Which brings us to the third rule: Use jokes as damage control. Clinton never made light of the Lewinsky scandal directly. But in 1999, he started off his WHCD speech by somberly noting that had the Senate’s impeachment vote gone another way, he wouldn’t be standing here today. Pause. “I demand a recount.” The quip not only defused the tension surrounding the Lewinsky affair. It also captured Clinton’s messy relationship with the press.
Vital Speeches of the Day’s newsletter reminded me of this 2010 piece on Slate. Author Christopher Beam offers four rules for joke-writing by political speechwriters that work well for anyone trying to bring the ha-ha to their next speaking gig: Be self-deprecating; Singe, don’t burn; Use jokes as damage control; and Delivery matters.
When I was working with BC Premier Glen Clark, he noted in one speech that his leadership style had gained a reputation for erring on the side of command-and-control and micromanagement. “And I was thinking yesterday, as I mowed the lawn at the legislature, there might be some truth to that.”
That touches every base: his delivery was impeccable, the joke was self-deprecating, it didn’t cross the line into self-mocking, and it defused one of the knocks against his government.