Making a joke? Remember the audience you can’t see from the stage

Photo of a mic and crowd“Open with a joke,” people often tell public speakers. “Warm the crowd up. Get ‘em on your side.”

It can work. But mishandled, it can also be incredibly risky — and I’m not talking about not getting guffaws. The price for a lukewarm laugh from the folks in the room may be some decidedly unfunny blowback from your other audience: the one outside.

These days, you’re never just speaking to the people sitting in front of you. Whether your speech is being covered by the CBC or live-tweeted by an audience member, there’s a good chance you have others listening in. And the joke that just kills with the partisan, supportive folks in attendance can sink your reputation out in the rest of the world.

That’s what seems to be happening (touch wood) with Sarah Palin, whose joke that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists” went over gangbusters with this weekend’s NRA convention. But it crossed a line not just for progressives, but for some supporters in her conservative base who found it sacrilegious and offensive.

So if you’re about to drop a joke into a speech (or print one in your newsletter, or tweet, Facebook or reblog it), remember:

  • Play it safe, because you aren’t a comedian. And that’s not a reflection on your comic talents; it’s about your role. Comedians get to make fun of the sacred and stomp around on sacred ground. As a communicator or spokesperson for an organization, you don’t. The moment your joke starts detracting from your message, or eroding your audience’s trust, you’re working against yourself.
  • Think base hits, not home runs. A line that gets a few wry chuckles is a lot easier to deliver — and probably a lot less risky — than an elaborate joke with a huge punchline.
  • Progressive humour laughs up the power hierarchy. Point your barbs where the power is, not at those who have less privilege than you do.
  • Your joke has to be able to speak for itself, out of context. Political communication is adversarial, and adversaries will be more than ready to cast your joke in the worst possible light.
  • If you find yourself thinking “Oh, people will know I’m kidding… right?”, toss the joke. Double ditto if the next thing you’re thinking is “That couldn’t be misinterpreted as racist/sexist/homophobic, could it?”
  • Your safest and often most effective target is yourself. Don’t undercut yourself by questioning your competence or good faith. But a self-deprecating joke — especially one that acknowledges a well-known foible — can go a long way to winning people over.

Humour’s great. Shared laughter creates bonds of trust and community. Just be sure that the laughter continues once the speech is over.

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