What qualities put a public speaker or presenter at an advantage when stepping up in front of an audience? Well, there are several you could name, but one of the most important is a good sense of humor. You might even call a sense of humor “The presenter’s vitamin E.” Why? Because when you’ve got it, it makes you Entertaining, Engaging, and Effective.
Why do people always remember the funniest person in their high school class? How is that you forget where you put your car keys or your best friend’s phone number, but you can remember a good joke years and years after you hear it? It’s because laughter is powerful. It lightens you up, blows away stress and puts you in a special, happy state everyone loves – and longs to return to when it’s gone away.
So if you can inject some cleverly placed, appropriate humor into your presentation and get your audience laughing, you’re going to make them feel better. And you and your presentation’s message are going to stick in their memories – pleasantly.
An amusing talk keeps listeners engaged. They have an innate attraction to humor. It creates a spontaneous mental, emotional and even physical response. When your listeners get your joke, they can empathize with the humorous event or situation. This stimulates a set of characteristic bodily movements including facial muscle contractions, vocalizations, gasping, even the shedding of happy tears. And of course, laughter!
In short, the humor factor heightens your audience’s engagement. That means you have their close attention, and close attention opens the door to better reception, comprehension, acceptance and retention of the messages you’re there to deliver.
If your topic is particularly serious or challenging, finding a way to add a touch of humor now and then can make your audience more receptive. Humor has a unique way of easing the natural tendency to distance oneself from a difficult topic or body of information. It enables you to relay your messages more smoothly and effectively.
As an example, Arab-American author, comedian and actress Maysoon Zayid gave a remarkable TED talk about battle with cerebral palsy, equality issues in society, and achieving her dreams. The hard, even harsh reality of many of the struggles circumstances she described could have caused listeners to “tune out” to some degree – but by enlivening her talk with occasional humor, her message was well received, ending on an uplifting note and receiving a standing ovation. In short, she managed be quite effective in putting her message across.
How to Use Humor in Public Speaking
So how do you go about working humor into a presentation? Here are some guidelines to consider:
- Know your audience. Do your homework – learn whatever you can about their demographics, career paths, business and personal objectives, interests and so on. Such knowledge will give you insights into what they’re likely to find humorous – or not. Use what you’ve learned to weave in humorous notes they’ll be able to understand and relate to (since a joke that has to be explained falls very flat). If you have any doubts about a humorous bit, consult the event organizer to make sure it’s likely to have the desired effect.
- By all means, keep your humor appropriate and relevant. A joke or humorous reference should make a point and reinforce your message. It should keep things light, but not throw your listeners off message and off track. A successful talk has an element of entertainment, but should educate and motivate, too.
- Self-deprecating humor can be effective. Poking fun at your own weaknesses, shortcomings or differences can help make the audience more accepting. Potential targets include your birthplace, accent, physical characteristics, education, and any obvious differences between you and the majority of the people you’re addressing. Just take care not to go too far with this – be funny, but don’t downgrade your brand, credibility, or reputation in the process. If mild, obviously-joking self-deprecation turns into self-degradation, it’s a complete audience turn-off.
- Keep it clean! Off-color jokes are almost sure to offend someone in an audience of professionals, for example – and make you look far from professional. If you’re very, very certain that everyone present will find a rough joke acceptable and funny, okay – but proceed at your own risk!
- If you have a hard time delivering jokes or punchlines well, you may want to skip using them. That doesn’t rule out humor altogether, though. Find something you’re comfortable with. Maybe it’s humorous props or photos. It might be situational humor. Whatever you settle on, practice it. Eventually you’ll become more relaxed, comfortable and effective at using humor. That has benefits outside the presentation room, too!
Fortunately, there are plenty of sources for humorous material suitable to any presentation. The Internet, books, magazines, and current or classic movies are good places to start. It’s also a good idea to pay more attention to things people around you say, at work and out in public. You may be surprised at the hilarious material you’ll run across in the restaurant, the bar, the supermarket – almost anywhere. When you hear something particularly good, take a moment to make a note about it so you’ll have it on hand when it’s time to build your next presentation.