The art of the opening joke

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So two speechwriters walk into a bar…

There’s a good reason that the established wisdom around public speaking tells you to begin with a joke. The right joke can get you off to a roaring start:

  • It signals to the audience that they can at least count on being entertained.
  • It establishes common ground between you and the audience. Shared laughter can be a powerful bond.
  • It humanizes you, and tells the audience that you have both wit and a sense of
    fun.
  • It relaxes the audience and gives them an implied permission to respond to
    what you’re saying. And it relaxes you; getting a big laugh at the outset is tremendously reassuring.
  • It can signal the theme of your speech in a memorable way (one that people are
    likely to repeat outside the auditorium or banquet hall).

But beware. The wrong joke can tell an audience something much different about you, and set you up for a fall.

:: A CASE IN POINT

A Vancouver professional society recently sponsored a breakfast presentation. Every audience member had risen early and paid good money to hear what they had every reason to expect would be some valuable information.

The speaker was introduced, went to the podium and said, “Actually, I haven’t always been in this industry. I was in the submarine business until it went under.”

(The speech, need I add, had nothing to do with submarines.)

Pity the speech hadn’t been at night; at least there would have been crickets chirping to break the ensuing painful silence.

It’s not as though the right opening joke would have saved an otherwise mediocre presentation. But the wrong one made an already-nervous speaker even more anxious — and if there’s one emotion audiences can’t help but share with you, it’s anxiety.

What’s more, it signaled to the audience that their expectations of a professional, useful presentation were about to be dashed. (As it turned out, that’s just what happened.)

:: BUT SERIOUSLY…

Because jokes aren’t meant seriously, they can slip into a final draft without the vetting you ought to give them. Don’t let them.

I’ve seen the news coverage of major speeches focus exclusively on a single joke that, taken out of context, reflected badly on the speaker. That’s especially dangerous when you’re writing for a controversial public figure or organization under a lot of scrutiny.

Ask yourself: could this joke come back to haunt me… or hurt my client?

Here are a few tips that have worked well for me over the years. Of course, humour is more of an art than a science, so there are exceptions to most of these rules… but they can help ensure you open with a bang instead of a bomb.

:: FIVE KINDS OF JOKE THAT DON’T WORK

  • Sarcasm.
  • Offensive jokes.
  • Jokes unrelated to the event, the audience, the theme or the speaker.
  • Jokes that require long, complex set-ups.

And, as much as it pains me to admit it,

  • Puns.

:: FIVE KINDS OF JOKE THAT DO

  • Modest jokes. A successful chuckle is better than a failed belly laugh, especially at the beginning. Don’t feel like you have to bring the house down. Last week, Nelson Mandela started his Live 8 speech with just a hint of levity: “As you know, I recently formally announced my retirement from public life and should really not be here.”
  • Short jokes. A long, meandering joke - especially at the beginning - only serves to confuse listeners, who will start wondering what your speech is actually about.
  • Topical jokes. Find a joke that relates to something that will already be on the minds of audience members. It can be about the venue, a recent news item or a timely piece of pop culture; as I write this, a joke about high gas prices would probably go over well.
  • Gentle, good-humoured jokes. Self-deprecating jokes work well at the outset; they express a certain level of trust in your listeners. Save the devastating, hilarious attacks on your opponent or competitor for later in the speech, once you’ve banked some goodwill with your audience.
    Bill Clinton remains a master of poking fun at himself. Receiving an award a few months ago, he said, “One of the things that I had to deal with, when I left office was what I was going to do. I was too young to quit, too inept to play golf, too out of shape to play saxophone and too much of a Calvinist to lay down.”
  • Jokes that relate to your main theme. Even seizing on a key word or notion from the joke can give you the transition you need to use your joke as a springboard into the rest of the speech.

This story originally appeared in SpeechList, a monthly e-mail newsletter. To subscribe, visit http://www.speechlist.com.

Comments

Randy says

May 5, 2010 - 11:42am

Excellent tips on jokes since I enjoy sharing a bit of humour almost on every occassion I get to speak in public. Thanks you!

Anonymous says

July 24, 2011 - 3:55am

i need to write a speech on racial harmony for school. what joke can i add in the begining?

 

R3 says

July 24, 2011 - 3:56am

i need to write a speech on racial harmony for school. can you please give me a short joke that i can  add in the beginning? :)

 

Anonymous says

August 31, 2012 - 8:55am
Thank you for the advice. I am to give a talk in a few weeks to about 40 guests. which happens to be the most I've ever talked to. I am 25 years old and needless to say, I don't have much experience in public speaking. however I have done a lot of studying...i.e. Dale Carnegie, etc. The talk I am to give, relates to my business, which is financial services. I am to speak to business owners of a Janitorial Service, and I was thinking of opening with a joke. Maybe something along the lines of Social Security, or the Market Fluctuation. But anyway, I do thank you for the advice. I am now going to think long and hard of how to open my talk. Thanks again.

Matthew says

August 12, 2013 - 1:54am
Was that "market flatulation" ?

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