Sadie Holloway is a workshop facilitator who teaches interpersonal communication skills to help people strengthen their relationships.
One of the best ways to win over audiences and deliver an outstanding speech or seminar is to add light touches of humor here and there. Check out these tips on how to add warmth to your speech.
Many of them are adapted from author Joan Detz's book, How to Write and Give a Speech. Her book provides practical speech writing tips and will be an invaluable resource in your public speaking toolbox!
The Best Learning Environments Are Relaxed and Full of Energy
Good speakers and facilitators know that the most effective learning environments are ones that are relaxed and full of energy. Studies show that when used appropriately, encouraging laughter and using humor during training and professional development sessions can build a positive sense of community and promote creative problem-solving.
Laughter can also reduce tension and anxiety. For adult learners who've had negative schooling experiences, reducing anxiety is important to helping them have the best workshop experience possible.
People learn more quickly when they're having fun.
When you make your audience laugh, you are actually altering the way they perceive what you are saying. The act of laughing releases endorphins into the brain. Endorphins, also known as the "happy hormones," help people feel more relaxed.
Here are a few more good reasons to consider using light jokes and gentle humor in your speech or educational workshop:
- Humor can break the ice and help make the overall learning environment feel more relaxed and enjoyable.
- By reducing anxiety, humor can enhance an audience's receptiveness to new ideas or unfamiliar learning models.
- Enthusiasm and laughter go hand in hand, and both can be incredibly infectious.
- Humor, particularly self-effacing humor, sets people at ease and reduces the implied inequity between teacher and student. In short, having a warm sense of humor can make you appear more approachable and authentic.
- Humor is increasingly being seen as a coveted soft-skill in the workplace. Researchers have found that appropriate and timely humor integrated into the learning process can positively impact overall learning outcomes.
Is It OK to Tell Jokes in a Speech at Work or in a Professional Setting?
Yes, but remember that humor is most effective as a teaching tool when it's appropriate to the situation and reflects the audience's beliefs and values.
As a speaker or workshop leader, it's vital that you take the time to understand an organization’s work culture before using humor in your speeches, workshops, and training sessions. After all, humor is a subjective experience. What's funny for one person may not be funny for another.
For example, some folks find puns hilarious, while others might feel left out, particularly if English is not their first language. Indeed, the social and cultural meaning packed into colloquialism, idioms, and puns can create a humorous type of shorthand that, while funny to those familiar with nuanced wordplay, can be isolating or confusing for others. Use wordplay sparingly in your speeches.
What kind of humor is not suitable for a keynote speech or workshop?
As a facilitator, workshop leader, or speaker, if you notice that humor is being delivered (by you or someone else) through insults or a sarcastic tone, you may be cancelling out the positive group dynamics that you're trying to create. Inappropriate use of humor can create a hostile learning environment that quickly stifles communication and deflates self-esteem.
Beware of Negative or Offensive Humor
Humor must never be directed at an individual or a group; racial slurs or put-downs of any target group must always be avoided.
- When an individual is the target of ridicule, humor has a negative effect on group dynamics.
- If you find yourself or others saying, “Relax, it’s only a joke,” there is a good chance you’ve gone too far. Avoid references to ethnicity, family, disability, appearance, or any other identifier that participants might find offensive.
- A joke that is at the expense of a group or individual may result in a variety of negative consequences in the workplace.
Helpful Reminders From a Speechwriting Expert
In her book, How to Write and Give a Speech, Joan Detz suggests that before you add a joke to your next speech, you should ask yourself five key questions:
- Will my joke tie into the subject and mood of my speech?
- Will my audience feel comfortable with this joke?
- Is the joke short and uncomplicated?
- Is the joke fresh?
- Can I deliver this joke really well—with confidence and ease and perfect timing?
Detz says that if you can’t answer “yes” to all of these questions then don’t use the joke at all.
Consider Humor Outside of the Typical Punchlines
Getting a laugh or using humor in your speech doesn’t always have to involve a joke with a punchline. For example, you might want to consider adding some of these things to your speech instead of telling a full-length joke:
- A funny personal anecdote
- Humorous quotations (some popular quick wits are Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill)
- Surprising or oddball statistics
- An amusing visual (i.e. a one panel cartoon, a funny newspaper headline, an odd street sign)
- Puns and wordplay
- Hand movements, body language, and gestures
- Voice intonations
- Smiling (smiling during your presentation is one of the quickest ways to engage your audience)
Aim for a Friendly, Personal, and Natural Style
When you add humor to your speech, aim for a friendly, personal, and natural style. For example, don’t announce that you are about to tell a joke. Just add the funny anecdote or line to your speech and let the audience react as they will. Here's why: Announcing that you are going to tell a joke sets you up. People are waiting for you to surprise them. (That's an oxymoron: "waiting to be surprised.")
Here are some of the benefits of using your own natural brand of humor by incorporating some of the techniques described above:
- If you create your own brand of humor, you can be certain that your material will be new to your audience. You needn't worry that they've "heard this one before."
- By using humorous stories and funny anecdotes from your own experience, your delivery will be more natural. You won't need to worry about memorizing the lines in a joke.
- By sharing something personal with your audience, they'll likely feel more connected to you, and thus more tuned in to what you have to say.
- The important thing to remember when adding humor to your speech or presentation is that you don't need to produce huge belly laughs and giggle fits in order to be successful. If people smile, chuckle, and remain attentive during the length of your presentation, then you've done a great job of using humor to lighten things up.
Remember, you can still laugh, make jokes, be playful, and have a healthy sense of humor without targeting anyone, bullying anyone, or making fun of marginalized groups. It is possible to laugh, tell funny stories and make ha-ha’s without making someone else the punchline. If you must make a joke about anyone, always make it about yourself.
© 2017 Sadie Holloway
Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on November 08, 2017:
As a professional speaker I totally agree with you. This is a "must-read" for all speakers. I'll share and thank you.
Louise Barraco from Ontario on November 08, 2017:
Very informative hub the next time I write or give a speech I will be sure to check back :)