Humor is one of the simplest ways to go from being a boring speaker to an engaging one. If you’re able to successfully add humor to your speech, you’ll be able to connect better with your audience.
I’m about to give you over 10 ways to add humor to your speech—and there’s even more helpful material in the free ebook accompanying this post. All you need to do is give me your email address and name, and I’ll send you the ebook. It comes with 16 saver lines for when you botch a joke, 10 additional joke templates, how to do deadpan humor, how to be funny on the spot, and information on what topics tend to be ripe for humor. It’s 12 pages in total, so it’s an easy read (but a useful one).
Foundational humor tips
Before I jump into specific examples of humor that you can use, I want to give you some background information that will help you to be successful with humor.
1. Humor is primarily built on surprise.
While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory that all humor is based on surprise/incongruence, I believe a big portion of it is. As you’ll see in the humor examples, the majority of the reason most of these are funny is because they’re surprising.
For that reason, it’s hard to deliver a joke to the same audience twice.
2. Much of humor is in the delivery
The way you tell your jokes is more important than the actual material of your jokes. This is why jokes are generally more funny when delivered by a comedian than when you read them.
There are many ways to make humor more effective, including using facial expressions and funny voices. But if I could give you only one tip, it’d be this: pause. After delivering your punch line, pause to let it sink in. Pausing is the equivalent to laugh tracks on sitcoms. It gives your audience a hint that they’re supposed to laugh.
Pausing after a joke can be scary—if the audience doesn’t react, then it can be awkward. But not pausing means you’re less likely to get laughs in the first place, and they won’t be as loud or as long. It’s a good idea to have “saver lines”, things that you say when a joke totally bombs. The free ebook I wrote for this post contains ten examples that you can swipe.
3. Don’t preface your joke
Some people make the mistake of saying, “I heard a funny story/joke the other day” and then launching into it. Don’t tell the audience that it’s supposed to be funny, because that sets their expectations. And if they don’t find it funny, it’s more awkward.
Use pauses or facial expressions to make it clear when something is a joke.
Types of humor you can use
Self-deprecation is one of the easiest ways to get an audience to laugh—and it also tends to make them like you. You have to be careful with self-deprecation, though. Here are a couple of guidelines:
- If you’re presenting in front of an audience that may find you unapproachable and intimidating, self-deprecation is a great way to disarm them.
- If you’re trying to impress your audience or convey your authority, cut back on the self-deprecation. You don’t want them to think that perhaps you’re not qualified.
- Self-deprecation is at its best when the audience can identify with what you’re teasing yourself about.
- Don’t overdo it—you don’t want people to feel like you’re a total mess (unless that’s your shtick). Even when you’re making fun of yourself, you should do it with an air of confidence and comfort.
Rule of three
This is one of the most commonly written about comedy tips, and for good reason—it’s easy and it works. Simply create a list of three items, and make the last item unexpected and ridiculous.
Example: “People generally turn to three things to help them on bad days: sleeping, drinking coffee, or snorting cocaine.”
The last item is not expected based on the first two items, and because of its taboo nature it makes the audience laugh. It’s extremely easy to add a list of three into your speech.
Say you’re describing a person in your speech. You can put in two good attributes about them, then one negative one. “Carla is smart, motivated, and extremely annoying”. This is a particularly good technique for a wedding speech, where half of the fun is roasting your friend.
Sort of an off-shoot of self-deprecation, oblivious humor is where you say something ridiculous as if you’re serious. You’re essentially pretending to be completely oblivious or incongruent.
In one of my speeches, I had a bit where I’m teasing someone who likes watching the Kardashian show. At one point, I say “I bet you’re such a big fan that you know all the names. Kim, Khloe, Kourtney, Kylie, Kendall, Kris… I mean, I don’t know these names because I’m a normal human being…”
I’m simultaneously roasting this person and myself, because clearly I know the show well enough to know those names. I think you get the gist.
If you’re interested in watching the speech that joke came from, I did an analysis of the speech in an earlier post.
Teasing the audience
Once you’ve established some rapport with the audience, you can try teasing/roasting them. The joke above is an example of using oblivious humor, but it’s also an example of teasing the audience.
One easy way to pull this off is to tease them based on something they all likely have in common. For example, if you’re speaking to a bunch of Toastmasters, you can tease them along those lines. If you’re speaking to a group of accountants at work, you can make a joke about accountants.
Keep it lighthearted, and make sure you don’t come across as if you think you’re superior to them.
In action-based irony, you contradict yourself with your body language or your physical acting.
For example, I have a segment of a speech where I talk about how I was an awkward homeschooled kid. I insist that I knew how to make eye contact, and as I say that, I am looking straight down at the floor with slumped shoulders. I then slowly look up at the audience, show an expression of surprise and fear, and quickly look down again.
Comedian Preacher Lawson has a great example of action-based irony in this routine. (The entire “I ain’t never…” repeating sequence completely contradicts the idea that the person in the story doesn’t do drugs).
I’m calling this “rolling laughter” because I have no better name for it. Basically, the best comedians have a few points in their shows where they can get people laughing for almost a minute at a time. They can make some parts of the audience laugh so hard that their stomach hurts and they let out tears.
Watch this segment of Preacher Lawson’s comedy. The part where he imitates his grandma’s prayer is one such example. While not everyone will react the same way, this kind of high-energy humor can really get to some people.
In order to pull this off, you need to have an audience that is already warmed up and receptive. Then, you need to get them laughing along one train of thought (usually some type of story). This is the critical part: slowly ramp up the energy of the joke and ride the wave of laughter. Do some sort of act and keep getting more and more ridiculous (and usually loud).
This technique is very difficult, because it’s easy to lose the audience when you get too energetic. Some people will check out mentally. You can only take an audience through rolling laughter when they want to be taken there. Tread with caution!
Exaggerating is another easy way to add humor to your speech when you’re not sure what to do.
Johnny Carson was famous for doing this. One example joke: “You know, I was visiting a small town last week. It was so small that the entrance and exit signs were on the same pole.”
To write your own exaggeration joke, simply take a point that you’re trying to make in your speech, then amplify it. For example, if you’re joking about being ugly as a kid, find ridiculous ways to describe just how ugly you were. Simple things like “I could break mirrors just by looking at them”, or Preacher Lawson’s “My nickname in highschool was AHHHHH!!!! My face messed you up if you looked at me too long.”
Another easy way to get laughs is to add some physicality to your speech. Whether it’s strange body language, funny facial expressions, or weird voices, this technique is one of the most simple ways to add humor to your speech.
I personally enjoy doing a “valley girl” voice and body language impression (it’s my go-to if I need a quick laugh).
Find out what impressions you’re good at, and try them out. See if you can integrate them into your speech somehow. Sometimes all it takes is a sudden shift from a smiling face to a sad one in the middle of a story to get the audience laughing.
If you’re delivering a PowerPoint presentation, you may consider inserting a meme or funny video into it.
I’d be wary of “funny videos”, though. They take setup time, and sometimes disrupt the natural flow of your speech. In addition, videos often have very subjective humor. If the audience doesn’t like your video that much, it can hurt the rest of your performance.
While I think it’s best to have your own humor in a speech, there’s nothing wrong with recruiting some laughs from the internet.
Iterate on your humor over time
If you’re delivering the same speech multiple different times, see which jokes people really resonate with. (Ideally, take a video of the speech so you can go back later and gauge the audience reaction).
Next, add on to that humor. See if you can come up with a second or third punch line. Chances are that if people really responded well to a certain topic of joke, they’ll like even more jokes on the topic. Just be careful not to make one line of jokes go too long, because people can get fatigued quickly. And be ready to abandon your second punch line if the audience doesn’t respond as well the next time you deliver your speech!
Also, keep in mind the jokes that don’t do well, and either tweak them or remove them altogether.
Get even more specific humor ideas
Want help writing your next joke? I made a free ebook just for this post. It’s 12 pages of in-depth advice on adding humor to your speech, and it’ll help you write your next joke. Click on the image below, enter your name and email address, and I’ll send it to you immediately.