In the words of one of my well-known clients, “if you’re going to crack a funny, it had better be a good one.” I really couldn’t have put it better myself. Humour is a very powerful weapon at the disposal of the public speaker – when used effectively. Audiences like to laugh – we all like to laugh – it is a very natural thing to do, indeed it is one of the first developmental signs that as babies we show. It is well known that university lecturers who make students laugh, especially at the beginning of term, have a far higher attendance rate than those who do not engage with their students on a human level. Laughter demonstrates audience enjoyment and encourages further attentiveness, indeed, canny speakers often use humour to bring their audience to a state of high attentiveness before making an important point. Humour can break the ice, diffuse potentially difficult situations and endear the speaker to their audience.
Not, though, for everyone..
If you are not a natural born comedian, you need to be very careful about trying a stand-up routine even in front of a ‘home crowd’ as Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather discovered to her cost. Either she or a speech writer (and if it was the latter Ms. Teather might want to re-think her team) penned three truly appalling attempts at humour, each line falling flatter than the last. The ‘Strictly’ remark met with a mere ripple of polite amusement (rather in the same way a doting parent encourages their child after a well tried knock knock joke); the Peter Hain ‘tangoed’ line met with utter audience incredulity and the George Osborne “joke” disappeared without trace in a puff of agonising embarrassment. Any good stand up will tell you that you need to practice material, out loud, to a test audience. Either she didn’t do this or if she did then she was set up.
So, if you are not naturally funny (and getting a laugh from friends in the pub is not a barometer of natural humour) what do you do? The answer is simple – do not attempt to be what you are not. ‘To thine own self be true’ said the bard of Avon and he is spot on. If you are desperate to try to be funny, you need to find out what it is about you that is potentially funny and tap into that. Don’t try to copy someone else’s style, find your own way (but be warned that your own perception of what is amusing about you may differ from everyone else’s perception; a discovery that could potentially be shocking!)
Damage control: Ms Teather should have had the wit to realise that the first line bombed and bailed out immediately – cut to the main speech and not dug an even deeper hole from which there was no escape. But ego got the better of her and she ploughed on regardless, spectacularly failing to read her audience and giving over 50,000 YouTube viewers huge fun in the process. It’s also not a good idea to give your enemies (in this case, LabourList – Labour’s biggest e-network) ammunition to fire at you.» Back to news index