“Dying is easy,” the Shakespearean actor Edmund Gwenn said on his deathbed. “Comedy is hard.”
Every business communicator who has tried—and failed—to lighten up a presentation by being funny knows exactly what Gwenn meant.
Business presentations packed with data and analyses can be dry and hard for audiences to understand. Effective presenters let the data illustrate their message. Well-placed humor can be another powerful tool in your storytelling toolbox, if you do it right, of course.
Humor should serve your message, not be the message.
“All great soundbites happen by accident,” Peggy Noonan, the former White House speechwriter, wrote in her memoir of her time in the Reagan and Bush administrations. They are “yielded up inevitably, as part of the natural expression of the text. They are part of the tapestry, they aren’t a little flower somebody sewed on.”
The same could be said for humor, especially in a business presentation. Jokes and punchlines sprinkled into the text may get a few laughs. But they are equally likely to detract from your message, for one simple reason: They were never part of the message to begin with.
The best humorous moments, like the best soundbites, are part of the structure of your presentation; they enhance your message by making it memorable. Plan to include lighter moments, or anecdotes, that illustrate your single overriding communications objective, or SOCO.
The audience should laugh with you, not at you.
The first piece of advice usually given to speakers about using humor is, “Make it personal.” Who better to tell a funny story about yourself than you? But as anyone who has gone to a comedy club in a new country can tell you, humor is fundamentally about understanding a shared culture. Humor based on ironic poking fun at others or oneself is culturally specific and could be regarded as disrespectful in other cultures. Using humor in a presentation to a multicultural audience, must be done with cultural awareness.
However, what may not work with diverse external stakeholders might be perfect for an internal audience where you and your audience share a common culture. If you are speaking about your shared experience, gently highlighting the absurdities, quirks, and ironies that exist in your industry or workplace should be understood and appreciated.
Being spontaneous creates intimacy with the audience
Humor that springs from the situation succeeds because both the speaker and the audience relate to its immediacy. By creating a shared moment, you create a bond with your audience.
When Dartmouth College recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of coeducation, it kicked off the event with a multi-speaker presentation that featured administrators, trustees, and alumni volunteers.
A current student also spoke, and his presentation was so powerful that the audience gave him a standing ovation. The next speaker on stage took the podium and, before launching into her prepared text, took a moment to shake her head and joke: “Note to self,” she ad-libbed, “Don’t ever speak after a student.” The unscripted remark drew the biggest laugh of the event.
Not every speaker is comfortable enough to improvise. But if you can, it will create a connection with the audience. When you connect with the audience, they remember the message.
Use Humor Wisely
Many people think they should start a presentation with an opening joke, when in fact all that is needed to “break the ice” is a sincere comment that engages the audience.
Using humor in business communications is a high-risk, high-reward game. Probably the safest advice is the most obvious: don’t do it. While a joke does not ensure audience engagement, business presentations that are conservative, or play it safe, are not always memorable or effective in terms of audience engagement.
Remember that audiences benefit from short breaks in order to stay focused on your key points. Use humor to highlight your message, not distract from it. Know your audience and use humor to create a shared experience. If you understand when and how humor can work in business, there is no reason not to stretch your rhetorical skills in this new and potentially rewarding direction.