Adding humour to a speech or presentation is a great way to build rapport with your audience. But one common piece of bad advice is to tell a joke at the beginning of the speech to “loosen up the audience”. This approach is even more ineffective when the joke has nothing to do with the topic of the speech or the purpose of the event. If the joke doesn’t work, the speaker might lose momentum for the rest of the speech. Also, not everyone is good at telling jokes. Some people enjoy telling jokes to their family and friends, and can make them laugh, while others often fall flat in their attempts.
But if you don’t tell jokes, how can you add humour to your speech writing?
One effective way is to use humorous quotations that are related to your message. Something funny has been said about every subject, and it’s easy to find these quotations on the internet.
For example, when I speak to audiences about writing, I mention the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein who said, “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”
You can even find humour in computers and information technology. If you were writing a speech about computers, Google “humorous computer quotations” and you will find many to choose from.
“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.” Joseph Campbell
“Software and cathedrals are much the same — first we build them, then we pray.” Unknown
“If the automobile had followed the same development as the computer, a Rolls-Royce would today cost $100, get a million miles per gallon, and explode once a year killing everyone inside.” Robert Cringely
“There are two major products that came out of Berkeley: LSD and UNIX. We do not believe this to be a coincidence.” Jeremy S. Anderson
“Experts agree that the best type of computer for your individual needs is one that comes on the market about two days after you actually purchase some other computer.” Dave Barry
If the quotation is from an unknown source, you can say, “Someone once said” and then deliver the quotation.
After finding the quotations from the various sites, choose one or several that you feel will fit your audience and topic. If you are writing for a non-technical audience, a quotation that requires technical knowledge won’t be funny, so always keep your audience in mind. You also want to be sure that the quotation isn’t offensive.
Quotations can also help you add some humour when teaching. For example, when we give workshops on business writing and speech writing we emphasise the importance of being as concise as possible. But clear and simple writing often requires more time and effort, so we mention Blaise Pascal who wrote, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
You can combine related quotations to strengthen your message while adding some humour. This example is from the opening of a speech we wrote for a CEO who was speaking about innovation at his company.
Innovation requires us to look to the future. But the pace of change can be so quick that many of the predictions about technology have been wrong.
In 1830, Dionysius Lardner, professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, said, “Rail travel at high speed is not possible, because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”
In 1895 Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society said, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
In 1926, Dr. Lee De Forest, inventor of the vacuum tube and father of television, said, “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.”
In 1977, Ken Olson, the founder and president of Digital Equipment Corp, said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
To be safe, I won’t be making any major predictions today. But I will share some of my thoughts on innovation at our company.
Before using quotations in a speech or presentation, you will want to confirm their authenticity and accuracy. You can do this comparing quotations websites or, even better, finding the original source of the quotation, such as an article or interview.
You don’t have to tell jokes to add humour to your speeches and presentations. So the next time you are faced with a speech writing task or preparing a presentation, find and use humorous quotations.