I once worked for a client who needed to make a big presentation before his company.  He was a Harvard MBA, extremely articulate, immaculately dressed, and very smart. I remember, upon first meeting him, being fascinated by his full head of black wavy hair — the kind that didn’t move.

He turned out to be a supremely nice and very funny guy (and to this day remains a good friend). But his kindness and sense of humor weren’t what initially came across — to me or the 200 plus employees who worked for him. And despite his success and all outward appearances, he was more nervous about giving a speech than anyone I had ever met.

He thought that his speech – and therefore he – would be more “likeable,” and he would appear more human, if his words were peppered with jokes and humor.  While he was right in principle, I cut nine out of his 10 jokes and attempts at humor.   When he asked me why I did this, I responded simply: “Because they’re not funny. Nor do they support anything you’re trying to say.”  In retrospect, and to be honest, I’m still a bit surprised he didn’t fire me at that point. But, the truth is the truth; he didn’t hire me to lie.

And the truth is: Humor can be a very effective way of engaging an audience through speeches and presentations. I am a big fan of using humor — if used effectively and sparingly, and it supports the overall message of your talk.

The wittiest people I know are also some of the smartest. But those same smart people know that when using humor, timing, subject, cultural understanding, context, tone and story mean everything.
So before you “go for the gag,” here are some things to think about:

1. Timing: Many people suggest immediately opening a speech with a joke, but I disagree. You need to give people a chance to warm up to you – especially if you don’t know them. Otherwise, you run the risk of being that guy/girl who enters a conversation by telling a bad joke.  No one really likes that guy.  Don’t be him.  Note: this ‘warm-up’ time may be only a few sentences, a thank you or acknowledgement of people in the room or purpose of the speech, that’s fine. The joke needs to be a supporting player, not the lead.

2. Subject:  Certain subjects should be obvious “no joke zones” (race, religion, politics, sexual orientation, physical appearance, etc.).  Basically, if you think it could be offensive in any way, then it is. Cut it.  If the speech itself is about one of these topics or if you really feel that your speech requires a “no joke zone” joke, then the joke should be on you and about you (though I still would counsel against wading into these subject areas). Remember that laughing at someone else makes you rude. Laughing at yourself makes you human.

3.Cultural understanding: One culture may be able to joke about a specific subject, but take great offense if you — from a different culture — try to do the same. Equally, different cultures have very different senses of humor. “Cultures” aren’t limited to different countries – different industries, organizations and even different levels in one organization have their own. Have enough respect – as a guest in that culture – to try to understand and appreciate those differences, rather than ignore their existence.

4. Context: If you want to inspire or engage an audience, particularly an audience looking for depth, leadership, direction, forget the story about your kid or cat. This is especially true in any kind of crisis communication — jokes around crisis never go down well. Serious situations require serious communication, and I’ve never seen this accomplished particularly well through the use of humor.

5. Tone & Story: You don’t need to be a comedian to share a funny story or moment. I often think sharing a story or moment is a lot more relatable than telling a joke, provided it is authentic story and supports what you are trying to communicate. Also, unless you’re really witty, and have the right tone and timing, telling a joke to a big, diverse group of people is hard for many people to pull off.

The reality is that some people are very witty and seemingly born for banter. Some people are very serious and reserved. But everyone has some sense of humor. It’s one of our strongest traits as human beings – both able to divide and connect us. But when using humor, it is most important to know yourself, be yourself and be authentic.

Remember that you have a good story to tell and a captive audience who wants to hear it. Your main mission is to engage people, inspire people. Give them something to think about and walk away “better” than when they first entered the room.

You can accomplish that by using humor effectively.  Just don’t let the joke be on you.

Patty McDonough Kennedy is CEO of Kennedy Spencer (www.kennedyspencer.net) a marketing communication agency, and Human Works (www.humanworks.guru), a speaking, training and presentation coaching company. She works with companies and individuals across the world developing effective marketing, communication and speaking strategies. Contact her at pkennedy@humanworks.guru

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