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The Art of Giving a Humorous Speech

Humorously Speaking 

You want to present a humorous speech, but don’t know where to start? Many people are afraid of using humour and a lot of speakers, even some of the best and most experienced, are among their number. For the minority of people seemingly born with a well-developed sense of humour, read no further–you lucky son-of-a-gun! However for the majority not so favoured, there is science and art that you can employ to help overcome any deficit in your humour quotient.


For a humorous speech you can select a topic in one of three ways. You may have a true but humorous story, which you want to expand into a speech, or you may have a joke or anecdote that you can expand to make a funny story. The third is to select a topic and then research material for a humorous speech. This is not unlike choosing a topic for any speech.

Humour must be relevant to your audience. What went over well in the locker room after the game will probably be most unsuitable for the church ladies guild. It is also important that the audience can understand your topic. It’s no use having very funny material about quantum physics, unless you are speaking to a group of quantum physicists. Give your topic scrutiny on both points.

I find that the most simple and everyday topics are the best for humour. Think of all the everyday things that you do, such as walking the dog, catching the bus or going to the supermarket. Because these events are so very common, there will be a lot of material available and your audience will be able to relate to the topic. Then ‘brainstorm’ the topic, writing down everything you can think about it, even the most seemingly insignificant. Include any phrases that you can associate with the topic. This will give you a ‘helicopter’ overview and enable you to make links.

You can further refine this by taking a single word from the brainstormed list and subject it to the same treatment. It’s amazing what connections and interactions can come from seeing all your ideas in front of you.

Creating original material might give you the ‘edge’ with a speech and you can develop one-liners, jokes and joke toppers from your assembled words and phrases. Scrutinise them and see if you can come up with an association of words and ideas to make a one-liner. For example, if your topic was about a Rostrum meeting, your brainstormed words might include speeches (long and short), and interesting/boring. Making a connection of association here you could come up with: What his speech lacked in interest, it gained in length.

To make original jokes for your speech, start with a statement of fact (SOF).

With Rostrum all speeches are critiqued and sometimes these do not give an accurate account of the meeting and speeches. This can occasionally result in an unrealistic appraisal -or a ‘whitewash’ critique. (SOF) Joke: The Critic gave the speech, not so much a whitewash, but a super enzyme bleach. 

Joke toppers are another original joke form that you can develop. They are usually in three parts. Start with a statement of fact:

Rostrum has something called The Pertinent Question. (SOF)

Joke: Wow I thought, I have been asked many impertinent questions before, but never a pertinent one.
Joke topper: For my first PQ I was asked what President Obama should do in response to Putin invading Crimea? Invade Canada was my reply. 

All right, a lot of the above humour might be viewed as corny. Well a lot of humour is corny if you examine it forensically. It is how the speaker that makes the difference uses it. One of my favourite comedians was Bob Hope, the master of corny, but how good was he? I have seen speakers and comedians with great material go over like a lead balloon and those with relatively corny material bring down the house. It all depends on the delivery.

The Internet comes in great use. Get as many quotations, anecdotes and jokes relating to the topic as possible. Also look for jokes that are not related to the topic, but might be adapted. Just because a joke or anecdote is about air travel and your speech is about bush walking, does not mean that there isn’t the possibility of adaptation. Look at cartoons, which are related, or can be adapted, to your topic for they are a pictorial joke and may contain usable material

Humour owes much to plagiarism; however, any joke, anecdote or quotation that has a known author, should be acknowledged.

Exaggeration is another way to add humour. When lifting a heavy object my back went so far out it required its own passport.

Use self-deprecation where possible. Always turn the joke or the anecdote against yourself and make yourself the butt of the story. 

Humour…should be gently blended into the material to give it some lightness,
and the listeners an investment in listening to you. 

In presenting a humorous speech there are several issues to keep in mind. First make sure that your voice is loud enough to be heard. This is good advice for any speech, but particularly important with humour. It’s no use having the best humorous material and jokes in the world, if no one can hear them. No one will listen if they can’t hear and the audience will start to get restless. You will note that comics—particularly stand-ups—usually have a loud voice. This is so as to be heard in noisy venues, and also as a weapon of audience control. Not only can he/she be heard through the distractions that come with a public venue, the comic can control any hecklers by drowning them out.

Make sure that you leave sufficient time to pause in key places to give the material the most impact; a pause in the right place is invaluable comedic technique. A pause in other places allows time for humour to take effect and gives the audience time to laugh. If you don’t give sufficient time for audience laughter, you may go overtime. Practise the material with your long-suffering friends and family and have them make suggestions for pauses.

If your topic lends itself to costuming, go for it (visual humour). If you are talking about gardening, wear gardening clothes and carry secateurs. If the topic is about parties, wear a party hat and carry balloons and streamers. I do hope that no one is going to talk about his or her visit to a nudist colony!

Exude confidence. This is good advice for any speech, but with humour you will lose your audience almost immediately if you are seen to be nervous. In an ordinary speech you have time to regain ground as your confidence builds, but with humour you are probably lost from the start as confidence and humour are blood brothers.

Give your speech a humorous title, so that you can get people laughing before you even start your speech. I once gave a humorous speech about a serious operation I once had, which I called Tumour Humour. Another humorous speech I once heard, about sailing around the Mediterranean, was titled, Don’t Knock the Rock.

I believe using humour in all speeches is a must. I think that every speech, even the most serious of topics should contain at least three items of humour, placed strategically at the beginning, middle and end. This is a minimum requirement and more should be used if possible.

When using humour in an ordinary speech, many of the same research activities apply—of researching jokes, anecdotes and quotations, developing original material, and in presentation. However, once again, it is very important that the humour is relevant to your topic. People will listen to a speech that contains humour even if it is a topic that is of little interest to them. Also, if your topic is controversial, what better way to get people to listen to a different viewpoint, but through humour?

Using humour in a general speech is not about having the audience thigh-slapping, belly-laughing and rolling in the aisles. It should be gently blended into the material to give it some lightness and the listeners an investment in listening to you.

Good luck and leave ‘em laughing as you exit the podium. 

Alison White lives in Mandurah and is a former member of Rostrum Club 51 (Dongara-Dennison). She is the daughter of the late Freeman Ted Joll, who was a Rostrum member for over 40 years. She is the author of LOL (Laugh Out Loud) the Science and Art of Humour ISBN 978 1 84963 222 5