Opening a Speech with Humor

The Humor Power Tips December Ezine features a 1280 word article on tips from Patricia Fripp’s Speaking and Presentation Skills School, as they relate to presenting humor.  One of the 18 tips was “Never Open A Speech With a Joke!”

Great suggestion.  Everything in a speech should have a point and purpose.  A joke, just for the laughs, is out of place in a formal speech. Yes, it’s great to open with humor, but do it with a humorous story that has a payoff which ties into the theme of your talk. 

In discussing this further with Fripp, I shared with her that I often open with custom-written observational humor, usually designed around things which happened or were spoken from the platform just before I began my talk.  In essence, I do open with a joke.  I suspected that this was not what she meant by “don’t open with a joke.”  Fripp replied, “Never open with a joke that belongs to the world.  A custom written bit by a humorist that is original is different than a speaker telling old jokes.  Old jokes personalized might work later in the presentation, although I would not really endorse it.”

I agree completely. Excellent advice.  My approach is to avoid jokes that I’ve heard somewhere else.  I’ve found that when starting out, there is a tendency to use more “borrowed material” to round out a speech.  But with more experience, those jokes and stories from the public domain are replaced with original humor lines and stories from your own experience.  Much more effective.  I still occasionally use four stories, which have been in my repertoire for more than 15 years, which were told to me by someone else.  The last after-dinner talk I presented did not include any of the four stories.  I will still occasionally use them when they fit well into a talk, bit I’ve made the decision that when I hear another speaker use one of these four stories, it gets permanently dropped from my list of speech vignettes.

When you’re using a joke or a story, the questions are:  Did someone else create the story?  Did I hear someone else tell it?  Did I read it somewhere?  Did I find it on the internet?  Have I read it or heard it more than once?

The questions are not:  Do I think the story or joke is great?  Do I deliver it well?  Does the audience laugh when I tell the story?  Those are poor measures for selecting a story which will standout in a professionally delivered talk.  Audiences are polite and will laugh even when they’ve heard a story before.  But if you open with an old joke that has “been around,” it will give your whole talk the flavor of old material.  You want your talk to appear fresh and original.

Is it dangerous to use newly created humor?  After all, if you haven’t tested the material, can you be sure that it will be funny?  The answer is, “Not always.”  My advice is to never open a talk with untested humor unless you’re a professional humor person who has been doing this for awhile.  After doing this for nearly 30 years, when it comes to judging whether or not something is funny, I’m right about 90 percent of the time.  My choice, when uncertain about the quality of a story, is to test it in the middle of a talk, not to use it as an opener.  I also break in new material when I give speeches to my Toastmasters Club, which is essentially a laboratory environment where you can experiment without major negative consequences. 

Another measure of the quality of new humor is that highly-tailored lines will always score higher when presented to the audience for which the lines were written.  On a scale of one-to-ten, if I write an observational line and deliver it in-the-moment as a spontaneous piece of humor, it has a good chance of being getting a response of 8 to 10.  A customized observational line which gets a response of 9 will get a 7 when told to someone later who wasn’t there.  It just isn’t as funny when it’s not fresh.  That’s why I will often make the decision to use a fresh and untested line to open a talk even though I know that it’s not a universally-funny line.  I know that the power of the customized, fresh line will give it the extra kick that it needs.  Practice your skills and judgment in using this type of humor in a safe environment, like a Toastmasters meeting, until you have become a good judge of what is and is not funny.

Are there common domain stories which people love to hear again?  Most certainly.  But it’s still better not to open with that type of story and instead place it later in the talk.  And better yet, avoid that kind of story.  Leave those stories to the lesser-skilled speakers.  Tell your own stories that people will want to hear again and again.  You’ll find that they’ll bring you back for repeat engagements just because they want to hear YOUR signature stories.  That’s the path to success.