Grief, Disasters, and Humor. What's a motivational speaker to do? | Brad Montgomery

Mining Disaster in Utah: would YOU make them laugh? Yes or no?

Many of my readers know at least a part of this story. Here it is from start to finish…. thanks for all of your emails.

I’m back from Huntington, Utah where I was invited to speak for the Emery School District. I was hired way before the mining disaster to be there for a teacher in-service. My job was to fire up the troops, motivate them for the new year, and make them laugh. And laugh. And laugh.

I’m a motivational humorist speaker…. so making folks laugh is a huge part of the job. As far as I’m concerned… if they aren’t laughing, I’m bombing.

To be honest, though I knew I had a job coming up in Utah, I did NOT connect the mining tragedy I saw on the front pages to my job. It never crossed my mind.

And then I get an email from my client tipping me off that their school district is in the heart of that community; and in fact at least a couple of the people in my audience would be directly affected by the tragedy. They had lost family.

So quietly, I began to think it through. Then I got nervous. Then I freaked out.

What in the WORLD would I tell these people,? And how was I supposed to make them laugh. And if I could make them laugh, should I?

After 9/11, a bunch of my humorist and comedian pals and I all shared strategies about how to handle humor after that tragedy. With the advice of many of these funny speakers, I ended up adopting the tactic of “asking permission to leave our grief behind us and using laughter to feel better.” I talked about how we might all need a break, and — with no disrespect to the victims and their families — it might really help us to laugh.

But this mining disaster was so different: when I went out after 9/11, a couple or three weeks had already passed. And during the first few speaking engagements I had after the event, I never went anywhere near NYC. I was all over the country, but not in the backyard of the tragedy.

But this time I was headed right into the storm. And the disaster wasn’t even “closed” yet. (Families are still hoping to find their loved ones. Hope has continued to fade, but their grief has really just started.) The disaster was still, in many ways, in progress.

So… again… I was tense. I was nervous.

I can’t remember thinking about a job much as I thought about this job. I was so eager not to be “inappropriate.” I didn’t want to offend anybody. I didn’t want to make it worse. And the thought of going in there, doing jokes about school kids, about new teachers, and then tossing in some audience participation just seemed so … well…wrong.

Can YOU imagine going into that group and cracking a bunch of jokes, and then tellin’ them to have a great school year?

I was nervous, but I have a secret weapon. I’m a member of the National Speakers Association, and am proud to be a CSP — Certified Speaking Professional. (It’s the highest earned designation from the association… it’s pretty cool.) The CSPs have a email list that we use to communicate with each other, and I used that list to ask for help and advice.

“What should I do?” I asked them. The responses I got were, as I told them, “Like a virtual hug.” The responses were diverse and varied. Some wrote that humor was too risky — that I should avoid it for fear of being inappropriate. Others wrote that I might be better off facilitating a discussion of how the miners themselves often use humor. One good friend wrote that I might discuss the healing value of humor. And still others wrote that I should talk about the positive effects that (eventually) are born out of tragedies. And more than a few told me to go for it… that humor was my gift and that laughter is perhaps what they needed most.

The answers varied, but one theme ran though them all: they were fantastically supportive of me, and of the challenge. They told me that, whatever direction I chose, I’d be able to rely on my experience and my sense of humor and that it would be fine… in fact that it would be a great experience.

One friend, Colorado speaker Ed Oakley, told me to make sure I was “me.” It cracked me up, but it sure made me feel good.

By the time I got to Utah, I was calm, ready and confident, even though I still didn’t know what to expect.

I’m proud to report that the job was a success. I had a great time. The audience was supportive, and the client told me, “That is exactly what we needed.” Yippee! I am proud that it went well, but mostly I’m happy to have actually made a difference for these educators. It was really cool to be in a place that counted.

I swear, even as they were introducing me, I was still trying to figure out what exactly I was going to do.

So, what did I do? I started RIGHT out of the gate with comedy. No message. No “permission.” No moments of silence. I just jumped in. I joked about the guy who introduced me, (he is a huge guy, and I’m pretty small… so we went with some jokes about the size difference.) I joked about the fact that these educators got a small raise (aren’t all raises too small?) and that perhaps they might consider multi-level marketing? I joked about the B& B they put me the night before. About getting lost in my rental car. I probably did 3 or 4 minutes of straight comedy. Stand up.

Looking back, it WAS pretty risky… not only was I starting with humor, I was starting with humor that was totally customized and written pretty much in the last 4 minutes as they introduced me; written as I saw that really huge guy, as I remembered the “raise” announcement a few minutes before that.

But guess what? They laughed. And they laughed pretty hard.

I went with my gut and with my experience. My speaking peers told me to stick with my strengths, and I did.

But then, 3 or 4 minutes into the program I stopped, and told them the truth. I told them that I’d thought about them and this speaking engagement more than they’d ever guess. I told them that it just seemed so WRONG to come into a community that was still experiencing a loss and try to make them laugh. I told them that I’d lost sleep thinking about them, and what they might want from me. And that even this morning I was unsure how to best handle my program in order to give them what they might need most.

Then, just like after 9/11, I asked for their permission to use some humor. I told them that perhaps what we all needed most was to return to normal, at least for an hour and a half. I told them that though we might take a small vacation from the tragedy, we wouldn’t mean any disrespect to the victims and their families. And that we needed to heal, and perhaps a good laugh might help.

Then I crossed my fingers and shut up.

And they started clapping. Phew. Apparently I guessed right.

I was in. So we strapped on our seat belts, gassed up and left the station! We poked fun at the superintendent, at a new teacher who was going to teach (get this!) French, Drivers Ed and Resources. (Whatever that is…) We laughed with the new Family Sciences (home education) teacher and her “untidy” husband–also a teacher. I went after any punch-line I could find.

In my normal programs, I use humor to punctuate a message of joy and hope. I remind people to take themselves less seriously, and to remember to enjoy themselves — and their work. I speak of the difference of taking OURSELVES lightly while taking WHAT WE DO seriously. And during the speech in Utah that message seemed to just be stronger and more on target than usual. I gently referred to the disaster 3 or 4 times, but only from a distance and without details.

The energy of the group was off the charts after the keynote. They were more relaxed and, I think, more ready to start educating their students. And we sold out of product — I think mostly because I reduced the price by 1/2 and gave the profits to the miner victims’ families. (That made us all feel good too.)

In the end, we all did well. We all felt better.

I learned a lot. I was reminded of the need we all have for humor. And when times are tough, we crave it. I was reminded that when we speak from the heart and are authentic, audiences respond. I learned that the community of professional speakers — of which I’m proud to be a member — is filled with some wise and caring souls. And I learned that trusting my experience is (at least on this one occasion) the best choice.

Disclaimer: In many ways, I think this job was easier than I thought it would be. It turns out the families of the victims were not in the audience, even though they work for that district. The shock of the disaster was over, even though the tragedy was unfolding. So in many ways, it wasn’t as hard as I feared. Lucky me. Phew.

Thanks for all of your support, advice, and caring. And thanks for asking how it went.


Brad Montgomery
Motivational Keynote Speaker, Utah Speaker, Highly Relieved Speaker

Learn more:

How to Speak To Audiences After (Or During) a Crisis or Disaster

2 replies
  1. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Brad –

    Dealing with an individual struggling with grief, uncertainty and hope is incredibly difficult – all the more so when it is an entire community facing this struggle.

    The fact that highly capable speakers (CSPs) offered many different approaches leads me to believe that it’s not necessarily what you said that made the difference – rather, the audience picked up on and connected with something intrinsic in *you*. They could tell you cared, feel your sincerity – and that was what made the event a success.



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