Laugh it off!
Giving a humorous speech
by Catherine Welborn
Regardless of their political affiliations, most Americans agree that President Obama is an excellent public speaker. He appears to be comfortable in front of an audience whether he’s motivating his supporters, responding to political opponents or announcing matters of national importance. On April 30, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he showed that he also is quite comfortable cracking jokes during a speech. In fact, he garnered laughs with the pointed delivery of a president’s standard opening line: “My fellow Americans …”
If you are considering injecting humor into your next speech or presentation, I applaud you. Humor is an effective tactic for making your message more engaging and memorable to your audience—if it is used effectively. Follow these tips to ensure that you use humor to your best advantage:
- Consider the venue. Quite simply, humor is not always appropriate. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner often invites laughter, jokes and roasts, so it was a fitting place for President Obama to poke fun at his own—as well as others’—expense. On the other hand, he would never display such revelry during a State of the Union address. Think about your audience, topic and venue when determining how much humor to include. In many cases, a joke or two will be effective, but don’t go overboard.
- Tread lightly on serious subjects. Obama devoted much of his presentation to two topics: his birth and the loss of his teleprompter funding. While many Americans did consider the question of Obama’s birthplace a serious issue, the president has repeatedly referred to it as “silly.” That attitude, coupled with the release of his long-form birth certificate days before, made a clip from Disney’s The Lion King—which he referred to as the video of his birth—an appropriate joke. The teleprompter issue, too, was widely considered humorous.Compare those two topics with one that President Bush was criticized for joking about at the 2004 correspondents’ dinner: his failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Obama didn’t risk that sort of backlash by joking about his more serious criticisms, such as the unemployment rate. If you decide to make jokes, choose a topic that your audience will also consider a laughing matter. Otherwise, you could offend your listeners.
- Employ technology. Telling jokes comes naturally to some people, but many struggle with comedy because the timing and delivery have to be so precise. If you want to include more humor in your speech but worry you’ll botch the punch lines, consider including some funny videos. Obama included three short videos in his speech, all of which were well-received by his audience.
- Play nice. In addition to mocking himself, Obama also poked fun at some of his critics and political opponents. However, none of those jabs were particularly harsh. Even though he spent a few minutes goofing on Donald Trump, for instance, his tone did not come close to the level of derision used by Seth Meyers, the main speaker of the evening. Additionally, Obama spread the jokes around, making a few lighthearted jabs at people on his side, including his wife, Michelle, and Vice President Joe Biden. If you respond to your critics with humor at their expense, don’t be mean-spirited, bitter or spiteful, or you will lose the respect of your audience.
- Balance humor with seriousness. Unless you’re a comedian, you probably don’t want your entire speech to be a series of jokes. Even at the correspondents’ dinner, where humor is expected, President Obama chose to end on a serious note, acknowledging the tornado victims in the South and thanking the American troops and press for their courage and diligence. Always keep in mind what your audience members hope to take away from your talk. Chances are “a good laugh” isn’t their top priority.
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Delivered each month, American Speaker Forum offers you public-speaking advice and tips for wowing your audience during your next presentation. This resource also offers you a way to ask for feedback on your next speaking engagement and to share your own experience with your colleagues.