I Want to Be Funny-How to Add Humor to Your Speech without being a Clown

Doug Staneart  |  02/22/20
last updated

I Want to Be Funny

Want to add humor to your speech? Quite often, when we are designing speeches and presentations for a professional audience, we discount the value of entertainment and humor. However, a good presentation should be both informative and entertaining. You have to have both. If you aren’t providing the audience with good information, then you’re wasting their time. If you aren’t providing some type of entertainment, though, you will likely bore your audience. As a result, they will lose interest. So, by adding a little humor to your speech, you keep your audience engaged throughout your presentation.

Should I tell Jokes to Add Humor to My Speech?

When I first started speaking, I had a mentor who had been a speaker and trainer for over three decades. Very early on in my training, she advised me to “Never tell jokes in your speeches.” Later on, though, she encouraged me to add funny stories and anecdotes to my presentations. This contradiction was confusing. In fact, I never really figured out why she and other public speaking coaches were so anti-joke. My guess is that it is an extreme overreaction to a negative experience at some point.

For instance, if a speaker starts a speech with a joke and it bombs, it is difficult to recover. Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that many jokes are pretty off-color or inappropriate. One of our professional presentation coaches also teaches people how to do Comedy Improv. He mentioned to me that a major factor in whether a joke is funny or a flop is timing. As a result, I suspect that many presentation coaches discourage jokes because it is difficult to teach timing.

Whatever the case, I’d wager that every single professional keynote speaker has at least one joke in their keynote speeches somewhere. So eliminating jokes from your presentations entirely is probably a bad idea.

The Difference Between a Joke and Just a Funny Story.

If you look at the definition of a joke, according to www.dictionary.com, a joke is…

A thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline.

So, according to these great public speaking coaches, a funny story or funny anecdote is okay, but a “story with a funny punchline” is not okay? Huh? That doesn’t make any sense.

In my experience, there is absolutely no difference between a joke and a funny story. The only exception is if you insert a joke that has absolutely nothing to do with your presentation. Often, this type of forced delivery can backfire on you. Your jokes need to be appropriate to the point that you are making. In addition, you will want to practice them over and over so that you have them down cold. A poorly delivered joke (or funny story) can be very challenging to overcome.

Make Your Point with Humor

Make Your Point with Humor

One of my first big clients, Ron, was the manager of a truck dealership in Ft Worth. Ron was famous (maybe infamous) for starting every meeting with a corny joke. Every week, before he or his managers discussed any business, he’d start the meeting with something corny. Everyone would both laugh and somewhat cringe at the same time. It became part of the culture. (By the way, it really worked. Folks loved to come to his meetings.) Ron was a virtual encyclopedia of clean, corny jokes.

For Ron, this technique worked really well. However, I don’t encourage people to do this. I doubt that I would as successful with the technique if I used it. For most speakers, using your funny stories as a way to add showmanship to the point that you are making works much better.

The following techniques will give you much better results:

  1. Tell a Self-Deprecating Story about How You Screwed Up.
  2. Find a Funny Joke that Reinforces Your Bullet Point.
  3. Add a Funny Analogy.
If you haven’t yet listened to How to Design Presentations Quickly, it gives a few great tips on how to determine what main points to cover in your presentation. Once you create a good bullet point, ask yourself these questions as ways to identify how to add humor to the bullet point.

Tell a Self-Deprecating Story about How You Screwed Up.

As you go through your list of main bullet points to cover in your speech, try this. Ask yourself, “Have I ever had an experience, related to this point, where I totally screwed up?” You will be surprised at how often a funny incident will pop into your head. Keep in mind that sometimes, these incidents seem horrifying to us. However, when we tell the stories to others, they have a high potential for humor.

For instance, I often start my presentation classes by telling the audience about a huge failure I had as a speaker. When I experienced this failure, it was not funny. It was actually, probably quite sad. However, when I relay the story now, even I get a chuckle out of it. In the story, I prepared a 15-minute speech. I practiced over and over. When I delivered it, though, I spoke really fast. So, I finished in less than four minutes. After I said my last sentence, I looked around the room at all of the confused faces. Panic sat in. Having nothing more to say, I just abruptly returned to my seat and sat down. Glancing around the table, I noticed that the entire room was still staring at me. They all still had confused looks on their faces as well. It was quite awkward.

Self-deprecating humor is almost always the best (and easiest) type of humor to add to a presentation. The easiest way to make an embarrassing story funny is to exaggerate what happened.

Find a Funny Joke that Reinforces Your Bullet Point.

Google the word “joke” followed by the main idea in your bullet point. For example, I was recently writing a speech on how to improve listening skills in the office. I typed “joke listening” into Google, and I got the following ideas.

  1. Recently, my wife asked me, “Are you even listening to me?” I thought that was a really weird way to start a conversation.
  2. Job interviewer: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” “I’d say my biggest weakness is listening.”
  3. “You know it is times like these when I wished I had listened to what my mom told me.”
    “Really? What she say?”
    “I don’t know. I wasn’t listening.”

Any of these can, with a little creativity, be tied into the point that I’m making.

For instance, I could start with the phrase, “The third listening level is what we call ‘Selective Listening.’ That reminds me of a conversation my wife and I had recently. She heatedly asked me, ‘Are you even listening to me?!” I thought, “That is a strange way to start a conversation.'”

This technique takes a little timing and practice, but it can pay off in a positive way.

Add a funny analogy

Add a Funny Analogy to Add Humor to Your Speech.

I use analogies a lot in my presentations. An analogy is basically making a comparison of something you are trying to explain with something more commonplace. What makes these fun and funny is when you compare things that absolutely and totally unrelated.

For instance, a young lady who was a technician at an electric company came through my class a few weeks ago. Her presentation was about new software that would help their sales reps find prospective customers better. She started the explanation by saying the following:

“When you think of good combinations you think of things like peanut butter and jelly or salt and pepper. You don’t really think about things like salad and ketchup. That is a bad match. So when the program analyzes a potential client and sees a manufacturing company, it identifies that potential client as a ‘peanut butter and jelly’ type prospect. However, with a small retail company that uses very little electricity, that would be more of a ‘ketchup and salad’ combo.”

What made the delivery funny was that she used this bad combination expression a few times, and every time that she did, she got a bigger laugh. The audience eventually started identifying whether the match was peanut butter and jelly or salad and ketchup.

The humor worked because she picked an absurd combination with ketchup and salad, and the food items have absolutely nothing to do with electricity consumption. The great news about analogies is that even if they don’t get a laugh, they still work well as showmanship.

Add Colloquialism’s to Your Speech

Being from Texas, this is one of my favorite techniques. Dr. Phil, the blunt psychologist who became famous on the Oprah Winfrey show is the king of these. His down-home speech allowed people to laugh and lower their defenses. Mark Twain was also famous for this. The folksy sayings in

  • Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn made those books very popular.

Type “[Your State or Region] colloquialism” into Google, and you will find funny sayings unique to your area. I did this with Texas, and I got a list of “Texas Sayings”. My favorite was “He’s all hat and no cattle.” I tried it again for “Southern colloquialism” and I got, “That’s a hard dog to keep on the porch” and “He’s happier than a tick on a fat dog.”

This technique is harder to pull off, but if you do, you can have your audience rolling in the aisle.

Just remember to make your presentations fun. Add humor to your speech, and you will easily do this.

author Doug Staneart
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Doug Staneart is the CEO of The Leader's Institute. LLC and founder of the Fearless Presentations class. He is author of Fearless Presentations, Mastering Presentations, and 28 Ways to Influence People.

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