How important is humour in a keynote presentation?

Keynote speaker Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk titled ‘Do schools kill creativity?‘ has been watched over 63 million times. It’s the most watched keynote speech of all time, and it’s also hilarious. At the time of writing, the best Bill Gates had been able to achieve was 5.5 million, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, 1.8 million, and even the former US President, Bill Clinton, had only accumulated a measly 930,000 views on All three men are household names, and yet the relatively unknown British comedian, James Veitch, has more than ten times their views. Why? Again, because like Ken Robinson, James Veitch is funny.

Australian funnyman, keynote speaker and author of ‘More Funny, More Money‘, Marty Wilson, puts it succinctly. “To be a headlining speaker, you simply must be able to instantly hold a crowd of 100, 500, even 5,000 people in the palm of your hand. And humour is the most socially acceptable and scientifically proven way to build rapport in seconds.”

Wilson, a former professional comedian, who turned his skills to keynote speaking and writing on the topic, shares five pieces of advice when adding humour to a keynote presentation:

  1. Being funny in keynotes is more a science than an art. That means anyone can become a master.
  2. Puns and play on words can help train your brain to find clever word play.
  3. Be patient and committed. To write one great joke, you must first write hundreds of ordinary jokes.
  4. Brainstorm and bounce ideas off friends and colleagues.
  5. Be funny first, then preach. Humour will help your audience accept you, before they buy your ideas.

Marty Wilson is not alone with his opinion on the importance of humour for keynote speakers. Yamini Naidu, author and speaker focusing on business storytelling, believes stand-up comedy can add important elements to any keynote presentation. Coincidentally, like Marty, she has five benefits of using humour in keynotes, which she covers in ‘5 Stand-up Comedy Secrets for Presenters‘:

  1. Economy – The key aim with writing is economy of words. Finding the least amount of words that can take you from A to funny. Similarly, if you want to be a brilliant presenter, start by writing down your words. Then edit with the knife of economy.
  2. Edge work – Great comedy gets its edge from the comedian’s unique perspective. One of the simplest ways to give your presentation an edge is to bring your personal perspective in through a story or an example.
  3. Emotion – Comedy comes from emotion, not from a neutral state. It comes from something you were excited about, or that made you mad, or you found funny. In business, the hard truth is that presentations without any emotion simply flat-line for your audience.
  4. Empty cups – For anyone to enjoy your content (whether you are a comedian or a presenter), you first have to look like you are enjoying it. Is there a bounce in your step, a twinkle in your eye and a smile on your lips?
  5. Embrace beta – Dave Hughes is a huge Australian comedy star with his own radio and TV shows. Yet, he also pops into free open mic rooms to constantly practice, showcase and road test his material.

Yamini is a graduate of the School of Hard Knock Knocks, a stand-up comedy school in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. And while her focus is on keynote speaking, she has since gone on to perform at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. And Yamini is not an anomaly as a keynote speaker who sought to add more humour. The President of Professional Speakers Australia (PSA), Russell Pearson, is a School of Hard Knock Knocks graduate, as is Christina Canters, Monica Rosenfeld, Catherine Molloy and Ali Terai – just to name a few. All are accomplished keynote speakers, and all did the comedy course to complement their keynote speaking skills. Says Christina Canters, who is both a speaker and presentation coach, “it turns out, there is much we can learn from stand up comedy.”