“Laugh” at Your Failures – The Secret to Connecting With Your Audience

laughing audience and speaker

Have you ever seen a speaker that was talented, successful, and seemed to have a solid message but yet, you still walked away from that speech feeling like there was  something missing? It was like you felt  some kind of  disconnect with the speaker but you just couldn’t quite put your finger on it. Chances are, that the speaker failed to  use the  critical tool in speaking called “laugh at your failures.”

Plant any thought but this one. 

One of the absolutely worst thoughts that you can plant in the minds of your audience is for them to think that you’re special. The minute that your audience puts you on a pedestal saying “well he is able to accomplish all that because he is talented.  I’m not talented. I can’t learn anything from him.”  Your message is doomed.  

You can have the greatest message in the world, but if you come across as being  someone who “has all the answers” without  first sharing the experience that led up to that wisdom,  then  you will be perceived  as the “guru of your own story” and your message will fall on deaf ears.

If you look at history, you will see that all great leaders had  someone or an experience in their life that showed them “the way.”  So by  sharing your failures first and poking fun at them in a lighthearted way, you will go a long way in setting up your audience to accepting your message.

Lessons from the world of comedy.

In comedy they call it “self-deprecating humor”  and successful  comedians  use it all the time within their routines to connect with and garner laughs from their audience.  Unfortunately, what comedians wholeheartedly embrace  most speakers will wholeheartedly avoid. Most speakers  would rather run and hide than have to share their failures. Why? Because they think that sharing their faults  will make them look weak  and this is simply not true. On the contrary, when done with confidence, self-deprecating actually builds  you up in the eyes of your audience.

Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines the word deprecate as follows; “to  criticize or express disapproval of (someone or something).” You will not see Self-deprecate in Merriam Webster’s dictionary because it is a hyphenated word.  However,  you will find other sources  online define  Self-deprecate  as “belittling or undervaluing oneself.” When you add 1 part confidence and 1 part self-deprecation,  the resulting effect will be self-deprecating humor.

Now let’s track back to the comedy world  where self-deprecating is always associated with humor.   When great comedians take the stage, the first thing they bring to it is their  “stage presence.”   They bring an aura of  personality and confidence. And when they poke fun at their “miserable lives”  you will always see them do it with confidence.   As an example, listen to the following clips where  you will hear Bruce Bruce a well know comedian (whom once weighed close to 500 pounds at one point in his career), as well as George Casey another comic who is known as “the clean comedian” use self-deprecating humor in their routines.

Comedian Bruce Bruce



Comedian George Casey


In comedy, the purpose of self-deprecating humor is for pure laughs – there is no real means to an end. However,  with speaking, self-deprecating humor has two main purposes;

1.  It takes you off the pedestal.

As we alluded to earlier,  when you  lighten up and  you confidently share your failures with your audience, they see you as someone who  is a fallible  human being just like them.  They see you as someone who has had similar struggles and challenges as they have.  This make you authentic and real to your audience, and as a result they will buy into your message.

2. It’s used to prime the audience for your message.  

To put it simply;  When your audience  is laughing they are with you.  They are attentive and tuned in.  At times during your speech you may not have the entire attention of your audience  because you will not always be able to control 100 percent of the  attention of  everyone in your audience all the time. However, when you make them laugh, chances are that everyone will be with you.

And when  you are feeling good and being joyful, you are more prone to being in a state-of-mind of acceptance  and learning. So when you’re audience is sitting there laughing while you poke some fun at your failures, they will be primed and ready to hear your serious message that’s just around the corner.

My experience with laughing at my failures.

I’m often invited to speak to various audiences that are curious  about learning the art of public speaking. Now these are people that may not have done much public speaking  in their life and they’re testing the waters to see if they have it in them to be able to do what I do. They’re looking for someone to show them the way.

Now let me ask you, when speaking to these audiences what if didn’t share my failures? What if all I did was build myself up and never showed them my failures. What if just said something along the lines of  ” You can be a great speaker if you just  follow my 4 step process to speaking success. ”  

In essence what I am saying  without actually telling them is , ” hey look at me,  I’m a great speaker and you can be  just like me if you just do what I tell you to do”   Who do you think is  going to listen to me? Who in my audience is going to think that they can develop this skill? The answer, almost no one. Why?  Because they’ll think that I’m special. They’ll thing that I’m  a great public speaker because I was born that way and that I’m naturally gifted  – which could be farther from the truth.

To see how I went about “laughing at my failures” with one particular audience, listen to the following clip of me laughing at my failures while talking about how I bombed  when delivering an impassioned message of hope to an audience of well over 1000 people. 

Lewis Roth self-deprecating

Clip 1


Now listen to this second clip and see how the audience reacts to the self-deprecating humor I used when talking about my past when it comes to my speaking.

Clip 2 


Now after talking about my failures, what do you think are the chances that  people in my audience will  say “if he can make it as a speaker after bombing like that in-front of over 1000 people. If he can talk about his dismal experience with public speaking where he needed to take shots of Jack Daniels in order to get his courage up, then  I can really learn something from a guy like that!”  Probably almost everyone.  Why? Because when you first laugh at your failures, your audience sees you as similar to them and not special, and as a result they’ll buy into your message.

While coaching and preparing one of my clients for a high level  motivational speech contest we made sure that before she delivered her impactful takeaway message,  that she first share and laugh at her failures.  Now listen to an audio excerpt of how Teresa Palmer engages her audience with her failures first.

My coaching client self-deprecating

Teresa Palmer laughing at her failures

Because Teresa shared her failures first, she set up her audience to receive her powerful  motivational message  of  “You are the only one that could be you.” You can watch her speech in it’s entirety by clicking here.

So now that you know the power of being  able to laugh at your failures  when you’re on the speaking platform delivering a powerful message, how do you go about  bringing  the power of self-deprecation to the stage?

Start looking for the humor in your own life

Before you are able to poke fun and  laugh at your failures  on stage, you have to be able to first do it off-stage.  The art of  being able to self deprecate humorously on stage starts  with your own  life first. If you find  yourself  being too serious in your daily life, you should  work  towards lightening up a bit. Start by looking around and finding the humor in your life because it is always around us.  It’s there, you just need to look for it.  And it all starts with having a positive attitude and being able to see the positive side of things even when things don’t always go our way.

Self Deprecating humor is a great bonding agent 

In everyday life, within our  daily interactions with people at work,  at home, and at play, self-deprecating humor is common with many and easy to do.  However,  there are still those who will not  laugh at themselves  because they take themselves much too seriously or don’t have a healthy level of confidence.  If you have experienced it already, you will know that using self-deprecating humor in life is a great bonding agent which pulls people together.

The use of self-deprecating humor is also a great way to create rapport with people.  For example, many people are very  self-conscious about their weight and it reflects on their self-esteem. And  yet there are some that carry their weight with confidence.  For example, at a wedding reception with a nice smorgasbord spread, a heavyset person with a high dose of confidence and doesn’t take himself too seriously might turn to his friends and say  “well fellas I’m going to start a new diet starting tonight!”  His friends say “what new diet John?”  And John says,  “A  “See” food diet!”  And they all laugh together.   Because John pokes fun at himself, it make everyone around him  feel good to be with him.

Give yourself the gift of humor

If you find yourself saying, “I could never poke fun at myself. I could never laugh at my failures.” Or perhaps you’ve had friends tell you at times, “You know, you’re way too serious. You need to lighten up a bit,”  then you might be a good candidate for a prescription dose of daily humor.  A good place to start is by actively tuning  your brain into  humor on a regular basis.  Listen to or watch comedy for 30 minutes a day.  If you’re time is tight then get a satellite radio  receiver and listen to it while you commute to and from work.  There are many channels on satellite radio that are dedicated  just towards  comedy.  The  bottom line is this; the more you tune into humor the more humor will be part of you.

Learning from our Presidents

Without thinking, which one of the presidents of our era immediately  pops into your mind when I say “great communicators of our time.”   I’m sure your reflexive thought instantly drew the names of Clinton,  Reagan and Obama.   With the exclusion of Obama  (whom only recently had gotten good at self deprecation),  Regan and Clinton  had exemplified this throughout their presidency.  

By now,  it’s obvious  to you as to why  Presidents Clinton, Reagan, and Obama would use self deprecating humor.  Because they know that doing so, brings them closer to their audience. And especially when it comes to “voting time” when the last thing a president would want is to come off as being on a pedestal and being seen as one who doesn’t understand the needs of the people.  

Now to see this in action, listen to the following clips of  Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama and hear how  they  use self deprecating humor to bring them  down to the level of their audience.

Reagan self-deprecating 


Clinton self-deprecating 


Obama  self-deprecating


Your takeaway message 

When done with confidence, sharing and poking fun at your failures with your audience before talking about your successes and showing them the way -is “the way.” Laughing at your failures brings you off the pedestal and allows your audience to accept your message because they see you as similar and not special.  They will no longer see you as the “guru of your own story” but one who has learned hard from his own experiences.  

If you ever find yourself standing on the edge of the speaking platform filled with reservations and doubt as to whether you should share your failures with your audience, then always keep this thought close to your heart; “if the presidents of the united states of america can give themselves permission and allow themselves to laugh at their faults and poke fun at their imperfections, then so can you and I!



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