One of my MBA students approached me the other day and asked, “When’s the best time to tell a joke in a speech?” I love questions like these – the kind that are easy to answer and that really matter to an aspiring speaker.

The first part of the answer is that you can tell a joke any old time as long as you are skilled at rebounding if it falls flat. Are you able to poke fun at yourself without getting flustered or embarrassed? Are you good at pivoting off the negative response in a way that allows you to re-connect? Many experts advise speakers never to start a speech with a joke because you risk insulting a particular demographic or telling a joke that everyone has heard a million times, but I find that too limiting. If you feel strongly that bonding with your audience early on and using humor is the way to do that, then find a way to make it work (see part three of this answer). However, if you are not skilled at pivoting off a joke that goes awry, then you may want to avoid joke-telling altogether.

The next part has to do with timing and delivery. How well do you articulate your words, use pauses, and vary the tone of your voice? These skills determine how successful the joke is and how much or how little your audience laughs. Comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of Totally Biased show on FX, said in a recent interview that his stomach hurts when asked to tell a joke from his early stand-up act because they’re all so bad. If you don’t have the opportunity to practice the craft of joke-telling and you are not naturally gifted in the timing and delivery department, then again, perhaps steer clear of jokes in your speech.

The last part of the answer has to do with the difference between telling a joke and using humor. This is the most important advice. Canned jokes or formulaic jokes (topic/set-up/punchline) are rarely the best choice for a speaker. What’s more effective is the use of humor as it relates to your topic. For example, I remember speaking to a large group of people who were important to my consulting work and for whatever reason, completely unplanned, I told them that I had a dream the night before that only seven people showed up. Everyone laughed (a couple of people even clapped) and I felt a huge boost in my connection to the audience.

Inside jokes are also more effective than canned jokes. If you are talking to a group of realtors and you yourself are in the real estate business, then making fun of advertisements boasting proximity to water are really just code for “water in the basement” will work very well.

Toastmasters International suggests that the two important criteria for a good joke are relevance and unexpected insight (i.e. a fresh look on a familiar topic). This is good advice. If your joke is not relevant to your topic or the audience then why are you telling it? Second, offering a new way of looking at the topic will result in more attentive listeners who are now willing to consider your key message.

By the way, my student told a joke at the beginning, the middle, and the end.  And he won the race for class president.

– Barbara

Barbara Roche