This morning, I was flattered by an approach from someone I like asking for a little coaching on a speech she was due to make the following day. As we were heading towards the same tube, I took the compliment and asked what the issue was. ‘I’m making a speech on young people and housing credit,’ she said, ‘and I’d like to open with a joke… Do you know any good ones on young people and housing credit?’
Off the top of my head, reader, the answer is ‘no’ but I didn’t want to appear caught out, and was intrigued by the question.
‘What is the thrust of your speech?’
‘It is about how unfair it is that young people are denied housing credit.’
‘So really, it’s about..?’
‘Then I think that’s how you should open.’
It’s a fallacy that you have to open with a joke. Dipping into the realms of therapy, I asked my companion why she wanted a joke at all. ‘It makes me feel good.’
‘Me too. Why is that?’
A comedian at this point would suddenly burst into tears, blabbing about their childhood and being picked last for sports. My companion was less flimsy.
‘Because you know they’re on your side.’
‘Approval, in other words?’
A laugh is a short cut to getting that approval. It’s why we have stand up comedians, and not stand up tragedians (though sometimes it’s hard to spot the difference). But not all laughs are created equally: suppose you slip on the steps up to the stage, and fall flat on your face in a snowstorm of cue cards. You’ll likely get a laugh, but it would be, in comedians’ parlance, a tough place to come back from.
By all means, laugh along the way: a good speech is light and shade, variety of tone, and audiences like experts who don’t take themselves too seriously (it adds credibility, and we all appreciate guidance in a subject about which we feel we know little). But beware the opening joke: I’ve heard too many speeches start with a corny old line that bears no relation to the speaker or the event. Quite often, if a speaker has made the mistake of getting an old joke off the shelf, he (sorry, gentlemen, it is often a man) usually fatally compounds the error by choosing something that would’ve been regarded as uncomfortably sexist in the 1970s.
If in doubt, tell the truth. I always tell the truth on stage. It’s stretched, reordered and adapted to get laughs, but there is a grain of truth in everything I do. Then, if it’s not funny, at least I can say, ‘Thats what happened.’ If you tell an Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman joke and its not funny, you then have to explain why you dragged the audience into this dull fiction in the first place.
Yes it is nice to have approval, but if you walk on and take the approval as read, you are in a powerful position. I believe that an audience gives you a certain length of time. If you are a comedian, they will give you three minutes if you are terrible. Five if you are bad but likeable. And so on up, until you are strutting the Apollo stage for ninety minutes. At conference, the boss always gets a decent allowance, though there is always a sigh of relief if they cut short. And guest speakers, so long as they have content, generally get polite attention for as long as they are coming up with useful stuff.
A far better strategy, though there are never hard and fast rules you should stick to 100% of the time, is to start with a question to the audience. This immediately creates engagement, and, if you refer back to the question and provide answers, gains our holy grail – the audience’s approval. And not a laugh to be heard.
For my companion, I felt that the focus on the joke at the beginning was in danger of being to the detriment of the rest of the content and structure. ‘I think your speech is really on a serious subject: housing credit for young people. That sounds dry, but what it’s really about is justice. If you open with a joke, you risk undercutting the power of your argument. Don’t be Michael McIntyre. Be Atticus Finch.’
And so my companion left, hopefully with a little more confidence in her heart, and a clearer understanding that her speech had a job to do. To persuade, to motivate her audience into action. And an opening joke that stands separate from the rest of the speech could only harm this worthy ambition.
For speaker coaching, or to book me as a comedian, get in touch!