Every good speaker often begins a speech with a funny story or an “ice breaker.” These are called “attention grabbers” and the idea is for the speaker to captivate the audiences’ attention so that folks will listen to the boring speech. Sometimes the opening is funny, and the speaker achieves his/her goal; oftentimes a joke falls flat, and the speaker just has to move on; but occasionally it backfires and that is the crux of my column.
I spent many an evening and weekend speaking to different groups, often at synagogues and to Jewish organizations. Speeches that precede an appeal for funds must be poignant, no more than eight to 10 minutes long and get to the point quickly to be effective. There is little time to recover from a yarn that bombs. This is why speakers are encouraged to share their joke or humorous anecdote with a test audience (example: spouse, friends, colleagues) before making a “fatal” mistake.
One misfire happened to me, but wasn’t obvious at the time.
It took place on a Shabbat in a synagogue where I was debuting a special appeal for a worthy charity. The true story I told went like this:
We had gathered at a group residence for developmentally disabled adults not long ago to celebrate Jacob’s birthday. Jacob was a 90-year-old psychologically disabled man with bipolar disorder who was admitted after many years of institutional living. He was a pleasant, likable, trim, gray-haired and neatly dressed man who received support, both personal and medical, and guidance in all aspects of living. But he also endured many hospitalizations in his life because of his bipolar disorder.
Two huge birthday cakes were carved up at his party for the many well-wishers—volunteers, staff and board members—who came by to wish Jacob well on his milestone. Other than an 85-year-old brother who rarely visited, Jacob had no other family. The staff at the group residence was his family.
At his party, a proclamation was read by a local politician who designated that day in Jacob’s honor. You should have seen his Cheshire-cat smile.
During the program, one person after another got up to laud and toast Jacob. Finally, at the end of the ceremony, one of the residence managers stood up, turned to Jacob and said:
“Jacob, everyone here had something nice to say about you on your 90th birthday. What do you have to say for yourself?”
And without missing a beat, Jacob turned to the crowd and said:
“What can I say? Get me a rich widow!”
The story got laughs and we forged ahead with the appeal. But then the feedback coursed in after services. It turned out there was a handful of women in the audience who, as luck would have it, were wealthy widows. They didn’t find the story amusing. The fallout wasn’t pretty.
Lessons to be learned from this experience:
Always know your audience. It helps to identify who is sitting in front of you, information you can get from your hosts. They will likely share who will attend the presentation and can guide you.
Be humble and own up to it. No excuses. It never pays to be defensive or try to explain why poor taste is appropriate. Remember this: It’s like customer service. “The customer is always right. And when the customer is wrong…” Well, you can fill in the blank.
Remember how you get to Carnegie Hall? “Practice, practice, practice.” Rehearse your story or joke with a trusted friend or family member. Getting their feedback might avoid embarrassment.
There is an expression: “Be comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to succeed.” Anticipate times when humor fails you and you must suck it up and just lumber ahead. “The show must go on.” Enough with the clichés.
There are times that humor is simply inappropriate such as when giving a eulogy. And, yet, I remember one speaker at a funeral recounting the funniest moments in the life of the deceased putting me and the audience in stitches. I never laughed so hard. But, it takes a unique talent to accomplish such a feat.
Keep in mind, being funny when making a speech is hard for many to pull off. So, I ask you, when was the last time you told a joke?
Norman B. Gildin lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, for 34 years and fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades, raising upwards of $93 million. He is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group whose mission is to assist nonprofits raise critical funds. He can be reached at [email protected]