How to Use Humor to Engage Your Audience
“It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.” – Oscar Wilde
For the over forty years I have been delivering and evaluating presentations, I have learned a few things about humor.
First, let’s define what humor is not and what it is.
Humor happens when you lead your audience down one path and then abruptly switch them to a different path.
Humor is not telling constant jokes even if they are relevant to your subject.
You have heard comedians on radio, TV, and the Internet. They are funny and put you in a good mood. They tickle your funny bone and suspend what you are worried about if only for a brief time. They poke fun at you and themselves. In a nutshell, they make you happy.
Humor is very different. Humor brings out a chuckle in you. Humor relaxes you. First and foremost, humor brings out a point that supports your presentation message. In fact, this is a good way to test whether you should include the humor you are contemplating for your presentation. Does it support and not overwhelm your presentation. If it overwhelms your presentation, don’t use it.
Below, you will find when to use humor, when not to use humor, and how to implement it in your presentations.
When to Use Humor
Humor can almost be used for any topic you are presenting.
Humor lightens up a serious topic. Humor entertains your audience. Humor connects you to your audience.
Properly delivered relevant humor enhances your presentation. You can think of the information in your presentation as grayscale. One way to add the colors of the rainbow to your presentation is to inject relevant humor. Think of any single use of humor as adding another color of the rainbow. Use humor once and people will happily anticipate additional humor later on in your presentation.
Humor may have its most beneficial effect when people are going through a crisis. It lightens an otherwise difficult situation. It gives the people you talk to hope that better days are coming. It puts reality in perspective and gives your audience pleasure.
In a nutshell, using humor in your presentations improves your audience’s lives, gives your audience hope, and makes your audience feel good about themselves. Is there any greater reward for a speaker?
Humor is entirely appropriate for the vast majority of presentations. It is important to know when humor will work, but it is equally important to know when humor will not work and may harm your otherwise great presentation.
When Not to Use Humor
My dad was a great man and a great father. He could find humor in just about any situation especially if the humor was about himself. I remember situations where my dad would bring up him doing a “bonehead” thing. My dad couldn’t wait to tell us about it. We would all laugh with him. Our house was full of laughter. Self-deprecating humor is the most fun for your audience as long as you don’t overdo it.
My dad died at a very young sixty-eight years old as a result of a massive cancerous brain tumor. It was very sad. He did not deserve to die at such a young age. I had been in Toastmasters for about two years at the time. I decided I would give the eulogy.
Don’t worry, there is a point I am about the make concerning humor.
I chose to structure the eulogy in terms of the laughter, enjoyment, and good feelings my dad gave to his family, friends, and others in his life. There was just one problem. The audience, countless relatives and friends, grieving at the time did not want to hear a light-hearted presentation about my father’s life. I had committed the cardinal sin of public speaking. I had misread the audience. This was a time to not use humor.
It has been a few decades since my dad passed on. My relatives and friends have long since forgiven my misreading of what they wanted in the eulogy. However, it does show that sometimes humor should not be used. It is important you correctly read when this is the case.
Now you know when you should use humor and when you should not. But just how do you use humor to enhance your presentation.
How to Use Humor When You Do Use It
Back in the section on when to use humor, I said, “Humor can almost be used for any topic you are presenting.” This is true.
My experience is the best humor is delivered in a story. If the story is a personal story, so much the better. I mentioned previously my dad couldn’t wait to tell us his personal story about a “bonehead” thing he had done. I think this is why he was so much fun to be with. I have talked before about the powerful effect of using your personal stories in your presentations. Couple your personal stories with humor and you have the ultimate twofer in presentations. I guarantee your audiences will be engaged.
An example of this is perhaps you are delivering a presentation on being dedicated to your work. You might recount the story about the pig and the chicken and how they benefit us. The chicken is involved by laying an egg, but the pig is the most dedicated by providing us bacon. You know what happens to the pig to provide us with bacon, right?
In another example of humor, you may be talking about how hard it is for people to change. Do you know the story of the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion needed to get to the other side of a creek. He asked the frog if he could ride on the frog’s back across to the other side. The frog refused saying the scorpion would sting him and he would die. The scorpion assured the frog he would not sting him since then he would not get to the other side of the creek. The frog reluctantly agreed to take the scorpion on his back to the other side of the creek. So, the frog sets off across the creek with the scorpion on his back. Halfway across the scorpion stings the frog. In his last breath, the frog frantically asks the scorpion why he stung him. The scorpion then says he is a scorpion and that is what scorpions do. Like the scorpion, people find it very hard to change.
A last humor example – say you are presenting on the fear of public speaking. You may want to use the following Jerry Seinfeld quote:
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Experiment with humor. Some final cautions – (1) Don’t use humor that picks on any group or anyone but yourself, (2) Keep your humor clean of vulgarity and immoral situations, and (3) Don’t let your humor overtake your presentation. Use it judiciously and only when it enhances one of your main points.
So, now you know when you should use humor, when you should not use it, and how you can use humor to enhance your presentation.
Use humor to “spice up” your presentations. Your audiences will love your “brew!”
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Experiment with humor about yourself that you would be willing to tell your mother
Be very careful to ensure your audience will accept your humor before you use it
Your humor only happens when it leads your audience down one path and then you abruptly switch them to a different path that is relevant to your presentation.
“Next to power without honor, the most dangerous thing in the world is power without humor.”– Eric Sevareid
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