I once had a boss who was a terrible speaker. He would stammer, lose his train of thought and sweat profusely, even when he was only talking to a couple of people who were his employees. It was excruciating for everyone.
Then one day he adopted a new tactic. Someone must have suggested that telling a joke at the beginning of the meeting might help break the ice and make everyone more comfortable. The problem was that my boss seemed to pick the jokes randomly from a children’s book. They were jokes about giraffes walking into bars, conversations between electrons and neutrons, awful puns. Even worse, they didn’t help him relax at all. He was still so tightly-wound that he’d stumble over the punchlines and have to start over again, prolonging everyone’s suffering.
Some people just aren’t funny and shouldn’t try to be, but my boss wasn’t one of them. He was a warm, friendly guy who was pleasant to hang out and have a drink with. The mistake he made with his jokes was that they had absolutely nothing to do with what we were talking about at work. They were completely lacking in context and made him seem disconnected from what we were doing there. When it comes to humor in presentations, context is key.
Humor can accomplish a lot in your presentations. Making people laugh helps them relax and makes them more likely to agree with what you say. It entertains them so they don’t resent being there and helps them pay attention. Most importantly, humor helps you build a relationship with your audience that will endure long after your presentation itself is over. Getting an audience to laugh and like you can be critical to getting them to believe in what you have to say. But all of these things depend on telling the right kind of joke.
Humor is a really tricky thing. Saying something that other people find funny requires that you share common experiences, opinions, language. Think about how hard it can be to understand a joke that’s been translated from another language. A lot of the time it’s just futile. And humor doesn’t even have to be that “foreign” to fail. We all have cultural, economic, even regional differences that impact what we find funny. Do you laugh at redneck jokes? Kathy Griffin? A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Whatever you enjoy there’s someone out there who feels just the opposite.
Figuring out what kind of humor will work with an audience can be a huge challenge, but it’s worth the effort. When you can tell a joke that makes an audience laugh it immediately signals to them (whether they realize it or not) that you have something in common. And when they feel that you have something in common they are much more likely to be persuaded–which is the point of any presentation in the first place.
The more specific the kind of humor you can target at an audience the better. I’m always pleased and appalled by the geeky kind of jokes you hear at industry conferences, the stuff that no one else would ever understand but is hilarious to a small group of people. When I used to teach software like Microsoft Word it was the jokes about styles, fonts and “Jason tabs” (don’t worry if you don’t understand know what a “Jason tab” is, no one expects you to) that struck me as incredibly cliquey. But every group and industry has their own equivalent. Which is a good thing because being able to deploy them shows that you know your audience and are part of the same group. You’re one of them. If you’re looking for a joke to tell, start with what the specific group you’re addressing has in common. The geekier the connection the better.
Telling a funny story is even more effective than telling a joke. Stories are much more memorable and allow you to more fully develop an idea. If they’re based on your own experience they’re also much less likely to get screwed up since they don’t require a punchline. If you’ve chosen your story well your audience will easily be able to relate to you and what you’re telling them.
If you’re looking for a humorous story, one of the best things you can do is to describe a mistake you’ve made. One of the problems with jokes is that they’re usually at someone else’s expense and can sometimes seem mean. But telling a story about one of your own failings shows that you’re human and gives the audience something to relate to–chances are they’ve made mistakes of their own. And storytelling allows you to tell them something about yourself and make a personal connection in a way that isn’t self-aggrandizing. But the best thing about using a humorous story about making a mistake is that it comes with a built-in narrative that you should be able to remember easily because it happened to you. There’s no punchline to remember. Instead you can offer what you learned from your mistake, which is a much better takeaway for you audience than any joke you would tell them.
Humor can be a powerful weapon in your presentation arsenal, but don’t just tell a joke to tell a joke. Whatever you do, don’t go to the library and pick a random one from a book. Take advantage of the live format of your presentation to find your own humor that fits the context of your talk and works to create a relationship with your audience. Find an appropriate joke or tell you own story. But remember that it’s not just having a joke that’s important, it’s how your humor helps you relate to and persuade the people in the room.