The old saying, ‘Always start with a joke’, endures like no other. Behind this is the idea that a well-timed gag will win over any audience and open them up to your message. But the role of comedy in public speaking is far more complex than this phrase would have you believe.
As a public speaking coach and occasional stand-up comic, I’ve experienced first-hand the thrills of winning an audience over with comedy. I’ve also developed an ear for humour in public speaking – keenly observing the effective and slightly less effective ways in which speakers make use of it.
Maybe don’t start with a joke
In my experience, not every speech needs laughs and not every speaker should chase them. Unlike stand-up routines, powerful speeches don’t have to be funny. If you find yourself forcing jokes into a speech for sake of it, stop. You’ll come across as cheesy and may lose the respect of your audience.
When trying to get a laugh, many speakers turn to puns and gags. Comedians like Tim Vine have got these down to a fine art. However, in serious speeches, they don’t always go down as well. I’ve noticed that puns tend to get audiences laughing and groaning in equal measure, so my advice would be to use them sparingly.
Play with different types of humour
Audiences are more likely to warm to amusing anecdotes and observations that draw on your own experiences. These stories tend to feel more real, less forced and give your audience opportunities to connect with you as a speaker.
The kind of humour these anecdotes draw on may be slow-burning, but that’s not a bad thing. If you go on stage as a comedian, you’re expected to be funny from the off. As a speaker, you’re given far more freedom. There’s no pressure get audience laughing straight away.
One thing that stand-up crowds and public speaking audiences do have in common is an appreciation of self-deprecation. This famously British trait allows audiences to identify with your vulnerabilities and relate to you as a human being. If you’re dealing with a complex topic, it’s sometimes good to joke that even you have been overwhelmed by it.
Learn to fail
When you dip your toes in the world of stand-up, you very quickly learn to give yourself permission to fail. The same is true if you’re incorporating humour into your speeches. Failing to make people laugh is an important part of the process of finding your comedic style. If you’re nervous about falling on your face, I’d advise that you give your ‘funny’ speech to a small audience first and if things don’t go it plan, it’s a bit less painful!
Don’t give up
Attempting to make a room of people laugh can be a daunting prospect, but it needn’t be. If you’re open to experimentation and prepared for the odd awkward silence, you’ll be well on your way to finding your comedic voice.