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  • Bruce Rule

Don’t Start With a Joke When Public Speaking

"rule communications" "Bruce Rule"
Comedian Taylor Tiomlinson Can Open With a Joke. You Shouldn't

Humor can be very effective in public speaking, and many people think opening with a joke is a good strategy.


I disagree.


The Internet is full of articles that argue for using a joke at the beginning. If you type in “funny opening jokes for speeches” in the search bar you will see lists of “icebreaker” jokes. In fact, when I was researching Heartfelt Goodbye, my how-to manual on writing a eulogy, I saw a number of articles that suggested starting off a eulogy with a joke was a good idea!Their argument is simple: Make people laugh and they will be on your side.


That can be true. Depending on the situation, humor is a very effective way to connect with an audience. There are ways to include humor that work well, and we will go into them in a separate post. But my advice is simple: Don’t start a presentation or speech with a joke unless you are a professional-level comedian like Jerry Seinfeld or Taylor Tomlinson. (And if you think you at their level, you probably aren’t. No matter what your friends say.)


I always advise my clients and workshop students to skip the opening joke because the pitfalls outweigh the benefits. Here is what you risk when you open with a joke:


1) People won’t find it funny.


I have heard professional humorists ranging from Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller, to cartoonist Scott Adams, famous for “Dilbert,” estimate that about one-third of their audience simply don’t have a sense of humor. They don’t find things funny. They may laugh, but that’s because those around them are laughing and they are following the herd instinct.


Hollywood has long known this. Laugh tracks are added to television comedies to prompt these people to laugh. It’s also why some movies seem funnier in movie theaters, where audience members unconsciously are prompted to laugh because others are laughing.


But even people with a sense of humor may find the joke unfunny if it is stale or simply something taken off the Internet. One list actually recommends this as a great way to open your speech: What country makes you shiver? Chile! 




Starting with a joke will hurt your cause with every member in the audience who doesn’t find it funny. They may even resent you for wasting their time or, worse, turn you out completely.


Inappropriate Humor


2) People may find it offensive.


We live in a hyper-sensitive time. A public speaker needs to be very aware that there are listeners who may find offense over even the blandest jokes.


But even leaving aside those people, there are others who won’t appreciate hearing any joke that may be seen as sexist, racist, or insulting. They may feel it is inappropriate in a business setting, for instance, even if they might find the joke funny at a comedy club. They won’t laugh because they don’t want to be seen laughing at such a joke.

Here is a very mild example. I once attended a business dinner where a top official of a non-profit was co-host. He started off by thanking his female co-host, who he said was so hard-working that many times she called him early in the morning and work him up. “Other than my wife, she’s the only woman I talk to in bed,” he said. Most of the audience groaned or sat silent while his female co-host sat stone-faced.


When he realized no one thought his attempt at humor was funny or appropriate, he fumbled his words as he tried to continue his speech. It was very awkward.


One final point should be made. Jokes can be career-enders in the workplace. Tell a joke that someone finds inappropriate or offensive, and you may get a call from Human Relations. It isn’t worth it.




3) People won’t understand the joke.


This is slightly different than not having a sense of humor. There is a segment of the population who do find things funny when they are visual. That’s why there are so many viral videos online of, say, people slipping on ice and falling.


But they might not “get” the joke and feel a bit embarrassed when they hear others laughing. They might even feel dumb. For instance, there may be geographically challenged people who don’t know that Chile is a country in South America, so that canned joke above would leave them confused.


The issue with someone who doesn’t understand the joke is that they may still being trying to puzzle it out when you begin the substance of your speech. And when they tune back into you they may not catch up right away. You may even lose them totally.


As you can see, starting with a joke has a good chance of alienating at least some of your audience. Avoid that danger by skipping the canned icebreaker joke.


We’ll go over some smart ways to start your presentation in the next post.


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