Humor in Public Speaking

Learning Objectives

  • Identify approaches to humor in public speaking.
  • Identify when humor may or may not appropriate for the occasion.

What is humor? We all know it when we see it. It is actions, or words, that are meant to induce laughter. Laughter is a universal response to something funny: everyone laughs. What people laugh at is another matter. We all find different things humorous.

Often, beginner speakers think that starting a speech by using humor is the best way to go. It can be but not always. Using humor is tricky. You really have to know who your audience is and what makes them laugh in order to employ humor. What you think is funny another person might not. So before you choose to use humor, there are many things to consider: audience demographics, number of people, type of event, cultural context, or organizational characteristics. So, reserve humor for speeches where you know the audience well!

If you decide to incorporate humor, here are some tips. Humor should be used sparingly and only if you have a good relationship with the person or group. You should make sure that the humor you use is something that will resonate with the person or group and is appropriate for the special occasion. Self-deprecating humor can be used to raise the honoree up as you jokingly put yourself down; this can work only if you know the honoree very well, but self-deprecate if you don’t know the honoree at all.

Tips: How to use Humor in a speech

In this video, public speaking expert TJ Walker gives some advice about how to use humor in a speech.

You can view the transcript for “How to Use Humor in a Speech | Public Speaking” here (opens in new window).

To watch: Andrew Tarvin, Humor at Work

Here, comedian, author, and “humor engineer” Andrew Tarvin talks about the benefits of using humor at work.

You can view the transcript for “Humor at work | Andrew Tarvin | TEDxOhioStateUniversity” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

In this speech, Tarvin not only talks about the value of using humor at work, he also demonstrates the kind of humor that’s probably acceptable at work: it’s not an edgy, stand-up “tight five,” but rather goofy self-deprecation and Microsoft Office puns.

Inappropriate Humor

One of the dangers of using humor in public speaking is that popular culture provides such a strong model for what this humor might look like: jokes + public speaking = standup comedy, right? Not so much. Many professional comedians see their role as that of pushing the envelope (think Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle, Lea DeLaria, Kristina Wong), being willing to “cross the line” of appropriateness to get a laugh or make a point. In most public speaking situations, however, a provocative or inappropriate joke doesn’t come across as funny; it comes across as uninformed.

Andrew Tarvin describes three reasons why humor may be inappropriate:

  1. inappropriate target
  2. inappropriate topic
  3. inappropriate time[1]

Whenever you consider using humor in a public statement or speech, consider whether the target, topic, and timing are all appropriate for the context.

While sarcasm and satire can be humorous, this technique is another very tricky area. These speaking techniques are easy to misinterpret. Even if you’re sure your best friend will love your satirical wedding toast for them, you may find out that the spouse-to-be is offended by what you said. So, it is better to use caution and avoid using sarcasm and satire. If you have any doubt about incorporating humor, just don’t use it.

There are certain occasions when humor is inappropriate. If an occasion is solemn, such as an event to mark a particular tragedy (or if a public tragedy has just happened), humor is not appropriate. Humor is generally ill-advised at funerals as well, with just a few personal or cultural exceptions.

Categories of Humor

Scott Dikkers, founding editor of The Onion, has claimed that every joke can be categorized in one of 11 categories.[2]

  1. Irony: The literal meaning is the opposite of the meaning that the speaker intends.
  2. Character: A joke based on the recognizability of certain character types.
  3. Reference: A.k.a. “It’s funny because it’s true”—references to experiences that the listener can relate to.
  4. Shock: The language or the inappropriate nature of the joke surprises and amuses the listener.
  5. Parody: Imitates a person or an idea in a funny way.
  6. Hyperbole: An exaggeration to the point of being absurd—and funny.
  7. Wordplay: Puns, double-meanings, and so on.
  8. Analogy: Comparing two things that don’t seem to go together—and yet somehow do.
  9. Madcap: Silly and often out-of-control. Think John Belushi, Jim Carrey, or Melissa McCarthy.
  10. Meta-humor: Jokes about jokes.
  11. Misplaced Focus: Funny because the person is noticing the wrong thing.

Recap: categories of humor

On the Breaking Down Bits podcast, Scott Dikkers explains his 11-category system, along with examples from The Onion.

You can view the transcript for “Scott Dikkers 11 Funny Filters – Breaking Down Bits Highlights” here (opens in new window).