On Humor in Keynoting

Humor is a critical part of all public speaking, and at the same time one of the most difficult and easy-to-mess-up aspects of the same.

When it comes to humor in speaking, there is plenty of advice out there. Some of these are old, shopworn chestnuts like “Always open with a joke.”. Others are more on point, like Robin Williams’s classic adage “When in doubt, go for the dick joke.” No such advice, however, fully capture the complexity of using humor in keynoting. This, as one can very easily go wrong when trying to be funny on stage. Being heavy-handed with your quips is a surefire way of being seen as a speaker who tries too hard, whilst veering too far away from the funny can make you look like a curmudgeon or just plain dull.

The thing with humor in keynoting is that it needs to be deployed with panache, with timing and with a full understanding of how humor works in a keynote setting. Too often beginning (or, in some cases, even senior) speakers think that humor is something that needs to be added to specific parts of the speech, at precise intervals, ensuring that they seem heavy-handed and hackneyed. This is a sad mistake, as the use of humor when keynoting is, if anything, an improvisational art, and in addition one that cannot be reduced to formula and checklists.

What a keynote needs is the kind of humor that develops naturally from the speaker and from the message he or she is trying to convey. Just like a truly great stand-up comic does something more than merely deliver a series of jokes and punchlines, the professional keynoter uses humor as a tool to achieve something greater.

Another way to put this is to formulate it as a question: Why should you use humor in a keynote? If your answer to this is “So that the audience will like me better.”, you’ve utterly missed the point. Sure, jokes and comedic timing can be a way to integrate yourself with an audience, but this should be a result, not the reason. As a keynote, you’re not on stage to be popular, but to move minds. You should be getting people to think, impart knowledge, expand their perspectives. Unless your witticisms or droll remarks are part and parcel of this, they’re only there to massage your ego. Now, don’t mistake this for me disliking humor on stage. On the contrary. My keynotes have been referred to as “business stand-up”, and I’ve taken this as high praise. Some of the top management thinkers in the world have quoted my quips and jokes, and I love it. But I’ve always deployed humor as a way to reach a higher goal, and it is this higher goal I believe should guide keynote speakers.

To put it bluntly, I feel that there are three reasons to use humor in keynoting, and that these are not created equal. The reasons are the following:

  1. To set the audience at ease — acceptable, but not to be overdone.
  2. To facilitate listening by creating a segue or an emphasis — often useful, but clumsy if utilized in a repetitive manner.
  3. To enhance the impact of the message by aiding in learning — the most important one of all.

Far too often, one sees #1 being the key reason humor is used. Putting the audience at ease can however quickly become pandering, and further makes for a speech memorable only for its jokes. #2 is much better, as a keynote speaker needs to be mindful of just how much is asked of an audience. Sitting there and just listening for an hour (and often far, far more, if we count the whole event) is hard work, so aiding the audience by interspersing a few jocular comments can be a very helpful thing. Also, when working with complex matters, a quip can be a nice way to signpost that something requires extra attention.

However, the key reason to use humor in keynoting should be to help in learning. Even a short joke is, in effect, a story. Stories, again, are one of the key ways in which we humans learn. When we’re told a fact, without any form of context or embellishment, we have to memorize this as exactly this — a detached piece of information. When the same fact is presented as a part of a story, we are in effect given scaffolding for our memory. And this is only part of the learning bonus of humor. In addition, laughing triggers biochemical reactions that inspires creativity and recall in the brain. The point of using humor, then, is to help the audience, to make it as easy as possible for them to hear, process and retain your message.

So how do you do this? Well, in part humor in keynoting is something you can only learn through practice, by honing how you are on stage and what works for you. Still, there are some things that you might want to consider, and I’ve summarized some of them below. Think of this as some lessons I’ve learnt from 10 years on stage, by way of innumerable (or, more to the point, uncounted) keynotes. During these, I’ve made tens of thousands of people laugh, yet I don’t consider myself fully taught in this art. We are all still learning, always learning, so do not see these as laws, just some learnings along the path.

Find out what works for you.

Some people can do sarcasm, others can’t. Some people can sell a spoonerism, others only confuse when using them. When considering what jokes and humor to use in your speaking, a key thing to think about is how your stage persona best can be supported by humor. For you might not think you have a stage persona, and are instead up there as ‘just yourself’, but you do and you’re not. Regardless of who you are, being on stage changes you, often through exaggeration. If you’re a calm and collected person, you will often seem almost clinical on stage. If you’re upbeat, you’ll often look very peppy indeed. Your way of being funny should be aligned with this, either through supporting it or by creating a juxtaposition.

I for instance know a highly popular speaker who comes across, both on stage and off, as a bit of a dull professor (no, it’s not me). He is very intelligent, and far more fun than he seems at first, but his persona when talking is one of consideration and being based in rigorous fact. Another way of saying this is that he doesn’t always seem like a barrel of laughs. Now, he could counteract this by sticking to very dry wit, something which would compliment his persona. The problem, however, is that his own sense of humor isn’t necessarily geared towards the dry. He could try to insert some quips of this kind, but he also knows that he wouldn’t be able to deliver them with anything like good timing or conviction. What he does instead, is to insert a very limited number of jokes (no more than one or two) that he actually enjoys. The amusing bit is that the humor he enjoys is incredibly filthy… Still, these jokes work. They work because they are so shocking, so seemingly out of character, that they give his stage performance additional depth. Further, because he enjoys the jokes, he delivers them with a gusto and a joy that communicates with the audience, rather than as the bland repetition of something other people find funny. So think about your jokes. Do you find them funny? Can you tell them well? Do they work with how people see you on stage? Once you have good answers to these, you’re already well on your way.

Don’t (always) open with a joke.

The first (sic) error people often make is that they believe an old Toastmasters chestnut, namely that one should always open with a joke. Now, opening with a joke isn’t in and of itself bad advice — I often start a session with a jokey bit or just a short soliloquy — buy one shouldn’t treat this as as solemn truth. For while opening with a good joke can be a great way to get the audience on your side, as it were, a joke that falls flat right at the start is a surefire way of making your audience feel uncomfortable. This counts double if your opening joke is one of those tired tropes that people learn from little guidebooks: “Something funny happened on the way over here…” Also, to open with a joke can, unless deftly handled, make people believe that you’re going to spend the next hour or so telling jokes rather than imparting a message. Thus, if you are indeed opening with a joke, you also need to be very clear what you’ll be speaking about, so as not to confuse the audience. Also, your first joke sets the stage for the rest of the speech, so hitting the wrong tone can derail an otherwise successful performance.

You don’t always need a punchline.

Another error speakers tend to make is that they deflate their own key points by immediately following them with a joke. When on stage, part of your job is to make the audience comfortable, and as indicated, humor is an OK way to achieve this. At the same time, another part of your job is to make a solid point, i.e. to present a point of view in the clearest possible light or to show a new way of looking at a problem. Throwing jokes in to support this is fine, but following a serious point with a flippant remark can be a great way of making people unsure as to whether your entire presentation was a joke.

Think of punchlines as seasoning. If you add chili to every part of the meal, such as the starter, the potatoes, the meat, the salad, the sauce, the drink and the dessert, you will ruin an otherwise perfectly lovely dinner. The same goes for speaking. If your every point is mechanically followed by a quip, you’re not creating a full experience, you’re just using material to enable you to do punchlines.

Get applause for your thinking, not for your jokes.

Speakers should rarely end with a joke. Now, I understand why some speakers do this. It’s nice to walk off to the sound of laughter, and if people laugh they’re also more likely to applaud. But the cold, hard reality of keynoting is that people won’t remember much of your speech, even when you’re amazing, and the bit they’re most likely to remember is the very end. Ending with a joke will, at least subconsciously, make people think of you as “that guy/gal with the jokes and stuff”. Now, if you are a stand-up comic, this is OK. If you’re a keynote speaker, you want to be remember for insights and content, not jokes. To belabor a point and an analogy, jokes represents the sizzle to your steak, and you want to be remembered for steak, not sizzle.

Once again (as the bishop said to the actress), jokes should work to enhance your message, not to detract from it, and your ending is often the very core of this. Some speakers seem so afraid of ending on a strong, positive note, in all likelihood out of a fear of seeming cheesy or overly theatrical, that they self-sabotage. Don’t do that.

Working blue is difficult (but can be very rewarding).

Now, I’ve said “fuck” on stage. Often. I’ve joked about sexual perversions, and made references to various kinds of illicit or unseemly behaviors. I’ve referenced cunnilingus, not to mention fisting. More to the point, this has never gotten me into trouble. This does not mean just anyone can get away with it. Just as in comedy, where the expression “working blue” for using NSFW material was coined, you need to make sure that your material fits not only your audience, but your personal style.

I count myself blessed when it comes to this, as people rarely if ever book me to be the most clean-cut and inoffensive of speakers. After all, I’ve had airline magazines call me “the bad boy of business school”, and liked it. This doesn’t mean that I’m crude on stage, or that I always work blue, simply that I have found a way to at times challenge audiences with risque material. Unfortunately, this also means that I’ve been in situations where speakers following e.g. one of my opening keynotes have tried to tell bawdy jokes, only to see these fall utterly flat. There are few things that are more embarrassing than seeing a person who is not good at telling a dirty joke do so anyway…

There are many things to consider when working blue. One is to laugh with, not laugh at. For a straight man, joking about sex or e.g. homosexuality can come across as very patronizing, especially if one unironically uses old, sad tropes. You should always make it clear you’re not ridiculing or talking down to people, and rather that you’re highlighting narrow societal norms. Another thing, superficially Contradictory, is to not chicken out. If one decides to use dirty humor, one should at least own the filth. What this means is that your double entendres should be clear, and if you’re talking about masturbation, you should come right out and say it. Coy references to “self-pleasuring” will only confuse audiences and make you seem like a prude trying to be cool. A last thing to consider is why you’re working blue in the first place? If it is to get people into a more open, less guarded space, great. If the mood at an event loosens up by the deployment of a great dick joke, all the better. On the other hand, if you’re doing it just to show off as being an edgy bad boy, stop. Immediately. Remember, the keynote is about creating a great event, not about how cool you look.

Learn to wait for a beat.

In comedy, timing is everything. The difference between a good comic and a great one can often be reduced to this, the art of knowing how to pause, and exactly at which beat to hit a punchline. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that comedic timing is incredibly hard, and often takes years, even a decade, to master. I’m still working on my timing, for although I know I’ve developed from when I started, I’m still learning more and more.

My own journey to keynote timing got started very early. I did a gig for a big food retail conference, and my agent tagged along to see me in action. After my keynote, which I thought went quite well (and which got very good feedback), my agent had some critical points to impart. Key among these: “You’re rushing. If you make a joke, wait for the laugh.” She was absolutely right. I started experimenting, waiting for a beat after a punchline so that I didn’t capture just the first laugh, I got the whole thing, enhanced by the way in which my way created space for the audience to laugh really heartily.

And herein lies one of my key lessons for people who want to improve their speaking: Take more pauses. Not long, awkward ones, just long enough for people to have the chance to react to what you’re saying, and laugh properly at your jokes.

Free your ass (and your mind will follow).

Humor in keynoting isn’t just about the words. Sure, words are important — they are after all the building blocks of jokes, bon-mots, and witticisms — but they’re only part of the comedic performance. When you keynote, you’re usually alone on stage, with all eyes on you. This means that delivering a joke requires you think about things as posture, hand-gestures and your facial expressions as well. Small things such as an exaggerated look of surprise can transform a joke, just like a nice flourish with your hand can do so.

Here it is important not to be afraid of showing things such as amusement, bewilderment or surprise. The audience knows you’re telling a joke because you think something is funny, so acting like you’re not amused is counter-productive (unless you’re trying to make an ironic point — but that’s for an advanced class). So don’t be afraid of chuckling or doing a quick skip. Heck, I’ve mimed a little drumroll and said “Badum-tisch!”. Still, your facial expressions are key. Practice a cheeky smile, a little amused look. Remember than when on stage, you need to exaggerate both your movements and your expressions, so that they carry across the audience.

Never be meaner to others than you are towards yourself.

My last suggestion/advice is one that should be obvious, but which people still don’t follow: Don’t be a dick. Mean humor can definitively have it’s place, and ribbing people in the audience can pay off handsomely, but be careful about how pointed you are about the audience. I’ve seen speakers humorously berate audiences without getting a single laugh, and I’ve seen direct bullying from stage. Neither is a pleasant sight.

My principle here is simple. I always make sure I’ve joked about myself before I joke about anyone else, and if I kid about human foibles and how stupid we all can be, I start by including myself in the story, often telling an anecdote in which I exemplify the vice or the bias. By doing this, I can turn a story about failure into something both more funny and more human. By allowing the audience to laugh at me, I make it easier for them to laugh at themselves, joining us in comedy.

So there you have it, some things I’ve learnt about humor during a decade of keynoting. Not an exhaustive list, not even close, but a start.

Go forth and joke!
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