Select the right words. Say them well.

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If you look through the stacks of books on public speaking you’ll often see, close by, the latest joke books. The logic is simple. Anyone who has to appear in front of an audience will surely want to liven up their presentation with a joke or two — or ten. As appealing as that may sound, use extreme caution. In fact, my advice is, stay away! Now, that doesn’t mean you never get a laugh out of your audience. Let me explain the safe middle ground which I think will work for you.

Almost everyone who starts a sentence with, “I want to tell you a joke,” already has two strikes against them and a hard slider coming in! You sound like someone straight out of vaudeville and believe me, vaudeville is dead! (Please Google it for a full history lesson.) What I’m saying here is, first, you never telegraph that you’re about to tell a joke. The person who is listening is immediately thinking, “Boy, this better be good.” Second, something that is set up as “a joke” just seems too formal when the end result you’re shooting for is a laugh!

The third key to good comedy for non-comedy professionals is keeping it subtle. Whacking someone over the head with a joke, any joke, will have the effect of killing about 80 percent of the humor. (We’ve all heard the person who starts laughing before they get to the punch line.) Delivering a funny line is like offering up a delicate creation. Don’t be careless about it or the opportunity will be lost.

So, you’ve heard what NOT to do. Here are some things you SHOULD do to make the most of any humor you plan to offer to an audience.

First, make it a surprise. The biggest laugh comes when an audience is thinking in another direction. When the laugh comes, it’s the result of both the humor AND the delight the audience feels when it dawns on them that you’ve had something funny to say!

Second, almost always be self-deprecating. When you poke fun at yourself you get the laugh the joke offers AND the relief from the audience when they realize you’re not making fun of them or something they care about.

Third, work at it! Don’t just buy a joke book and read off a few choice items. Work on material that will really mean something to your audience. When humor is most successful it often is the result of thought and planning. Sure, we love it when the lucky accident happens and everyone enjoys the moment, but an even better situation for an experienced presenter is when a big laugh happens because it LOOKS LIKE a lucky accident! As a veteran performer will tell you, “The best ad lib is the one I wrote the night before.”

Finally, spend time perfecting your overall speech. Too often we become so downhearted because a joke doesn’t work that we lose energy and focus for the rest of the presentation. When in doubt, drop it!