“Got a public speaking question for you,” Paddy said as I joined him at our usual table in our regular coffee shop.
“Fire away,” I urged, “public speaking questions are my favourite type.”
“Well,” he hedged, “it’s actually a question my nephew asked me. He’s going to be speaking to Rotary next week and he asked me if I had a good joke he could start off with. I couldn’t come up with any, but I told him you probably had a file full of them.”
“I certainly don’t,” I admonished. “Not only should you never start a talk with a joke; jokes have no place whatsoever in speeches.”
“Why not,” he argued, “most speakers include jokes.”
“And most speakers are wrong,” I said.
“Why?” Paddy repeated.
“Three reasons,” I began.
But before I could go on, Paddy reached for his trusty pen and paper saying, “Hold on, I want to write this down so I can tell my nephew. Just give them to me one at a time.”
“In the first place,” I began again, “even though they probably don’t realize it, most people are not very good joke tellers. It’s one thing to mess up a joke when telling it to a friend or two, but it’s something else altogether to screw it up in front of an audience. When a joke doesn’t go over well it can throw the speaker off completely and ruin an otherwise good presentation.”
I waited until Paddy finished writing and then continued, “Secondly, the odds are overwhelming that many people in the audience will have already heard the joke; especially in this internet age. So your nephew would be viewed by the audience as being not very original. Not only that, but as soon as they realize they’ve heard the joke their minds are going to wander and he is going to have to regain their attention. And, believe me, Paddy, it’s a lot harder to get back an audience’s attention than it is to keep it.”
I sipped coffee until Paddy had that down and then went on, “And, thirdly, in these days of exaggerated political correctness, no matter how harmless a joke may seem, you can depend that it will offend someone. And why would a speaker want to risk offending even one person in the audience?”
“Well,” Paddy admitted, “those are pretty compelling reasons. But I never thought I’d hear you say there’s no place for humour in a speech.”
“You didn’t,” I corrected him. “I said there was no place for jokes in a speech. Not only do I approve of humour in presentations, but I think speakers should work hard to find ways to include humour; but never canned jokes.”
“OK. But if you think of something humorous, how do you decide whether to include it or not?” he inquired.
“If an anecdote or comment meets three criteria,” I explained, “I’ll use it.”
“And they are?” Paddy urged as he again picked up his pen.
“First,” I said, “it has to come to you while you’re preparing or delivering your speech, which also means it likely meets criterion number two, which is that it has to be relevant to your topic.”
“And what’s number three?” Paddy impatiently asked while I paused for drink of coffee.
“Number three,” I replied, “is that if it’s an anecdote it has to involve the speaker; and if it’s just an aside or comment, it has to be original.”
“So it’s OK to include it as an aside if it comes to you while you’re at the lectern?” was Paddy’s next question.
“Even better than when you’re preparing the speech,” I said. “If a humorous anecdote or aside comes to you during the presentation, you can pretty well depend that all three criteria are met.”
“Well,” Paddy said, “my nephew is going to be pretty disappointed when I tell him this.”
“Not as disappointed,” I pointed out, “as he would be if he bombed because of a joke he screwed up, that most people heard, or that offended some people; or possibly all three.”
“I guess you’re right,” Paddy said as he stuffed his pen and paper in his pocket and left.
“I know I’m right,” I said to his departing back.