The Funny Thing about Writing a Humorous Speech
Ironically, in order to understand how to write a speech with humor that penetrates even the most stony-faced audience, you just might have to get serious. Serious about funny business, that is.
There’s a perception among aspiring speakers that humor is a natural skill that just can’t be taught. Rubbish, I say. If someone has the capacity to laugh, then they have the capacity to make others laugh too. It’s unavoidable, it’s as contagious as laughter itself, and sometimes it just needs a little sideways perspective.
The first thing I keep in mind whenever I’m planning how to write a humorous speech is that humor itself is extremely subjective.
Ask ten friends to rate your three favorite jokes, comedians or hit comedy movies in order of funniness, and you might be surprised at the results.
Chances are that opinions will vary widely. Some will find your favorite comedian unbearable; others may prefer slapstick gags to clever wordplay. And remember, these are your friends; people with whom you presumably share some basic values. How dare they not be doubled over with laughter at the same things you find funny!
Now, imagine if you scaled up this experiment to your intended audience size. If the results stay proportionally the same – no reason to expect otherwise – I’d say there’s at least a CSI-style micro-whiff of evidence that a small percentage of the general public responds well to exactly the same humor as you do, and the rest don’t.
Not to burst any ego bubbles here, but at a stretch I’d guess there will be no more than 20% of any audience that’s naturally in tune with the speaker’s idea of funny.
What’s my point? Simply that if you focus exclusively on material that YOU find hilarious, your humor will surely hit its mark, but only with a fraction of your audience. If that’s not enough for you – and it’s not for me – then some ninja speaker tactics are required. Welcome to what I call audience optimization.
Audience optimization simply means adjusting your presentation style in deference to your audience.
In the context of a humorous speech, it means developing the acuity to see, hear, feel and smell precisely how your humorous content and delivery style is affecting your audience. More than that, it’s about being willing to swallow the disappointment when your favorite one-liner doesn’t work work. Dust yourself off and just try something
else. Specifically, try something you’ve seen others respond well to, but isn’t your first choice of humor. If it doesn’t work, try something else again, but if it does – who cares why – you just found an easy way to reach maybe ANOTHER 20% of that elusive audience!
Think of yourself as a safecracker, listening intently for the correct alignment of each part of the lock. Sooner or later, with minor adjustments, everything will be in alignment and your well-balanced humorous speech cannot fail to open up that audience.
You’re probably wondering what types of humor other people might find funnier. Here are just a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing, but really it’s up to you to observe and use what you see working:
A Pun Run
Barrage of one-liners
Tales of the Unexpected
Practical jokes (careful though!)
Story with character voices
You get the idea.
Many speakers, myself included, start off with an unintentional arrogance with it comes to humorous speeches. We assume that our personal brand of humor appeals equally across audiences. We expect people to find everything we say irresistibly funny. And we judge
those not doubled up in laughter as having NO sense of humor at all. In fact, none of that is true. Our funny bones are just all wired differently. To accept that, and play with it can be rewarding for the humorous speaker.
Next time you’re thinking about how to write a humorous speech, build audience optimization into your speech writing process from the start. Deliver the same speech a few times, with minor adjustments inspired by each successive audience response, and watch your speech become a winner as your audience silently tells YOU its magic formula.
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