Appendix D: Funny Talk: The Art and Craft of Using Humor in Public Address
What is so funny about public speaking? Well, nothing really. On the other hand, a speech that includes some timely and well delivered humor can be especially gratifying for both speaker and audience. Dottie Walters said “Begin with a laugh and end with a tear.” The judicious, strategic, and appropriate use of humor in speaking can help the audience have a positive feeling about: 1) the Subject, 2) the Speaker and 3) the Speech itself. Many people are hesitant to use humor in speeches for a variety of reasons. Some people think that humor is never appropriate for speeches. Some people shy away from it because they do not feel that they are funny. Some people do not use it because they are afraid if no one laughs it is another chance to be rejected. Some do not use it because it may take a bit of extra work to include relevant humor in a speech. You should not be afraid to use humor. With the right planning, preparation, and practice, you can be an effective purveyor of the comic arts. You may find that both you and your audience will be better for it.
Becoming proficient in using humor to connect with audiences and get your message across is not easy. It takes quite a bit of study and practice. Grady Jim Robison noted, quite correctly, that “Humor is not easy-it just looks that way when well done.” Many people will say that they cannot tell a joke or do not have a sense of humor. Using humor, whether a joke, funny story, or other bit of amusing material is a skill which can be developed. There may be some people who are more naturally adept at it, however nearly everyone can learn how to inject a bit of humor into their speeches.
Scholars and practitioners have studied the value and challenges of using humor in public speaking for many years. Consider the information in the following table:
Humor and Audiences: Positives and Negatives
|Beebe & Beebe||Public Speaking Handbook (2013)||Message Retention||Offensiveness Potential|
|Campbell & Huxman||The Rhetorical Act||Attention Keeping, Audience Identification||Bad Taste Potential|
|Engleberg & Daly||Think Public Speaking (2013)||Information Retention, Defuse Anger, Ease Tension, Stimulate Action||Offensiveness, Irrelevance|
|Ferguson||Public Speaking: Building Competency in Stages (2008)||Audience Attention and Enjoyment||Offensiveness|
|Fraleigh & Tuman||Speak Up: An Illustrated Guide to Public Speaking (2009)||Enhances Interest, Gains Attention, Establishes Credibility||Unfunny, Credibility Diminishing|
|Grice & Skinner||Mastering Public Speaking (2011)||Favorable Self Image, Attention Getting, Defuse Audience, Hostility , Emphasize Key Ideas, Transition Between Points||Trivializing Topic, Offending Audience|
|Hogan, et al||Public Speaking and Civic Engagement (2011)||Audience Attention and Interest||Disrespectful, Irrelevant|
|Lucas||The Art of Public Speaking (2012)||Audience Enjoyment||Offensiveness|
|O’Hair, Stewart & Rubenstein||A Speaker’s Guidebook (2010)||Rapport Building, Make Key Points, Introduce Themes||Irrelevance, Bad Taste|
|Osborn, Osborn, & Osborn||Public Speaking (2009)||Relationship Building with Audience, Information Retention||Can Seem Contrived and Flat, Irrelevance|
|Ross & Leonard||Introduction to the Speechmaking Process (2009)||Positive Showmanship, Information Retention||Offensiveness|
|Samovar & McDaniel||Public Speaking in a Multicultural Society (2007)||Point the Audience in the Direction of the Topic||Cultural Inappropriateness|
|Zarefsky||Public Speaking Strategies for Success (2011)||Relaxes the Audience, Speaker Favorability, Disarms Skeptics||Irrelevance, Offensiveness|
Humorous Speaking Tips
Having seen both the value and the complications connected to humor use in speeches, please examine the following tips that weigh both the positive and negative aspects of humor in public address.
Humor is an effective attention getter. You have just a few seconds to make the audience want to hear more. Humor can be a wonderful tool to do exactly that. If you can make the audience laugh or smile at the very beginning, then you will have them anxiously awaiting what you have to say next.
Humor is an effective attention keeper. Audiences can drift away, especially in an age when attention spans are shrinking. Sometimes you have to rein them back in. You can do this with a bit of humor.
Humor can be used to break the monotony. Sometimes you will be dealing with a technical or tedious bit of information that requires a lot of explanation. When this happens, people may begin to get restless. Perk them up with some humor.
Humor can be used to help your audience remember. There is substantial research which supports the idea that information retention is aided when connected with a piece of humor or a good story. The key is to make sure that it is actually connected to the information you want them to remember.
Humor can be used to help your audience have a positive feeling about the message and about you as a speaker. They will likely also have very positive feelings about the event itself and about themselves. Humor can be used for affinity building with your audience. The more they like you or feel connected with you, the more open they are to your message.
Humor can be used to diffuse tension or to soften the blow of a serious or controversial point. Sometimes you will have to make a point that your audience needs but may not want to hear. You can use humor to make that point. You can deflect criticism with humor. Both presidents Kennedy and Reagan were masters of this. Both used humor to deflect criticisms of their age when they ran for president. Opponents thought John Kennedy was too young to be president and Ronald Reagan was too old. Their humor obviously worked. As William K. Zinsser said, “What I want to do is make people laugh so that they’ll see things seriously.”
Humor can offend. It is best to avoid humor that uses sexist, racist, or demeaning language. Avoid profanity and vulgarity and sexual references. You should generally avoid partisan political humor unless you do not mind risking losing half of your audience. Be sure that your language is context-appropriate. Speaking at the Kiwanis club is not the same as speaking at the comedy club.
Humor can make your topic seem trivial. The use of too much humor, especially irrelevant and silly humor, may cause your audience to lose sight of the importance of your topic. Consider how much and what kind of humor to use, particularly when dealing with sensitive or controversial topics.
Humor can be mere filler. When you eat a meal, it is important to eat a balanced diet and remember to eat your vegetables. Dessert is delicious but should not be the entire meal. Think of humor as the dessert or as side dishes and not as the entrée.
Humor can be difficult to translate or understand. If the audience contains several people who do not share your native tongue or national identity be careful that you do not use humor that may not be easily translated by them. Word play can be especially challenging in this situation.
Humor can be culturally inappropriate. Some gestures, words, or phrases may have different meanings in other cultures. In the U. S. the thumbs up sign means “all is well.” In some countries it is considered a vulgar and offensive gesture.
Humor can be irrelevant. If the humor does not connect with the greater message, it can become a distraction. Remember, you do not just want them to laugh, but to consider your entire message very carefully. They may become annoyed or fail to understand the point you are trying to make.
Humor can be unfunny. Sometimes humor falls flat. It may be that they have heard it before or they do not get it, or they just do not find it funny. Remember, humor is subjective. People laugh at different things and for different reasons. Sometimes they are preoccupied with other realities of life. Do not be disheartened. Move on to the next piece of information in the speech. Do not keep repeating the joke or try to explain to them why it is funny. They might be insulted and you are wasting valuable speech time.
As you can see, using humor in your speaking is not necessarily easy, but it is well worth the investment of time and energy. Stewart Harral noted, “Get a laugh and you’ve got an audience!” It will take some planning and some practice. One of the things that worries beginning speakers the most when it comes to humor use is that they think they must prepare original material and become professional standup comedians or humor writers. This is not the case. Certainly, if you have an aptitude for creating humor then develop and nurture that talent and apply it to your publics speaking. Original, fresh humor that comes from a speaker’s experience is always appreciated by an audience.
On the other hand, you need not feel as though you must create amazing pieces of comedy when there is much good, relevant humor available for you to use. Remember that humor is not just joke-telling. In fact, for most speeches jokes are not really the best kind of humor to use. You can use amusing stories, light verse, funny lists, comical visuals, etc. Be sure to give credit to the source. The more you develop this skill, the more comfortable you will become. You may even find that you are a gifted humorist. At any rate, your audience will likely appreciate the effort.