There are few speeches that can’t be lifted with a little humour, and here I’m going to explain two rhetorical devices that are comedic favourites. Both take a level of thought to craft successfully, but the end result is well worth the effort. They have something in common: both rely on the unexpected for humour. They achieve this by (mis)leading the listener with their opening sections before going off in another direction.
The first is bathos.
Bathos starts off by building a serious and powerful scene, then wrong-foots the audience with an unexpected punchline.
- Sarah: “Once we had something that was pure, and wonderful and good. Something others only dream of. What’s happened to it?
David: “You spent it.”
- For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.
- He spent his final hour of life doing what he loved most: arguing with his dog.
- Through the verdant plains of North Umbria walked Waylon Ogglethorpe and, as he walked, the clouds whispered his name, the birds of the air sang his praises, and the beasts of the fields from smallest to greatest said, “There goes the most noble among men” – in other words, a typical stroll for a schizophrenic ventriloquist with delusions of grandeur.
The second device is difficult to say, easy to understand and highly effective when crafted skilfully. Meet the paraprosdokian.
Paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase, or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the listener to reinterpret the first part. So you lead your listeners along, framing your words in a way that makes them expect a certain outcome. When the reversal is employed, they experience a little shock—followed by humour—when they realise they were led astray.
- I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like his passengers.
- Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.
- Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
- Light travels faster than sound. That’s why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
The comedian Emo Philips is a master of the paraprosdokian. One of my favourite examples of his (dark) genius is: “I don’t know why I got into trouble with my girlfriend’s parents for not opening her car door. All I did was open mine and swim for the surface.”
Bathos and paraprosdokian—both are fun to construct and funny. Why not try using them in your next speech?