To Be or Not to Be Funny: How to Use Humor in Speechwriting 

Humor can be an effective engagement tactic in speechwriting, but it can also be disastrous if misused. See Jane Campion’s Critics Choice Awards acceptance speech blunder if you want a lesson in what NOT to do.  

We’ve seen other famous people throughout history successfully humor us with their speeches. Comedy writer and actress Mindy Kaling earned nonstop laughter at a 2014 Harvard Law School commencement address using clever one-liners like this one: “You are the nerds who are going to make some serious bank, which is why I am here today… to marry the best-looking amongst you.” 

Even U.S. Presidents like to throw in a little humor now and then. White House Correspondents’ Dinners seem to be a popular occasion for satire. President Joe Biden just hosted one a few weeks ago and opened with this line: “This is the first time a President attended this dinner in six years. It’s understandable. We had a horrible plague followed by two years of COVID.”  

And although not always on purpose, George W. Bush is widely considered one of our funniest presidents. He delivered this opening line at the 2005 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, “I look forward to these dinners where I’m supposed to be funny… intentionally.” 

Obviously, comedians have full license to be funny on stage. But what about the principals you advise? When do they have permission to get a laugh? 

Answering these two questions can help you decide: 

  1. Is the speaker naturally funny? 
  1. Is the speaking engagement appropriate for humor? 

Decision tree time. If you answered yes to both of those questions, congratulations! You may use humor in your speech. Now you’ve got to figure out how to make it work.  

The best place to add humor is in the introduction of a speech, but it can also be sprinkled throughout if used at the right moments.  

Using these three key tactics can help you weave in humor in the right way for your speaker.  

The first is self-deprecation. The audience loves it when a speaker can make fun of themselves. It breaks the ice and makes them instantly relatable. Plus, it establishes trust. If your speaker is willing to be vulnerable and hang themselves out to dry a bit, they earn the audience’s trust immediately. 

The second is a good old-fashioned joke. Sometimes there’s nothing more memorable than a solid punchline. (It’s totally okay if this is one of the three to five things your audience remembers!)  

The third is storytelling. If your speaker has a funny personal experience that relates to their speech topic, have them share it! It adds to their credibility and makes the audience like them even more. 

If you answered no to one or both of the above questions, don’t worry. Just put down the joke book and pick up another engagement tactic, such as asking a provocative question or stating a compelling fact. There are many ways to keep an audience interested. Picking the tactic that resonates best with your speaker will help them deliver it in the most authentic and relatable way. 

by Nellie Betzen