You need to write a funny speech, but for a business audience? Read on.
What follows may be the least funny guide to funny speechwriting…
But bear with me. I want to suggest that being funny requires serious thought.
Humour is one of the most difficult things to create in a speech. Partly because it’s so unpredictable: so much depends on the delivery, the context, and the moment. A very serious line can be unintentionally hilarious. A hilarious line can wither away the moment it’s spoken.
Writing a funny speech for an executive must be an exercise in risk management.
This may come as a surprise. After all, isn’t comedy inherently anarchic? Doesn’t humour always arise from interruptions of the status quo?
Perhaps, but the speaker needs to be in control, and professionals know that it’s better to be risk-averse than cavalier.
Listed below are a few techniques that will encourage the right kind of laughter – warm, welcoming, friendly – and minimise risk.
Self-deprecation for humour
Jokes often come at someone-or-other’s expense. In professional contexts, it’s not worth the risk of offending someone with a misjudged remark, so let yourself be the fall guy. The ability to laugh at oneself demonstrates humility, and will endear the audience to the speaker. You don’t even need to confess a genuine flaw if that would compromise your position: the self-deprecation can be based on a hypothetical or imagined scenario.
Group humorous observations and funny jokes together
This one comes from Simon Lancaster. Grouping jokes together increases the likelihood of laughter, because even if one joke fails, there’s another coming right up. Grouping indicates to the audience that this is a humorous moment in the speech: the first joke might not elicit laughter, but it lightens the mood for the next one.
Callbacks are when humorous ideas are repeated, in brief, after their first appearance. Later asides might ‘call back’ to a punchline delivered at the opening. Callbacks add thematic cohesion and – so long as the joke is strong enough – make sure that a funny idea is used for all its worth. That said, there’s also a point of diminishing returns: one callback is probably ample.
Audiences know that humour tends to come at the start and the end of a speech. At the start, the humour sets a friendly and relaxed mood; at the end, the humour wraps things up. The start and the end of the speech are when the audience will expect the jokes, and when they’ll be more inclined to laugh. Use that to your advantage.
Writers and philosophers have long recognised that one of the key mechanisms of humour is bathos: the sudden move from a lofty theme to a trivial one, or other shifts in scale from high to low. Bathos might involve comic exaggeration or over-inflation; it might involve an anticlimactic switch from philosophy into everyday humdrum. As well as being funny, bathos serves as a natural juncture, and can let you conclude a theme or idea that might otherwise remain open.