Be Careful With That Joke

In this episode of my podcast, The Introverted Speaker Show, I’m going to address a technique, a tactic, that is often advised to speakers, and advised whether there are beginners, or seasoned pros. You’ll often see public speaking gurus tell you you should put some humor in your speeches or your presentations. That you should start with a joke. Because it will make your audience instantly like you and root for you.

Well, I don’t really agree with this advice. That is, unless your speech is supposed to be witty or funny by its very nature, of course. If you’re a stand-upper, or if you’ve been asked to give a speech for cousin Olga’s birthday because you are known to be the funny guy, please ignore what I’m going to say in this episode. But if you’re not in those super-rare situations, I’m going to tell you why I don’t think you should start with a joke, or crack a joke here and there in your presentations.


The first thing is, well, using humor is a tactic. It’s not a strategy, something that you develop long term to become a better speaker. It’s a tactic. You can use it, efficiently or not, and once you used it, it’s done. It’s gone. I mean, if you’re not naturally funny, and not everybody is, and it’s perfectly ok, if you’re not funny, and you are asked to give a powerpoint presentation about last quarter’s results, trying to make jokes will backfire badly. Because it is not congruent with your personality. And not only that, but it’s not congruent with the context, either. With your audience. And if you’re trying to be funny although you’re not a funny person, and in front of people who are not there to be amused, so what’s the point?

OK, let me give you two anecdotes about people who thought they’d be funny during a meeting or a presentation.

The Nazi And The Fly

The first one is about a general, I don’t remember his name, but it’s not important, let’s forget him, because he was a general during world war 2, a general of the nazi army. Some guy with a very high rank in the army, some guy important enough to discuss military strategy with Adolf Hitler himself. And one day, toward the end of the war if I recall correctly, at some time in 1944, one day, Hitler organized a conference with all his most important officers, all his top-level generals, including the guy I’m talking about. Hitler was talking, showing things on maps, and as you can guess the situation was pretty tense and dead serious. And there was a fly in the room, a fly doing fly things, I mean, she was flying, making a loud buzzing noise, she was crashing against the windows, she was walking on the maps, she was walking on the back of the Fürher’s hand, that kind of things. And Hitler was getting extremely pissed off by the insect, and asked one of hid generals, he asked the guy I was talking about, he asked him to help him “get rid of that pest”. And the general cracked a joke, he said something like “hey, this is a flying pest, that’s not my job, I’m in charge of the infantry”, and showing another guy he said “that’s this guy’s job, he’s responsible for the Luftwaffe.” The Luftwaffe being the branch in charge of aerial warfare, you know, planes, bombs and all that stuff.

So, yeah, the guy made a funny joke during a boring meeting, so according to all these public speaking gurus, Hitler should have laughed hard, and promoted the guy in the end because he was both entertaining and relatable. Well, that’s not what happened, mind you.

Hitler was not amused.

He was extremely pissed off, and the guy was instantly downgraded from the rank of general to the rank of simple soldier, and was sent to the Russian front the next day. And the Russian front was not a fun place to be. Now, don’t be too sad for that guy, remember he’s a war criminal, and anyway he only died a few years ago, so he survived the Russian front. But maybe being funny and having a good sense of humor wasn’t his best asset given the situation.

The Billionnaire That Got Broke

OK, maybe you have a hard time rooting for a nazi, and I can’t blame you, so let me give you another example. A more recent anecdote, and something probably more relatable.

You probably don’t know who Gerald Ratner is, I hadn’t heard of him before I read an article about his company a few weeks ago. Ratner was a billionaire, an English businessman who owned a highly successful jewelry company. His company was called Ratners Group, and it was a big, the most famous back then, a big low-cost jewelry company. With thousands of shops all over the UK. You see, jewelry is usually expensive. After all, jewelry itself is useless, and people buy it to show they have money. That’s what it was originally meant for, after. Back in time, at the beginnings of mankind’s History, people were wearing necklaces, earrings, wristbands and that kind of things to show how rich and successful they were, and it hasn’t really changed since then. If you wear a diamond ring or a golden necklace, it’s to show you have so much money you can spend thousands of pounds in useless things like diamonds or gold pieces.

Well, Ratner made a low-cost jewelry company, which is a little counter-intuitive when you come to think about it. He actually inherited his father’s traditional jewelry in 1984, and transformed it from a bland, traditional, not so successful jewelry business in an empire dedicated to inexpensive jewelry items, dedicated to a very popular audience. And it was highly successful in just a few months, because now, even if you were poor, you could spend 1, 10 or even 20 pounds and buy a piece of Ratners jewelry and kinda look and feel like the riches.

Now, of course his competitors were unhappy about that, and accused him of offering cheap and low-quality products, as opposed to expensive, luxurious, high-end jewelry. And of course they were right.

And in 1991, just a few years after he launched his business, Ratner was asked to give a speech at a convention, a conference that was attended by businessmen like him. And he wrote a version of his speech, a first version, a draft, and asked a public speaking consultant his opinion about the draft. And you know what the consultant said? Yeah, he said “oh, maybe you should put in a joke or two, you have a good sense of humor, people love jokes, you know.” And Ratner followed the advice. He put a few jokes in his speech. About the low quality of his products. Yeah, you know, self-depreciating humor. If you ask a public speaking guru what kind of jokes you should put in a speech or presentation, he’ll tell you “use some kind of self-depreciating humor!” And, to be honest, he’ll be right. I’ll come back to this in a few minutes. Anyway, let me quote some of the jokes Ratner did at his conference:

“People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap.”

“We even sell a pair of golden earrings for under £1. Some people say, ‘That’s cheaper than a prawn sandwich!’…I have to say, the sandwich will probably last longer than the earrings.”

So, yeah, the guy was basically joking about how he was selling crap. The thing is, there were journalists in the audience, and they reported these quotes in their journal the net day. And guess what happened when all the UK discovered what Ratner thought of his own products? Yep, the Ratners Groups shares crashed. In a matter of weeks, the company’s stocks went down by 80%. A few months later, Gerald Ratner sold his shares to pay his own debts, and left away with nothing. All of that because of the jokes he put in his speech. So, do you really think it was worth it? Do you really think it was wise to follow that so-called public speaking consultant’s advice? Me neither.

Yeah, you see, making jokes in a speech can be dangerous. Very dangerous. Had Ratner not followed his consultant’s advice, he’d still be a billionaire nowadays. Yes, even if he had made a boring speech. Now, sure, you don’t want to make boring speeches, but in his case, and in the nazi general’s case, it would have been way better anyway.

To Joke Or Not To Joke

Now, do I mean you should never make jokes or use humor in a speech or a presentation? Of course not! Of course you can use humor, but there are several rules to follow.

The first rule is, and that’s the most important in my opinion, it must fit your personality. If you’re shy or you’re not a very funny person in the first place, it won’t be natural anyway. When telling a joke, delivery is very important. You could tell the funniest joke on Earth, if you don’t know how to tell it, nobody will laugh. And now, imagine, you’re giving a speech, you’re very nervous because you have stage fright, because you have public speaking anxiety, and some guru told you to open your speech with a joke. So, you open with a joke and the joke falls flat, because you couldn’t deliver it, and then nobody laughs. Will you feel comfortable and confident? Will it relieve your anxiety? Of course not! So, don’t tell a joke because some ill-advised guru told you so. Do it because you like telling jokes. But that’s usually more of an extravert’s thing, introverts usually have a harder time at making jokes, so be warned.

The second rule is, it must fit the context and the audience. In a nutshell, you can tell a joke at a wedding or at a birthday party, of course, and that’s probably anyway. But not at a funeral. Actually, yes, you can tell a joke at a funeral, but it’s way harder to pull them off. So, always remember the context, and always remember who your audience is.

The third rule is, be careful not to offend anyone. People are easily offended nowadays, very easily. And actually the very fact that I say people are easily offended just offended a few people. I know that. So, be careful. Ratner got broke because he offended his customers. So, yes, the usual advice is to make self-depreciating humor, because you’re making fun at your own expense and not at someone else’s expense, but even then, be careful, because that’s precisely what Ratner did. By making fun of his own business model, he also made fun of his customers, and they clearly didn’t like it.

But, anyway, why do so many consultants, coaches and other public speaking gurus insist on using humor in speeches and presentations? That’s because humor is a good way to make a talk less boring. And yes, that’s true. That’s definitely true.

But there are other ways to do so. For instance, look at this podcast. This episode. You’ve been listening to me for, what, 10 minutes now? If you were bored, you’d have left by now. And, sure, some people have left and didn’t listen to the whole episode. But you’ve been listening to me for several minutes. And yet I didn’t make a single joke or didn’t use humor.

Why did you listen until now?

Several reasons.

First, and that’s the most important thing, I talked about something that was of interest to you. Something that was both intriguing and useful. I focused on you, my audience, and what kind of information you were likely to be interested into.

And, not only that, but I also told you stories. Anecdotes. And storytelling is a well known technique in public speaking. I love storytelling, I’ve actually been a storyteller before I focus on public speaking in the more general sense.

And finally, even if I didn’t use humor, my tone was not dead serious either. I used a light tone of voice, a light style, because that’s what fits my own personality. That’s how I am.

If you care about your audience and what they want to hear, if you tell them relevant stories or anecdotes and if you adopt a style that fits your personality, you’ll never be boring, whether you have a deep sense of humor or not.

And that’s it for today, that’s the end of that episode of The Introverted Speaker’s Show. I hope you enjoyed it, don’t forget to register to get the next episodes, and if you want to talk with me about this episode by e-mail, like maybe you want to send me jokes, or if you want to subscribe to my newsletter and get daily e-mail tips about public speaking and introversion, just go to my website

OK, thanks for listening and see you next time, bye!