It’s Not Necessary to Get a Laugh

Robert very seriously asked me, “Can you give me a joke to start my presentation?”
I replied, “Are you a good joke teller?”
“No,” he responded, “but I think I’m supposed to start a presentation with a joke.”
“Well, yes,” I explained, “you could do that if you are really good at telling appropriate jokes, but since you say you are not that good, I wouldn’t do it.” Then I added, “Do you like and want to keep your job?”

Should you start with a joke? Almost never in a business presentation, I believe. You may object, “But I want to get my audience to laugh.” A joke is only one form of humor—one that comedians study and practice for years to be good at their craft. If you really want to tell jokes, then take a workshop. Practice in the workshop, not in front of your colleagues or customers. Here are some ideas for being funny if you really don’t have the personality of a nightclub humorist.

  1. Stories: There are true, funny stories appropriate to different situations. Those are usually easier to tell than jokes. Stories I’ve heard from my clients include: got on the wrong plane and realized it too late or showing up for a Board presentation and having the wrong set of financial numbers but presenting them anyway. Cartoon: Show a humorous cartoon. I saw one that has a funny-looking character advertising “Ark Building 101” with the caption, “Plan Ahead: It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.” This could be a way to start a project update, report on disaster recovery or pitch a new process. At the start of another meeting, the leader wanted to discuss how to cut down on meeting time. On the screen, as people walked in, she had: “Meeting: that’s where people keep minutes but waste hours.”
  2. Make fun of yourself: Another way to relax the audience and perhaps get a laugh is to make fun of your own behavior. For many people this is easier than trying to tell a joke, and it often comes naturally when you are having a dialogue with the audience and something pops into your mind. For example, when I’m talking about communication techniques, I frequently throw in some of my experiences of floating down a river in Alaska for 14 days with my brother and his friend—both fighter pilots. Examples I act out include the dialogue of my brother yelling at me on how to throw myself head long in the raft so he does not float away without me or when he tells me to walk five minutes to the raft by myself through bear country and I tell him he is crazy that even if I had a gun I would probably shoot myself with it. The dialogue people hear either gets them laughing or shaking their heads in disbelief.

There is a payoff when using humor and getting the audience to chuckle—people think you are more human. That makes them relax and be more receptive to your recommendations. You will also create an atmosphere where people are more likely to ask questions and really get at the heart of the issue under discussion.
One thing you should not do with humor: never do or say anything that risks offending someone. Know your audience—you can make fun of yourself, but not of them. So when in doubt, cut it out.
And one last piece of advice: if you are planning to say or do something that you think is funny, ask several colleagues for their opinions first. Do a practice rehearsal with your humor, then ask, “Would you do or say this?” Their answer will guide you.

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