How to Incorporate Humor in a Speech

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talk Like TED" by Carmine Gallo. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is it a good idea to use humor in a speech or presentation? What type of humor is safe to use in public speaking?

Incorporating humor in a speech is a great way to engage your audience. However, not all humor is created equal. Only certain types of humor are safe to use in public speaking.

Here is how to use humor in a speech.

Is It a Good Idea to Use Humor in a Speech or Presentation?

Using humor in a speech or a presentation is important because, according to research, it will increase your likability in various ways:

  • Humor makes a good first impression on strangers, particularly in group settings. Therefore, using it is a simple way to gain favor from an unfamiliar audience. 
  • Making people smile or laugh puts them at ease. The more relaxed you make people feel, the more likely they are to like you. 
  • If people believe that you have a good sense of humor, they’re more likely to associate other positive traits with you, too—for example, friendliness, emotional stability, and consideration for others. These are all qualities that will make you even more well-liked.

Ultimately, the more your audience likes you, the more likely they are to listen to and support what you have to say. 

What Types of Humor Should You Use?

There are many different types of humor, from telling knock-knock jokes to making sarcastic comments. However, only four forms should be incorporated into speeches and presentations:

1) Sharing an anecdote: Telling a short, amusing story about an experience you—or possibly someone else—had. For example, during her TED talk about her stroke, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor related a humorous anecdote about her thought process when she realized that she was unwell. First, she couldn’t stop thinking about how “cool” it was that she—a neuroscientist—could study her own stroke. Then, she realized with annoyance that she was far too busy to be having a stroke.

2) Making an analogy: Humorously drawing attention to the ways in which two different things are similar. For instance, in a 2012 TED talk, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt compared two different situations that had similarly bad consequences: attempting to run Congress without encouraging social relationships between its members, and to trying to drive a car that doesn’t have any motor oil. 

3) Quoting someone else’s humor: This “someone else” could be anyone from a friend, to a famous person, to a stranger you met on the subway. For instance, the author Carmen Agra Deedy added humor to her 2005 TED talk by quoting some of the witticisms of her mother. Quoting is an easy way of using humor because you don’t have to spend time devising your own funny comment or anecdote. 

4) Showing a funny video or picture: This could be a picture or video you’ve produced yourself, or—to make things even easier for yourself—one created by someone else. For example, when Kevin Allocca—YouTube’s Head of Culture and Trends—gave a TED talk on why videos go viral, he played his audience a number of amusing viral clips. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Now that we’ve covered the types of humor that you should be using when speaking publicly, it’s time to address what you shouldn’t be doing. Here are four common mistakes to avoid when using humor in a speech or presentation:

  1. Making your humor crass, lewd, mean-spirited, or discriminatory. Many people find this type of humor inappropriate, if not outright offensive.
  2. Trying too hard to be funny—for instance, telling a relentless stream of jokes. At most speaking events, this will seem like a bizarre thing to do. You’re there to inform (or possibly persuade) your audience, not entertain them like a stand-up comedian. 
  3. Including humor that people have heard before—for instance, an overused funny quote. If you fail to be original with your humor, you’ll quickly bore your audience.
  4. Aiming to get a huge laugh as soon as you start your talk. If this bold attempt at humor doesn’t work, your confidence will be shattered for the rest of your time on stage. Start small: Aim to get smiles and giggles from your audience before you go for big belly-laughs.  

Pairing Humor With Seriousness

Is it acceptable to use humor in a speech if the topic you’re speaking on is serious or upsetting—for instance, if it addresses an issue like war, famine, or illness? Gallo believes that using humor is not only appropriate in such situations, but it’s also arguably necessary. Including light relief alongside distressing information will stop your audience from becoming so upset by what you’re saying that they feel unable to continue listening.

For example, in a 2013 TED talk, journalist Rose George explored the upsetting topic of poor sanitation in third-world countries. She discussed its devastating consequences, showing the audience a photo of a father mourning his baby who’d died from severe diarrhea. To stop her audience from becoming overwhelmed, George included some light relief in her presentation—specifically, a slide about the fact that diarrhea is often treated as a joke in Western society. She displayed an amusing stock photo that depicts a woman trying to hold in diarrhea. The audience responded with relieved laughter. 

If you want to use humor in your speech, do it judiciously. If you make the audience laugh too often, you risk permanently distracting them from the severity of your topic. You only want to give people a brief reprieve from the upsetting information, not make them forget about it completely. 

TED Talk Example: Sir Ken Robinson

In 2006, author and education expert Sir Ken Robinson gave a TED talk on how the American education system stifles creativity. Despite his topic being fairly heavy, Robinson managed to inject a lot of humor into his talk. He made witty comments about everything from how seriously teenagers treat their romantic relationships, to how—in his eyes—Shakespeare must have been an annoying child. 

Robinson’s talk has been lauded as the most popular TED talk of all time. He received a standing ovation, and his speech has since been viewed more than 66 million times on the TED website. Gallo believes that one of the main contributing factors to Robinson’s talk becoming so successful was his masterful use of humor.

How to Incorporate Humor in a Speech

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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