I don’t know whether the chicken or the egg came first. But I do know that this question preceded both:
“Should I start my speech with a joke?”
Well, in fair weather or fowl, it all depends.
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How to Use Humor in Public Speaking
Humor can be an entertaining and persuasive public speaking tool. But unless people laugh good-naturedly whenever you enter a room, you shouldn’t give humor the central role in your talk. That advice holds up even for after-dinner speeches, which are supposed to be entertaining. Any humor in your speeches still has to serve the message you’re imparting, just like every other element of your talk.
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Let’s look at how humor can help you to speaking success, and the places where the ice gets a little thin.
Jeff Fleming said this recently in the pages of Professional Speaker, the journal of the National Speakers Association: “Humor makes an audience more receptive to your message, improves retention of points made, reduces tension, improves creativity and provides entertainment value to any presentation.” It can also help enormously in getting you to relax as you speak.
Pretty good stuff, humor! We might also add: Humor allows your audience to see that you’re human and to identify with you. And it lets everybody in the room have some fun as well. That last point is easy to see in, say, a TED Talk that uses humor successfully.
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Like any presentation tool, however, humor must be used judiciously, and in the context of your message. Here’s an example of what happens when those two considerations aren’t taken into account.
Why Jokes in Presentations Can Be Dangerous
A few years ago, I conducted a workshop at a large manufacturer. The vice presidents of a dozen different departments were represented, from finance to sales to distribution.
On the workshop’s second day, each senior executive was required to give a 10-minute presentation. We videotaped each talk and provided a critique and feedback afterwards. One of the VPs decided to start his speech with a joke. This happened to be a stretch-limo of a joke that took up 3½ minutes of his allotted 10-minute limit. And this shaggy dog joke happened to be about the Pope!
How’s that for living dangerously?
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This brief true story contains four valuable lessons about why using humor in speeches is safer than taking the stand-up route, and how to do so productively:
1. The humor shouldn’t take up so much time that it competes with the body of your presentation.
2. The humor should be culturally appropriate to your audience. In other words, you should have a reasonable idea that it’s safe. Who knows, for instance, how many Catholics may sit in this VP’s audiences and be offended by his eliciting laughter at the expense of the pontiff?
3. The humor must be closely related to your topic. In the above example, the presenter labored mightily to tie his punch line with the topic that followed, but it was an impossible task.
4. Humor should produce smiles or chuckles in an audience that make your time with them more pleasant. Telling a joke, on the other hand, is inviting T-R-O-U-B-L-E. That's because there’s a world of difference between telling a humorous story your audience can relate to, and handing them a zinger of a sidesplitting gag.
Don't Joke Around with Your Purpose. Telling a joke well requires timing, the ability to assume voices and characterizations, and the honed skills of a comedian or a naturally funny person. Also, of course, a joke's punch line either succeeds or it doesn't, which makes it a zero-sum game. These requirements of telling a joke successfully are worlds apart from your principal task: gaining and maintaining credibility on your topic that can lead to genuine influence.
So keep it safe and in good taste—just like the products from the Good Humor Ice Cream Man.
This article was published previously. It is updated here.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching and corporate group training worldwide. In 2021 for the eighth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." His latest book is The Online Meetings Handbook, now available at The Genard Method and at Amazon. To know more about TGM's services, Contact Gary here.
 Jeff Fleming, “Observational Humor: Seeing What Others Are Thinking,” Professional Speaker, November 2005, 10.