How do you know if an audience will find a joke funny? You don't. Tad Friend, in a New Yorker article (November 11, 2002) called "What's So Funny," writes: "How the brain processes humor remains a mystery. It's easy to make someone smile or cry by electronically stimulating a single region of the brain, but it's astonishingly difficult to make someone laugh." There is no guarantee that what you find funny will tickle your audience as well, but there are ways you can stack the odds in your favor.
Choose material that fits your talent and doesn't depend on your weaknesses. If you're not good at foreign accents, stay away from jokes that require one. Most good speakers don't try to act funny or perform stand-up comedy. They look for humor, not comedy. How can you tell the difference? When you read a story or a joke, ask yourself if it's funny on paper. Comedy often relies on a funny character, a funny accent, or some special delivery to put it across. Humor will be funny on paper.
Humor usually reads easily and is also easy to speak. You can use a comfortable rate of speech. It doesn't require a tongue-twisting or machine-gun delivery and doesn't contain a lot of dialogue. When you find a joke with a lot of alternating dialogue, study it carefully to make sure it's not too complex for a comfortable delivery.
Fit your material to your audience. Humor is very subjective, and the same jokes won't be funny to everyone. Some jokes are devices that let the audience laugh at someone. It's essential that you pick the right target. But the platform speaker has an advantage over the nightclub comic: facing an audience with which they share something in common—the same club, the same company, and so on. Shared characteristics make it easier to pick specific targets that your listeners are willing to laugh at.
Members of an audience enjoy laughing at people who they regard as superior in some way, from sweepstakes winners to the president of the United States. Bosses or authority figures are perfect targets, as are government officials and politicians—anyone who is in charge of things. People also like to laugh at anyone who disturbs their peace and self-esteem: in-laws, supervisors, neighbors, and competitors.
Although audiences also like to laugh at people they regard as inferior, a speaker can be haunted forever by a public insult that he or she thought was a good joke. If you choose to make fun of groups, do it subtly, as one Baptist minister did. Addressing an outdoor conference on a cloudy day, he said, "Well, the weatherman hasn't done us any big favors today. But this weather isn't bad.... It's certainly plenty good enough for Methodists."
There are two important targets to stay away from: sacred cows—people whose accomplishments or reputations make them immune to laughter—and the audience itself. People don't like to laugh at themselves, and audiences are not good sports.
Occasionally, you can get your listeners to laugh at themselves—if you include yourself in the joke. An investment counselor speaking to a group of doctors about stocks and bonds managed this opening: "It's such a pleasure to be able to talk to a bunch of doctors, for a change, without having to take off my clothes." Sometimes I try to really personalize a presentation by asking ahead of time for the names of three people I can gently pick on during my talk. Clear this beforehand to make sure that no one is offended.
You are the best target of your jokes. You not only entertain that way but also win all sorts of extra points with your audience. For one thing, who is going to resent your jokes? You're telling the audience you are a good sport. You win over those in your audience when you use yourself as the target of your jokes, and it's a distinct advantage to have them on your side.
Charlie Chaplin once said, "To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it." Examples of self-deprecating humor are everywhere. Joan Rivers says she's such a bad housekeeper, she reports a burglary once a year, so the cops can come in and dust for fingerprints.
The more dignified and prestigious the speaker, the better self-mockery works. Some examples: "Here in the business word I'm Chairman of the Board. At home I'm chairman of the storm windows." Senator Stephen Douglas once called Abraham Lincoln a two-faced man; Lincoln said, "I leave it to my audience—if I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"