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How do you write a good speech - and should you include a joke?

I was recently chatting to an ex-colleague over coffee – decaf oat latte, actually, which tells you my café buddy wasn’t Italian, or they’d have ripped me limb from limb and set fire to my corpse – about the subject of speechwriting. Specifically, we talked about whether it’s okay to crack a joke in a speech. Even more specifically, whether that joke could be bawdy Carry On-style humour?

The answer to the latter is no. A thousand times no.

Non. Non. Nein.

And yet, that was exactly the sort of copy this person told me they had been handed by a member of their agency. I sniggered at the word ‘member’, lolzed, and pulled a serious face that suggested the draft speech should be tossed into the nearest Sarlacc pit.

That clear guidance aside, humour in itself is a pretty essential part of any piece of speechwriting. That and the rule of three (for some unknown reason, ‘Education, Education, Education’ sounds better than ‘Education, Education’).

But be careful with the funny stuff. You have to know your speaker. Sadly, there are people in this world who are about as capable of landing a joke as the Russians are of landing on the moon. For the love of your job, don’t try to get them to. You can lead a horse to a waterhole, but you can’t get the barman to ask it about its long face.

For those that can land a joke, keep it simple. Don’t make the audience work. And always, always punch upwards or be self-effacing – never attack the audience. Above all, think of humour as a simple tool for keeping the thronged masses switched on when their thoughts will otherwise turn lightly to Traitors, Minecraft, or lunch.

Finally, watch out for the unintended funny stuff. The best way to do this is to get someone to read the speech out loud to you (or record yourself doing it). It was this method that made me realise that I was going to have to find an artful way of getting a Dutch-accented speaker to avoid the phrase ‘Tech City’. Not easy, given it was a talk in and about… Tech City.

PS: treat me to a decaf oat latte, and I’ll tell you how I once worked 12 REM songs into a speech, without anyone noticing.

This PR Observations column was written by David Quainton, head of communications at the digital consultancy Emergn.

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