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Getting humour right in public speaking

headshot2013I have just attended an event where the key note speech was marred by the speaker’s attempt to be funny by choosing to tell two very old jokes, so old they managed to be both racist and sexist.  The lack lustre clapping at the end proved it wasn’t just me who found the humour cringe making.

When you first make a presentation of any type, or speech of any sort, people will often tell you to avoid humour because it is difficult to do.  With many after dinner speeches this is tricky because there is a high expectation that you will be both entertaining and amusing.  So, let’s look at dispelling the myth of ‘it’s too hard to do well’ and concentrate on some techniques to help you be as funny as you want to be.  And the first thing to remember is that even stand up comedians have bad days and they’ll also tell you the same joke goes down differently from audience to audience.

One golden rule is whatever you do don’t use old jokes.  Even if you think the joke is fairly new there is bound to be somebody in the audience who has heard it before and there is nothing worse than hearing somebody recycling jokes.  A colleague told me of the nightmare when he was a best man.  He had found a very entertaining joke on the internet which involved condoms.  He had prepared well even to the point of bringing a gift of a condom for the happy couple.  Imagine his panic when the father of the bride stood up and used the same joke.  He had just 30 minutes to mentally rewrite his whole speech.


Humour should sound spontaneous and uncontrived and should never be read aloud.  This means your jokes and humorous stories need to be well known to you if you want them to be well received.

All your humorous comments need to be based around the topic you are addressing and bearing this in mind will help when you are preparing your speech in the first place. Often your first joke will be successful if it’s about you.  It helps relax the audience and show them you don’t mind people laughing even when you are the butt of the joke.
You can learn so much about the delivery of humour from watching comedians.  As you observe them you will notice where they use pauses for affect, where they emphasise a particular word, where they pitch their voice up at the end of a sentence to make sure that you hear the punch line and know this is the end of this story.  So:

  • Do not rush the last line.  You need to make sure that your punch line or the end of your story is as clear, if not clearer, than the beginning of the joke or the story that you are telling so don’t throw away the laugh in your hurry to finish.
  • Look at where you feel the need to place the emphasis and practise it aloud until it feels comfortable.  Putting emphasis on the last word of your sentences will also help you to lift your voice rather than let it drop.
  • Practise pausing. Using judicious pauses helps enormously in comic delivery.  Having your audience wait just for a millisecond sharpens their listening and brings their mind back to you if they were daydreaming.  Silence from a speaker can be more effective than shouting to get people’s attention.
  • Timing is crucial.  Use a mixture of pauses and emphasis together with slowing down the delivery for the punch line.  And remember don’t panic if you don’t get a huge laugh.  You are not a comedian dependent on audience reaction.  It’s worth remembering that many of your listeners may be chuckling inside but offering only a smile to you.

And the most important piece of advice – if your audience do laugh aloud you must stop speaking immediately.  Wait until you feel the laughter slowing down then take up your speech from the beginning of that sentence.  Don’t lose your humorous remarks by ploughing on regardless or they may stop laughing at your great speech and try to remain quiet so they can hear the rest.


Presentations Made Easy  £7.75

Ideal book for first time speakers and those of you selling your business or your product and service to potential customers and networking groups.



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The Useful Guide to Public Speaking £4.12 + VAT

To be invited to stand up to give a speech is an honour. However the invitation can invoke fear and trepidation as the prospects of making a fool of yourself outweigh the feel good factor of the invite.

This Useful Guide helps you to develop your confidence and enjoy the experience

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