They always tell you to open with a joke. They never tell you how to open with a joke. They certainly never tell you how to open with a good joke.
So I’ll open with a joke…that bombed. Remember the scene in Say Anything where Diane (Ione Skye) opens her valedictorian speech with a joke? She’d workshopped it (good call) on the way over with her adoring dad, who guffawed. But at GO time, it’s CRICKETS.
GUH. No wonder public speaking is the number one most-cited phobia. (Well, not for me. I’m a middle child; I’ll take a mic at a funeral.) How to do better? For an expert take, I interviewed the fabulously-named Vinca LaFleur, a speechwriter for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and now a partner at speechwriting and media training firm West Wing Writers.
First, I made her watch Diane’s speech. “Ouch,” she said. “But you know what? That line—or the concept—worked elsewhere.” She noted a celebrated speech by the writer Russell Baker, who said, “The best advice I can give about going out into the world is this: Don’t do it. I have been out there. It is a mess.” He nailed it. What makes the difference?
“Whatever you do, sell your joke,” LaFleur said. “A lot of humor is the delivery. And a lot of a speech is performance. That’s what makes it different from an article or a blog post: The audience experiences it in real time, and you have this message and moment together.” There are standup comics whose jokes are not funny, or that were already as stale as matzo when they were told during the Exodus. But they tell them with the rhythm of a joke, they deliver the punchline with confidence, and they pause for a laugh—which they nearly always get. You learn this skill on the road. In the absence of actual humor, it works.
Follow joke structure.
Setup…punch. Expectation…whuh? The key here—and to almost any joke—is surprise. Write and sell THAT. It’s not all buh-DUM-bump. You can give advice from an unexpected source, like SpongeBob Squarepants (always funny), and give that unexpected source an equally unexpected title, like “The great philosopher …Miss Piggy .”
Also tried and true: what GOLD ComedyTM calls “triple”—and what what LaFleur, fancily, calls “the triad formulation.” Her beginner example: “…three strategies for getting ahead at school or work: “Hard work, persistence, and chocolate.” (Look, we’re not trying to make everyone pee their pants here. We’re just trying to kick off a speech with a chuckle.)
Know your audience.
“Think not only about your message, but also about your audience and what matters to them,” says LaFleur. Your best line about YikYak, for one, will bomb at the senior center. This is also why an opening joke you found on Google will likely fizzle: it was written in a vacuum. Pro tip: research and refer to something specific about the audience: their biggest sports rival, the fact that they serve waffles the first Wednesday of the month. Drop a reference to that—especially one that’s appreciative and complimentary of your crowd—and they’ll love you all speech long.
Normally, LaFleur might tell a client that making fun of herself is a great way to “win people to your side: It humanizes you. George W. Bush would get a lot of mileage out of what a bad student he was at Yale,” she says. BUT! “I would not encourage a woman to do that,” she adds. “Because there are fewer women in leadership roles, we have the extra burden of making sure we don’t undermine our own credibility.” It’ll change, she says. But right now, that’s the deal.
Unless! You’re in the right room. Like when Arianna Huffington gave a TED talk on the importance of getting enough rest at night and said this was the way for women to (literally) sleep their way to the top. Result: raucous laughter, in a roomful of women who’d gotten to the top the Peggy way, not the Joan way. It was a double entendre of singular proportions. In other words, self-deprecation is an advanced move. Don’t try it without a spotter.
Relax! They want to like you.
The best advice I ever got for auditioning was this: Remember that the casting director wants you to be the right person for this role. She’s hoping you’ll do well. She’s not there to be critical or awful; she is as full of hope, as you walk through that door, as you are. Same with your audience. So if your joke tanks, smile and—in the words of the great philosophers ABBA, “Move on.”