Please Don’t Start Your Speech With A Joke.

“I like to break the ice at the beginning of my speeches with a joke.”

I hear that all the time. I don’t get it. How does a joke break the ice? Usually jokes thicken the ice by wasting the audience’s time. The audience thinks, “Not another lame joke to start a presentation. Ugh.”

I have a pretty strict policy against using jokes to begin a presentation.  But if you must use a joke, make sure it passes a three-prong test. The joke needs to be:

  1. Funny. This prong eliminates 95 percent of opening jokes.
  2. Relevant.  Most opening jokes are “throwaways” that have nothing to do with the  topic of the presentation and merely make the listeners wait an extra minute before you begin.
  3. Tasteful.  The joke must not have a chance of offending a single person in the audience. Since nearly all the best jokes are offensive, few survive this prong.

I worked with an engineer who asked me if he could open with the following: “I’m going to start by telling you what Elizabeth Taylor tells her husbands: “I won’t keep you long.””        

Did the joke meet the three-prong test? No.

It’s not funny. I’ve tried it out several times and I’ve never gotten a laugh. Relevant? Not close. In the presentation, the engineer wanted to persuade the management of a major office building to reengineer the building’s HVAC, and lighting system.  

The joke is also marginally offensive.  Divorce isn’t funny to a lot of people. And there might be some Elizabeth Taylor fans in the audience. Why risk offending anyone in your audience for an irrelevant, stupid joke?

At the start of your presentation, just get to the point. Skip the joke.

I searched YouTube for a good hour for a joke that wasn’t offensive and used no foul language. Here’s the best I could find.

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