No speaker is more enjoyable than the one who includes funny stories, examples or quotes to illustrate his main points. And no speaker is more dreaded than the one who uses inappropriate or random humor that fails to relate to her topic.
Some humor works in a speech – some doesn’t. Some people can pull off humor successfully – some can’t. Knowing what works and what doesn’t will help you develop and deliver your next presentation.
When executed successfully, humor can help a presentation in many ways. It builds a connection with the audience, which is always the speaker’s ultimate goal. It can create a vivid, memorable picture that serves to highlight key points. And when humor includes personal anecdotes or sincere self-deprecation, it can make a speaker seem more approachable and appealing.
We all know funny people. They are the hit of family parties and social gatherings because of their great stories and witty comebacks. But just because someone can make people laugh in a social setting, it doesn’t mean they can stand at a podium and deliver a successful after-dinner speech.
My little brother is funny. Old friends are always asking me how he’s doing and reminding me of hilarious things Mike has said or done in the past. He has a comeback for every line and a joke for every occasion.
Years ago, he was best man in our cousin’s wedding. When he came to me for help with his toast, I advised him to prepare and practice. ‘‘I could probably do something off the cuff and be fine,’’ he joked. I told him that few people do this successfully. In the end, his prepared and practiced speech was sincere and effective – and very funny.
Stand-up comedians spend hours preparing a few minutes of material. Why should other speakers be any different? Taking time to consider if and how you should include humor in a presentation is worth it. If you decide you are up to the challenge of creating some planned humor, here are a few guidelines and communication tips.
Good humor serves a bigger purpose than just getting a laugh. It relates to the theme of the talk and helps drive home a point or lighten up a serious subject.
Personal stories are a good way to include humor. Telling the audience about a horrible experience on the golf course, for example, may help illustrate a point about persistence.
Take a quote that you like, then apply it humorously to your talk. For example, in a speech about success, you could quote Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘‘I’m not a good shot, but I shoot often,’’ to lead into examples of other seemingly poor shooters who have earned success through hard work.
What doesn’t work…
Ridicule and sarcasm do not endear speakers to their audience. People sit in the front row at comedy shows expecting to get teased, but in most other circumstances, they will not enjoy it.
Off-color jokes or stories are never appropriate, even if they evoke laughter in a locker room or in small groups. People who may laugh at tasteless jokes in private rarely do so in the company of their colleagues.
Telling a random joke is not advised and tends to just take up precious time. Make sure all humor relates to the presentation topic.
Be prepared to fail.
For humor to be successful, you don’t need to send the audience falling to the floor with uncontrollable laughter. Simply creating a relaxed atmosphere and generating a smile or two is great.
Despite your best efforts and preparation, your humor may sometimes fail. If you notice that something you’ve said has elicited groans and rolled eyes, don’t panic. Have a good-natured ‘‘cover line’’ available to get the audience back with you. Some I’ve heard include, ‘‘I know you can’t win ‘em all, but that was a shutout’’ and ‘‘My best friend loved that one, but he has no taste.’’
The key to all successful speaking is to remember the audience and meet their needs. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t need a good laugh now and then. So give it a try!
The content from this post was originally published in the MetroWest Daily News and has been updated to reflect current best practices.