By Glen Savage, Toastmasters International
I recently suggested to a leader I was coaching that he adds some humor to his presentation. He proclaimed with some indignation, But I’m a serious speaker.
Over the years I have listened to many ‘serious’ speakers who, frankly, offer an excellent antidote to insomnia. The drier the content of a presentation, the harder it can be for the audience to stay attentive. My inevitable response to my coaching client was, ‘Do you want to be a serious speaker or a speaker who is taken seriously?’
In my experience, a little levity supports the gravity of a message, for many reasons.
Effective one-to-one communication depends on building rapport, creating a connection, and building trust, and the same is true for presenting. Rapport one-to-many may feel different, but it has the same foundations. Demonstrating relatability and building a connection with the audience are fundamental to getting a message across, and humor conveys that relatability, displaying a human side that generates likeability and builds trust in the speaker.
A 2015 study by Microsoft concluded that the human attention span had dropped to eight seconds (shrinking from 12 seconds only 15 years earlier), emphasizing the challenge of capturing and sustaining people’s attention when presenting. Engaging and re-engaging the audience is key, and injections of humor will punctuate the speech and re-focus the listeners’ attention.
Research (2020, Mohebi and Berke) has shown that dopamine is important for both goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory. Laughter, as an embodied experience, significantly increases the memorability of a moment, the entire presentation, and the speaker.
Humor usually creates a response – a smile, giggle, or laugh, but used inappropriately can generate a negative reaction. I tend to agree with Charles Dickens – There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor. Though the wrong kind of comment will lead to a disaffected, potentially hostile reception. Levity should only be designed for a presentation once the speaker has a good sense of the potential audience.
What makes something funny?
A difficult question to answer, given that we don’t all have the same sense of humor.
I am often asked whether joke-telling is appropriate, for which my answer is that it depends. Jokes, puns, and frivolity that are directly related to the subject matter at hand can work very well. Stand-alone, crafted jokes of the ‘three men walk into a bar’ kind, are the territory of stand-up comedians and rarely work in other contexts.
In my experience, there are a number of things that audiences find funny which can be sprinkled into a presentation or talk.
Something unexpected, a twist in the tale, an exaggeration, or the speaker making a joke at their own expense, all humorous interludes which surprise, and when done well, delight the listeners.
People will laugh at things they can relate to, whether it’s an observation of something in the room, their own experience, current affairs, or more.
Humor that unfolds from the subject of the presentation, creating a flow between the serious parts of the message usually lands well and easily with the audience. Don’t try to shoehorn in a funny line just to get a laugh. Make sure any humor relates to the point or message.
A story about the speaker’s own fallibility, maybe a mistake, a surprising event, or some other anecdote relevant to the message, is conveyed wittily, improves relatability, and builds connection.
Exaggerating points, with a smile, raised eyebrow, or chuckle puts a lighthearted spotlight on something to amuse the audience and underline a point.
Create anticipation, curiosity, and get a laugh before you even reach the stage with an amusing title for the session – if it seems appropriate.
To give you an example, I recently changed the session title from Sales training to Are you selling it or keeping it? Modern sales considerations.’. Attendance at the master class doubled!
It’s the way you tell ‘em
In my experience, humor only works when executed well. Here are my top tips for delivery.
Run through your presentation a number of times so that the humor feels natural and flows off the cuff.
Try out the talk in advance with someone you know and trust to gain some honest feedback on the humor you’ve weaved in.
Relax and your witticisms will be delivered with ease; when you appear to be enjoying yourself, the audience is more likely to enjoy the speech too.
Use your facial expressions, voice, and gestures to emphasize the humor – or use them to provide the humor with a smile, raised eyebrow, body movement or change of voice tone.
Stretch out of your comfort zone and say or do things that you might not normally be confident enough to do. (I once told an amusing story about a purple gorilla in a presentation on ‘Health & Safety.’ I ran into an audience member three years later who said. ‘Hey, I still remember that story you told about the purple gorilla.’)
Feed off the audience
Focus on audience members who are smiling and laughing to fuel your energy of delivery.
Read the room (or the virtual room)
Watch and listen. If people aren’t laughing, move on and if necessary, adapt what you are planning to say at the moment. Remember not everyone has the same sense of humor!
And finally, most importantly:
Don’t step on the laughter
People like to laugh. Let them enjoy the experience. Pausing until the laughter has quietened means laughs can ripple around the room without interruption, and the next thing that you wish to say will not be lost.
Humor is the secret weapon that connects, engages, and holds an audience. Laughter is like an instant vacation, a kind of mini-break, enhancing the intake of oxygen-rich air to stimulate the heart, lungs, and muscles. Laughter releases endorphins which lower cortisol levels and stress and stimulate the brain’s release of dopamine – the feel-good hormone. Amusement or hilarity can lighten any mood, relieve points of tension, and increase receptivity.
To be taken seriously, speakers should aim to incorporate the unserious in their repertoire, ensuring they are relatable and engaging, to make their messages memorable. A little well-placed levity to punctuate gravity can supercharge the impact of any talk, speech, or lecture. Borrowing from Charlie Chaplin, a presentation without laughter is a presentation wasted!
Glen Savage DTM is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organization that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland.
Members follow a structured educational program to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings, and time management. To find your nearest club, visit Toastmasters International.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog post or content are those of the authors or the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer, or company.