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#724: Use Humor Carefully in Your Presentations

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Thursday, December 22, 2011
Updated: Thursday, December 22, 2011
Including a little light humor in my presentations and speeches seems like a good way to improve how well the message is received. However, a joke that bombs can create a disaster. What should I do to make sure that humor is effective?

"An accountant, attorney and management consultant are in a lifeboat . . ." is one way to start a speech, or "Tom Feldman is the kind of HR Director that . . ." can kick off a client presentation. They can win the audience or start the paperwork to assure you are not welcomed back. Humor is something that needs to be planned carefully. If you can't pull it off well, then be cautious about giving it a key place in your opening remarks.

Also, consider why you think you need humor. Most consulting presentations are focused on informing or persuading an audience. Humor for humor's sake, especially if the audience doesn't know you reasonably well, is a risk. Save that great joke you just heard for your friends. If your presentation's purpose is to engage an audience, then these are most amenable to a lighter tone, if that is the culture of that audience.

A couple of thoughts:
  • Make sure the joke isn't offensive. You don't have to be mean to be funny and you might be surprised how easy it is (regrettably) these days to put off someone.
  • Make sure the humor is simple to understand. The audience should not have to work to understand it (a first principle of comedy). Don't require the audience to get obscure references or need information that few have.
  • Make sure the joke is blindingly relevant to the topic of your speech or presentation. Jokes are useful to introduce a topic or point of view, not distract the audience. Make sure the audience can find their way back to your intended topic.
  • Make sure humor is the best way to make the point. A serious topic should be expressed in ways other than humor.
  • Make sure the humor is timely. Most jokes have a shelf life - be careful yours hasn't expired by the time you deliver it.
  • Try it out on people like those who will be in the audience. This makes sure they get the joke and the point you are trying to get across.
Tip: Your talk doesn't have to include humor. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have a Dream" speech did OK without an opening joke. So can yours.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  communication  customer understanding  presentations  speaking 

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