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Using Humour In Speeches Is Often No Laughing Matter

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It is often said that people fear public speaking more than death - which once prompted Jerry Seinfeld to quip that most individuals would apparently prefer lying in a casket... to standing over it, delivering a eulogy.

Given a choice, it is doubtful that you would actually chose death over speaking to a group. But there is no question that making a speech ranks high on the anxiety scale, somewhere between toenail extraction and a Thanksgiving weekend with in-laws.

In reality, the ability to communicate effectively to groups is a key requirement for any business executive.

As one who has written speeches for various politicians and business executives for decades, I often get asked if there are any "tricks" that might make the ordeal more palatable.

Inevitably, people eventually get around to asking about humour. Should they start a speech with a joke?

My emphatic answer to this question is "maybe." And it is based on actual experience.

I began my corporate speech writing career with IBM World Trade, specifically the division that included Canada, the Caribbean, all of South and Central America, plus all of Asia, including Japan.

I was recruited from government. The IBM offer essentially doubled my salary -- literally too good to refuse. All I had to do was keep the CEO, a physically imposing and somewhat blustery individual hailing from Ohio, happy. After keeping Bob Dole more or less happy for almost four years, how hard could that be?

What the IBM recruiter failed to mention was that this particular CEO had been running through speech writers at an alarming rate. His nickname was "The Bear" and new speech writers were referred to as "fresh meat".

My biggest challenge, I soon learned, was that Ralph (also semi-affectionately known as "King Ralph") liked to start every speech with a joke. No matter the audience or occasion.

I was OK with this at first. But then I saw trouble on the horizon - Ralph was scheduled to speak to a large IBM Japan contingent in six weeks or so. Not having written for a Japanese audience, I went to a colleague to ask his advice.

"You're cooked," he said. "That assignment is where speech writers go to die". He explained that it was not part of Japanese business culture to laugh at a senior executive.

I suddenly realized that doubling your salary isn't a great bargain if you only collect it for three months.

Fortunately, I had a trip scheduled to Japan prior to the speech. I became good friends with the head of IBM Japan communications, who initially said, "This is a very difficult problem, like giving a kamikaze pilot a two-ship quota". This was not reassuring, but eventually he added, "Please, just leave this with me. When you finish the speech, send it to me and mark where the joke is."

I did as he said. When the day came, there was my new best friend, in the second row. He gave me a nod and then, as the punchline approached, he turned to his assembled colleagues and gave them a signal.

That simple signal unleashed gales of laughter. Afterwards, Ralph said the speech was a great success and that my future was secure.

Of course the real lesson in all of this is not to artificially engineer a reaction to a joke or quip, but be very judicious in using humour.

Yes, humour can be a good ice-breaker with an audience (and can serve to relax a speaker) - but a joke at the outset that falls flat can create a hole that is difficult to crawl out of.

Here are my tips regarding the use of humour:

1. Know your audience . There are huge cultural differences between, say, Toledo, Timmins and Tokyo. Do your research.

2. Know your situation. Many best men at wedding receptions offer toasts that might have been better given at the stag party the night before, forgetting that for many in the bride's family, this is their initial -- and lasting -- introduction to the bridegroom.

3. Be self-deprecating. Poking fun at one's self is the safest way to go. It humanizes the speaker and creates at least the illusion that he or she is not an egomaniac. (Bob Dole was particularly good at this).

4. Make sure the joke links directly to the speech topic. Remember, humour should be used to spark interest in your main thesis, not distract from it.

5. When in doubt, leave it out. I had one client, a former cabinet federal minister, who said he couldn't tell a joke or use humour. Doubtful, I had him give it a try. He was right - he couldn't tell a joke to save his life. Self-awareness is a beautiful thing.

If it makes you feel any better, people would also purportedly prefer to be covered in insects and bugs or stand at the edge of a precipice to delivering a speech. Which is pretty funny, when you think about it

(Robert Waite teaches a graduate course in advanced presentation skills at Seneca College and has written speeches for some of Canada's top executives.)

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