Presentation Skills: Using Humour

If you are a stand-up comic or a natural story teller, you may well decide to use humour as a way of making your presentations or public speaking opportunities memorable. For the rest of us, it is a high risk strategy.

There are three main reasons why attempts at humour in presentations and speeches can fall flat.

The audience does not understand

Humour often depends on colloquial use of words and expressions, or familiarity with cultural icons and references. Throwaway lines and punch lines may depend on speed and timing for their effectiveness. In a culturally diverse group of people where many are not native speakers in the language you are using, the subtlety or implied meaning of your words may be missed.

In preparing the presentation, consider the relevance of the content for the whole audience, and plan where you will pause for effect. During the presentation, have the punch line on a flip chart or PowerPoint slide for reinforcement, and enunciate your words very carefully.

The audience does not appreciate

Humour is often at the expense of other people, grouped by race, religion, politics, sexual orientation, gender, age, profession…or simply the part of town where they live. A joke in poor taste can alienate people in seconds.

Play safe. Don’t make comments at the expense of others. You never know who might be in your audience.

You fluff your lines

It is tempting to use humour as an ice breaker at the start of a presentation. But effective humour requires confidence, clarity and perfect timing. At the start of a presentation you and your audience have not yet settled down. You may not have their full attention and they have not tuned in to your way of speaking. You may be nervous and most likely to speak too quickly or, dear forbid, forget your lines completely.

Only use humour when you are feeling confident and sure that you have rapport with your audience.

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