Public Speaking: Incorporate Humor in Your Next Speech

Business woman giving a conference

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Public speaking notoriously provokes fear in many speakers. However, knowing that you have a great, humorous speech to deliver can go a long way toward alleviating speaking anxiety. Some speakers say, “I could never use humor in my speech. I just don’t feel comfortable with it.” Anyone can use humor; appropriate humor relaxes an audience and makes them feel more comfortable with you as the speaker. Humor can bring attention to the point you are making and help the audience better remember it.

Developing Anecdotes

The best and most comfortable place to find humor comes from your own personal experience. Think back on an embarrassing moment that you might not have found funny at the time. Or remember a funny conversation you had, and incorporate it into your speech. For a low-risk option, use a cartoon and its caption. Since the cartoon is separate from you, if people don't laugh, you won't feel responsible. Keep a pad and pen handy so you can jot down funny ideas or stories that pop into your head throughout the day.

When feasible, look for humor that comes from people with whom you interact. You don't have to worry about an audience having heard it before. Look for humor in the foibles or dramas in your own daily life. If you have small children, listen to humorous things they say that might appeal to an audience as well. 

Honing the Delivery

Before using humor in your speech, practice with small groups of people. Even if your experimental group does not laugh or smile initially, persevere because the problem might be in the way you are delivering the joke or quip. It can take practice to get comfortable with a given piece of humor. Only use humor in a speech after you are comfortable telling it from memory and have tested it. Incorporate just enough detail for the audience to paint a mental picture of your humorous situation, as you set them up to receive the punchline. 

Deliver your humor in a conversational manner and blend it seamlessly with the rest of your speech. Factor in the "rule of threes" which says that, if you haven't delivered your punchline by the third line of your joke, it's too long. Be careful about launching into a long humorous story. Audiences are quick to forgive a single line that isn't funny, but they may not have much patience for a long anecdote. 

Potential Misfires

Don’t preview your humor by saying, “Let me tell you a funny story.” Let the audience decide for themselves. Look pleasant and smile as you launch into your funny line, but if no one smiles or laughs, then just move on as though you meant for it to be serious. This approach takes the pressure off as you relate the humor. Remember that you are not a comedian; you are a serious speaker seeking to help the audience remember and pay attention by using humor as a tool.

Make sure the humor relates to the point you are making. Do not use humor where the only purpose is to make the audience laugh; it should tie in with some aspect of your speech. Otherwise, the audience may like the humor but wonder what point you are attempting to make and get sidetracked from the meat of your presentation.

Above all, make sure your chosen humor is funny to you. If you don’t laugh or smile at the cartoon, joke, pun, one-liner, story, or another form of humor, don't expect an audience to do so. ​