Many people advise new speakers to avoid using humor during their talks.

“It’s not a safe subject,” they say. “It will almost certainly backfire, and you could cause yourself a lot of trouble.”

Sure, if you have all the self-awareness of Michael Scott in a coma, yes, it will backfire. If you’ve been told to be afraid of humor, because it’s a two-edged sword made out of a cobra, it will bite you.

(Of course it will! What do you think will happen when a parent tells their child learning how to ride a bike, “I think you’re going to fall and break your arm”?)

I’m tired of this doomsayer advice of never using humor in speeches. I’ve been a humor writer for nearly 20 years, and have learned plenty of things to do and not do. I’ve managed to never have to apologize for a joke made during a speech, although making them after a one-on-one conversation is a completely different matter.

Here are the best secrets I can share with you for safely using humor in your next speech:

  1. You should only make fun of the people with higher status than you. But don’t be an ass about it. Never, ever make it personal (i.e. family, marriage, etc.). If you want to make fun of the CEO’s plush office, and how it’s so big, you got lost, that’s fine. Don’t mention the five-day conference in Cancun he attended with the PR director.
  2. Never make fun of someone lower in status than you. If you’re the CEO and you make fun of how much money the new HR staffer earns, you’ll seem cruel. Which you probably are.
  3. Generally, the person in power is going to be you. You have — temporarily — a higher status than everyone else in the room by virtue of being on stage. Make fun of yourself.
  4. Avoid any jokes where the punchline relies on a reference to race, sex, sexual orientation, hair color, religion, etc. If you take out the reference to a group/type, and the joke doesn’t work, kill the joke. If it works, you can use it. Without the reference to the group!
  5. Run your jokes by some friends. And not the friends who tell dirty jokes at work. Ask the friends who will tell you that you’ll probably be fired if you use any of it.
  6. Never, ever repeat regular jokes, like the “two animals walk into a bar” kind. If it’s a traditional joke, avoid it. This is where people usually shoot themselves in the foot. Also, it’s comedic laziness. Write your own jokes. Your best jokes will come from your subject matter, not from outside the room.
  7. Work out jokes about friends with them beforehand. When I give a talk about my No Bullshit Social Media book, I sometimes make jokes about my co-author, Jason Falls. We’ve already discussed it in advance, and covered what’s “acceptable,” and I pick on the things that everyone knows about, like his Kentucky accent. It gets some good laughs, but I already know I’m on safe ground.
  8. Make fun of someone fictional. The only person who will never get his or her feelings hurt is someone who isn’t real.
  9. Pick something so outrageous, you know no one is going to believe it. I once gave a small speech at a county political dinner where the Lieutenant Governor was the guest of honor. My speech? “Top Ten Pet Peeves of Being Lieutenant Governor.” His favorite entry was “tired of explaining to my mom that I’m not the Governor’s stunt double,” and he laughed harder than anyone. (See item #1 about making fun of people in power.)

A Quick Example

Remember the opening of this piece? All of the jokes I made were safe and could go over very well in a regular speech.

  • A joke about Michael Scott from The Office. He’s fictional, he’ll get over it.
  • Two-edged cobra sword: exaggeration. No one is going to believe this is real. Plus, it’s an inanimate object. Mostly.
  • A bad parent? I’d like to think no one would actually tell their kids they’re going to fail (and do we really care if we hurt the feelings of someone like that?).
  • Apologizing after jokes in private conversations was about me. It pokes fun at me, especially after setting myself up as being a good example of what not to do.

The things that are going to screw you up are jokes about groups of people: not just making fun of HR or Legal, but groups based on demographics. You’ll always be safe making fun of yourself, or someone who’s not real, but make sure you run anything else by your friends first. And if you’re in doubt about any joke, even a little bit, play it safe and leave it out.

It’s a very thin line to walk, but if you can walk it carefully, and get good at it, you can make a few jokes during your speech that won’t get you in trouble.


Professional Blog ServiceBranding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing. His third book, The Owned Media Doctrine, will be available this summer.