By James D’Ambrosio

(This is the third in a series on public speaking strategies for nonprofits)

When thinking about a topic to complete this series, I wanted to offer insights benefiting the most readers. To be sure, entire books have been devoted to the subject of public speaking. If you want to immerse yourself in the many principles, then take up study — the subject is far too broad to  address in a few columns.

That said, I have chosen to discuss how to avoid something that can get you into a fair amount of trouble: using humor in public speaking. Having witnessed some epic failures, the following are some important issues to consider.   


USE CAUTION: First and foremost, I urge great caution with humor in public speaking. From my experience, it tends to work really well or totally flop. As an experienced speaker, I’m the first to admit I’m no Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld. Further, society has changed: What you could get away with 20 years ago doesn’t fly today. To some degree, we have become less tolerant and patient. Therefore, steer clear of any comments that can even be remotely construed as offensive to any group of people.   

♦ BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF: To be effective, you need  a congenial, outgoing personality. Don’t kid yourself. If you’re shy and reserved in most social situations, it doesn’t bode well. Worse, if you try and it doesn’t come naturally, your audience will pick up on it immediately: It could be the most uncomfortable few minutes of your professional life! Don’t try to be someone you’re not. There are many ways to enhance your presentation without humor.  

♦ ANALYZE YOUR AUDIENCE: The demographics of your audience often dictate if humor is appropriate. To make an informed decision, ask yourself these questions: How well do I know attendees? How well do they know me? Are they sympathetic to my agency’s cause? Are they too ‘buttoned-up’ to relate with my sense of humor? Let honest answers guide you.

IF YOU DECIDE TO USE HUMOR: Unless you’re giving an after-dinner speech at a raucous football victory party, use humor sparingly  —  just enough to make your remarks memorable. You’re trying to be dynamic; NOT impress with your wit.


Let’s say you’re torn about using humor. One solution is to plan such comments LATER  in the presentation and make them OPTIONAL. This gives you an opportunity to judge how well you’re connecting with the audience before deciding. On your note card, simply write “USE IF GOING WELL.” It’s like a quarterback changing the play at the line of scrimmage — he doesn’t like what he sees and makes adjustments. This approach provides flexibility while reducing risk.


QUESTION TO READERS: Any thoughts about this series?  Anything else you would like to add? 




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