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Presentation Skills: Using Humor Effectively

A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to This Meeting

Humor in presentations isn't always a laughing matter. How do you know when it will work—and when it won't? Should you use humor at all?

Humor can help. It can also backfire.
Used skillfully, humor can help establish rapport with your audience. It can ease tension and help in responding to a hostile question. It can help underscore a key point or message. It can help to keep your audience's attention, increasing interest in what you're saying. It lets your audience see your human side. And information conveyed with humor is more likely to be remembered.

But be careful. If you use humor poorly, it can sink your presentation and harm your credibility.

Humor and jokes are not the same.
Humor is found within the context of your presentation. Jokes, on the other hand, invite an on-demand response from your listeners.

You needn't be a comedian to use humor effectively. You don't even have to be good at telling jokes. You need only a sense of humor.

The best humor springs as anecdotes from personal experience. As such, they're easy to tell because you've lived the experience; they spring from ordinary, real-life experiences that audiences can easily relate to.

Make it relevant.
Make your humor relevant to your presentation. Use humor to make a point, one that advances your overall objective. When you do, your listeners—even if they don't find your humor funny—will get the point you intended to make and will appreciate that. You can also use humor to provide a brief diversion from your subject matter. But, again, make it relevant.

Make your humor relevant to your audience as well. That presumes you've done your homework. You know the demographics. You know who is in your audience. You know their background, their tastes and biases. You know how they're likely to respond. This becomes more of a challenge when you're dealing with different cultures. Remember: not all humor is universal. What works in one culture may not work in another. (For more insights on cross-cultural presentations, see our article What to Know When You're Speaking to an International Audience in this issue.

Things to avoid.
Don't start with a joke for the sake of a joke that has nothing to do with anything. You'll appear to be trying too hard, and your joke will serve only as a distraction. People tend to resist when they think you're just trying to make them laugh.

Take pains to avoid offensive humor. It should go without saying: never use ethnic, racist, sexist, or off-color humor. Follow the rule: when in doubt—even the slightest doubt—leave it out. Also avoid sarcasm. People almost always feel uncomfortable with a speaker who demeans others.

Even when you use humor skillfully, don't expect your audience to convulse in laughter. There's no laugh meter and you're no standup comic. Your audience did not come to be entertained.

More tips.
Any humor you may use should be determined while you're preparing your presentation. As a rule, just two or three instances of humor in a 15-to-20 minute presentation should be ample.

If you do use humor and you get no response, keep going. Humor, if it fails, has no consequence, unlike jokes that fail.

Don't laugh at your own humor.

Keep it short. Humor itself is not the point. It's a means to an end, not the end itself.

Remember: the degree of overt audience response does not matter as much as the overall success of your presentation. Ask yourself: Will humor help clarify a point? Will it help hold your listeners' attention? Just what purpose do you have in inserting humor at this particular point in your presentation?

Some good sources of humor.
There are many types of humor and humorous devices. And with a little imagination, there's no end of source material.

The anecdote is among the more common devices. This simply is any interesting story based on a real incident or event. You can reach into your own experience to find anecdotes. You can relate a story you know from someone else's experience. Or you can track down collections of anecdotes involving people who are well known. The test is whether you can relate to it yourself. If you can't, it probably won't work.

You might also toss in an occasional analogy—a comparison that allows you to make a point quickly. The like word almost defines the analogy, as in, "I feel like the deceased at a wake. I'm not expected to say much, but you can't start this meeting without me. So I'll be brief."

You can also use an aside—a thought that's seemingly thrown in as if something you've just said reminds you of a related thought. An aside must be short, allowing you to jump back into your original train of thought.

Another standby is the quote—usually but not always attributed to someone whose name is instantly recognizable. Quotes can come from anywhere. In this age of the Internet, there's certainly no shortage of sources. The Line Cellar, included in every issue of The Total Communicator has some great quotes. You may want to couple your Web search with some of the standard reference books. It's also a good idea to start your own collection, filing away quotes you come across that strike you as memorable or likely to be useful later. Even cartoons and comic strips may contain humor you can apply to real-life business situations.

While not everybody can tell a joke, anyone with a little practice can tell an anecdote, or use an analogy, an aside, or a quote.

It doesn't much matter which of the many available devices you use, as long as they're in good taste, they're relevant to your presentation and your audience, and they help to illustrate or convey a key point.

This Issue

Humor is one of many devices you can master on the way to becoming a first-class presenter. You can learn all the techniques that will help you prepare and deliver powerful presentations. Just click here to enroll in one of our group seminars. We're available also for one-on-one coaching. Join us at our New York City location. Or, if you prefer, we'll come to you.

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