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

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Self-deprecation is a powerful form of humor 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 public speaking engagement 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’re indirectly sending the message to the audience that you’re secure and powerful).

It's especially useful for situations where there may be a little distrust or resentment in the audience, where they might think you’re a little ‘too big for your boots’ or they might be thinking ‘What makes her such an expert on this?’ or ‘Who is she to be lecturing me?’ or ‘Who does she think she is?’

Let’s say you’ve been invited to speak at an industry conference, and some members of the audience might feel themselves just as qualified as you to speak. You could ‘defuse’ 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 ways to make love . . . but doesn’t have a girlfriend. Which very firmly put me in my place, I can tell you. So let me assure you . . . I am not speaking to you today in a consultative capacity."

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

" . . . until my wife told me about the shepherd that’s tending a vast flock of sheep when an expensive 4x4 screeches up and a guy jumps out in a $1,000 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, I've got hundreds, 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 he does 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 turn up announced; secondly, you told me something I already knew; thirdly, it's cost me an arm and a leg ....... and fourthly, I'd really, really 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 . . ."

It's more often used to refer to a physical difference or idiosyncrasy. But if you plan to do this, make sure the thing you're poking fun at is obvious to the audience. For example, there’s no point in making a joke about being Scottish if you don't have a Scottish accent, even if you were born there, and there is no point making one about being from the English village of Chipping Sodbury if the audience is American and has never heard of it and it isn’t renowned for anything.

My home town in the UK is Liverpool, which I guess is a little like Detroit - a tough, working class city that's seen better days. If I open a presentation in the UK by telling a joke about being a 'Scouser' (the name for someone from Liverpool) the audience immediately knows what that means, because Scousers have a certain reputation. If I did it anywhere else in the world, it would completely fall flat.

President Reagan was a master at self-deprecation. His age was potentially his biggest problem, but he made it a non-issue by joking about it all the time, e.g. 'Thomas Jefferson once said, 'One should not worry about chronological age compared to the ability to perform the task.' . . . Ever since he told me that I stopped worrying about my age.'

On another occasion during a Presidential campaign debate with Walter Mondale, he completely undermined the Democrats' line of attack that he was too old by 'getting his retaliation in first' and making a joke out of it. Watch the video and you'll see Walter Mondale laughing at what he says. He later said that immediately Reagan said this, he knew he'd lost the election; because the President had just neutralized his most powerful weapon.

Place of birth/accent and age are obvious sources of self-deprecating humor but other sources could be:

  • Height (or the lack of it)
  • Physical build
  • Being bald
  • Big feet/nose/ears, etc.
  • Being nerdish (never did Woody Allen any harm!)
  • Clothes
  • A funny/strange name

If any of the above are really, really obvious, referring to them is like exposing the elephant in the room. If you are 6'6" everyone in the audience is going to be thinking,"Wow! He's really tall. Do you think he appreciates just how tall he is? Wonder what it's like to be that tall." And this could detract from their ability to listen to what you have to say. So refer to it, and get it 'into the open.' Show them that yes ... you DO realize you're really, really tall.

You could say, "As everyone in the room probably has realized by now ...... I am quite tall. But in case you're thinking of coming up to me later and telling me just how tall I am, let me assure you that whatever you're going to say ...... I've heard it. Probably dozens of times. 'You're so tall ... that Yao Ming is your mini-me; that when I play basketball I have to lie down to put the ball in the hoop; that if I tripped up in Chicago I'd hit my head in Miami; that I can see my house ..... from anywhere."

Watch this video to see Steve Martin in the movie Roxanne responding to an insult about his rather large nose of Cyrano de Bergerac proportions.

BUT .... while it's very powerful, never use it when it could undermine your authority or credibility or 'brand'. For example, joking about being terrible at spelling (even in these days of automatic spell-checkers) wouldn't be a very good idea if you were a journalist.

Neither would confessing to being terrible with figures if you're an accountant. Or admitting that you came bottom of your law class if you're trying to sell your services as a lawyer.



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