Public speaking has been ranked the number one fear, ahead of death. And since death is the inevitable, it makes sense to conquer your fear of public speaking and even become a successful public speaker! This public speaking blog aims to give you insightful and easy-to-apply tips on various aspects of public speaking that includes overcoming your fear of public speaking, writing speeches, delivering speeches, excelling in presentations, adding humor and much more!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Stephen Colbert vs. John Vine – Treading on the fine line of humor

Humor is a double edge sword. Use it well and be marveled at. Use it badly and be disapproved of. Where exactly is the fine line between being a funny comedian and being an insensitive prick?

One of the common advices most of us have received was to avoid ALL political, racial and religion based jokes, no matter how tempting they may be. As long as we stay away from them, we have a shot at being funny without offending anyone. However recently two men with solid steel balls – a standup comedian and a well-respected chief constable – went ahead to break the norms. One did exceptionally well and became an overnight Internet sensation. The other – sadly – was ridiculed by the media.

Let’s first look at the man who hit it big with the audience – Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert became the man ever since he delivered a 20-minute satirical speech on Bush administration at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner last month. Although some critics dismissed his speech as lacklustre, the entire blogsphere hailed him as “the man with the iron-steel balls”. There was even an entire site dedicated to Colbert’s single speech in Wikipedia, a speech that Time Magazine Online called “the political-cultural touchstone issue of 2006”.

Here are some of Colbert’s shocker-lines:

I stand by this man (referring to Bush). I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.

The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday -- no matter what happened Tuesday.

I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.

I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality." And reality has a well-known liberal bias.

My personal favorite:
And though I am a committed Christian, I believe everyone has the right to their own religion - be you Hindu, Jewish, or Muslim, I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.

You can view his speech here or here.

On the other hand, John Vine, a well-respected chief constable who was also the Past President of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, left his audience stunned and embarrassed with his one-liner joke on the Iraq bombers. It is worth noting that this joke was unplanned for (and even uncalled for). But out of our desperation to revive his bored audience, he made a decision to tell an off-color joke.

The joke went like this: Two Al-Qaeda fathers are ruminating about their suicide-bomber sons. “Ah, kids!” goes the punchline, “they blow up so quickly these days.” One lousy decision and this poor man ruined his hard-earned reputation. If only he has made an early decision to improve on his public speaking skills, say join a Toastmasters Club…

Click here to read more about Vine's bombed speech.

So what can we learn from these two separate incidents?

1. ALWAYS test-run your jokes!

If Vine has tried this joke on his close friends during his rehearsal (I wonder if he even rehearse his speech?), his friends may have warned him against cracking that off-color joke. And probably the only sin he would have committed was being a boring speaker, which equates to a chance of redeeming himself. On the other hand, Colbert has been a standup comedian for a long time. He is seasoned. He has his own TV show. He knows what he is doing and I am pretty sure he has tested his jokes on some people.

What’s the takeaway for us then? Always test your jokes on your close friends before unleashing it on your unaware audience. If any of your friends feel ANY discomfort with a particular joke, consider removing it. No point risking being a little funnier for being an insensitive prick.

2. Self depreciating humor is still the safest

When I first competed in the International Humorous Contest last year, there was a portion of my speech where I joked about why Chinese were not the first humans on Earth. This joke was extremely effective and generated one of the biggest laughs in the entire speech. But I took it out after the first try. Though I was a Chinese myself (which makes it ok to crack jokes on Chinese people), I made references to the Bible. And that creates ambiguity. In the end, I focused my entire humorous speech on Singapore (where I came from) and its quirks. And guess what, the audience loved it!

This only goes to show how effective humor can be if you make fun of yourself. Not only is it safe, it ALWAYS makes the audience laugh. Try that on in your next speech!

3. Is your audience prepared for your humor?

What’s the purpose of humor in your speech? Do you want to warm the audience up? Or do you want to prove a point?
In Colbert’s speech, it was straightforward. He was the featured entertainer for the dinner. He was hired to roast President Bush and the audience knew it. As such, they expected his speech to be satirical and sarcastic. Vine, on the other hand, was invited to speak at a grand dinner attended by eminent lawyers and advocates, because of his reputation in the police anti-terror operations. What a world of difference! He was not even expected to be funny. And no one expected him to crack jokes, not to mention off-color jokes on Iraq bombers!

So the next time you want to use humor in your speech, be it a joke or an anecdote, question its purpose and effectiveness on the particular audience. Make sure your audience is prepared for your humor too, else don't be shocked if your jokes bombed!

Check out Garr's analysis of Colbert's Report here.


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