Two tips for using humor in speeches

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I mentioned earlier that I had a great time last weekend at the District 63 Toastmasters Conference. Part of the reason, honestly, is that the education session I conducted went well, by which I mean people seemed to enjoy learning something practical about parliamentary procedure.

I don’t think anyone expects to have fun with Robert’s Rules of Order, but indications are that people did. While I didn’t want to just have fun, I did want to have fun learning something useful together, because I think (and research supports) that you understand more and retain more if you have fun learning.

I love stand-up comedians, but most speakers need a different approach. Here are tow tips this week for using humor when speaking. We have two more already lined up for you next week!

When you use humor, make sure at whose expense it is

Have you ever laughed at a racist joke, and then felt sort of dirty? The joke may have been genuinely funny, but you don’t feel good laughing at it. You don’t want to leave your audience feeling that way.

The safest humor is when you are poking fun at yourself. I can tell jokes about aging men because I am one. When a 20-something tells them, they may still be funny, but they can come across as mean-spirited. A stand-up comedian can deal with that–many have made entire careers from appearing mean-spirited! But it can cause an audience to reject a speaker’s message. There’s a limit to poking fun at yourself, though. Do it too much or too harshly, and your audience will start to get uncomfortable, feeling the need to defend you, even if from yourself.

The next safest humor is poking gentle fun at a good-natured authority figure. District Governor Don Bittick is a great example here. He has a way of getting serious things done without taking himself too seriously. I helped with the district business meeting as parliamentarian, and at one point I teased him because he has left his chart of motions somewhere else. It was a little chancy, since if he had gotten his feelings hurt, it could have backfired. But Don has such a great sense of humor, he laughed harder than anyone, which really helped the business meeting to flow better, and then later he teased me back, which was a great humor technique in itself.

Skip the jokes, make a point

If you’ve ever been advised to start a speech with a joke, think twice about following that advice–unless it’s not really a joke, but a funny story or some other form that can illustrate a point.

If you tell a joke that falls flat, you interfere with the audience connecting with you and getting your point. If they do laugh at something that isn’t related to your topic, you have to switch tracks, and you may send the message, “OK, fun’s over.” Tell a story. If they think it’s funny, great–it’s additional energy. If they don’t, they may not realize it was supposed to be funny, and as long as the story illustrates something connected to your point, it will help.

To illustrate potentially dry points about rules of order, I used some faintly ridiculous motion. “I move that we send out for pizza at our next meeting.” “I move to amend the main motion by striking the word ‘pizza’ and substituting the word ‘tacos.'” The form is the same, but audiences can have fun thinking of even more ridiculous motions, and they will learn the form in the process.

That’s all for this week, folks!

All kinds of good advice is out there for people who want to use humor in speaking. One of the best books about it comes from Judy Carter (this links to the Kindle edition, but there are other formats available from the same page). These are just a couple of lessons I noticed recently, and I’ll share two more with you on Sunday.

How do you use humor to make a point?

Photo Credit: notarivs cc

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.