The wisdom of Homer

You might be tempted to include a joke or line in your speech because it really appeals to you but, nonetheless, is not strictly true or relevant to the person or thing you’re talking about. But that doesn’t matter because it’s stand-alone funny or interesting. Right?

Not really. This is an error that every sitcom writer is warned about. Putting a line in a character’s mouth that they wouldn’t say. You’ve all seen or heard it. It’s something that immediately jars. You hear the writer’s voice not the character’s and the illusion of experiencing a three-dimensional character is dispelled.

How it applies to your speech

It might seem a bit of a leap to say that this is what is happening when you crowbar into your speech a gag or aphorism you’ve found on the web – or one you’ve written yourself. But the effect is similar. If it’s not relevant or doesn’t feel “true” in some indefinable way, your audience hear the joke or line and wonder why it’s there. It feels out of place. Like an emergency joke parachuted in to save your paragraph.

It could be you’re a Best Man and you’ve dissed the Groom for a flaw he doesn’t really have – or have exaggerated – in order to use a favourite joke.

It could be you’re an after-dinner speaker and you want to incorporate a previously well-received line of yours but you’re unsure it’s strictly relevant to this audience.

It’s not terminal. All that happens is that you lose people for a few seconds. You’ll soon get back on track but you’ll have to work your way out of that mini-lull first. Like starting the speech from the top again.

How to spot the mistakes

So what does this mean in practice? How can you be sure if a gag or phrase will work? How do you know if it contains a sufficient kernel of truth and will be funny enough?

There is no scientific way to know this otherwise Google would have already developed an algorithm and their Google Great Speech Generator would have made me and other writers redundant.

But there is a simple trick. Read it out loud. As simple as that.

I cannot fathom why this should be so but it seems to work. If it’s a stinker the words seem to die mid-air before the sentence is fully out. And if it’s a worthy line, the words seem to hang in the air expecting a little round of applause. It’s as though in simply vocalising the line or joke, your mind can intuit the audience response. It’s somehow created its own virtual reality version of the event.

How to avoid the mistakes in the first place

All well and good, you might say, I’ll read the material out. Probably when everyone’s out of the house. But what about before I write or choose the material? Any tips there?

Yes, proceed from what you believe to be real or relevant and if you get some comedy from it then you’ll already know you’re on solid ground. It might seem counter-intuitive to proceed from the factual rather than the fictional but it works. As Homer Simpson said: “It’s funny ‘cos it’s true”. And your audience will feel exactly the same way.

Note: if you want some tips on digging comedy gold from the hard ground of truth. Check out my Best Man’s speech hacks.

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