(The third in a series on effective public speaking.)
A few years back, I helped my former boss Bob Dole with a book called “Great Presidential Wit: I wish I was in this Book.” The research for the project involved studying the joke-telling ability and wit of our presidents, as we provided in the book the first ever ranking of presidents by their sense of humor.
What we discovered, interestingly enough, was that the presidents we ranked as the ones with the worst sense of humor – Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Benjamin Harrison – were presidents that historians have ranked as some of the biggest failures. Conversely, the presidents we ranked as having the best sense of humor – Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, as well as Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt – were considered by historians as some of our most successful.
Senator Dole and I believe that this was not just happenstance. As Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Humor is part of the art of leadership. It’s part of getting things done.”
Although many people are nervous about using it, humor also is part of the art of successful public speaking. As famed speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan explains, “Humor is gracious and shows respect. It shows the audience you think enough of them to want to entertain them.” She also correctly points out, “No one ever left a speech saying, ‘He was too witty’ or ‘I hated the way she made me laugh out loud.’”
Here are a few of my rules for using humor in speeches:
1. Humor best up front.
The best place for humor is at the beginning of a speech. It sends a nice message to the audience that you don’t take yourself too seriously, and it gives everyone a chance to laugh, catch their breath, and shift around to get comfortable in their chairs.
An example: I have written many college commencement speeches for Elizabeth Dole. Near the beginning of each speech, she will assure the audience that her remarks will be brief, as she knows all the graduates want to have time for one last visit to (insert name of local campus watering hole.) The line never fails to bring laughter and applause, and it sends a message to the graduating class that Mrs. Dole cared enough to do her homework.
2. The best humor is self-deprecating humor.
Poking fun at yourself sends a message of humility and grace. Poking fun at others – even in a “roast” type of speech – can sometimes come off as over the line. The Gridiron Club is a Washington, D.C. institution that exists to hold an annual dinner for D.C. society and politicians where humorous speeches and skits are required. Their long-time motto is “We singe, but never burn.” That’ s a good philosophy for the use of humor.
3. This is not the 1950s
It should go without saying that we do not live in the 1950s. Any jokes involving ethnic, sexual or religious stereotypes are off limits and, if used, could ruin your career.
4. Use personal experience
Jokes or stories about your own personal experiences are more effective (and fresher) than taking jokes off the Internet or out of a speech book.
5. Test your material
Before using humor in a speech, run your joke, story or one-liner by your friends. If they laugh with you, it’s a good thing. If they don’t laugh, then you may have some re-writing to do.
6. The more timely the humor, the better.
Way back in 1994, then President Clinton got into trouble for keeping planes on the tarmac at the Los Angeles airport, while the Hollywood hair stylist “Christoph” came aboard to cut the President’s hair. Jack Kevorkian – the famous “Dr. Death” – also was very much in the news at that time for his antics in Michigan.
I had Senator Dole begin a few speeches at the time by announcing that Christoph and Dr. Kevorkian were going into business together. The name of the business is “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow.” Ba da bing. Trust me, it got big laughs. But public attention is a fickle thing and the joke only had a shelf life of about a week.
Bottom line? Keep your humor fresh. And if the person who cuts your hair only has one name, make sure it’s “Joe” or “Frank” and not “Christoph.”