boredIt’s every speaker’s nightmare: you’ve told that joke that you think is funny (you practically chuckle yourself as you tell it) but the audience doesn’t react. Did you tell it wrong? Do they just not get it?

Humor is one of the toughest things to execute during the speech. In order for an audience to laugh, you have to do the following when you tell a joke:

  1. Ensure that your joke is funny to begin with.
  2. Ensure that the audience has the ability to laugh about your joke.
  3. Deliver it in a way that encourages the audience to laugh.

Yes, it’s a little formulaic, but that’s how jokes work — and understanding it can help you prevent them from going flat to begin with. If the audience doesn’t laugh at your joke, it’s important to understand why.

Is the joke funny?

Do others that get the joke find it funny? Sometimes, we find something funny but others don’t see the humor. If you find yourself in this situation, a great way to handle it is to explain the joke to the audience in a humorous way. You could say something like “see, that’s funny because…” and explain the joke. Just do so in a light-hearted manner and smile while doing it — you’ll get some laughs out of the deal.

Does the audience get your joke?

This is a common mistake that many speakers make. Sometimes, they tell a joke that uses jargon or technical terms that are unfamiliar to their audience. Other times, the joke contains references (particularly to pop culture) that the audience is not familiar with. When I used to teach college students back in the 1990’s, I’d make both of these mistakes.

A good way to handle this is to educate the audience in a humorous way. Some people do this by acting like a grade school teacher and educating the audience. That can be tricky, especially if you haven’t established rapport with your audience, as you risk coming across as arrogant.

A better way is to use a humorous story to educate the audience. “Yeah, I didn’t get that concept until I had Professor Smith who practically beat it into our heads with his booming voice” is a less risky way to help educate the audience.

Did you deliver it effectively?

More often than not, you know when you’ve made this mistake. Usually, you tell the joke wrong, mix up words or your timing is off. In some cases, your delivery was fine but the audience may just be out of it — and this isn’t always your fault — so you may need to grab their attention.

In either case, a funny comment about the joke will usually get you the laugh. “I’m here all week” or “I’ve got a lot more where that came from” are especially effective lines when the audience doesn’t react to your joke.

Understanding why a joke doesn’t hit its mark is the first step in improving your speech humor. Trying it out on friends, coworkers or a mock audience will help you determine if it’s worthwhile to include in your speech. If it doesn’t go over well the first time and you think it has value, tweak it a bit and try it again. Keep in mind that even the top stand up comedians don’t get a laugh out of every joke.

Public Speaking Success: What to do when they don’t laugh at your jokes

8 thoughts on “Public Speaking Success: What to do when they don’t laugh at your jokes

  • May 20, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Nice post. Humor in public speaking is like a hand grenade. It could do some serious damage if landed properly but if executed improperly for whatever reason, you will be bombed!!!

  • May 21, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    oh yes, i do encounter this sometime during my lectures. my students just sit and stare back at me….

    after reading this entry, i think i might have used some technical jargon in the jokes.. i better change my tactic

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  • May 28, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Thanks for the post!

    This is generally why I suggest using humor over jokes; humor always makes the presenter seem more approachable and human, while jokes are hit and miss.

    Humor usually occurs when telling stories, revealing one’s foibles or spontaneously from what’s happening in the moment. I ALWAYS encourage clients to include humor.

    Jokes should not be attempted unless the speaker can consistently make people life in conversation AND the joke is clearly related and connected to the topic. After all, there is only one criterion for success. And if it bombs, everyone in the room knows it.

    Still, while jokes do sometimes fall flat, this is another opportunity to connect with your audience! Instead, of letting the awkward silence throw you off, turn it on its head by noting that your joke was a flop with a smile. Talk about the audiences reaction and note the atmosphere. Handling the situation like this if the joke bombs will often make the presenter seem cool, collected and approachable, and if the joke doesn’t bomb, this will lighten up the room and once again make the presenter seem approachable. It is a win-win as long as the situation is handled correctly.

    Thanks for the post!

  • May 29, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    Wow, lots of comments on here:

    Wenbin – very true.

    MsSheepy – I felt your pain when I used to teach. Technical terms are often overlooked in all sorts of speeches.

    Lisa – Thanks for the link. Very interesting.

    Jeremy – Sometimes, there are times when jokes are inappropraite (at a funeral, for example) but a little humor can sometimes wake up a “dead” audience.

    Terry – These are some great tips (as always). Thanks for sharing.


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