Use of humour in a presentation is a distinct advantage if used well and appropriately. By appropriately, I mean that a joke for the sake of getting a laugh is inappropriate. A joke that fits the content and helps to make a point is appropriate.
In contrast, humour that doesn’t work puts you on the “back foot” with ground to recover. Only you will know how confident you are about using humour successfully. If you know that you are good at it socially, you should have no trouble pulling off a funny story, one liner or a joke during a presentation, and it really helps to round off and balance it for you. My most hallowed principle is to practice your quip on a safe audience first before you try it during a presentation. If it bombs, it doesn’t mean that it will never work, it just means you may need to restructure it. If, after several trials it still doesn’t work, try something else. It’s no use getting attached to a dud!
But even rules are not cast in concrete. A while back I delivered a talk to the Irish Chapter of the PSA (Professional Speakers Association of the UK and Ireland) in Dublin on “Using Humour in your Presentations”. I thought up a humourous story during my flight over and told it for the first time during my talk, not expecting much of a laugh, and hoping to use this to illustrate that one should in fact test one’s jokes on a safe audience first. The story goes as follows:
Two chaps, one of them Irish (Paddy) were having a beer in a London pub. The other chap says:
“So, how was business in Ireland, Paddy?
To which Paddy replies: “Terrible, terrible!”
“But what’s the matter, Paddy old chap? Everyone knows the Irish economy is booming…”
“I know, I know” replies Paddy “That was what was so frustrating.”
“Well, what were you trying to sell them then?”
“Sunglasses!” he says.
My Irish audience roared with laughter. That surprised me, as I had never tested the joke, but it did give me quite a kick. Truth is, I was a little lucky on that occasion, as my story was untested, and could well have failed. Sometimes, in the right context, perhaps with appropriate regional references, your story or quip will hit the mark. If you don’t get a huge laugh, it doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t appreciated. Some audiences are more effusive than others. If your story makes a good point and ties in with your theme – use it, especially if it is original.
Some people feel uncomfortable using humour. If this is you, then don’t feel obliged to schedule it in to your talk. If you are relaxed during your presentation, humour may just arrive by chance!
As a rule, I will avoid certain categories of humour – namely, discriminatory stories, stale (old) jokes, swearing and dirty jokes. I will also avoid making jokes at an audience member’s expense, but I may tell a self deprecating story – the audience usually enjoys that.
There are several categories of humour. If you are a comedian, you develop your own brand. If you like telling “set piece” jokes in a talk or presentation, the response of your audience will have a lot to do with your timing, so you may find the more times you tell a joke or funny story, the better you become at that joke or funny story. This can be likened to soccer set-piece specialist David Beckham who became famous for his ability to score from set-piece free kicks, often changing the course of a game. As he got older, he seemed to get even better at it.
Many presenters find, however, that if you are in tune with your audience, the spontaneous humour comes naturally and enhances your delivery and the audience’s appreciation of your style. I have often found during a light hearted moment that some of the best chirps come from the audience. I usually acknowledge these positively as it helps to enhance the overall mood, and thus my presentation.
During one presentation I related to the audience how that morning I was so focused on the content of what I was about to deliver, that I absent mindedly put on my jacket before I’d put on my shirt. On realizing my error I took off my jacket and put on the wrong shirt. An audience member then chirped “Your shirt looks fine!” Laughter followed. I retorted “Thanks. But this is not the shirt – I changed in to the right one!” More laughter, and I knew they were with me.
Starting with humour can be a great way to get your presentation off to a good start, but use a story that is practically guaranteed to get a laugh, and make sure you get it right.
Mind you, I thought that asking a South African to teach Irish speakers how to add humour to their presentations was quite ironic, don’t you?