By Jean Stewart, Toastmasters International
There is no doubt that anyone listening to a presentation will learn more from it if they have enjoyed themselves – and the introduction of humour can really help achieve this.
If you’re worried that you’re not a natural comedian – don’t fret, there are plenty of ways you can add some humour without attending comedy school. Here are a few tips to help you strike a balance between humour and objectives of the presentation.
1. Set the right tone. For an audience to enjoy a presentation, the presenter must enjoy it too, and must feel passionate and energised by their subject matter. It is very important that audience members can sense this enthusiasm from the speaker. Remember that the speaker sets the tone for the presentation by smiling and with good eye contact.
2. Do your research. If you are speaking at an event hosted by a company, take the time to find out as much about the organisation as you can. Your contacts will undoubtedly have a fund of stories about their organisation and the people in it. Pitched correctly this can provide you with an excellent opening to your presentation – and there may even be a funny story you can share. But remember…
3. Don’t make it personal. Avoid making any personal comments about a member of the audience as a way of being humorous or amusing. Even if you have arranged for a ‘victim’ before the presentation, it won’t work. You’ll find that many in the audience will spend the entire presentation worrying that they will be the next target. It’s a sure fire, and quick way, to lose the support of the rest of the audience. Sometimes you will get someone calling out or making comments you feel need to be slapped down. Don’t. Instead, tell the person concerned that you will discuss this with them later, or, ask the audience for their opinion on the comment made. Or simply ignore the remarks.
You want to be the friendly presenter who is on the side of the audience, not someone who appears to be looking for confrontation.
4. Your own experiences. If you want to tell an embarrassing story, make sure it is something you have experienced. Undoubtedly some of the audience will also have lived through this unfortunate episode in their lives. This way you will gain the sympathy of the audience – and don’t alienate anyone.
5. Practice. Humour inserted into a presentation should be written down and rehearsed as any other material would be. Do not think that humour can be off the cuff. It needs to be planned and rehearsed – you as the top comedians so.
6. Don’t laugh. Even when you are successfully humour it is best if you don’t laugh along with your audience. It is perfectly fine for a presenter having a wry smile on his/her face, but excessive laughter from you is likely to give the impression that the session is for your benefit. In addition, if you laugh and the audience does not this is very likely to make the atmosphere uncomfortable for everyone in the room.
7. Mind your language. In a lot of situations, it would be a mistake to use inappropriate language to get a point across. I have heard speakers do this I’d say it is almost always a mistake. Unless you are very familiar with your audience land know they are happy to tolerate some fairly tame, but inappropriate language, I’d avoid indulging in this.
8. Avoid ‘taboo’ subjects. Avoid at all costs using humorous remarks based on the audience’s belief structure. If you are not part of their culture you will be considered a critic of their beliefs.
9. Use pauses to full effect. If providing a humorous punch line to the story, pause and allow the audience to realise this is an important part of the presentation. If they don’t take the hint; move on.
10. Give the audience time to laugh. You can never guarantee when an audience will find a statement funny. Each audience has its own personality. Some groups will laugh at a particular statement and others will fall silent. This is about the experience of some of the people in the audience. If they identify with something they find funny, because of their experiences, then their laughter will spread to others in the audience. At this point don’t try and move on too quickly, rather enjoy the moment and let them continue with their laughter.
11. Words and pictures. Some of the audience will react well to the spoken word, and others are more influenced by visual presentations. For this reason it is a good idea to have something that will add visual impact to your presentation. This could be a humorous image on a slide, or even a humorous (and appropriate) prop.
And remember the following:
1. An audience can be enjoying your use of humour without laughing out loud. Read their body language. It can take a little time for an audience to warm up.
2. You do not have to mimic your favourite comedian when delivering the funny content. Be yourself. If the audience does not get your humour, you can still rely on the main message of the presentation. Move on. It will get easier as you deliver more presentations with humour.
3. Keep up the energy and enjoy yourself. There is no doubt this is the most important aspect of delivering a successful presentation.
Finally, be gentle with yourself. Introduce more and more humour as your confidence grows. Any comedian making a living from humour will tell you that they are pleased if over 70% of the audience is on their side. They know that not everyone will enjoy their humour – that’s life. The same is true for the humour in your presentation.