With over twenty-four years of performing stand-up comedy, writing comedy, and doing audience warm-up on sitcoms, I've learned that using humour in a corporate setting is a lot different than in a comedy club. For success here, you must tread carefully. To that end, I offer you my five writing commandments for delivering humourous keynote speeches.
Fogel's First Commandant: Thou shall know your audience. Are they young or old or mixed? Remember: Humour is subjective. A youngster of six might laugh at a good making-potty-in-your-pants joke. On the other hand, an elderly senior may find it offensive having just made potty in his pants himself feeling a tad embarrassed.
Fogel's Second Commandment: Thou shall test, but never test a new joke in your opening line. If it bombs you better have a good saver. I once performed on a cruise ship where I quickly learned that seniors sometimes lose the sarcastic gene once they hit retirement age. The night before they had seen a juggling and fire eating team called The Village Idiots.
At my show the next night, I looked out at the audience and asked them, "Hello folks, did you enjoy The Village Idiots last night?" They applauded. Then I said, "Great guys. I've known them for years. I've known them since they were morons." Nothing! Crickets stopped chirping to listen to the silence. The audience just stared at me taking what I'd said literally as if I was actually calling the comedy team morons.
They were thinking, "We liked them. Why are you calling them morons?" I kid you not. That joke was funny. I know it's funny, because I've used it and received great response in other venues. However, I learned it was the wrong joke for the wrong audience at the wrong time. Always test a new joke or story in the middle of your speech.
Fogel's Third Commandment: Thou shall choose your target appropriately. For humour to work you must realize that there's a punch line and/or a victim in the joke. In observational humour, you make fun of the fact that everyone loses a sock in the dryer, for example, and you get laughs at the recognition of it. Understand that the corporate world dictates political correctness unlike a comedy club. You should never poke fun of anyone's race, creed, color, or handicap in a corporate environment. Even if it's fun, someone will be insulted, guaranteed. For corporate humour: When in doubt, leave it out.
It is also not a wise idea to make fun of the CEO of the company to which you're speaking, even if it's in a playful manner and has been cleared with the Powers That Be – including the CEO himself. Rather, make the target of your humour a common enemy that your audience loves to hate, like the competition.
I just performed at a Wynn-Dixie Supermarket conference in Florida. Their competition is Publix. All of the store managers were there and so I cleared an opening joke with the person that hired me. I looked out at the sea of white shirts and polyester ties at 7:30 in the morning and said, "Hi everyone. All I can say is screw Publix!" Huge laughter and applause! Now, understand that what I did was not the norm! But it worked, because I cleared it first.
Fogel's Fourth Commandment: Thou shall be self-effacing, not self-deprecating. Ever notice how fat comedians get constant laughs? They put themselves down. Self-deprecating humour works in comedy clubs, but not in a corporate setting. As a speaker in this environment, you want respect and need to instead be self-effacing.
Show the audience your humility or some of your frailties. Remember a few years back when Firestone had tires exploding off SUVs? When it hit the newswire that day, I knew I had some great humour material. That night I spoke at an event and my opening line was: [sighing] "Hope you're all in a good mood. Two days ago I bought stock in Firestone." That line generated a huge response.
Find some current catastrophe in the newspaper that occurred at a particular company and substitute their name for Firestone's. It does work!
Fifth commandment: Thou shall take notice of the room's seating arrangement. Humour and delivering strong content works best when there is intimacy in the room. Arrive early at your engagement and make sure – to the best of your ability – that the seating is in close proximity to the stage. If it's not, know that the humour-response may be smaller than you expected.
I once spoke in a huge dining room where there was a buffet table filled with hot food right in front of the stage. The audience was about twenty feet back from the table. I looked at the attendees and said, "I've never had the pleasure of speaking in front of rising steam before." That was self-effacing humour and I received a nice large laugh because it was current and in the moment.
Try these techniques. I hope they work for you as well as they do for me.
Peter Fogel is a speaker, corporate comedian, and humourist. His website is http://www.fortune500comedy.com. He's also the author of the e-book and DVD program Peter "The Humorator" Fogel's Guide To Effective Public Speaking. Sign up for his free 7-Day E-Course on Public Speaking at http://www.fortune500comedy.com/PublicSpeakingEBook/index.html