Humor can be a key to a speech's success. Hamilton Nolan explores knowing when and how to use it
It was Fashion Week, and an American Heart Association representative had to give a speech during an event at the New York Public Library. Outside the building, a huge red dress had been erected, a testament to the fashion gods. Speechwriter Joe Trapiano saw not just an oversized garment, but also an opportunity for the speaker.
"I think red dresses are going to be really big next year," the line went.
Not the funniest joke, perhaps, but by corporate speech standards, it was good line. Trapiano, a speechwriting and screenwriting veteran who is now an SVP of editorial
services at Edelman, was able to make the speaker look as if he were thinking on his feet, even though he had little to do with the speech itself.
Corporate and political speechwriting is a tough gig, particularly to the creative souls who often inhabit such jobs. CEOs and high-profile politicians tilt conservative when it comes to the use of humor. But experienced speechwriters know how to keep a skittish speaker happy and keep the audience awake at the same time.
"When people hear something with humor, they retain it," says Judy Carter, an author and "motivational humorist" who works with CEOs to punch up speeches. "It's to a CEO's advantage to have lighthearted humor in his talk."
Most speechwriters readily acknowledge that humor is a valuable tool for most speeches about any topic short of life and death. The challenge, however, is to know when and how to work it in.
John Schacter, a senior consultant for Porter Novelli, specializes in writing humorous speeches for political figures.
"The most important thing... is to know the client and to know the audience," he says. "If [the client knows] they're not funny, they shouldn't try to be funny. And if they know that they are funny, they still need to know within what bounds they want to be funny."
Schacter cites Gov. Bill Richardson's (D-NM) performance at last year's annual Gridiron Dinner as a solid performance. Richardson recognized the opportunity of such a large, humor-oriented stage and brought in an entire team of speechwriters (including Schacter) to help polish his material.
"You're only as good as the person who can ultimately deliver it," says Schacter. "He worked hard and did a great job."
Jack Purdy, an executive director in Ogilvy PR's creative studio in DC, says corporate speeches often have to tread lightly because they are frequently addressing serious business topics. But that does not mean humor has to be absent. For one executive of a financial services company who was speaking to a women's golf group, Purdy penned a joke about a wife of Henry VII (who played golf) that went, "Catherine was divorced, but she wasn't beheaded. It probably made good sense to sleep with a nine iron."
"Some people are really afraid they can't carry it off," he notes. For them, Purdy will spend hours on the phone or in person coaching them on delivery. To put speakers further at ease, he uses jokes with obvious ties to the location of the speech - Disney wisecracks in Orlando, FL, for example.
"Certainly, the rule of thumb is to use humor at the start of a speech because it immediately presents the speaker in a favorable light for the audience and relaxes everyone," says Trapiano. "By getting a response from the audience immediately, the speaker will feel more relaxed."
All experienced speechwriters say that tailoring a speech's humor to the speaker is essential. Self-deprecation is always good: A bald politician can riff on having a bad hair day; a short CEO can pretend to brag about dunking a basketball.
"If there's something physical about yourself, make fun of it," says Carter. "The first thing to make fun of is you."
The most striking consensus among humorous speechwriters is this: Avoid jokes. The old set-em-up, knock-em-down punchline style tends to feel wooden and forced in the context of a high-profile speech. Instead, they say, stick to funny, true stories. Life is strange enough by itself.
Work closely with the person who will actually speak to see what they're comfortable with
Know your audience and target your humor to what they know
Make sure that your humor relates to the overall topic
Tell standalone jokes that don't connect to the speech itself
Try to make bland speakers use humor that they cannot pull off
Write humor that comes off as self-aggrandizing