The Effective Use of Humor

Humor is a great plus in any presentation. It loosens up the audience and often the speaker. It affirms our understanding of the human condition. It can create a warm bond between audience and speaker. Audiences like people who make them laugh. But, using humor involves some risks. It can fail or even backfire. Many speakers are reluctant to take risks. Some do so without understanding the risks. Here are a few "risk reduction strategies" that can make humor accessible to any speaker.

  • For most speakers, the best bet is short bits of humor. Avoid long complicated jokes, especially those that rely on a punch line. They are risky for amateurs. One-liners, quips, funny quotes, even cartoons on overheads can muster a laugh as much as a long tale about "these three guys in a rowboat." They involve far less risk of forgetting, flubbing, or other failures. Keep it short, sincere, and simple.
  • Don’t overdo it. Series of jokes or a string of one-liners may work for the professional comic or the very gifted amateur. But, most of us don’t need to a do a comedy routine to establish rapport with an audience. Get in and get out is the best humor strategy for 95% of speakers.
  • If you pick on any one, pick on yourself. Sometimes we have "permission" to use humor at the expense of others (e.g a "roast" or certain occasions among friends). Too often, speakers assume more latitude than the audience has granted. However, gentle self-effacing humor (if not a mask for self flattery) is almost always appreciated.
  • Be sure the humor is appropriate to this audience. Something hysterically funny you heard from a friend may not be funny (and may even be offensive) to a particular audience. Many people today are very sensitive to any humor about a wide range of subjects. Know your audience. Whenever in doubt about something being appropriate, leave it out.
  • Effective humor is relevant and spontaneous. Use humor that connects to your topic or the interests of your audience. Even funny jokes with no such connection seem forced and don’t ring true. If you can risk unplanned humorous comments on what is unfolding (e.g. your introduction, something that happened that day, etc.) you will get real laughs and warm the audience if you succeed. Don’t read jokes.
  • Never "bet the farm" on humor. Don’t make humor essential to the success of all or a key part of your presentation (unless this is humorous speech). For most presentations humor is an embellishment, although a purposeful one.
  • Preserve the element of surprise. Humor usually fails when it is telegraphed ("I heard a funny thing the other day I want to share with you . . ."). Don’t feel obliged to be funny in the opening of the presentation. That is when humor is most often used and it comes to be expected. If you use humor at two or three points throughout your presentation, you will preserve the surprise element, you may even recapture flagging attention.
  • Don’t try to correct failed humor. If a bit of humor fails, it’s OK. Don’t call attention to it. Don’t apologize or try to explain the joke. Smile (if you can) and just move on.
  • Explore your humor off-stage. Try out what plan to use on others. See if they respond as you expected. Delivery is an essential part of humor and it can be practiced. Read humorous material. Save what you like that relates to your topics. Most of all, keep your eyes open to all the funny things that happen each day around you. It can be your best material.

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