A response to Anita Zinsmeister’s harpooning of humor in Diccon Hyatt’s “High Impact Public Speaking, Inspired by Dale Carnegie” (U.S. 1, May 13).
Oh come now, never tell jokes in your speech? You heard about the attorney with no sense of humor, didn’t you, Anita? He lost his appeal.
In Diccon Hyatt’s May 13 Survival Guide article, speech coach Zinsmeister fearfully places jokes and humor in the same dangerous locker with raw plutonium. Most ardently, I protest. ’Tis time to unleash the fun. As my wife’s husband notes frequently, seriousness is an attempt to banish joy in hopes of gaining focus — and frankly, my dears, seriousness’ track record is, like old scotch, highly overrated.
Since Aristophanes, it has been known that the greatest wisdom comes wrapped in a little laughter. A little joke has a far better track record when it comes to winning friends and influencing people. ’Tis the ideal opener, homo sapiens to homo sapiens.
“I told my wife I needed a vehicle that reflected the prestige and forward drive of my career … so for Christmas she got me a treadmill.” ’Twas December 5, holiday season. I stood amid a bunch of exotic Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and high-level executives in Steve Waldis’ Instate Motorsport facilities, all set to launch my book “The Art of the CEO.” So I reached into my quiver of jokes, drew back my arrow, and launched this little barb at myself. It hit home, the folks were hooked, and listened intently to the rest of my blitherings.
Apparently, Zinsmeister’s joke-phobia stems from an incident in which she once heard a nervous techie tell an off-color joke that backfired. Well now, I once saw a car driven by a drunk, weaving and belching smoke out of a broken exhaust. So should I give up driving? Actually, Anita, that would be a joke. Coach Zinsmeister suggests only “professional comedians” should tell jokes in speeches. So should we only let NASCAR pros onto our highways? Actually, I have a slightly different solution to our traffic problems — I say we allow no car on the road until it is paid for. (Will Rogers suggested this back in 1928 and we still haven’t listened.)
According to Steve Allen, and many appropriately grim scientists, jokes are a physiologic wake-up call. Humor takes the listener down a familiar path, then makes a sudden sharp turn to the right, (or left depending on your political persuasion). So when Henny Youngman says, “Take my wife … please.” He’s set us up. We expect him to give us some tale about his spouse. Then boom! He hits us with the unexpected. We laugh because laughter is the physical response to that shock of being mentally derailed.
Does humor work? Well, beats the hell out of reading PowerPoint slides out loud. (On that Anita and I agree.) Now, I’m not a professional comedian, although I play one on my radio show and inadvertently when, friends assure me, I go to parties and metaphorically don the dunce cap. We have many brilliant guests on the show, in hopes of making up for the fumbles of the host. Yet invariably the most remembered and complimented segments are the Weekly Business Quips I give on the show. E.g., When our board of directors calls the roll, half these guys don’t know whether to answer with “present” or “not guilty.”
Likewise, we post on BartsBooks.com Weekly Business Quips. It is our most popular page. We also send ’em out free in hopes that folks may launch their week with a little laughter. These E-mails boast an over 80 percent open rate.
People like to laugh. Therefore, may I modestly persuade everyone to kick their speech off with a joke. Even if it doesn’t set the entire audience collapsing into belly laughs — at least it shows you enjoy life. And you begin making that vital connection with the folks to whom you’re speaking. ’Tis not rocket science. If you seem to be having fun, I’ll tend to like you. And if I like you, I’ll listen to you. I’ll even lean toward trusting you.
All the surveys on what traits women find most attractive in men rank a sense of humor right at the top. (Of course, when I was courting my own wife and asked her if she believed in love at first sight, she responded with, “I don’t know, I’ve never seen a Porsche full of money.” Ah well.)
Following the advice of the very wise Erasmus (who used this article’s title before me in 1509), time devoted to so frivolous a subject as folly should be limited. So I end with the words of the very successful Donald O’Connor in “Singin’ in the Rain”: “Make ’em laugh. Make ’em laugh. Make ’em laugh.”