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The Power of Humor in Public Speaking

The Power of Humor in Public Speaking

by Allison Shapira
author of Speak with Impact

allison shapira headshot

Do you think of yourself as a naturally funny person?

Are you able to tell jokes that leave people rolling around on the floor in laughter?

That’s not me. And that’s not the kind of humor you need in a speech.

Humor is an incredibly powerful tool.

The moment the audience laughs with you, they connect with you.

When you use humor in a speech, you demonstrate that you’re confident enough to laugh and that you don’t take yourself too seriously. It can lighten up a difficult subject or situation, calm your nerves, and capture your audience’s attention.

When people think of humor, they usually think of telling jokes.

They think, “I’m not very good at telling jokes, so I’m not very good at humor.”

Actually, I don’t recommend you tell a joke.

There’s a particular skill to telling jokes, such as rhythm and pausing. Comedians can work for years on crafting a single joke.

Luckily, there are many other ways of using humor in a speech.

quote about public speaking

Ways of Using Humor in a Speech

Stories. A story with a funny or unexpected outcome is a great use of humor. Maybe it’s “the craziest thing to ever happen in our store.”

Quote. A humorous quote is a great way to start your speech. I love this quote by George Jessel: “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.”

Comic image. In the American business world, Dilbert comics are a constant source of dry humor. I love the “demotivator” posters sold by Just make sure that you have permission to use a particular image.

Situational. Commenting on a shared experience, like the office kitchen or the conference-room air-conditioning, can be a great way to make everyone laugh and remind them that they are all in this together.

Where to Use Humor 

A great place to use humor is in the beginning of the speech.

When introducing myself, I like to say, “My name is Allison Shapira and I’m a recovering opera singer.”

It captures people’s attention because it’s unexpected, making them laugh. If no one laughs, then I prepare for a tough audience.

You can use humor right after a difficult subject to lighten up the mood and transition to a new subject.

An incredibly effective place to use humor is right after you make a mistake.

I once saw a speaker onstage try unsuccessfully to make his slides work. He looked at the audience sheepishly and said, “Live by PowerPoint, die by PowerPoint.”

If the audience sees you laugh, then they can relax.

female presenting to a crowd

The Danger of Using Humor

Having talked about the power of using humor, we should also mention the danger of using humor. When speaking to people of different nationalities, remember that humor is very cultural. What works in one country may not work in another.

My normal opening, “I’m a recovering opera singer,” doesn’t quite work outside the US, because international audiences don’t understand the “recovering” reference.

When using humor, ask yourself if you are making fun of someone. It’s okay to laugh at yourself, but not at other people. Think very carefully about whether your humor will come across as prejudicial.

Perhaps many years ago it was okay to joke about women worrying about their makeup or clothing. Now, in a professional setting, it demeans the professional value that women bring.

Is it okay to use political humor? It depends on your audience.

Just remember that a closed-door speech is never really closed-door. If your speech is posted online, will the humor still be funny?

Do What Makes You Comfortable

If you’re uncomfortable using humor, don’t force yourself to use it. Find something that you are comfortable with.

We’ve all been in situations where we say something that’s supposed to be funny and we hear a wall of silence from our audience. Or, worse yet, a gasp of shock.

Try out your humor on someone else to make sure it’s funny to others.

Practice it, smooth it out, and make sure you don’t rush it. It has to feel comfortable to you before you go onstage.

Humor is an incredible tool to make your audience relax and connect with you.

Take the time to find humorous styles that work for you, and test them out on others before using them in public.

Want to read more? Get the book!

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allison shapira headshot

Allison Shapira

Allison M. Shapira(Washington, DC) is founder and CEO of Global Public Speaking LLC. She teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School and offers keynote speeches, workshops, and executive coaching for Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and nonprofits around the world.

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