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10 tips on using humour in a presentation

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If you've read my article Whole-Brain Presenting, you'll know one of the best ways to engage the right-half of your audience's brains is by using humour. However, may presenters are uncomfortable about doing this, seeing it as being 'unprofessional.' The secret is using it effectively without coming across as a second-rate cabaret act. So here's TEN TIPS to help you do it.

1. Give the audience permission to laugh

Many of your audience might never have seen you before, and won't know what to expect. If you don't signal your humorous intentions early in your presentation, they will have no idea whether you are going to be serious or fun. Then, when you eventually do deliver a humorous line, they will think to themselves, “Was that a joke?” or “Was I supposed to laugh at that?”

Even if they are pretty sure it was funny, they may feel uncomfortable about laughing in case they are the only one who does. 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 introduce something that is obviously humorous early on so the audience knows your speech isn't going to be dull and boring. Once they've been ‘granted 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. That's why traditional sitcoms always had a laughter track.

2. Using Humour Contextually

Unless you are a stand-up comedian, you are not on your feet to tell jokes for the sake of it. So humour should only be used in three contexts. The first is contextually, i.e. if a very quick joke can be inserted seamlessly because its subject matter fits what you are talking about.

When talking about customer service, I often tell one story which mentions the fact that I have a dog. I could follow this up with: “He was a lovely dog, we called him ‘Stay.' So we'd shout, “Come here, Stay! Come here, Stay! (Pause for laughter). We don't have him anymore; he went insane". 

When delivering my keynote speech ‘Corporate Combat ©’, I talk about the Battle of Crecy and how the king commanding the French army wasn't much of a general. So I say: “Now King Philip wasn't much of a military man. In fact, it's rumoured that he was once asked what his favourite tactics were, and he said, ‘I like the orange ones’.”

3. Using Humour to Emphasize or Illustrate a Point

The second context where you should use humour is to illustrate a serious point. There are three steps to this.

  • Make the serious point.
  • Illustrate or elaborate with humour.
  • Underline the link between the two.

For example, let's say you wanted to make the serious point that you have to be careful not to misinterpret what is being said when listening to a customer. You might say:

Even when people do speak clearly and precisely there is always the chance that what they say can be misinterpreted. It's like the salesman driving through the countryside, who saw a farmer standing motionless in the middle of a field. Several hours later on his return he saw that the man hadn't moved and curiosity having got the better of him, he stopped and asked what he was doing. ‘I'm trying to win the Nobel Prize,' said the farmer. ‘How will this do that?' asked the salesman. ‘Well, I just read an article that said that to win it you had to be outstanding in your field!' (Pause for laughter). Because things which are crystal clear and obvious to one person can be ambiguous or even confusing to another.”

Another joke which could be used to make exactly the same point is: “When I woke up this morning my girlfriend asked me, ‘Did you sleep well?’ I said, ‘No, I made a few mistakes’."

A third would be:
A guy phones 999 and says ‘I need the police immediately. There's been a terrible shooting accident and my friend's been killed!’ The operator says, ‘OK sir, try to stay calm. Here's what I want you to do. First, let's make sure he is dead.’ There's a pause and she hears footsteps and a gunshot. Then the guy comes back and says, ‘OK, now what?’”

4. ‘Planned Spontaneity’

The third is when something unplanned or unforeseen happens, and a great opportunity arises for you to look witty by ‘spontaneously’ coming up with a pre-planned line or gag.

For example, if you are on stage and a photographer takes a photo of you, you could stop abruptly at the flash, act startled, and ask, “Was I speeding?” If you had a short joke up your sleeve about speeding you could then throw this in as if you had just thought of it, e.g.

Actually, I did get stopped for speeding last week. The policeman said, "Why were you going so fast?" I said, "See this thing my foot is on? It's called an accelerator. (Pause) When you push on it, it sends more petrol to the engine. It’s incredible - the whole car just speeds up. And see this thing? This steers it." (Pause) For some reason he wasn't impressed. Where was I? Oh yes, I was talking about …

Or you could stop abruptly, point to someone near the photographer and ask, ‘What was that? Did you just have a really brilliant idea?’

However, the most effective opportunity for ‘Planned Spontaneity’ is when something goes wrong. Most speakers would freeze, cringe or even clam up completely when a bulb on a projector burnt out, the mike failed (or squealed), their marker pen ran out (if they were writing on a flipchart) or (heavens forbid!) they tripped on a trailing wire.

The best way to deal with these ‘disasters’ is to plan for them in advance so that you know exactly what to say and do if they happen. None of these are side-splittingly funny, but your objective here is not to get belly laughs, rather to demonstrate to the audience that you are unfazed, confident and on top of the situation, so a line that is even slightly amusing will make you look sharp, cool and witty. For example:

  • Lights go off: “It appears I need to shed a bit more light on this subject.”
  • Projector bulb blows: “You know, I just don’t understand that; I left it on all weekend to make sure it was working properly.”
  • Mike squeals: “I usually pass around earplugs during my talks. I find that if I don’t, someone else usually does.”
  • Marker pen runs out: “I was worried this part of the presentation was a little dry.”
  • Someone points out a wrong spelling: “That’s what happens when you try to save money by getting your dog to proofread your presentation.”

5. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

Practise, Practise, PRACTISE! At least twenty times. Most jokes aren't about the actual words used, but the way they're used. Watch professional stand-up comedians on TV (even better, watch them live) to see how they deliver their material.

Try different deliveries, with different timing and the emphasis on different words or phrases. Use different accents (if appropriate). You will find that it can make a huge difference.

DON'T just rattle through the joke like a machine gun, without any pauses. A pause in the right place can multiply the effect of a joke tenfold.

Remember that the longer the joke, the funnier it has to be. Keep shaggy dog stories for when you're in the pub with your mates. Strip out anything but the essential bits and remember that brevity is your friend.

6. ‘Sell the joke’

Once you have the joke ‘off pat,' work out how you are going to fit it into your material. Professional comedians call this “selling the joke”, i.e. getting it positioned within surrounding material so it seems relevant and flows easily. What sentence (or paragraph) will you need so that the joke flows seamlessly?

Don't signal the joke's arrival, i.e., don't say, ‘Here's a good one …' or even the old ‘Did you hear the one about …'

NB: If there are several speakers on before you, check that someone else hasn’t already used your joke. I have seen very accomplished and professional speakers fall flat on their faces after failing to do this (and then look embarrassingly perplexed when nobody laughed at their ‘best’ material).

7. Punchlines

Firstly, memorise your punch line so you could say it in your sleep. How many times have you heard someone tell a joke only to forget the punch line? Impressive, isn't it? Then practise delivering it in several different ways, until you find the perfect delivery.
Pause slightly before the punch line, then deliver it slightly louder and to one person (no matter how large the audience) who you know will laugh.

Why to someone you know will laugh? Because the rest of the audience will look at that person and if he/she laughs, then they will as well (remember ‘social proof'?).

Don’t ruin the punch line by announcing it in advance. DON'T say ‘Did you hear the one about the farmer who misunderstood the thing he read about the Nobel Peace Prize?'

Finally, if they don't laugh at the punchline, NEVER explain the joke. If they didn't get it, either you told it badly or it was the wrong joke for that particular audience. Either way, move on. You should also remember that many people don’t actually feel comfortable laughing out loud in a business environment (especially men – the male ego sometimes gets in the way, and they won’t laugh unless everyone else does; women tend to laugh more, and the higher the percentage of women in the audience, the more laughter you will tend to get); that doesn’t mean they didn’t think it was funny.

8. Milking the laugh

You should always stop speaking the second you hear the audience laughing. Comedians call continuing speaking while they laugh, ‘stepping on your laugh.' It should be avoided for two reasons.

Firstly, it kills the laugh. Secondly, it can muffle or even deter future laughs as the audience becomes wary about laughing in the future lest they miss something you say.

So always stop and just grin at your audience ANY TIME they laugh (even if the laughter is unexpected; sometimes the audience will laugh at the ‘wrong' bits. NB: If this happens, just take the laugh; NEVER say ‘Hang on, that isn't the funny part …').

ALWAYS pause after the punch line to give the audience time to laugh. However, there is a bell curve to laughter. You should wait until it has peaked and is about half way down the other side, but never wait until it completely dies down into silence. Use the laughter as momentum for your next line, or leave them laughing and bow out if it is the end of your presentation.

9. Self-deprecation

This is a very powerful form of humour that gets its strength from highlighting your own (real or imaginary) weaknesses or idiosyncrasies. People who have the ability to laugh at themselves during a presentation are generally perceived as being secure, confident, strong, and likeable (weak people tend to feel a need to inflate themselves and powerful people don't; if you have the confidence to make fun of yourself, you are indirectly sending the message to the audience that you are secure and powerful).

If you plan to do this, make sure the idiosyncrasy is obvious to the audience. For example, there is no point in making a joke about being Scottish if you don't have a Scottish accent, even if you were born there. For more on self-deprecating humor plus some dos & don'ts, see Self-deprecation - how (and when to make fun of yourself)

10. Arrange seating in a shallow arc

Finally, an interesting point is that the best seating for laughter 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.

Laughter is contagious (remember social proof!) and many will laugh simply because others are laughing. 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.

If you liked this article, you might also like:

Using humor to open a presentation or speech

How to tell jokes in a business presentation

Planned ad-libs; what to do when things go wrong

Self-deprecating humor; how (and when) to make fun of yourself

See a full list of articles  
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