Some public speakers never use humor. They are scared of getting into hot water. However, the risk is fairly manageable.
Recently, I was stopped by the police while driving. When the police officer came up to my car window with a note pad in hand, I was still asking myself: “what could I have done wrong?” With a charming smile, I said to him: “I suppose you know why you stopped me today, Sir.”
What can I say? That was not a clever idea. The rules of the road were apparently no topic that this lawman was willing to make fun of. The answer to my joke consisted of only three words:
Speeding, license and registration.
While I was fishing my papers out of the glove compartment and the officer wrote a hefty penalty on my speeding ticket I asked myself:
How could I judge my audience so wrongly?
In fact, it is not always easy to predict what kind of reaction your joke will get. This is particularly true if your audience has more than a single police officer in it.
But what can you do to avoid making jokes that can get you in trouble? First of all, it is important to understand how humour works. Because paradoxically jokes often deal with topics that are not funny. No one described it better than the German writer Otto Julius Bierbaum who coined the phrase: Humour is when you laugh anyway.
Many jokes pick up on every day fears. They tell the story of a woman who goes to the doctor to hear her diagnosis, a husband who comes home from work early and finds his wife in bed with another man or an airplane that is about to crash and doesn’t carry enough parachutes for all the passengers.
Humour doesn’t deal with happy topics. It is often about tragedy and goes on to offer a relief: Laughing.
However, that only works if the listeners have enough distance to the tragic subject of the joke. If you have ever told an Alzheimer joke in a nursing home, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
The police officer who stopped my car recently might have had images of terrible traffic accidents in his head that were caused by speeding. No wonder he couldn’t laugh about my joke. He lacked distance.
In everyday life, most people have a feeling which joke is appropiate for which occasion. We intuitively know which punch line we can tell our spouse or our bowling buddies; which jokes we better withold in front of our boss or our grandmother. A faux pas like the one I had when joking with the police officer happens rather rarely. But the risk of putting your foot in your mouth is always there. And it doesn’t only happen to me now and then. It even happens to world class speakers.
Another example: In 1984, US President Ronald Reagan wanted to record a radio address on his ranch in California. During the sound check the former Hollywood actor tried to entertain the waiting technicians and journalists with a little joke. Assuming the microphone was off he announced:
“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
What can I say? That was not a good idea either. While Reagan was still wondering why no one around him really felt like laughing the recording of his ”joke“ spread like wildfire around the globe. Reagan had caused one of the biggest scandals of his presidency. During the weeks that followed Reagan might have asked himself more than once:
How could I judge audience so wrongly?
What Reagan hadn’t taken into consideration was the fact that in the year of the recording many people were very frightened of an atomic war between the USA and the USSR. Most Americans understood that the president’s words were meant to be a joke. Only they couldn’t laugh about it.
If you want to make jokes in speeches and at other occasions you should always consider what is the tragic element of your joke and what is your audience’s relationshio to it. This way you can easily avoid hefty speeding tickets and – what is way more important – some embarrassing press conferences, too.
Do you need support with preparing of your next speech? Do you want to learn the craft of speech writing? Send me an email or call me on the phone (0049 30 288 679 84). As a speech writer with years of experience I can provide a custom-tailored solution for all your speech-writing challenges.