Should I start with a joke?

When we help clients prepare for a big speech, we often get asked whether it’s a good idea to start with a joke. The client wants to capture the audience’s attention, maybe put himself/herself at ease, appear likable from the start, etc. But we often encourage clients to let go of the joke. From our experience, it’s not the best way to start a speech.

Instead, here’s how we recommend you tee up your remarks:

#1 — You do want to capture the audience’s attention from the start.
Talk about them before you talk about you. You can create common ground by sharing a recent story, data point, quote, or viral tweet. If you can start your speech with something the audience cares about and knows about, they will actively listen to you for a longer period of time.

#2 — But be careful that you don’t share a moment that is *too* personal.
Last week, Congresswoman Nancy Mace demonstrated what not to do when she tried to talk about her sex life in the introduction to her prayer breakfast remarks. Be appropriate and avoid sharing too much information. Also, if you’re going to share a story, make sure it’s a real story that happened to you. The audience will be able to tell if you’re making it up and/or trying to apply someone else’s story to your life.

***We don’t always say “no” to jokes. Jokes can work under certain circumstances. If you start with a joke but fail to deliver the punchline, you risk losing the audience before you start your speech. For a joke to work, two important things have to be true: 1) that you are funny and 2) that the joke you’re going to tell is funny. If you’re set on telling a joke, make sure you run it by your own personal focus group first to make sure it lands.