How to use humour effectively in your presentations

Many a speaker has lamented the loss of a traditional opening joke in their presentations as an act of contrition to the gods of political correctness and growing cultural and gender awareness.

They are wrong to “blame” the times they operate in for change. The reality is that contrived humor or the art of getting a laugh from one audience segment by putting down another isn’t funny now and it wasn’t really funny then.

But that doesn’t mean humour shouldn’t be part of a great presentation. People still are united in experiences of laughter and it makes them more alert and receptive to your message.

All that is different is how you make people laugh.

Opening with a joke you picked up on the Internet, or the cliché line of “a funny thing happened on the way to…” just won’t do the job you intend.

But you can open with humor as long as it is authentic, personal, and relevant to the rest of your remarks.

Let’s look at some of the best ways you can get your audience laughing while simultaneously bolstering your presentation’s impact.

The test of two for incorporating a funny story

The average life is a rich treasure trove of anecdotes and analogies and true stories that will intrigue and entertain any audience. What they don’t want to hear is a tired or insensitive joke or riddle pulled from the briefcase of a travelling salesperson from the 1950s.

So make your humor real. Build it on a foundation of your own life. Ask yourself the first test question before repeating any story in a presentation:

Is it authentic?

What makes people laugh can be elusive, but the most consistent trigger is what we expect to hear or see one thing, and instead the exact opposite happens.

For example, check out actor and comedian Jim Carrey’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards 2016.

As he accepts his second Golden Globe Award, instead of the usual grateful gasps and telling the audience it is a dream come true, he takes them on a tantalizing tale into his dreams where in fact, he is really dreaming of being a three-time Golden Globe winner. It brings laughter, because it is not what the audience expected.

So ask yourself the second test question before including a story in your presentation:

Have I juxtaposed what the audience was expecting with the thing they were least expecting?

Don’t expect the audience to laugh at themselves

Remember that you are giving a presentation, not hosting the Academy Awards. You cannot get away with poking fun at your audience.

If you want to generate easy laughs by poking fun at somebody, aim the humor at yourself in a gentle way.

As a great example, look at this leadership speech about what the speaker has learned from where he is from.

The speaker makes some great points or truisms: If you do as you’re told, you’ll survive. Girth substitutes for talent sometimes in high school football.

But his gentle self-deprecating humor brings the audience onside with him to the point that they are laughing right with him, not at him.

People find this speaker funny because they sense he is authentic. They can respect that he has paid a certain debt that allows him to share these stories with them. They ring true, right down to his matching socks.

Know your audience and what matters to them

If you plan to integrate humor into your presentation, before you start to prepare it, gather as much data about your audience as possible. In particular, you need to know their average age, what shared experiences they have and their cultural differences (i.e. Are they all university graduates? Do they all work in the same kind of setting? Are they all of one gender or from one community or even one country?)

It is easy to be misunderstood if you share a humorous story that no one in your audience can relate to.

For a great example of how you can use your audience’s commonalities to create humor, take a look at the graduation speech delivered by Ryan Burtons, senior class president of La Plata High School.

See how he weaves humor into a generally serious message through his total understanding of shared experiences with his audience. He jokes about his own challenges building romantic relationships, a shared experience of high school years.

His references and quotes all hit home with his audience, up to and including the laughter that ripples through the audience when he describes Drake as “street poet and philosopher.” He knew he had the right crowd to recognise such a reference that could have been wasted on a room full of baby boomer accountants.

In the end, it’s all about relevance

The bottom line about using humor in your presentations is that it has to be relevant. You can no longer get away with telling funny stories that have no relation to the rest of your remarks.

Don’t be frightened off using humor because it remains an excellent device for communicating messages and it enlivens your audience. When you create your own humorous stories, make sure that you avoid any coarse language and potentially offensive subjects like religion, politics, gender, and race.

How often should you use it in a presentation? Besides opening with something light-hearted, if you are speaking for about 20 minutes, there is room to insert humor two to three times.

For more information on how to make it work, watch this video.

Basically, humor is the salt and pepper of your remarks…just a little bit seasons them perfectly; too much and it ruins the taste of the whole presentation.

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