Do’s And Don’ts Of Using Humor In Speeches And Presentations

If you are given a choice between two presentations or speeches – one where you laugh a lot and one where you don’t. Which one would you rather attend?

The single most important criterion for succeeding in giving speeches or presentations is that the speaker connects to the audience. Speakers or presenters who fail to connect to the audience rarely get their message across. In speeches or presentations where the audience feels a connection with the speaker, energy starts flowing along this invisible ‘connection’. If this connection achieves a bond like quality the speech or presentation becomes an epic and the fame of the speaker lives on. There are many things that create this connection such as charisma, presence, skills for using emotional appeal, mastery in using imagery that evokes powerful reactions and last but not least, humor.

The famous roman orator and statesman, Cicero (106-43 B.C.) argued that the best orator would also be the best human being, who would understand the correct way to live and instruct others in it through speeches, through the example of his life, and through making good laws. Now, this is quiet high a demand. Very few people can in all honesty say that they should be considered the best of human beings. Think about it. The next time you walk up to give a speech try telling the audience that, “The roman orator Cicero said that the best orator would also be the best human being, so I am here to speak to you as I am among the best of human beings!” Only totally serious people with deadpan expressions would take that as an affront and not burst into laughter. Well, to be on the safe side, you better laugh at yourself. Then your audience will warm up to you.

Humor relaxes people and they start letting down their guard and this creates an atmosphere where positive human interaction is more likely than if the situation were to be strictly formal. Humor is scattered within your presentation and surfaces wherever and whenever it surfaces spontaneously. This kind of speech or presentation achieves a free-flow quality, which raises energy levels.

Be very careful with jokes

You don’t need to be a comedian to use humor effectively. You don’t even have to be good at telling jokes. The key in using jokes skilfully is that they should have at least some relevance to your theme or story and should bring some insight, perspective or added value to any point that you are making. Telling a joke to just make people laugh and have fun is not enough.

The best humor springs naturally. Anecdotes from personal experience make a presentation or speech come alive. They are easy to share because you’ve lived the experience; they spring from ordinary, real-life experiences that audiences can easily relate to.

Using humor is, of course, more difficult if you are very serious and don’t have a sense of humor.

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly; devils fall because of their gravity.” G.K. Chesterton

Cultural relativity of jokes

One thing to be careful about is the cultural relativity of humor. In many cultures the locals crack jokes about many things and everybody rolls in laughter, but the moment a person from another culture or overseas head office makes the same joke, it can cease to be a joke and become a cultural affront. Presenters making jokes with the audience going along and laughing is very common in British and American cultures but considered strange behaviour by the Japanese. Consider the tradition of humour in your audience culture before using humour. In Thailand, where the people are very easy-going and jolly, you would make people very cross if you cracked jokes about the King or the Queen, whom they respect very much. Two American clients of yours in France might make everyone roll in laughter by their Bushisms, but the moment you start Bush-bashing, they might interpret it as your having anti-American sentiments. The emphasis here is on ‘might’. You have to keep your finger on the pulse.

In many cultures making jokes is a coping mechanism. When you are utterly powerless, as an individual, to change or improve things, you crack jokes about the very things that plague your life. An outsider lives in a different world with very different realities and cannot fully understand the reality of the locals. The supply of electricity is very unreliable in many parts of India and as an individual there is precious little you can do about it. So an Indian either moans about it in winding lengthy diatribes or makes jokes about it. But when a Swedish boss, who doesn’t usually face daily power supply interruptions jokes about it, jokes about the ‘reliability of power supply in her speech, Indians might read into these funny comments utterly irrelevant issues like criticism of their culture and way of life and values and even throw in issues like colonialism.

Some Do’s and Don’ts of Using jokes in Speeches or presentations

  1. Don’t laugh aloud at your own story or joke. It’s very embarrassing if the narrator alone is laughing and no one else knows why and when they should laugh.
  2. Don’t offend anyone. For example: a person without an artificial eye may not think a blind man joke is funny.
  3. Don’t make jokes about people’s skin colors, ethnicity, sexual orientation, height, weight, religion etc.
  4. Don’t repeat a story or joke during one presentation. Once is enough.
  5. Do keep stories and jokes short. If it’s a very long one, people fall off.
  6. Do tell a story or joke about yourself. This makes you more human and sympathetic to audience members.
  7. Do use the name of living persons in a story or joke to which the audience can relate, but don’t offend anyone and respect others.

One good tip for testing your humor is to try it on a friend, mentor or trusted person from the same culture as the audience.

Remember that the audience is on your side. They came there to see you and listen to you, as they want to know what you have to say. Most certainly they wouldn’t choose to have a boring time but to enjoy and get something from your presentation. For the presenter, the best situation is when lecturing at a prison, where you already have a captive audience.

Relax and enjoy your presentation. There is a saying attributed to Ella Wheeler Wilcox from her poem “Solitude” in 1883 ” Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.”


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