Speech Writing — How to Add Humour to Your Speeches and Presentations without Telling Jokes

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.

Michael Gladkoff

Speech Writing — How to Empower Your Speeches and Presentations with Quotations

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” Emerson’s quotation sounds humorous but his advice should not be applied to speech writing. When used effectively, quotations can add variety and credibility to your speeches and presentations.

In this article, we will look at the reasons for using quotations in your speeches and presentations, and provide a few examples of how to use them most effectively.

When you are speaking to persuade an audience — whether to buy a product or service, win them over to your way of thinking, or influence their beliefs about your organisation — there are many speech writing tools you can use to bolster your case. These include facts, statistics, stories and quotations. They all bring an external element that supports your proposition — it’s not only you who is saying this, but another person. Generally, the person you quote should be a respected authority in their field.

In How Aristotle Can Help You with Your Business Writing and Speaking we looked at logic, emotion and authority as essential elements of persuasion. While facts and statistics support the logical element of an argument, and stories bring in an emotional element, quotations add credibility. When you quote an authority — not connected to you or your business — you add the person’s credibility and standing to your case.

In the workshops and presentations we give about business writing and speech writing, for example, we use quotations from experts (past and present) to support our case for simple and uncluttered writing.

“Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.” — Cicero

“Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific term or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” — George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

“Executives and managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too dumb or too lazy to organize his thoughts.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well

By using these quotations, we bring outside confirmation to the idea that simple writing is best.

In a business context, the need for change is a common speech topic. If you were writing a speech about the need and importance of change, you could use quotations such as:

“Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm.” — Peter F. Drucker

“Change before you have to.” — Jack Welch

“Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” — John F. Kennedy

In this situation, the right quotation (or quotations) for your speech or presentation would depend on the specific message you want to convey about change. Many quotations websites can be searched by subject, keyword or author. Finding the appropriate quotation can take some time, but it’s well worth the effort.

As with business speeches, quotations can add depth and credibility to motivational speeches. Earl Nightingale was a master at using quotations in his motivational audio programs. He would often present many quotations on a single subject to enhance his message and make it more convincing. The following is an extract from The Strangest Secret, one of his best-selling programs.

This is The Strangest Secret! Now, why do I say it’s strange, and why do I call it a secret? Actually, it isn’t a secret at all. It was first promulgated by some of the earliest wise men, and it appears again and again throughout the Bible. But very few people have learned it or understand it. That’s why it’s strange, and why for some equally strange reason it virtually remains a secret.

Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor, said: “A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it.” Disraeli said this: “Everything comes if a man will only wait … a human being with a settled purpose must accomplish it, and nothing can resist a will that will stake even existence for its fulfilment.”

William James said: “We need only in cold blood act as if the thing in question were real, and it will become infallibly real by growing into such a connection with our life that it will become real. It will become so knit with habit and emotion that our interests in it will be those which characterize belief.” He continues, “…only you must, then, really wish these things, and wish them exclusively, and not wish at the same time a hundred other incompatible things just as strongly.”

My old friend Dr. Norman Vincent Peale put it this way: “If you think in negative terms, you will get negative results. If you think in positive terms, you will achieve positive results.”

George Bernard Shaw said: “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”

Well, it’s pretty apparent, isn’t it? We become what we think about.

The number of quotations used in the example might seem a bit excessive. But when you listen the recording of this motivational talk, it seems natural. By quoting so many notable figures throughout history, Earl Nightingale increases the strength and credibility of his message.

So the next time you need to write a speech or create a presentation, remember the power of quotations.

Speech Writing Tips: Seven Ways to Conclude a Speech for Maximum Impact

Although the beginning of a speech is important for setting the stage and getting the audience’s attention, the conclusion is their final impression of you and your message. It can be tempting to neglect the conclusion after you’ve spent hours on writing the opening and body, but a weak ending can lessen the effectiveness of your entire speech.

In The Lost Art of a Great Speech, Richard Dowis describes seven ways to effectively conclude a speech. Understanding these will give you more options the next time you’re struggling to write a speech ending.

Dowis defines the types of speech conclusions as:

  • summary
  • humorous
  • wrap up
  • direct appeal
  • thesis
  • reference
  • inspirational.

Let’s take a brief look at each of these.

With a summary closing you simply summarise the points that you detailed in the body of the speech. This can be effective because it reinforces what you have said. So if you cover three main points in your speech, you can write a few sentences on each point for the ending.

A humorous closing can work well when you find a quotation or anecdote that relates to your speech topic. Humour that is not relevant to the topic, either for the opening or conclusion, will often detract from a speech. If you can’t think of anything funny, there are many websites with quotations and anecdotes on almost any topic. Just search for them.

With a wrap up closing, also called a bookends closing, you repeat or mention an opening element to create a complete loop. This could be a fact, anecdote or quotation that you opened the speech with. Listeners will recognise this repetition as a verbal cue. As soon as you mention it, they will realise that your speech is coming to an end.

When using a direct appeal closing you ask the audience to take specific action. At a graduation ceremony, for example, a speaker might ask the new graduates to take a particular action or change their outlook as they begin their careers.

With a thesis closing you restate the main idea of your speech. This type of conclusion is effective when you’re attempting to persuade your audience on one important point.

When using a reference closing you mention the group you are speaking to, the location, date, a quotation or other point that connects you with your audience. If you’re speaking to a community service group, for example, you can research the organisation and mention their history, philosophy or achievements to reinforce the connection between you and the audience.

With an inspirational closing you use an inspirational quotation, poem or anecdote to end the speech. There are many reference websites where you can search for inspirational quotations, poems and stories by subject or author.

For instance, if you were speaking about goal achievement and wanted to inspire your audience, you might quote Thoreau, who said, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life that he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

It’s important to note that you can combine elements from the different types of conclusions when crafting your speech ending. For example, you can inspire your listeners with a quotation or story, and then make a call to action.

Writing an effective speech conclusion is important. But the ending can be the most difficult part. After completing the opening and body of the speech, it’s easy to run out of ideas and get stuck. Knowing the seven options available when ending a speech will help you overcome these challenges to create effective speeches with maximum impact.

Tips from a Speech Writer | Writing a Powerful Speech Opening to Connect with Your Audience

It’s often said that an effective speech opening is vital for connecting with your listeners. Besides making a good first impression, a good beginning to your speech helps you win the trust and attention of your listeners.

The speech opening is where you have the best chance to build a bridge of understanding between you and your audience. But how do you connect with a new audience when delivering a speech?

In The Lost Art of  the Great Speech, Richard Dowis describes what he calls reference opening to establish common ground between the speaker and the audience. When using a reference opening, the speaker usually makes reference to the speech, the group, the event or something related to one of these.

Some of the possible references you can use are the date, the location, the weather, the organisation you are delivering your speech to, a historical event, a current event, the topic, and the speech title.

Dowis shows how one executive speaking at a forum sponsored by the JC Penney Company, a US department store chain, used a reference opening in his speech.

I’m honoured to have been invited to represent the credit-reporting industry in this discussion of consumer credit. At the outset, I want to commend the JC Penney organisation for its sponsorship of this forum. I can recall many years ago reading about the late JC Penney. He was a dynamic man whose success in building one of the great retail enterprises of all time is testimony to the enormous potential of a free economic system. Mr Penney was also a man whose concern for people and society was apparent throughout his long and productive life.

Another example of a reference opening is found in 50 High Impact Speeches and Remarks by Michael Kador. He shows how Michael Askew, Vice Chairman of United Parcel Service, used a reference opening when he spoke at the Annual Meeting of the Air & Waste Management Association.

It is truly an honour to be addressing an organisation that has done so much to further our understanding of the environment. And you’ve done so in a way that promotes working cooperation among businesses, governments and communities.

What I find most impressive is that you’ve been doing this for 92 years. You don’t stick around 92 years unless you’re doing something right. We’re very aware of that at UPS.

In fact, the Air & Waste Management Association and UPS probably have more in common than you might think. For starters, we each were both founded way back in 1907 at a time when most environmental philosophies governing business and society were fledgling, at best.

This opening highlights what the speaker’s company has in common with the organisation he is addressing. It was a fortunate coincidence that both were founded in the same year, but you can usually find some point that connects you, or your organisation, to the audience.

As mentioned, location can be the basis for a reference opening. The following example from Dowis shows how an executive based in Atlanta used a location reference to connect with his audience in Chicago.

It’s good to be here in the company of such distinguished men and women in the great city of Chicago. Back in Atlanta, we refer to Chicago as the ‘other city the works.’ Chicago and Atlanta do have a great deal in common, quite apart from being the economic and cultural capitals of their respective regions of the country. Atlanta was burned in 1864 by a Yankee general named Sherman; Chicago was burned in 1871 by Mrs O’Leary’s cow.

Dowis also shows how to use literary references in a speech opening to connect with the speech topic. An executive of a forest products company used a literary reference when speaking to the company’s shareholders.

Dr Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s Candide, was fond of the statement: “All’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Well, in the field of for-sale residential construction, in finance, and in many other areas for which I have responsibility, we are close to, if not in, the best of all possible worlds.

If you’re having trouble finding a reference opening to help you connect with your audience, you can always try using the date of your presentation as a reference. Sites such as Today-In-History ( list important events, births and deaths that occurred on each day of the year. You might be able to find an event that is relevant to your speech topic or audience in some way.

The options for creating an effective reference opening are as boundless as your imagination and creativity. Writing an effective reference opening requires thought, planning and research. The effort spent, however, will help you get your messages across to receptive and attentive audiences.

The Language of Leadership – Using Rhetoric for Effective Speechwriting

Barack Obama’s success in the 2008 US presidential election showed us the power and relevance of well crafted and delivered speeches. One of the ‘secrets’ of Obama’s speaking success is his use of rhetoric. Although the term has taken on negative connotations to mean insincere and pompous language, rhetoric can be used to enhance a speaker’s credibility and make their messages more memorable.

What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion. In the Western world, rhetoric originated with the Ancient Greeks who defined and developed the techniques that are used to this day.

Let’s look at a few important rhetorical techniques and how they can be applied in speechwriting to express messages clearly and effectively.

Rule of Three

One of the most common and effective rhetorical devices is called the rule of three, or triad.

When using the rule of three, you include three equal elements in a sentence or series of sentences. Here are a few examples.

Veni, vidi, vici. (I came, I saw, I conquered.)

Julius Caesar

Government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln (from the Gettysburg Address, a eulogy for those killed in the battle)

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

Franklin D Roosevelt

Barack Obama often uses the rule of three in his speeches.

That’s what Abraham Lincoln understood. He had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks.

Barack Obama

Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

Barack Obama

The rule of three can also be applied on a larger scale in speeches. For example, you can reveal three interesting facts, tell three anecdotes in succession, or ask three questions in a row.


Anaphora is the technique of emphasising words by repeating them at the beginning of adjacent clauses or sentences.

In one of the most memorable political speeches from World War II, Winston Churchill used anaphora with great effect.

We shall go on to the end,

we shall fight in France,

we shall fight on the seas and oceans,

we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,

we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be,

we shall fight on the beaches,

we shall fight on the landing grounds,

we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,

we shall fight in the hills;

we shall never surrender…

Hillary Clinton used anaphora in her speech to the US Democratic National Convention in 1996.

To raise a happy, healthy, and hopeful child, it takes a family; it takes teachers; it takes clergy; it takes business people; it takes community leaders; it takes those who protect our health and safety. It takes all of us.

To writers and editors unfamiliar with rhetoric, this sentence would seem wordy. For a written format they might edit this sentence to read:

To raise a happy, healthy, and hopeful child, it takes a family, teachers, clergy, business people, community leaders, and those who protect our health and safety. It takes all of us.

But the repetition plays an important role. Repeating ‘it takes’ emphasises individual points and gives listeners time to reflect on each one.

Paul Keating used anaphora in his Redfern Address of 1993

Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless.

Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight.

Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books.

Imagine if our feats on sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice.

Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed.

Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it.

Barack Obama uses anaphora to persuade and motivate his listeners. This example is from the speech where he announced his presidential candidacy in 2007.

Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let’s set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let’s recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability. Let’s make college more affordable, let’s invest in scientific research, and let’s lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America.

It has been said that Australian audiences prefer a simpler approach and are cynical towards rhetorical language. Kevin Rudd expressed this sentiment when he said, ‘By way of personal instinct, I have an inherent distaste for grandiose rhetorical statements, which don’t have any substantive dimension to them’.

But rhetorical techniques are found in many speeches by Australian political and business leaders. Kevin Rudd’s apology speech to the Stolen Generations, which was delivered in Parliament in February 2008, included several of these.

In the beginning of the speech, he used epistrophe (also called antistrophe). This is when a word or phrase is repeated at the end of each sentence or clause.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

Prime Minister Rudd used anaphora to conclude the speech.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Antithesis, Simile, Metaphor and Analogy

Antithesis is when contrasting ideas are juxtaposed in a sentence.

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

John F Kennedy

If we are going to make the investments we need, we also have to be willing to shed the spending that we don’t need.

Barack Obama

A simile is when you compare things that share at least one attribute. Similes usually include the words ‘like’ or ‘as’.

Education is like a diamond with many facets.

Ronald Reagan

Life is like an onion: You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.

Carl Sandburg

A metaphor compares one thing to another, but describes the thing being compared as if it were the other.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of a nation into the beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

Martin Luther King

Nationalism is both a vital medicine and a dangerous drug.

Geoffrey Blainey

An analogy is an extended metaphor or long simile.

Politicians are a lot like diapers; you should change them frequently and for the same reason. Keep that in mind next time you vote.

Robin Williams in Man of the Year

Analogies can be helpful when explaining complex ideas or technical processes in a speech. An executive with an Australian IT company used the following analogy to explain a challenging project.

Updating the telecommunications software was like changing an engine on a 767 jet at 37,000 feet. We were changing one of the engines and needed to ensure that the plane kept running and didn’t fly around in circles.

Rhetorical techniques such as the rule of three, anaphora, epistrophe, simile and metaphor have been used in speechwriting for over two thousand years. Besides engaging audience members, they can make interesting ‘sound bites’ that are more likely to be quoted in the media and remembered.

Although rhetoric is an ancient way to persuade through language, it is equally relevant today. Speechwriters who understand rhetoric and how to apply it skilfully can enhance the credibility of leaders while making their messages more memorable.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Resources section of the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) website.

Public Speaking Tips from a Champion


Public Speaking Tips from a Champion



David Brooks, the 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking has taught over 10,000 business people to communicate with humour, style and substance. In 2006, he spoke Toastmasters conventions in Australia and offered the following seven basic tips for memorable and effective speaking.


·        Seek out friendly faces in your audience. Much of the fear of public speaking comes from the false belief that audiences want speakers to fail. In reality, some people are less expressive, so they look uninterested. Finding friendly faces and making eye contact will give you comfort and energy when public speaking.


·        Determine what you want your audience to think, feel or do. When public speaking you should have at least one of the following basic purposes: to inspire, to inform, to persuade and/or entertain.


·        Bring your words to life with colourful imagery. Word pictures will make your public speaking more memorable.


·        Before speaking in public, write your speech word for word. Once you have written you speech, you can edit for economy and precision. According to Brooks, “Writing encourages content, and content should be king.” This doesn’t mean that you memorise your speech, but practise it until you are comfortable.


·        David Brooks quotes Bill Gove, a master public speaking trainer. Gove says, “Make a point, tell a story.” People will remember your points better if they are combined with a stories. “Facts tell, stories sell.”


·        Use stories that evoke the universal emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust and fear. Stories don’t have to be about monumental achievements or disasters – ones from personal experience are best when public speaking.


·        Never underestimate the power of laughter when public speaking. People are relaxed when they laugh. When they are relaxed, they can learn. You don’t need to tell jokes – humorous stories from personal experience are more effective than jokes.


For an effective and memorable speeches, follow the seven recommendations of David Brooks, the World Champion of Public Speaking.




What is copywriting and why is it important?

Blog On Copywriting

Welcome to our new blog on copywriting.

In the coming months and years we’ll be covering a diverse range of topics on all forms of written communication for business. We’ll divide these into four main categories: copywriting, speech writing, business writing, editing and proofreading. During the next five weeks ─ through the end of January 2009 ─ we’ll be looking at copywriting.

There is a lot of confusion about copywriting. Many business people don’t have a clear understanding about copy writing and its importance. I’ve met small and medium business owners and managers who are surprised that an outside company or individual would offer to write copy for their business. Some are even surprised that such a service exists. One of their first questions is, ‘How can you write about our business if you’re not in our business?’ Others confuse the term copywriting with copyright, a legal concept for protecting intellectual property.

On the other hand, there are professional copywriters who have a very narrow definition of copy writing. They think that the only good copy writing is direct response copywriting. These are the copywriting gurus who offer to teach you copy writing in a weekend ─ for the special price of $6,000 for a three-day course. You’ll learn all the copy writing secrets and become tremendously successful in a very short time.  

In the coming months I’ll cover copy writing from the ground up. The first step will be to give you a solid definition of copy writing. Then we’ll look at the different types of copy to determine which style is best for your product, your service and your organisation.

See you soon!