Watch this. This is how it’s done.
Robert Mueller was giving a commencement address at the College of William and Mary. This former director of the FBI in the first Bush administration is the epitome of dignity and class. He is anything but a comic or comedian. That day, speaking on “Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity,” which he called the motto of the Bureau, he showed us a great way to use humor in a serious talk.
“In one of my first positions with the Department of Justice, more than 30 years ago, I found myself head of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston. I soon realized that lawyers would come into my office for one of two reasons: either to ‘see and be seen’ on the one hand, or to obtain a decision on some aspect of their work on the other hand. I quickly fell into the habit of asking one question whenever someone walked in the door, and that question was, ‘What is the issue?’
“One evening I came home to my wife, who had had a long day teaching and then coping with our two young daughters. She began to describe her day to me. After just a few minutes, I interrupted, and rather peremptorily asked, ‘What is the issue?’
“The response, as I should have anticipated, was immediate. ‘I am your wife,’ she said. ‘I am not one of your attorneys. Do not ever ask me, ‘What is the issue?’ You will sit there and you will listen until I am finished.’ And of course, I did just that.”
Mueller went on to say how he was learning—from his wife among others—how to be still and listen, truly listen, before making a judgment.
His was not a funny story as such. But it got a great laugh from the entire crowd, and became a great illustration for you and me today.
In his story, he is the goat. He did something foolish and his wife called his hand on it. He conceded that she was in the right and he in the wrong.
Every female in the audience identified with Mrs. Mueller and appreciated the speaker’s point. Every husband in the crowd identified with Mueller himself and felt an immediate connection with him.
Any story that connects the speaker to the audience for the rest of his talk is a great one.
Telling a story in which you yourself are caught red-handed in some offense and then properly humbled is a great device to connect you with your audience.
Let’s analyze it for a moment.
Suppose the story were reversed. Suppose Mueller had been the one telling his wife about his hectic day. And suppose Mrs. Mueller had stopped him in the middle of his monologue and asked him to get to the point. And suppose he had responded sternly, the way she had done him, and then he told the audience about that in his message.
In the first place, it would not have been funny and would not have gotten a laugh, not the first one. Secondly, it would have alienated the audience from the speaker since his story would have made him look like some hotshot and put his wife down.
We have to choose our stories wisely.
What makes the story work is that Mueller was somebody. That’s why, before telling what his wife had said, it was important to establish that he was running the Criminal Division for the U.S.Attorney’s Office in Boston. He was supervising a lot of lawyers. As government employees go, he was a big shot.
But his wife brought him back to reality that day.
As a result, the commencement audience bonded with him through that story.