I once received an evaluation after a humorous speech contest, in which I was told that I had 22 laughs in the course of my 6-minute speech. I was, quite frankly, taken aback – the purpose of the humorous speech contest within Toastmasters is to make it a “real” speech, and not a string of one-liners that is similar to a stand-up comedy routine.
The same is true of adding humor to a presentation in a business context. A joke that has no relevance to the content is usually inappropriate from an audience’s perspective.
The obvious choice that many speakers make is beginning a presentation with humor. This strategy does work as an icebreaker, and allows you to make a connection with the audience, especially when using a personal story. Refrain from the “a man walked into a bar” type of joke; many of these jokes also have the potential to alienate your audience. Also, a humorous beginning does not work when you have a dramatic or thought-provoking opener, since diluting a powerful statement with humor may trivialize your point.
The easiest humor to use in a business context is situational humor, which requires you to think on your feet. I once saw a lost opportunity at a conference when a fire alarm went off, and the presenter tried to muddle through, while being interrupted every few minutes. The audience expected the fire alarm joke, which never came – and they cringed. A short, pithy observation could have lightened the mood. Alternately, a Q&A session between alarm sounds (with the alarm signaling the time to move to a new topic) would have made the content more interactive, and would have avoided stopping the flow of the presentation. (And by way of reassurance, there was an announcement that the fire alarm was a malfunction, so evacuation was not necessary!)
There are situations within a presentation where humor can give your audience a little break. For example, if you are showing an on-going list of statistics, it is usually difficult for listeners to concentrate over a longer period of time. If there is a logical break, while moving from one statistic or topic to another, it is a golden opportunity to use humor. Sometimes just a little word play helps, even if it is corny. For example, while going into a presentation of a software solution that helps companies manage their public financial disclosure requirements, I began with the comment “in full disclosure – pun intended.”
Think of humor as a way to humanize your presentation, and connect with your audience. In most business situations, smiles and nods are better suited than the laughs – or groans – heard in a comedy club!
Want to practice how to use humor? Find a club near you: http://www.d4tm.org/Toastmasters/findingClub.php