Playing the audience for laughs

Is it OK to use jokes while delivering speeches and presentations?

For every successful example of the humorous touch, there are a thousand cases where a speaker’s ill-timed sally is met with crossed arms and stony silence.

Speakers on the Rotary Club circuit know these solid citizens have put to death more jokes than the rubber chickens on which they habitually dine. Eavesdrop any conversation between professional speechwriters and before long the subject turns to “killer jokes” – or rather, jokes that can kill their clients.

Yet suddenly, humor is back in. Thanks to Barack Obama. Undeterred by the pomp, ceremony, and the accepted wisdom that no good joke has ever crossed the Atlantic, the US president recently delivered the opening of a shaggy dog story as the intro to a 25 May speech in London about democratic values.

During his State Visit to the UK, President Obama addressed a joint session of both UK legislative chambers in the ancient Westminster Hall – which he lightly acknowledged as an honour granted to very few.

“I am told that the last three speakers here have been the pope, Her Majesty the Queen and Nelson Mandela, which is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke,” quipped Obama. For a president whose soaring rhetoric has too often been lost in the clouds, it was refreshingly down-to-earth – and the crowd loved it.

Obama’s masterly demolition of Republican serial bore Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents dinner in May probably did as much to secure his re-election prospects as the demise of Osama Bin Laden. Trump wasn’t just roasted, he was incinerated by humorous Obama in his liberating new role as comedian-in-chief.

Humour is the double-edged sword every competent speaker must wield from time to time. No jokes make for a dull boy – but one too many spells disaster.

Used right, humour will charm and engage. One low-risk route to a laugh is self-deprecating humour. Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, when asked for the recipe that helped defeat Hitler, said:  “Success is the ability to move from one failure to another with no visible loss of enthusiasm.”

Conversely, humour based on personal arrogance flirts with disaster. There’s no better example the hosting debacle at the 2011 Golden Globes Award, where British comedian Ricky Gervais was taken off by producers at half-time after enraging most of Hollywood. The “Office” star began smashing plates in his intro, and never left off. “It’s going to be a night of partying and heavy drinking – or as Charlie Sheen calls it, breakfast.”

Theodore Sorensen was the speechwriter and counselor who did much to shape President John F Kennedy’s narrative, image and legacy. Sorensen, who died last year, kept his boss supplied with a steady trickle of dry humour. In humour just as in his life, Kennedy was willing to take risks. Which is why this JFK stands the test of time as the benchmark for pubic speakers planning to deliver jokes. Some examples:

“I have just received the following telegram from my generous Daddy. It says, “Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

“Several nights ago, I dreamed that the good Lord touched me on the shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1960. What’s more, you’ll be elected.’ I told Stu Symington about my dream. ‘Funny thing,’ said Stu, ‘I had the same dream myself.’ We both told our dreams to Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson said, ‘That’s funny. For the life of me, I can’t remember tapping either of you two boys for the job.’

By Richard House



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