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Don't Start Your Speech By Telling a Joke

Don't Start Your Speech By Telling a Joke

A popular assumption implies that a speaker should start his or her speech by telling a joke, to get listeners in an upbeat mood and grab attention instantly. Like many widespread assumptions, this one is wrong. Here are five good reasons not to start your speech by telling a joke.

FIRST: Your joke could offend the audience.

After all, don’t most jokes have a “fall guy,” who becomes the brunt of your ridicule? Often the fall guy is a group—geographic, ethnic, gender, or age related.

“But,” you respond, “the audience I am speaking to doesn’t include anybody from the group I’m jesting about.” Maybe not—yet some of your audience members may harbor strong sympathy for your targeted group. The result: Your verbal jabs will alienate these listeners immediately, and you will have little likelihood of regaining their attention.

At a civic club luncheon, a speaker launched his speech with an off color joke. Much to his surprise, a female club member walked to the microphone after he sat down, and said quite sternly: “I know I speak for many of us when I say that the joke our guest speaker told was offensive, and was totally inappropriate for our group.”

While negative reactions might not become vocalized like that, even silent embarrassment and resentment will establish barriers you cannot remove.

SECOND: Your audience might not like the joke.

Possibly they don’t understand it, or you botch the punch line. Instead of laughter, you generate blank stares. An audible disruption starts when audience members start murmuring to each other, “Explain that one to me.”

Johnny Carson’s fans remember one of his most remarkable assets: his ability to recover from a joke that bombed, making fun of himself—sometimes with a few dance steps or tapping the microphone to pretend the audience hadn’t heard his joke. Yet most of us lack the poise to maneuver that creatively. We have to endure the absence of applause and laughter that we had expected.