical one-liners are a laughter magic trick. Old jokes feel hacky. Fresh jokes feel spontaneous and show your ability to be funny on the spot.

Here are a few tips to become a one-liner magician.

Find the Big Story

When you watch the news or simply talk to people around you, one story always stands out. Find the lead story, the one everyone in the audience knows. Humor only works when your audience is familiar with your angle.

Keep It Short

One-liners, by their nature, are short and sweet. The audience is here for your speech, not your stand-up routine. A quick line will get them on your side, while a long story can feel indulgent.

End on the “Laugh Trigger”

When you find a funny idea, editing is crucial. Humor comes from surprise, so the audience should be surprised by the very last word you say. Consider the following examples:

“I heard Starbucks is closing 150 stores today. They’re probably all on the same block, so it’s no big deal.”

“I heard Starbucks is closing 150 stores today. And get this, all on the same block.”

The second line works better because the laugh trigger—the words “the same block”—is the surprise reveal.

For your next speech, try starting off with a one-liner you thought of that day. Make it short and end it on a high note. People stay up to listen to late-night hosts tell great jokes. It’s not a bad idea to give your audience a reason to stay awake for your speech.

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