6 lessons in speech humor from the White House correspondents’ dinner

You don’t have to be a professional comedian or have a staff of writers to make an audience laugh, although that certainly helped Jimmy Kimmel and President Obama during this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last Saturday. The pair kept the audience laughing for nearly an hour by spinning jokes off topics in the news, from the Secret Service scandal to Kim Kardashian’s celebrity.

Here are some techniques you can apply to your presentations:

  1. Record the opening. Last year the president’s speech began with the song “I Am a Real American” while the images on screen included his birth certificate. This year’s performance began with a spoof about an open mic while he was off stage. When you record your opening, you can test it with colleagues and fine-tune it, so you are guaranteed to get a laugh, with no pressure on you for a few minutes to perform perfectly live.
  1. Use sound effects. I can imagine the same sound in Obama’s opening, a flushing toilet, being used to make a humorous point about some type of failure that people can laugh about.
  1. Surprise them with images. Obama used that technique twice. First he mentioned that it had been a year since “We delivered justice to one of the world’s most notorious individuals,” and instead of Osama bin Laden the screen flashed an image of Donald Trump. Then as the president imagined how he might age over the next four years, the screen showed a photo of Morgan Freeman.
  1. Make fun of yourself. At the correspondents’ dinner, politicians, celebrities and journalists are all fair game for jabs, but in most situations you won’t want to offend your audience members. The safest strategy is to make fun of yourself. If the president of the United States can do it, so can you.
  1. Gesture. What made Obama’s comment about being born inHawaii funny was the big wink he gave the audience. Kimmel’s high five with the president was also a fun ending.
  1. Go ahead and laugh. As long as others are laughing too, it’s OK to laugh at your own jokes. While the audience laughed at the Morgan Freeman photo, Obama admonished them “That’s not even funny,” but then he couldn’t stop himself from laughing. Remember, you’re all there to have a good time.

What’s your favorite technique for adding humor to a speech?


48 responses to “6 lessons in speech humor from the White House correspondents’ dinner


  2. These are great tips!!! Being a comic, I use self-deprecation a lot! You have to be able to laugh and make fun of yourself.
    Charlie 😀

  3. These are GREAT suggestions — and I can see so much of this can apply to my day job as a humor writer!

    Whereas sound effects and gestures are slightly less effective in writing, I definitely adapt a few of these suggestions on my blog — mostly the whole idea of making fun of myself. It’s cathartic, after all … like getting therapy for your own issues without the $150/hour fee!

    Jimmy Kimmel, by the way? He’s totally my hero…


  4. Self-deprecating humor is disarming and so effective. That’s my fave.

  5. These are great tips! I will have to remember them the next time I am at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Wouldn’t that be something??? 🙂 Thanks for sharing~
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  6. Good tips. I gotta say, I’m impressed. I’ll make sure to use them sometime.

  7. Wow – Great advice! When it comes to public speaking you always think you’re ready until something goes wrong and you’re obviously unprepared.


  8. Great pointers for anyone who has to speak.

  9. I think sometimes it also pays to be a little controversial, and ballsy, like Stephen Colbert in 2007:

    • I agree that most of the remarks this year were very safe. I was a bit surprised by the number of dog comments. When you have a joke that may go too far or not work at all, it’s also a good idea to have a plan to handle the response (or lack of response). We can’t all blame Jake Tapper.

  10. these are some great and simple tips for anyone planning on making a speech

  11. Pingback: Alvin Donovan Equity Partners Fund SPC:6 lessons in speech humor from the White House correspondents’ dinner | American Speaker « Alvin Donovan Likes

  12. I teach a class and do some public speaking from time to time, so thanks for the tips. I especially like the one about recording the opening. I realize that I have to grab their attention in the first couple of minutes and this could help me do that. Thanks!

  13. As long as he keeps his feet off the table he’s fine.

  14. Thank you for all the positive comments. We’d love to hear your tips too!

  15. You have shared some great tips here.
    Comedy is all about timing & this President’s got a great one!

  16. Great post. I am a Chaplain in an aged facility. A good sense of humour is essential for quality of life when you have lost independence, home, friends, status in the community and so much more. Thanks for the entertaining video and useful suggestions.

  17. Thank you for highlighting this fantastic and funny speech! I can’t stop laughing… “drunk texts from Cartagena.”

  18. Thank you for all of your suggestions!

  19. Great tips! My invitation to the dinner got lost in the mail, so it’s nice to be able to get the highlights.

  20. Awesome post. Going to share with people I coach regarding building their personal brand; specifically to highlight the preparation required to develop their message. Thank you!!

  21. Just as interesting was Jimmy Kimmel’s (poor) performance. For an experienced comic, he fell into a trap that newbies regularly fall into. As his material in the latter half got less and less response, he speeded up, never allowing his jokes to be laughed at by the audience. When things go wrong with humor, the last thing you should do is speed up.
    He should watch Obama. His timing and pausing were world class.

  22. The President had a tremendous advantage in that he could have had anyone in the room that night arrested, stripped, drugged, cinched into a big boy diaper, and flown to a black ops prison … They knew it, so they laughed at this jokes. But it was the laughter of fear.

  23. If you are presenting after someone else – humour is a great way to provide a break from the previous speaker and get people engaged in what you have to say. It also takes the pressure off your first minute or two. A slide or two at the start of your presentation with some cartoons can work wonders – but try them out on a friendly audience first!

  24. Great tips! I use spontaneous humor, it could be general or self-depreciating but I make sure no one is offended.

  25. Great summary – thanks. Like the idea of surprising images

  26. This is pretty good

  27. Great points- thanks for the insight!

  28. Thank you for highlighting such great speech…..

  29. Thank you For Sharing Such A Great Speech.


  30. This is good advice. More people should study the art of the illustrious Colbert!

  31. Awesome tips. Winning over a crowd with laughter is a surefire way to eliminate nerves when giving a speech. If they’re laughing with you (not at you) then the speaker can feel comfortable continuing with his presentation. Great blog post!

  32. Excellent points. Thanks! I prefer dialogue to speeches, but this formula would make me actually want to give a speech.

  33. journeythroughnews

    You are right- humor is the key to good public speaking. Self-depricating myself loosens up the audience for the serious stuff to come. I always sprinkle a few jokes in during the speech as well to keep the audience on their toes.

  34. There’s much to avoid in US politics, but always much to admire in Obama; and this tradition let’s him display brilliantly a little of the balance that actually makes the country great.

  35. Reblogged this on My husband with Benjie and Cristy and commented:
    No body is perfect , learning is the key

  36. I speak all over the country and find that humor is something that almost everyone understands. loved the post. Blessings to you. Dr. Sherry

  37. You can say what you want about Obama, good or bad, the man knows how to speak!

  38. Thanks for the insight. I’m hoping to apply this next time I speak.

  39. Congratulations, you’ve make me LOL much today 😀

  40. I’m a big fan of number four (making fun of yourself). Small props (a ridiculous hat, etc.) can be effective, too, depending on theme/setting/audience.
    My rhetoric teacher always told us that if you can make the audience laugh with you (or even at you), you’re getting them to agree with you on some level, even if they think they don’t actually agree with you.

  41. Definitely helped for my wee engineering presentation in just coming over as confident. Seems talking pumping systems isn’t the hey to hilarity though, who’d’ve thought it? haha

  42. beautiful job. XD well done amigo. 😛

  43. Great I like ^^

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