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.
THIRD: Telling jokes might not be your strong suit. Oh sure, you can crack jokes and hear raucous laughter from your golf or luncheon pals, whom you have known for years. In fact, all of you swap jokes easily and frequently. Your success in these informal settings could lead you to assume that you're a born entertainer.
However, handling jokes with a group of people you don't know differs greatly. The standard convivial mood that exists among your closest friends is missing. You have to earn credibility from your listeners, not lean on the esteem that has grown through years of association.
Think back to the times you have tried joke-telling in your speaking. Was it worth the risk? Did you feel too much tension worrying about possible failure? Or have you been one of those rare presenters who accomplishes the proverbial "get them rolling in the aisles"?
Assess, quite candidly, whether joke-telling is your strong suit. Facing your limitations honestly could prevent speaking failures that derail your message.
FOURTH: The audience might have heard the joke already. Consider how the Internet has made it much tougher to come up with a joke not known to your audience. How many times a week do your friends e-mail you the same joke? Well, that's happening among your audience members as well.
Additionally, when you're speaking at a civic club, speakers from two or three weeks ago could have told the joke you planned for today's speech.
FIFTH: You will surprise your audience by not starting with a joke.
Joke-telling at the outset has become common enough to be ranked as trite. Start some other way, and your audience will welcome your new approach.
Now, do these five reasons not to start your speech with a joke imply that there's no place for humor in your first remarks? Not at all. Humor--used sparingly, skillfully, and in good taste--can establish quick rapport and indicate the speaker is personable and friendly, as well as self-assured without being cocky.
The most winsome humor will be spontaneous, related to the event, and self-directed. For example, recently an acquaintance invited me to speak at his business club's luncheon. He assured me he would promote attendance, and would introduce me, using the written bio I provided. Then his plans changed, as he left on an unscheduled international trip. This opportunity for timely, self-deprecating humor led me to say, "I have been speaking for many years, to a wide variety of groups, and I can assure you this is the first time ever that my host invited me to speak, then left the country before the event." As you can imagine, my comment drew good natured chuckles, especially from those who knew Art, my absentee host.
Again: In starting your speech, leave the joke telling to Letterman, Leno, and the other professional experts, for the five reasons we have reviewed. Replace jokes with witty, tasteful, and creative observations and comments that are not canned, but are customized to fit only this audience, occasion, and topic. Not only will you sidestep potential pitfalls, you will establish instant rapport and positive expectations.