Going for Laughs in a Speech is no Joke

A joke is a blunt instrument. If it works, there’s laughter; if it flops, there’s an embarrassed silence. A misfiring joke can can spell disaster for the rest of your speech.

The public persona – or ethos – created by your speech can also be compromised by the use of jokes. After all, jokes aren’t meant to be taken seriously and – by implication – neither are the people who tell them. We use phrases like, “it’s just a joke,” or, “I’m only joking” to play down the consequences of things we say and do. And if we don’t respect someone, we describe them as “a joke.”

But if jokes are to be avoided, what are we left with? The answer is wit. Wit is a rapier to joke’s bludgeon. Wit is a sophisticated intellectual compared to its naive country cousin, the joke. Wit isn’t bothered about making you laugh, it has a greater ambition, it wants to make you think.

Wit is the ability to find just the right words to express similarities between things that would usually be thought of as very different from each other. And when wit hits the mark, humour – even laughter – often follows in its wake, but is never its main purpose.

Winston Churchill was a man noted for his wit; and following his humiliating defeat to Clement Attlee in the postwar election of 1945, he unleashed his scathing wit on his victorious opponent. The two men were opposites. Attlee was slight, very quiet and unassuming, and had the look of a pen-pushing minor bureaucrat; while Churchill was a big, outgoing man with a larger-than-life personality.

Churchill famously quipped that, “an empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street and when the door was opened Attlee got out.” The juxtaposition of ideas is startling because on the face of it a person and an empty taxi don’t appear to have much in common. But Churchill’s metaphor perfectly expresses the idea of insignificance.

A criticism packaged into a witty image is great way of making sure people remember what you say because images are very effective mnemonic devices. And when a witty image captures an essential truth about a person or real situation, its impact can be incisive – as well as long-lasting.

A recent example, from November 2007, is Vince Cable’s witty criticism of Gordon Brown in which he reflected on Brown’s, “remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean.” Brown had only recently taken over as Prime Minister after Tony Blair’s resignation, having previously been Chancellor of the Exchequer.

During his ten years as Chancellor, Brown had established a reputation for being decisive and authoritarian (Stalinesque). When he took over as Prime Minister it wasn’t long before he faced a critical decision about whether or not to hold a snap general election. He prevaricated (Mr Bean) and almost overnight he undermined his image as an iron Chancellor.

Vince Cable’s remark summed up Brown’s fall from grace in a witty juxtaposition of two very different images. The consequences for Brown were dire – the remarks were to haunt him to the end of his premiership, and hasten it.

The following day, writing in the Guardian newspaper, Simon Hoggart described Cable’s attack on Brown:

A great howl of laughter seemed to fall from the very ceiling. Even Labour members desperately tried to hide their amusement from the whips. Apparently many stab victims feel no pain at first, but know how much it will hurt later. This one is going to hurt.”

And it did hurt! Cable’s witty hatchet job did produce plenty of laughter, even from Brown’s embarrassed supporters – but it was certainly no joke!


  1. Great article.
    It highlights yet again the power of metaphors in communication. Wit is a cutting edge example of metaphors in action; it’s a message that works on a number of levels which the Churchill and Cable quotes used here both wonderfully demonstrate. (I say a ‘picture is worth a thousand words. A metaphor is worth a million bayonets’.)
    Was it just me who was really disappointed with the leaders’ debate and the election overall, in the paucity of metaphors used in the campaigns?
    Thanks again for a really enjoyable read

  2. Martin Shovel says

    Many thanks for your comment Andy. I really love your idea that “a metaphor is worth a million bayonets.” I also agree with your point about the paucity of metaphors used during the election campaign – could the explanation be that candidates didn’t want to say anything too memorable for fear of being called to account after the election?

  3. Martin – great post. Couldn’t agree more. We recommend that presenters never plan to use jokes to ‘break the tension’ – if there *is* tension, a joke is far more likely to backfire! A failed joke can be a serious jolt to credibility, and would knock the presenter’s confidence.

    I think the trouble is that it can be difficult to tread the fine line between wit and joke. And those who misleadingly think they are using wit to entertain their audiences and make them laugh, are in fact telling jokes (often miserably!).

    I love the line, ‘Wit isn’t bothered about making you laugh, it has a greater ambition, it wants to make you think’ – if only more public speakers were to consider this first!

  4. Martin Shovel says

    I’m delighted you enjoyed my blogpost Jessica, and I’m pleased you homed in on my point about wit’s ambition, because it’s the crux of my argument! I take your point about the fine line between wit and a joke, and I think the best way of thickening the line is to put aside all thoughts of humour when you craft your witticisms. A witty juxtaposition of disparate – but enlightening – ideas is all that you should aim for – audience amusement should be thought of as little more than an occasional bonus.

  5. Good article, Martin. Churchill’s put-down was brilliantly withering, and all the more effective because the image it evoked was so vivid – like a visual punchline. Anyone can tell a joke; wit requires insight and originality.

  6. Great piece Martin. Loved the line “Wit is a rapier to joke’s bludgeon.”
    On wit. Do you think it’s something that can be honed or does it come naturally? If 1, what’s the best advice you’ve seen on that?

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