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How to open a presentation using humor

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In 6 ways NOT to open a presentation, I looked at the 6 most common ways presenters begin, all of which are boring, mundane, low-impact and completely forgettable. The objective of your opening is not to bore your audience into a stupor, but to grab 'em by the throat and give them a compelling reason to give you the next 15, 30 or 45 minutes of their lives.

So how should you open? Well to start with, energy is contagious, so you need to be warmed up before you take the floor. Try to gauge the audience's energy level and come out slightly higher. BUT if they're low key, don't come out too OTT or they'll be turned off.

Identify the exact spot on which you intend to stand beforehand and walk (don’t amble) energetically and briskly over to it. Just as nervousness is contagious, so is energy, and your own will vitalize everyone else in the room.

If there have been other speakers on before you, choose a spot none of them have used. Remember you are trying to make yourself stand out from them. And NEVER stand behind a lectern if you can help it. Lecterns are lethal and podiums are poison. Standing still makes you look wooden.

Get straight into it. Forget the greetings, self-introducutions, thanks, apologies, etc. - just get straight into it! Don't say, "I found this cartoon on the internet/ heard this joke/read this funny quote the other day which I thought was very relevant to today's presentation." The audience will then think, "Oh . . . she's going to amuse me . . ." and their guard will go up subconsciously. Comedians don't announce how funny they're going to be when they come on stage, and neither should you.

While you're making your opening remarks, raise your head, establish eye contact and sweep your eyes across the entire audience (whether it be 5 or 500) whilst SMILING. This will help establish rapport and give everyone a sense of personal recognition from you. It also exudes confidence. Do NOT fix your gaze on one unfortunate individual (as so many speakers do) and direct your entire talk to him or her. This may feel difficult or awkward at first, but persevere – it’s important.

Opening with humor is also good if you intend to use it throughout your talk and your audience hasn’t heard you speak before. They won’t know what to expect., and if you don’t signal your intentions early in your presentation, they will have no idea whether you are going to be serious or fun. Then, when you eventually deliver a humorous line, they will think to themselves, “Was that a joke?” or “Was that line I just heard funny?” Even if they are pretty sure it was funny, they may feel uncomfortable about laughing in case they are the only one who did.

Ever been the only person who clapped at something and felt as if someone was going to throw you a fish? People feel the same way about laughing alone. So GIVE THEM PERMISSION TO LAUGH. By this, I mean introduce something that is obviously humorous early on so that people know your speech is not going to be dull and boring. Once they’ve had permission, they’ll know it’s OK to laugh.

The other benefit of getting everyone to laugh early in the speech is that it provides what psychologists call ‘social proof’ for the audience. People tend to believe behaviour is correct or can be justified when they witness other people doing it. So if they see and hear other people laughing, they feel OK about doing it themselves.

In other words, once they know it’s OK to laugh, there is a far greater chance that they will do. The best seating for increasing the likelihood of this is semi-circular. This is because every audience member will be able to see a number of others, and whether or not they are laughing. Remember that laughter is contagious (social proof again) and that many will laugh simply because others are laughing (that’s why sitcoms generally have a laughter track). With theatre style seating each member of the audience can only see the sides of the heads of the people to their left and right. If they’re not laughing, they mightn’t either.

Please note that when I talk about using humor, I am not talking about  ‘A priest, a rabbi and an immam walk into a bar …” You're not a comedian, and your intention isn't to tell jokes or make the audience laugh per se. Therefore any humour should be contextual, i.e. relevant to the subject matter of your presentation. Also remember the maxim: "The longer the story the funnier it had better be."

Let's say you're presenting to a customer about your new help desk and what it will do to improve the service they receive. Don't say, "Today I'm going to talk to you about our new help desk, so I thought I'd start with a funny joke I heard the other day . . ." Just go straight into it. Your opening words could be:

"A helicopter pilot is flying a group of executives to Seattle airport when the densest fog you could imagine suddenly descends on them and he can't see more than 6 feet away. He has no idea where he is, and he suddenly find himself only 6 feet away from a tall skyscraper, where he can see someone next to the window in an office. He grabs a marker pen and a sheet of card, scrawls "Where am I?" and holds it up. The office worker writes back on a card and holds it up to the window. It says, "You're in a helicopter!"

The pilot gives him a thumbs up, smiles, and in a few minutes the amazed executives are at the airport. "What happened?" they ask, "How did you know what to do when that stupid guy replied to you like that?"

"Well," the pilot says, ticking off his fingers, "first, his answer was technically correct, second it was completely unuseable and third, he told me something I already knew. It was immediately obvious I was speaking to someone from the Microsoft helpdesk, and I know the way to Seattle airport from their offices blindfolded, so I was fine."

That may sum up many people's views of big company helpdesks, but I assure you that none of your staff will ever have the occasion to say that about our new help desk . . ."

(apologies to any readers from Microsoft; just substitute the competitior company of your choice)

A second way to use humor to begin is to use it in a self-deprecating manner, i.e. to poke gentle fun at yourself. Let's say you are presenting at an industry conference, but you know you are no more qualified than many in the audience to speak, and you think some of them may resent it. You could disarm the situation by saying:

"When Jack asked me to speak at today's conference, I was quite flattered at first. I thought , "Hey! . . this makes me almost like a consultant of some kind, which really made me feel good. Until my wife told me the definition of a consultant is a man who knows 236 different sexual positions . . . but no women. And then I saw this Dilbert cartoon, which really put an end to my pretensions, so I assure you . . . I am not speaking to you today in a consultative capacity."

Dilbert consultant

Alternatively, you could use the same opening words and then say,

" . . . until my wife told me about the shepherd that was tending a vast flock of sheep when an expensive 4x4 screeches up and a guy jumps out in a $500 suit. He says, 'I bet I can tell you exactly how many sheep you have. And if I can, you have to give me one of them.' The shepherd thinks to himself, there's no way he could do that, and takes the bet. The snazzily-dressed guy takes out his laptop, presses a few keys, zooms in on a satellite photo of the shepherd's hill, and uses some software to count the sheep. 'You've got 432 sheep exactly,' he says.

Despite himself, the shepherd is impressed, and he shrugs and says, 'A bet's a bet, take your pick.' The guy picks one up and as he's putting it in to his 4x4, the shepherd says. 'I bet I can tell you your profession. And if I can, you give me that back.'

The guy thinks there's no way this shepherd knows what I do for a living, so he agrees. And the shepherd says, 'You're a consultant.' Well, the guy is amazed. 'How did you know that?' he asks. And the shepherd says, 'Firstly, you turned up unannounced. Secondly, you told me something I already knew. Thirdly, it's cost me an arm and a leg. And fourthly . . . I really, really, really would like my sheepdog back.'

. . . Which made me completely re-evaluate my desire to be seen as a consultant. Today I'm going to talk to you about . . . "

Computer programmers  

Of course it doesn't have to be a joke. As in the example above, cartoons can be a great way to use humor. And you don't even have to say anything. You can just open with the cartoon as your first slide, stand in silence while the audience looks at it, take the smiles or laughter, and then begin. (Remember: DON'T say, "I saw this great cartoon the other day . . .") A great resource is Dilbert, which has a cartoon for almost every occasion and presentation topic. One of the delegates at a seminar of mine recently used the (non-Dilbert) cartoon to the left to open a presentation on a software upgrade.

And a final word. DON'T think you've failed or get embarrassed if you don't get belly laughs. If the audience falls to ground and rolls around kicking their legs in the air it's a bonus. All you should aim for with a joke or cartoon is a smile. If you get that, you've succeeded and made your point.

(see also: How to use humor : 10 tips to get 'em rolling in the aisles and How to tell jokes in a business presentation)


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