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Have them 'rolling in the aisles' not 'rolling their eyes'; how to tell jokes in a business presentation

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It's said that telling a joke well is incredibly difficult. That may be true, but one thing is certain - ruining one is incredibly easy. Most people shy away from using humor during business presentations for two reasons. Either they think it will be out of place, because it's a serious presentation or topic, or because they think they'll screw it up and the audience will laugh at them, not with them.

Well those of you who understand Whole-Brain Presenting know that one of the best ways to get something to stick in an audience's mind is to engage their emotions. And one of the most effective ways to do this is to use humor. Here are 10 tips to ensure you have then 'rolling in the aisles' as opposed to 'rolling their eyes'.

1. Make sure the joke is relevant

It's a fairly safe bet you're not a stand-up comedian, so your job is not to entertain the audience per se. Never say, "I've been told a good way to open up a speech is to tell a joke, so here goes ...." Make sure the joke you're telling has some relevance to your presentation's subject matter. Even if the joke is hilarious, the audience should never have to ask themselves, "Why did she just tell that?" By linking it to humor you'll make the serious point much more memorable.

If the joke is being used to illustrate a serious point, make the point first, then tell the joke, then repeat the serious point in a different way. 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. Like the guy on a hunting trip who phones 911 and says ‘I need an ambulance 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 really is dead.’ There's a pause and she hears several footsteps and a single gunshot. Then the guy comes back and says, ‘OK, now what do I do?' (Pause for laughter) What seems clear as day to you might mean something completely different to someone else ..."

Let's say you wanted to make the point that people shouldn’t rest on their laurels because no matter how much you think you’ve achieved, there is always room for more. You could make that point stick by saying:

“An Australian University Professor was once trying to make this point to his class. So he takes a large glass container and fills it with rocks, before asking his students if it's full. When they reply that it is, he takes a bowl of pebbles and empties it over the rocks. Of course, every single pebble finds a small gap to settle in. He asks them if it was full now, and when they say it is, he does exactly the same thing with a bowl of gravel. Every piece finds somewhere to go. Then he takes a bowl of sand and pours it in, filling up every last tiny gap. Once again, he asks if it's full, and when the students (again) say it finally is, he takes a glass of beer and pours it in; every drop soaks into the sand. He asks the students what lesson they've learned from his demonstration, and a voice at the back says, “No matter how full you think you are, there’s always room for beer!” (Pause for laughter) Now in that particular case the lesson was wasted, but it's a very important point!"

2. Never tell your audience how funny the joke is.

Comedians don’t come out on stage and tell the audience how funny they are, and neither should you. Don't say, "That reminds me of this really funny joke I heard the other day." Simply go straight into it; say, "It's like the married couple who are having an argument over breakfast ...." If you set something up as being 'really funny' or 'hilarious,' you'd better be right, because you've heightened the audience's expectations.

3. Understand the structure of the joke

There are three parts to most jokes: the set-up, the plot and the punch line. The set-up (surprisingly enough) 'sets up' the joke by explaining the setting and the protagonists.

"A couple have just made love in the bedroom ...

The plot tells the audience everything they need to know in order for the punch line to be funny. No more no less.

".... and the girl notices that 6 condoms are missing from a new box of 12. So she asks her boyfriend where they are, and he says, "Errrm ..... I used them to make balloon animals for my niece." She's a little surprised, and says nothing, but the next day she tells the story to a male friend of hers, and asks, "Have you ever done that?" He says, "Sure, all the time." She's amazed. "Really? You've used condoms to make balloon animals for a child?

The punch line is self-explanatory. The reason it's called a punch line is that it should be unexpected and come out of nowhere, like a punch. If the audience sees it coming, it won't be funny. Most humor is based on surprise and the unexpected.

And he says, "Oh ..... sorry. I thought you meant, have I ever lied to my girlfriend."

4. Tell the joke in the present tense

Doing this gives the joke an immediacy and makes the audience feel like they are there. Note I said, ".... the girl notices that 6 condoms are missing," not "... the girl noticed..."

And don't break up the dialogue. "And he says, "Oh ... sorry. I thought you meant have I ever lied to my girlfriend"" flows much better than, ""Oh, sorry" he says. "I thought you meant have I ever lied to my girlfriend.""

5. KISS the joke

KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid! The joke should be as short as possible whilst still being funny. Remember the plot is only there so the punch line makes sense, so ask yourself what the audience needs to know for the punch line to be funny and trim out anything that's unnecessary. I didn't say, "the redheaded girl" because the girl's hair color isn't relevant to the joke. Likewise, I didn't say, "... the next day she's having coffee with a male friend of hers who's an accountant," because the setting for their meeting and his profession aren't needed for the punch line

6. Pause for effect

The American comedian Jack Benny once said, "It's not so much knowing when to speak as knowing when to pause." Watch any great comedian and you'll notice how good they are at doing this. They will especially pause just before the punch line In the above joke I would say, "And he says, "Oh (slight pause) sorry (longer pause). I thought you meant have I ever lied to my girlfriend." I'd also show the physical reaction of the friend by accompanying it with a slightly embarrassed look and hand gestures.

7. Pace the joke

If you feel uncomfortable telling jokes or at least telling them during a presentation, you'll probably find yourself rattling through them like a machine gun, subconsciously wanting to 'get it over with.' Do this and you'll kill the joke. Quick-fire comedians who tell fifty jokes a minute can get away with it, but let's face it ... you're not one of those. Tell it using the same normal pace you've used throughout the presentation.

8. Turn the joke into a story

If you can, tell the joke as if it happened to you. This way you can tell it as if it's a true story (obviously not if it means saying, "So I walk into a bar with a parrot under my arm ..."), and the punch line will come as even more of a surprise. There's a big difference between 'a man and woman walk into a bar' and 'my wife and I went to a cocktail bar last Saturday ...'. However, you can only do this if the punch line makes it really obvious it's a joke. Otherwise when you deliver the punch line people won't be sure whether to laugh or not.

If you can do this, use all the tips in my article 8 tips for adding 'oomph!' to your stories.

9. Commit yourself to the joke.

Only include a joke if you genuinely think it's funny and that you can tell it in a funny way. If you only think it's quite amusing, you won't tell it with conviction and it won't work. So Practise, practise, PRACTISE(!) until you KNOW you have it 'off-pat' and can deliver it correctly. Try pausing at different parts of the joke and for different lengths of time to see if one way is better than another. Try it with different gestures and facial expressions, even different accents (by the way, if you start off using an accent, keep it up right to the end; don't stop half way through and say, "I'll stop the Scottish accent, I know it isn't very good.")

And if you absolutely, 100% know the joke, word-perfect, you'll avoid the kiss of death; saying halfway through, "Oh ... hang on ... I forgot to say, the doctor's a woman, and she's Russian. It's important you know that ..."

10. Never explain it

If they don't laugh, just move on. NEVER explain the joke. If it didn't work, whether it was the wrong joke for that audience or you told it wrong. But you'll never make them laugh by explaining it.


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