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Tips and Techniques on Using Humor in Public Speaking

Aileen provides presentation skills training, media training, speech coaching, and crisis communications training for executives.

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Humor in Public Speaking: Do You Dare?

Many in the public eye who are preparing to make remarks will wonder how, when, and most importantly whether to inject a bit of humor. After all, when done right, nothing breaks the ice and earns a speaker goodwill faster than connecting with an audience through humor. When done wrong? Well, that can be embarrassing for both the speaker AND the audience and interfere with how you’re viewed through the rest of your speech.

But what constitutes “funny”? Ah, there’s the difficulty.

Will the audience laugh? Will they groan? Can they relate to the humor, or will that “joke” wind up being an obstacle for them in appreciating the rest of what you have to say? The slippery unknown is what causes many speakers to decide not to give humor a try. There are ways however that you can increase the odds of injecting humor successfully in your next public appearance and take your public speaking skills to the next level.

Here are a few tips to consider when deciding whether funny is something you can add to your repertoire as a public speaker.

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  • Are you good at this? Are you known for your sense of humor and using it to put people at ease? If the first time you’re thinking about displaying your sense of humor is as a speaker at a public event, think again. Public forums aren’t the place for you to hone this skill because the stakes to your personal reputation are too high. Tell the wrong joke or, worse, inadvertently offend through humor, and that’s all anyone will remember.
  • This isn’t standup. Unless you’re a professional comic, stay away from telling typical formulaic jokes. Think less about the “two guys walk into a bar” tales and more about the use of gentle humor that doesn’t hold anyone or any group up to ridicule. Remember, the point here is to connect with an audience, not to make anyone uncomfortable at the expense of a laugh. If a line, story, or joke you think is funny falls flat, It makes it hard to recover.
  • Turn the humor inward. Self-deprecating humor where you’re the target of the joke might work for you, as long again as the humor is gentle. Sharing your confusion about something the audience can relate to or catching yourself in a mistake are examples that might work.
  • Make the humor organic. If you can find humor in a situation that is particularly relevant to the event or to something your audience has probably experienced, so much the better. Again, think less about standard jokes than about relatable stories that contain some humor flowing naturally from your experiences.
  • Run it by someone. One of the reasons using humor is fraught with danger for speakers is that humor is an area with plenty of grey areas. We simply don’t all agree about what’s funny, or even, what might be appropriate in a public setting. If you know someone who will be attending the event, run the humor by them first to gauge reaction. Stay on the safe side and make sure your humor accomplishes everything you want it to.
  • Find ways to make your humor authentic. Never just copy someone else’s jokes or stories and assume it’ll work for you too. Seek to show your audience the real you through your humor. Tell about an incident or relate a short story that happened to you, and you’ll instantly feel more comfortable, more like yourself, with your audience. They’ll be able to tell the difference.
  • Practice in lower risk situations. When you’re completely at ease with friends or family, that’s the time to begin paying attention to the stories you tell and the reactions you get to them. You can use these low-stress situations to essentially hone your skill at injecting humor into your conversations. If you look at these interactions as practice for larger audiences, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to begin finding what works for you.

Using humor well will help you create an instant rapport with your audience and increase your likability as a speaker. If your audience likes you and feels you can relate to them, they will have an easier time listening to and appreciating the real messaging content of what you came to say.

Chances are that you’ll know if you’re succeeding by simply paying attention to the reaction you get. If you notice you are more readily approached after your address, you’ll know your audience found you open and welcoming enough to engage with.

Remember, every public speaking appearance is a chance to cement your professional reputation with an audience. You want to make sure you are remembered for all the right reasons, whether you chose to make an audience laugh as well as make them think.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Aileen Pincus

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