In the morning, I write in my studio, facing an open window that gives me fresh air and an oblique view of the ocean. Sometimes neighbors walk by and shout up hellos and how-are-yous to me. Bob, who makes a living as a professional speaker, often comes by after he’s done his morning run. He’s always smart and funny and full of memorable anecdotes, so I don’t mind interrupting my work to have a five-minute chat with him.
This morning I told him about my weekend at the Ultimate Fighting Championship and he told me about his plans for next Saturday.
“I’ve got an 8:30 speaking slot at a big hotel in Miami,” he told me. “Can you imagine? The last day of a three-day conference, after they’ve been out till the wee hours on South Beach? If anyone shows up, they’ll surely be hung over.”
“It sounds bad,” I admitted. “Maybe you should tape record your speech, play it softly in the background, and have them do stretching exercises instead.”
He laughed. “If I could get away with that, I would. I think I’ll do a little research on hangover jokes and lead with that.” I
wanted to know where he goes to find jokes for his speeches. “I love The Penguin Dictionary of Jokes, Wisecracks, Quips, and Quotes,” he told me. “And I have about a dozen other books like it.”
I thought about similar books on the bookshelf behind my desk: The Friar’s Club Bible of Roasts, Toasts, Pokes and And I Quote: The Definitive Collection of Quotes, Sayings, and Jokes for the Contemporary Speechmaker.
“The trouble with those,” I told him, “is that most of them seem corny or cliched to me. I always end up trying something original.”
“How does that work?” he asked.
“Not too well,” I had to admit. “When I plan jokes, I think I try too hard to be clever.”
“Yeah, I’ve found that the corny and cliched stuff works pretty well,” he said. “You think to yourself, ‘Boy this joke is really silly,’ but then you do it and the audience howls. I think it’s because the audience really doesn’t want cleverness from you. They want you to tell them something that they either do not know or need to hear over and over again.”
That makes sense, doesn’t it? Your audience wants one good idea that they can take home and put to work. And if you can make them laugh while you are explaining that idea, they’ll appreciate it.
Aside from sticking with the corny, cliched stuff, here are two other tricks for using humor during your speeches:
1. Keep things simple. If you tell long, complicated jokes, you risk confusing your audience or – worse – boring them.
2. Make sure your jokes are appropriate. Don’t throw them in just to get laughs. If you do that, and the joke doesn’t work, you embarrass yourself and the audience too. But if your jokes are germane to the subject of your speech and they are woven into your presentation in a logical way, it doesn’t matter if they get a laugh or not.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]