This advice goes especially for corporate speechmakers, the men and women in the daily grind of keeping their enterprises up and running, hopefully profitably. They are not, as a rule, stand-up comedians. And yet a good speech, an effective speech, often depends on a dose of humor. So what to do?
The thing to keep in mind is that real humor — the kind that makes you smile or laugh no matter what — pops out naturally from the content of a talk. It draws on the intrinsic mirthfulness of some human experience. It’s a wry remark, a certain expression on your face, or recounting something your little girl said at breakfast one morning. As for the three-guys-walk-into-a-bar joke, forget it. That’s not you if you’re a C-suite executive, and your credibility depends on your being your genuine self.
The fatal flaw in trying to work a canned joke into, say, a keynote speech is that you’re putting people on the spot. Unless you’re Kim Jong-un joshing with your Peoples Chamber of Deputies, your listeners don’t have to laugh. But they do have to decide whether to fake a laugh or cause you embarrassment by remaining stone-faced. As any comedian will tell you, you don’t want to die up there.
You most definitely want to tell a story, though. Stories are what make a good speech good. Stories are not jokes. Stories recount real-life personal situations, situations that may have involved you, or people you work with, your kids, your spouse, your crazy uncle. These things are genuinely funny. People remember stories. And they’ll remember your all-important “take away” if you wrap it in one.
So tell stories, not jokes. And don’t be impatient if your speechwriter spends a while probing for some misstep, mishap, or tomfoolery in your life, the telling of which can both stir a chuckle and buttress your message.