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Ask a Speaker: How Can I Make An Audience Laugh?

February 23, 2013

speaker panel

The “ask a speaker series” consists of a series of posts, each one designed to answer a common problem people face when speaking in public. We ask our top speaking experts, with almost a century of public speaking experience between them, how it’s done.

We’ve all been there. As a best man, speaker at a conference or trainer in the late afternoon. We need to make an audience laugh, or at least smile, and often it is hard to work out how to do it. This week, we’ve asked our panel for their top tips on how to make an audience laugh. Their wide-ranging expert advice follows.

David West (Retired Benefits Consultant, Toastmaster for over ten years):

  • A humorous story laughing about yourself is usually good if you can work it into your speech, e.g., your efforts at learning to swim, dance etc.
  • A play on words can often suggest itself and be worked in, e.g., “Marriage is a wonderful institution – but who wants to live in an insttitution ?” (very old joke of my dad’s), so can using the unexpected: start serious but end with an ironic /humorous twist, e.g. “Prediction is very difficult – especially about the future” (quote from Nobel prize-winning physicist).
  • Whatever you do timing is key:  pause before the punchline and to let people laugh – sometimes they’ll laugh at something you didn’t think was funny – but move on swiftly if they don’t and try not to laugh at your own jokes.
  • A lot of this is stuff I’ve picked up from other people but it’s all grist to the mill – by the way when did you last see a grist mill?

Jakub Pawlowski (National Speech Competition Runner Up, London Division Governor of Toastmasters International):

  • Develop a comedian mindset. Start seeing things in a twisted way and practice irony and unconventional responses in everyday conversations. A lot of jokes work because the punchline was unexpected. You can go to stand-up comedy clubs or read books on stand-up comedy to learn the art of writing a joke. But never steal jokes from someone else!
  • When writing a speech experiment with expressing things in a slightly different way – sometimes even changing the order of the words  makes something funny.
  • When delivering your speech be relaxed and have a good rapport with the audience so they listen with interest or even a little bit of tension. And pause when they start laughing.
  • You should also memorise your jokes. There’s nothing worse than forgetting your punchline 🙂

George Jerjian (Marketing Professional, Past President 2001-2):

The time-tested response is make a joke or more at your own expense. It never fails for three reasons:

(1) It cuts the ice and disarms and warms the audience to you
(2) The audience recognise that you’re a humble spirit (and not puffed up buffoon)
(3) It offends no one except for yourself – and if you do get offended by having a laugh at yourself, then you’re a puffed-up peacock!

Vaughan Evans (Strategy Consultant, Member since 1990):

Say something funny. 

No, seriously, say something self-deprecating.  Really trash yourself. The more exaggerated the self-deprecation, the funnier…!  Think Miranda – some don’t like her, but she is top of the ratings.

Carol West (Distinguished Toastmaster and veteran publc speaker):

I have discovered, after doing several speaches in praise at funerals, that I have gained the ability to make the audience enjoy what I write even though it is a very serious subject and on occasions I am personally very sad.  It becomes difficult writing this sort of  a eulogy for somebody I do not likeI   I believe this aspect of speaking in public comes with experience and having been in TMs for many years.  The speaker has to emotionally detach themselves from the subject and ‘get on with it’.
 Although, you are speaking to a silent ‘audience’ you have to make it meaningful for family members and friends.  Even when I have been asked to give the eulogy for people I didn’t particulary like I have managed to give the families a fitting ‘send off’ ‘ which they all approved of.  Sometimes people do not openly laugh but, there are occasions when I have managed to have them laughing out loud.
One funeral I did one of the little grandsons of a friend started to gigle.  I broke from my script and spoke directly to him – he was thrilled to get the attention and everyone laughed so you have to seize the opportunity to do something unexpected at a funeral and that can onlye be achieved with the TMs experience. 


Have you got a question to ask our panel. Feel free to post any questions in the comments below, or contact us at with your public speaking related questions


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