How To Give A Funny Speech (Think Like A Last Term President)

At a corporate event a few years back, I witnessed what could best be described as a bad speech. The person giving the speech was neither a good speaker nor a particularly funny one. I mention “funny” because he wanted to be funny.

That’s not to say he couldn’t have been funny, although there was a lot of work to do. Mostly it was the irritating shrugs he gave every time he thought he was being funny. Then people started shrugging back. I guess he thought it was a showing of solidarity, which made him even less funny.

When I say there was work to do, I mean this person didn’t understand how to be humorous. Like most people, he wasn’t tapping into the part of our personalities that typically comes out when we have lampshades on our heads.

Humor is essentially being human, and being human is one of the most endearing traits you can have next to attending spin classes. Put in the right context, humanness is funny. Yet it’s the hardest thing for people to do. Our fear of bombing makes us forget we’re human. It not only leads to boring speeches, it makes us look like we can’t give a speech.

In fact, there’s some truth to Gore Vidal’s famous quote: “Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence they can’t read them, either.” It seems a bit cruel, but it’s true.

Here’s an encouraging thought, though. If we believe Gore Vidal, the people who are supposed to be good at giving speeches aren’t. Even the ones who pay someone to write their speeches — those writers aren’t very good, either. So it’s not like there’s a high standard out there. And in terms of being “funny,” well, there’s no standard whatsoever.

The unvarnished truth about corporate speeches is that most people don’t want to look like jerks. This is a lost cause, since, as Jack Welsh once said: “Employees all know who the jerks are. They could name the jerks for you.”

In other words, you are what you are, and if that doesn’t inspire you to give a funny speech, I don’t know what will. You’ve got an open landscape. Who else is being funny these days? There’s Obama at the Correspondents’ Dinner. That’s a sweet gig. He can afford to be funny in his last term. Last term Presidents don’t care what people think. They’ve been through every level of rancor and recrimination imaginable. Criticism is hurtful, but it’s also relatively harmless, which is why last term Presidents are funny right up to the end (and critics tend to shoot themselves when they discover they’re harmless).

So, that’s my advice, folks. Think like a last term President. Go out there and be what people already know you are. That’s what last term Presidents do. Did you see Obama sweating during his State of the Union Address? No, because last term Presidents don’t sweat. They’ve done their best. If they weren’t assassinated, they’re better off than most presidents. That’s a good reason to be funny. To quote Stephen Sondheim: “Send in the clowns.”

This leads me to my second piece of advice. We’re all clowns at heart. As much as we want to take ourselves seriously, who’s kidding who? We’re clowns. The biggest clowns are the ones who don’t think they’re clowns. The smart ones — like comedians — tap into this existing resource. Remember in Some Like It Hot where Tony Curtis (Josephine) tells Jack Lemmon (Daphne): “You’re a girl, remember that,” and Lemmon says, “I’m a girl, I’m girl, boy, am I a girl.”

Well, that’s how easy it is, folks. Think like a girl and you’re a girl. Think like a last term President and you’ll be as funny as George W. Bush. He was funny even before he was a last term President.

That’s a trick right there. A lot of people are afraid to be funny at the podium. Nonsense. The funniest speeches aren’t the product of funny people. They’re the product of relaxed people. When you relax, your audience relaxes. They aren’t judging you anymore. They’re wishing they were more like you.

Now, I know I started out telling you about that guy who wasn’t funny. He was trying too hard to be funny. If you accept — like Gore Vidal said — that we’re all inept at speeches, I say, go out there and be proud of your ineptness. The day you can laugh at yourself, other people will laugh with you. Nothing brings you closer to people than showing you’re human (and inept).

Now, wanting to be funny and being funny are two different things. It takes practice. Most Presidents need two terms to be truly funny, so let’s keep the following points in mind before you make a loveable ass of yourself:

Robots Aren’t Funny: We all feel the need to be corporately responsible when we give a speech. Reject this impulse. You may get the appropriate nods from senior management, but that’s because they’re boring people. Audience acceptance is far more important. If they laugh, if they applaud, if they give their approval, that’s all that matters. Management won’t like it much, but they’re robots. They’ll be replaced by robots (as soon as robots can be programmed to nod, look condescending and drink coffee at the same time).

The Whoopee Cushion Is Still Viable: Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) was absolutely right. Old gags, simple as they may be, are still viable forms of entertainment. Don’t be afraid to fall back on old standards. Audiences secretly yearn for the grand old days when you got a laugh tripping over yourself. It shows you’re human and a ham. People like ham.

Till The Fat Lady Sings: That’s right, it’s not over until it’s over. Before that, you’ve got the stage. People are listening, people are attentive. It’s up to you to use the time wisely. Instead of saying to yourself: “I just want this to be over,” think like George W. Bush and say: “There’s still two minutes left. I might as well stick my toe further in the steaming cauldron of public opinion.”

Nobody’s Judging You More Than You: There isn’t a critic out there offering a more severe editorial of you than you. The rest of your audience has far more important things to think about: namely lunch.

Stick Your Finger Up Your Nose: I’m speaking figuratively, of course. I just mean the person on that stage should be the same person your wife or husband sees every day. Be personable, say things like: “I’m sure we’re all a little scared right now.” The use of “we” and “us” establishes personal unity (it also helps remind people that you actually work for the company).

Nobody Ever Complained About a Short Speech: I’ve spent my entire career watching people decide the night before a presentation to add twenty more slides (one colleague added a hundred more slides). Information overload is very real (and very unfunny). Choose the best three or four charts and graphs and make hay out of them. Everyone will appreciate it except senior management (and they’ll be robots soon, anyway).

Robots Still Aren’t Funny: The only thing separating you from a robot is candor and humanness. No robot ever left people laughing (except Woody Allen in Sleeper). When you exit the stage, people should remember what they felt, not what they heard. If they’re so crazy about statistics, tell them it’s all available on the Shared Drive. If they say they came to hear you talk about statistics, tell them you’ve put your speech — and all the statistics you left out — on the Shared File under “Things I Found Too Unfunny to Mention.”

Call a Friend: Sure, this speech is your responsibility, but don’t think you have to do it all by yourself. Get down what you want to say, the most salient points, the corporate objectives. Then grab your phone and call someone who can help make you funny. If you’ve enjoyed this piece, if it’s given you even the slightest moment of laughter and levity, it could be just what your speech needs. I’m especially good with other languages (I don’t speak any of them, but that’ll make you even funnier — or, at least, sardonic).

Please feel free to contact me — before or after The Big Bang Theory — at:

Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, satirist, journalist, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. For more details, go to Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press.

I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.

I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.