On a gorgeous Saturday in March, I dragged myself to an all-day parent training course, arriving 10 minutes late, dreading the sequestration. I grabbed the only name tag remaining on the table, then acted like I was searching for a vending machine to buy myself a few more moments of freedom. Then, I heard an outburst of laughter coming from the cafetorium. I rushed to get inside. With a single punchline, the moderator had convinced me that she would be a good steward of my time.
She proved to me that she would be relevant, engaging and that she had invested and prepared enough to understand what would connect with her audience. And she accomplished all of this before I could even hear her voice from the lobby.
In a professional setting, making someone laugh is the most intimate connection one can make. I almost always champion the approach when planning a speech for an executive, C-level or otherwise.
But, frequently, it’s dismissed by someone on the corporate communications team, with the objection, “Humor, if not done correctly, is dangerous.” But the same can be said of skydiving.
Here are a few ideas on how to help your CEO charm the audience with humor—and enhance your organization’s ability to get its message across:
▶ Keep it relevant. The amount of time required to deliver the joke is inversely correlated with the probability of it creating a positive experience. Never squander three minutes reciting a canned bit about a bartender and a duck that has no relevance to the message.
It signals that the humor attempt is driven by the speaker’s ego, not a desire to have empathy with the audience.
Instead, work from a key point that needs to be in the speech, and pivot off of it with a short punch delivered in only a few words, like this one from David Letterman’s monologue:
While trying to get reelected, Eric Cantor spent $168,000 on steakhouses. Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie said, “That’s all?”
▶ Hire a pro. Don’t rely on the funniest person in the office to write comedy gold for the CEO. Ask your advertising, PR or event agency to find a former TV comedy writer or freelancer to help with the project. Agencies should be expanding their virtual team of freelancers to include comedy writers and editors to help with speeches, and with the growing demand for engaging social content.
Freelance TV comedy writers can be found at improv theaters, such as Upright Citizens Brigade, The Magnet Theater and The Peoples Improv Theater.
▶ Produce a video. Shift the burden of nailing the comedic delivery away from the speaker by creating a video featuring him or her.
This allows an experienced comedy director and editor to control the timing. It also relieves the speaker of worrying about the joke before the event, so he can focus on the speech.
Videos can be produced inexpensively by piggybacking onto another production. If only a shoestring budget is available, a “slideshow” video can be created with still images, stock music and voice-over/narration.
While a large production budget isn’t necessary, an experienced comedy writer and producer are.
▶ Handle with care. While humor is a powerful tool, above all your CEO must appear authentic. If he or she isn’t comfortable with humor or doesn’t look comfortable in rehearsal, don’t force it (see Politico.com’s “The most painful speech ever”).
If humor seems to fit naturally with the executive’s personality, but she hasn’t used humor before, then wade in gently. Start with only one joke for the first speech, and build from there.
In due time, you can help the executive discover her comedic voice. Begin by asking “What annoys you about this issue?” The best comedy comes from pain, and tapping into personal peeves (and even anger) about the topic will reveal the speaker’s authentic connection to the topic.
With some practice, your executive can learn to reveal a vulnerable side to the audience, while making them laugh along the way. And that the best hook imaginable.
Tim Washer is senior marketing manager of social media at Cisco Systems Inc. and former writer for Conan O’Brien and “Late Night With David Letterman.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the June 23, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.