As a professional comedian, I can tell you with certainty that the BEST way to start your speech is with a customized line you’ve written and rehearsed specifically for that audience in that place. If you’re a beginner, this isn’t an easy task; but if you want to take the chance, you can be richly rewarded with a huge laugh and get the audience on your side from the very start–i.e. a Killer Icebreaker. So I’ll let you in on some of my techniques.
First, put your antennae up and take note of what everyone sees and hears. What I call “Shared Experience” is the basis for most of my special material. Major construction was underway at one hotel where I worked. “Interesting system for wake-up calls they have here,” I said with mock annoyance. “They fire up the bulldozers at 6 a.m.”
A wild thunderstorm had been soaking Orlando all morning: “Nice to be here in The Sunshine State.”
It was a blazing 107 in Phoenix: “I love to get to Arizona in September when that fall chill is in the air.”
At one event, a fire extinguisher was mounted on the wall directly behind the platform. Fred, the president of the organization, introduced me. I took the stage, got some laughs with a few opening lines, then walked over and pointed at the extinguisher and said, “I’d like to thank Fred for going the extra mile and providing this, because he knows that when I speak I do occasionally burst into flames.”
They laughed very appreciatively, because the joke worked on several levels. First and foremost, it seemed ad-libbed, and audiences adore ad-libs, lavish extra credit for them, and are quick to forgive a good try.
Secondly, I included Fred, which of course invests the group personally, enhances the appearance of improvisation, and delights them because someone’s (gently) teasing The Big Guy. Thirdly, they relaxed instantly, assured that they were in the hands of a pro and could just sit back and enjoy–the perfect icebreaker.
Ask around to see if anything odd or funny has happened. Imagine my elation upon learning that the HR Director had made a complete fool of himself at a karaoke party the previous night—a memorable shared experience. During the awards ceremony, I said, “The winners will receive this lovely trophy, and the losers will have to listen to Jim Braxton sing “My Way.” Note that the five words that trigger the laugh are placed last.
Keep an eye out for The Gorilla on the Couch, i.e., that thing the meeting coordinators are vainly hoping no one notices. The late columnist Robert Novak once gave a speech at an event a couple of hours before I went on, and he somehow managed to elude his “key” light throughout his presentation, rendering him essentially invisible to the audience. During my sound check, I gave an instruction to the lighting director. Later, after I’d been onstage for a few minutes, I stopped, squinted, and said, “This is a little bright, Jay. Could I have some Robert Novak lighting, please?” The room was suddenly plunged into blackness except for a tiny spot 30 feet away from me, and the audience went into convulsions. I kept the laugh rolling by adding that Mr. Novak had apparently joined the Federal Witness Relocation Program.
I share about twice that many tips in my eBooks, but this should help you craft a doozy. If you want to watch my short video about getting laughs in a speech,