04March 2024

Public Speaking Tips for Puns

The pun has the unique distinction of being described as the lowest form of wit as well as the highest form of wit and maybe the reason for that is captured in a quote from the American musician Oscar Levant:
‘A pun is the lowest form of humour—when you don't think of it first.’
There is a sliding scale for a play on words that goes from revealing a deeper meaning that forces the listener to think about what has just been said to a contrived mechanical construction that reveals very little meaning apart from showing how very pleased the speaker is with himself or herself!
In Public Speaking the pun sits among a variety of rhetorical tools that can be used to embed the speaker’s meaning in the audience’s mind.  These are usually called ‘tropes’, meaning a ’turning’, because the audience’s attention is held for a moment as we acknowledge a shift in meaning contained in the words we hear.
Ben Franklin’s:
‘We Must Hang Together Or Surely We Shall Hang Separately’
is at the more profound end of the sliding scale because it very succinctly expresses how essential it is for those standing up for American Independence to stick together regardless of pressure, because if they do not they will each be isolated and punished individually – and that all turns on the shift in meaning in the word ‘hang’.
The power of this memorable message lies not just in the play on the meaning of the word ‘hang’, but in that the phrase has been further crafted by the matching rhythm of three short words followed by a multi-syllable word in each half of the sentence and then the pun is further heightened by the contrasting words ‘together’ and ‘separately’ that bring out the difference in meaning between ‘hang’ and ‘hang’.

And then there is Bertrand Russell’s comment on war:
‘War does not determine who is right only who is left’
which makes it impact by the turn on the two meanings of the word ‘right’
You could apply this statement to most conflicts in history, but it seems particularly poignant today as we live through the intractable conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, where ‘right’ has gone out of the window and all that is ‘left’ is mutual annihilation.
It is not just clever and effective, but it is true!

Both of these are examples of high-class and profound wordplay.
However, Public Speakers do not necessarily need to be quite so creative and poetic to get their point across.
A speech aims to create an image that sticks in the mind of the listener because that is how the speaker guarantees that their messages continue to reverberate once they have finished speaking.
When Keir Starmer wanted to lampoon Rishi Sunak on his unnecessary spat with the Prime Minister of Greece over the rights of possession of the Elgin Marbles, marble jokes could not be contained, culminating in the observation that:
‘Sunak had lost his!’
I would put this one nearer the self-satisfied, smug end of the sliding scale, but as I have often contended, particularly in politics, it is more important that the message sticks than that it is particularly witty or clever.

And this is probably why the Christmas Cracker jokes will never go away.
Everyone groans, but everyone gets it.

Even if the wordplay is corny, the listener is still forced to acknowledge it, which in turn makes the image stay in the mind. We think ‘marbles’ and then ‘marbles’ – (groan), but the point has been made and the words stick.

I still remember a children’s sketch on Robin Hood where Maid Marion’s father says to Robin Hood:
‘I cannot let you marry my daughter because you are an outlaw!’
And Robin replies:
‘But if I marry your daughter I will become an in-law.’
Firstly – it has stayed with me for over 50 years, and any device that helps the speaker’s words stay in the memory is a powerful tool, and:
secondly – for that tool to be truly effective it needs not just stay in the memory, it needs to be anchored to a key message, so that with memory comes meaning.
What has remained with me is a clever play on ‘outlaw / in-law’.
What was the purpose?
There was probably none, other than to make a laugh.
If the presentation was about the evolution of human relationships: and how enemies can become friends, there could be a deeper purpose to the line.
I have previously referred to Bertrand Russell’s statement:
‘War does not determine who is right only who is left.’
Its power resides in that after we acknowledge the wit in the wordplay on ‘right / wrong’ and ‘right / left’,
we realise that there is a devastating truth uttered about the vanity and futility of war.
Word plays are such significant tools for speakers that Rhetoricians have defined a number of types of pun that a speaker could employ, but in essence, it comes down to two:
                1. Same word – different meanings
                2. Different words that sound the same

  1. Same word – different meanings (Antanaclasis)

Defined as the ‘repetition of a word in two different senses’, this is what Bertrand Russell is employing in his play on the words, ‘right and wrong’ as opposed to ‘right and left’.
As did Ben Franklyn when putting down an opponent by telling him:
‘Your argument is sound – nothing but sound.’
Sometimes you will find a word that simply has two different meanings, like the play on ‘Elgin marbles’ and ‘losing your marbles’.
More common however are simple everyday words that can have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning:
- The rugby player carried the ball and in the process, he carried his team to victory.
- Unfortunately, the late Dr Adams was late for his funeral
- Catch the ball?  He couldn’t even catch a cold!

There is a further self-consciously virtuosic, related form of this type of word play where the word with the different meanings is actually only uttered once, forcing us to understand its shift of meaning based on what comes next (Zeugma).
So using one of the above examples we could say:
‘In one stupendous effort, he carried the ball, his team and the day.’
The old comedy duo of Flanders and Swann used this masterfully in their song
‘Have some Madeira M’dear’,
about an old rake trying to seduce a young girl.
We are told how he:
‘ hastened to put out the cat, the wine, his cigar and the lamps’
and she momentarily seems to offer him encouragement
‘by raising her glass, her courage, her eyes and his hopes’

  1. Different words that sound the same (Paronomasia)

This is where we are more likely to extract a groan from our audience and is more commonly the realm of the Christmas Cracker:
‘How does King Wenceslas like his pizza?
‘Deep pan, crisp and even.’
Or phrases like:
‘I scream for ice cream’
Recently in a group chat a friend commented to another friend who was struggling with a puncture along the lines of:
‘That must be very tyring’

This second form of pun is more for the comedian, as it often plays on the ridiculous and arbitrary connection of words that merely sound the same.  Its appeal is largely showy and superficial.
The comedian Milton Jones (his whole act is built on puns and wordplays) says that he was invited to a Sunday dinner, placed in front of the joint of meat and asked whether he would like to ‘carve’.
So he says he promptly lay on the floor and gave birth to a baby cow (calve).

If the second type of pun is designed mainly to titillate, the first form of pun is more suited to a deeper shift of meaning revealing a profound truth (right – wrong, right – left)

Some tips for constructing and using plays on words

  1. Keep topical

The last thing you want to do is deliver your pun and then have to explain it because half the audience does not understand the reference.
One politician complained that Gordon Brown spent all his time talking about his record and went on to say:
‘He sounded like a broken record!’
If you have a young audience that has no understanding of the effect of cracked vinyl records, the reference will be lost.

  1. Don’t labour it

Basil Brush used to end each joke with: ‘Boom! Boom!’
Just as annoying is someone who refrains with ‘Get it?’ after every laboured joke.
So if you intend to use a pun to entertain or arrest the attention of your audience, just put it out there.
If they get it – great; if not, move on.

  1. Does your pun support the message?

I keep referring to Bertrand Russell’s
‘War does not determine who is right only who is left’
because apart from being a brilliant line, it perfectly sums up his message.
If those are the only words you retain at the end of the speech, you have captured to whole essence of his meaning, whereas Keir Starmer’s comment about Rishi Sunak having lost his marbles is more stretched and feels like it has been said for the sake of a quick win.

  1. Does it work?

David Cameron when UK Prime Minister, hosted a barbecue for President Obama and attempted the sound bite:
‘This is the first time a UK Prime Minister had grilled the President of the United States.’
Yes – there is a grill involved, but he was grilling a sausage for the President, not the President.
Not the same thing.

  1. Does it distract?

The problem with most of the failed attempts outlined above is that if they do not work naturally by themselves, rather than enforcing the message, they actually distract the listener, as the listener has to consider, whether the pun works, whether they understand the reference, or whether it is even funny.
Therefore they are no longer thinking about the key message of the presentation.
Milton Jones’ priority is to make us laugh.
Our priority as speakers should be to make our audience think

  1. Practice

Most of the lists of tips end with this one.
Comedians spend ages working on their timing; so should we.
A key message always benefits from being delivered well and if that relies on a wordplay to create its impact then we need to make sure we land those lines perfectly.

If the pun puts the focus on the message, it is a good pun.
If the pun puts the focus on the speaker, it is probably not!

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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.