Some rules for jokes in speeches

If ever you’re writing a speech and want to include some jokes – here are some handy tips from the political realm that transfer nicely into any public speaking. It’s from an American context – but the rules still apply for making jokes and maintaining dignity.

Rule No. 1: First, the obvious: Be self-deprecating. “Humor is a powerful weapon,” says Jeff Nussbaum, a speechwriter who has worked for Al Gore and Joe Biden. “But to earn the right to wield it against others, you need to turn it against yourself first.”

Rule No. 2: Singe, don’t burn. The best jokes walk right up to the line—but don’t cross it. “You never want get an oooo out of the audience,” says Jeff Shesol, a former deputy speechwriter for Bill Clinton. “I can’t believe you just said that is pretty good, but oooo is different.” Gentle ribbing is good. At last year’s WHCD, Obama welcomed his audience of journalists. “Most of you covered me,” he said. “All of you voted for me.”

Rule No. 3: Use jokes as damage control… The damage control strategy can backfire. Al Gore often joked about his stiffness—”Al Gore is so stiff, racks buy their suits off him;” “Al Gore is so boring, his Secret Service code name is Al Gore”—until his speechwriters realized they were only reinforcing the image.

Rule No. 4: Delivery matters. John Kerry learned this the hard way in 2006, when he botched a joke in front of a group of students. He meant to say that if you don’t study hard, you’ll end up making dumb decisions like President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Instead, he said that students who don’t perform well would get “stuck in I

If you’re not funny and you need to be, it’s ok to solicit material from a funny friend. Just don’t botch the delivery like Kerry did.

“The best political comedy speeches are a mix of punchlines, extended riffs, and set pieces. Punchlines are relatively easy. White House speechwriters usually solicit ideas from funny people around the West Wing—apparently David Axelrod is a comedic force—as well as TV writers and professional comedians. Clinton and Gore, for example, relied heavily on Al Franken and Jay Leno. Other times they’ll simply pay an outside writer to do it.”

“Writing jokes for politicians is different from writing for a late-night talk show. (Although sometimes the two overlap.) “For a politician, it’s not just about getting laughs,” says Eric Schnure, a speechwriter who has written for both Democrats and Republicans. “It’s about being liked.” Some humor is therefore off limits. No impersonations. No joking about loss of life. No cursing. It’s just not worth offending someone you have to work with the next day.”

This doesn’t necessarily apply across the board, but I think it can be applicable in preaching, though I don’t recommend ever aiming for lame jokes. And you should almost never pause expecting laughter. Wait for laughter, then pause.

“Luckily for speechwriters, the bar isn’t that high. Even the lamest jokes get laughs. “The weird thing about all these jokes is, none of them are funny,” says one Senate speechwriter. It’s more about seeing normally stentorian politicians crack wise. The mere fact of it is entertaining. As Attie puts it: “It’s humor in a suit.””

There are a couple more insights in the original article.