Humor and Humanity in Writing

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In my last blog, I mentioned one of my first speeches, given at my graduation ceremony. This week I’d like to discuss another speech, one that surpasses mine on multiple levels. Many of us remember Nick Selby’s epic convocation speech addressing freshmen at Georgia Tech last year. The speech went viral, with FOX News calling it “a call to action and innovation” and CNN remarking that Selby is indeed “a force to be reckoned with.”

You might be wondering why I am discussing a speech when my blog primarily focuses on digital communication and writing. And it does. However, last night’s readings from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well made me realize that our identity must translate into whatever we do, in our speaking and in our writing.

Zinsser states in Chapter 16, “Business Writing: Writing In Your Job” that “anxiety is a big part of the problem and humanity and clear thinking are a big part of the solution” (165). When we include our personality and clarify our ideas in our minds, we can better translate these ideas in our speech and in our writing. In my opinion, these two facets of communication go hand in hand, which is why I think we have much to learn from Nick Selby’s convocation speech.

Watch the full version here

Some powerful elements in Selby’s speech:

  • Humor, lots of humor
  • Surprise
  • Visualization
  • Control


Zinsser believes in the power of humor, which could be why he devoted all of Chapter 19 to this idea. He claims that the best kind of humor is the kind that surprises readers. Selby surprises readers by turning a rather boring topic, convocation, into a hilarious, yet still inspiring message. Zinsser describes this success as “the style…has remained casual and touched with humor. But its content turns out to be more serious” (56-57). Learn how to infuse humor into your writing by following the four commandments to writing funny.


Zinsser also encourages writers to use visualization. The best writers paint pictures with words for their readers. They include  concrete images, narratives, and allusions to add an element of relatability and personality to their writing.  Selby showcases this in his speech by clearly defining his voice. He hones in on key details such as his fixation with the iron man suit and creates an engaging atmosphere for listeners by adding music. Although we can’t literally include music or images as writers, we can still create a powerful depiction of what we are writing with our words. Words are powerful.


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Ideally, readers should be able to immediately recognize a writer’s voice when reading any of their writing. They can picture the writer and his personality. This visualization should occur in every type of writing, regardless of whether its a casual mommy blog or a professional business brochure. Readers want to interact with people, not robots!

With all of the excitement of Selby’s speech, the music and the dramatic gestures, we can easily miss a vital point to his message. Before the dramatics begin, Selby urges the freshman, “most importantly, remember why you’re here.” As a writer, and more broadly as an individual, always remember why you are here. You have something to say, so say it.

Discussion Questions:

  • How are you defining yourself in your speech and in your writing?
  • What device(s) of humor do you use in your writing?

Until next blog,



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