When to Bring the Funny — And When to Leave It at Home

President Obama got panned last week for a very pan-worthy joke about spilled milk he made during his State of the Union address. Should he have gone there? Should you go there? I often get asked if people should use humor in their speeches and presentations.

Frankly, it’s like me asking my wife if I should whip up a soufflé for our next dinner — or like Mitt Romney asking if he should sing at his next campaign stop. The answer is simple: do it if you can; absolutely not if you cannot.

(For the record, I can cook about as well as Romney can sing — my specialty is toast.)

I believe that someone who isn’t funny cannot be taught to be funny, unless he or she is thoroughly (and, in my opinion, pointlessly) trained. And even then, it’s about sounding funny, not being funny. Keep in mind that we’re talking about giving jokes, not just “getting” them.

If you’re not naturally funny, don’t seek out jokes from friends or coworkers. Besides memorizing the precise words of the joke, there are crucial issues of timing and recovering from a “crickets chirping” response. Even President Obama — as skilled an orator as they come – is not immune to blowing a joke, and that’s one of the biggest things people remember about his speech.

As a collegiate speech coach, I often found myself recommending jokes for my students’ speeches, only to beg them later not to use the lines because, in presentation, they came off so unnaturally.

So how do you warm up an audience without humor? Tell a personal story. The idea is not to entertain your audience as much as it to connect with them. We’ve all had childhoods (even Romney), so leading with a related story from your own personal history is a great way to invite your audience to relate with you.

This week, I counseled a young woman on a speech she had to give to introduce herself at the start of a new graduate-level educational program. We decided to lead with a simple story about what she wanted to be when she was growing up, and how that connected to the opportunity. It was a perfect warm-up: light, human, and — this is key — relevant.

Use funny if you got it; “milk” your past for personal anecdotes if you don’t. Both are good ways to relax your audience, instantly put them in your corner, and keep from spilling away your opportunity to make a good impression.

Check out Joel’s upcoming Academy course on Wed Feb 29: Nail That Keynote! Adding Strength to Your Professional Talks, Appearances, and Job Interviews.

[Photo: Andrew Magill/Flickr]

About this Gun

Joel Schwartzberg

Joel Schwartzberg

won the U.S. National Championship in After-Dinner Speaking in 1990 and was ranked among the top ten overall public speakers in America. After coaching at U. Penn and Seton Hall, he was inducted into the National Forensic Association Hall of Fame in 2002. Joel has been teaching public speaking since 2006, while holding down executive digital positions with Nickelodeon, Time Inc., and PBS. A nationally-published personal essayist, Joel authored the award-winning essay collection The 40-Year-Old Version. Follow @joeljest.