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A funny thing about public speaking

Public speaking can be challenging enough for professional comedians, which is why business professionals may want to consider these five tips before cracking jokes in their presentation.

4 min read


public speaking

Marcos Luiz Photograph/Unsplash

“A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar…”

Robin Stombler

Many of us have heard some public speakers try to make an audience laugh. Sure, sometimes the jokes are funny, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they are extremely offensive. Many speakers feel pressure to be funny and deliver a zinger or two when speaking to an audience. They need not worry. Jokes are not mandatory.

Unless you are particularly adept at humor, you’re better off not adding jokes. You may think you’re funnier than you are. Unless the joke is specifically relevant to your speech, is not offensive and you deliver the punchline well, it’s best to lay off the humor altogether. 

Here are five things to remember when considering whether to add, or subtract, humor in your talk:

1. Even personal anecdotes can fall flat

A retiring association executive spoke before an annual gathering of his organization’s membership. In his farewell address, he thought it would be funny to tattle on business colleagues who engaged with him in wild escapades thirty years prior. His oversharing left the audience squirming and unamused at the inappropriateness of his behavior.

2. It is okay to make people laugh

I was speaking at a conference where the host was having a difficult time getting the technology to cooperate. He eventually called for a ten-minute break. After the break, when everyone filed back into the room, the microphone and computer system were still not cooperating. Eventually, with the help of some aides, the host appeared finally to have gotten the equipment working, so the host introduced me and I hustled up to the microphone. I began my speech but only mouthed the words. The audience, and especially the host, looked mortified, thinking the technology was still down. After a few seconds, I spoke up and audibly said, “Nah, I’m just kidding you.” The audience giggled and seemed to settle into my presentation, and we put the technical difficulties behind us. 

3. Share a personal story that relates to your topic

If you sat in traffic all morning trying to get to the conference in time, tell the audience of your travail from happily singing along to the radio to seething at the backups. Let that lead into your speech for how you would improve the city’s transportation grid.  

4. Impress them with success (or impress upon them with failure)

Engage the audience by opening your speech with some positive examples of how your company is progressing. If the opposite is true, provide some stark details that will grip the audience into listening for how you plan to address the problems. 

5. Ask questions

Get the audience thinking by asking them questions to ponder during your presentation. Be sure to address the questions, and possible responses, later in your talk. 

Not all of your openers will zing; however, an opener should engage the listener and lead them into what you have to say. You may be charming and amusing while speaking. You might laugh at your own comments or raise an eyebrow when a point is questionable. Most of us, however, should just forget about the jokes.


Robin Stombler is President of Auburn Health Strategies, a strategic and business development firm for health and science organizations. This excerpt is adapted from her new book, “Wear A Killer Outfit – And Other Advice for Speaking Publicly.” 

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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