What Romney's Jet Window Story Teaches About Jokes in Public Speaking

One of the most common mistakes people make in public speaking is to try too hard to be funny. You don't need to be funny to be a great speaker and unless you are a professional comic it is surprisingly difficult to get a laugh, even when you have good material. Writing comedy material is also far from trivial and best left to experienced writers.

What reminded me of this key lesson in public speaking was the media coverage of an episode where US presidential candidate Mitt Romney was ridiculed for apparently not knowing why airplane windows can't be opened. You can read the whole story in this LA Times article of 24 September 2012 Romney Mocked for Comment About Jet Windows

One of the reader comments points out that every child knows why airplane windows don't open and since Mr Romney was once a child we can probably assume quite safely that he does know. The most likely explanation for this bizarre statement is that he was trying to be funny -- a very dangerous game for anyone but especially so for someone in the public eye and with so many adversaries.

There is a valuable lesson in this case: it is risky for a speaker to try to be funny, especially when the humor is, like in this case, based on feigned ignorance. Let's see why this is the case.

Suppose, for example, that a speaker wants to get across the idea that he was an early adopter of YouTube. He jokes hat he started using YouTube when the videos were still in black and white. Some people in the audience will think he means it literally and repeat to their friends that YouTube used to be in black and white. Many others will think that he is just an idiot because even a child knows that it isn't true. Some will wonder if any of the stuff he is saying is true. Only a few will get the joke but because they are surrounded by a sea of puzzled faces they don't laugh either.

And that's if the delivery is flawless. But delivering funny lines is much harder than most people realize. The timing has to be exact, the construction optimal and the body language coherent. People spend years in comedy clubs perfecting the art and then have at least the advantage of working in an environment where people are expecting to laugh. Not all speakers have this advantage. Maybe you have a reputation for being serious and you are speaking in a serious context so people are not expecting jokes. In these circumstances jokes can fall flat -- and that is probably a good outcome. What is more likely is an airplane-window-style outcome where you just damage your reputation.


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