by Steve Adubato, PhD

Sometimes when we are speaking in public we feel the need to be funny. This is risky business indeed, even if you are a high profile entertainer, performer or Academy Award-winning actor like Robert De Niro. Consider at a recent event in New York featuring Michelle Obama, De Niro joked that America wasn’t “ready for a white first lady.”

What’s interesting is that De Niro got the reaction he intended from the audience in the room. There was laughter, a light moment and everyone in the room was in on the joke. But that’s the problem when you are communicating in front of one audience, but your words will be communicated and shared to many other audiences via multiple mediums.

De Niro’s words were immediately broadcast on cable news outlets and on the Internet. The reaction from others NOT in the room wasn’t so positive. They didn’t think he was so funny. Forget about the politics of this, it was just plain dumb on De Niro’s part. Within hours, the Obama Administration was backing away from his joke, calling his comments “inappropriate”. Ultimately, De Niro offered this public statement; “My remarks, although spoken with satirical jest, were not meant to offend or embarrass anyone -- especially the first lady,”

So there you have it. Another prime example of public communication gone awry in the effort to be funny. Readers of this column know that I am a big fan of humor. As a public speaker, I often try to incorporate humorous stories and anecdotes into my presentations. My books are filled with examples that hopefully make readers laugh while learning something about communication in the process. But, here is the catch. In the communication game, humor will always be a double edged sword. Those who use it have to think through some important questions before they do so. Here are just a few:

  • Is the risk of offending certain people worth the reward of a particular joke or your attempt at humor? This isn’t an exact science, but most people communicating in public don’t even think this through. They often say things after the fact like; “I never thought XYZ would be offended”. That’s because they never even thought about it in the first place. Smart communicators actually think through who potentially COULD be offended by a supposedly humorous comment.


  • Who exactly IS your audience? Too many public speakers think that their audience includes just those people in the room in which they are speaking. They forget that someone in that room will either tell someone outside that room what was said, or, more likely, in the digital age, those “humorous” comments will be transmitted to others. Effective communicators assume that anything they say will be shared by a variety of audiences. Your goal should be to constantly ask whether the risk of trying to be funny is worth it.


  • What topics are off limits when it comes to “public” humor? Any business professional should stay away from racial humor, sexual humor and you should even think twice about using humor involving gender. Don’t get me wrong, I think some of the funniest things about us involve the differences between how men and women interact and communicate. However, making broad, sweeping, generalizations that denigrate men or women in a cruel or nasty way isn’t worth the risk for whatever reward you think you are going to get in the process. And, for those of you who are thinking of writing in to say that I’m advocating “politically correct” communication, think again. I’m promoting being smart and practical when it comes to using humor in a diverse and complex world where people are easily offended and your reputation is on the line. Like I said, humor can be risky business indeed.