Successful public speaking − whether it's a business presentation, a conference keynote or a toast at a wedding − is all about creating that resonance with your audience, that emotional spark that gets them on board with your words. To this end, there is no greater tool in your arsenal than the judicious and skillful use of humor.
When we laugh, there are no barriers between speaker and audience − not skepticism or cynicism. If someone has made you laugh, chances are you are more open to the speaker and the authority of their words. Yet just because humor is a powerful tool doesn't mean that everyone can wield it proficiently. I'm sure everyone has silently suffered through conferences where a presenter attempted to make a joke, only to elicit groans from the audience.
To make the most of humor in your next presentation, follow these tips for public speaking.
What Makes Humor So Effective
The key to what makes humor so effective − and how to successfully deploy it − is the psychology of it: Humor is most often used to be playful or poke fun at an otherwise serious − even tragic − situation. This is why the equation "tragedy plus time equals humor" has entered our parlance. At the core of it, using humor in speeches humanizes the speaker. It shows a playful side, as well as a confidence in the matter being presented that is compelling to an audience. Smiling and giving a chuckle to signal that you are joking can help your audience feel empowered to laugh along with you.
Be Funny, Not a Comedian
Don’t be daunted by the lack of a comedy background. A comedian hits the stage with a singular purpose: to make people laugh. To this end, they spend years perfecting jokes, pushing the limits of their audiences and nailing joke delivery. Your job isn't to be George Carlin, Eddie Murphy or Tina Fey and tell the world's funniest jokes. Your purpose is to effectively convey your point or give a presentation, one aided by − but not entirely focused on – humor.
In this regard, don't worry too much about leaving the audience rolling in the aisles every time you crack a joke. Your jokes serve a different purpose than that of a comedian.
Comedians often talk about how the best jokes "punch up." That is to say, these are jokes not at the expense of the unfortunate or powerless, but rather playfully pointing out the foibles of powerful forces and figures. That in mind, it might not be the best idea to "roast" your boss, lest you want to hear about it later.
Instead, focus on humor that is light and self-effacing, avoiding controversial topics or mean-spirited laughs. Since you are the one with the microphone, you are in that moment the most "powerful" person in the room, so a little self-deprecation can go a long way. Just don't make it so heavy handed that your audience starts feeling sorry for you.
Keep It Light
Joke telling is tricky: It is a combination of tone and content that may not come naturally to some subject matter experts. Traditional "punch line" jokes can be the most difficult, since a single slip or swallowed word can sabotage the joke. Instead, think about using irony and clever wordplay, or even better simply an anecdote that made you laugh, all told with a very light touch.
An example comes from a TED talk given by the film director J. J. Abrams. When talking about a scene in his movie Mission Impossible III, he describes how he had to ask the actor Tom Cruise to shoot a drugged dart up the nose of his character.
"I quickly learned that there are three things you don't want to do," Abrams told his audience. "Number two is hurt Tom's nose."
It's not the funniest joke ever told, but the effect is profound: It gently pokes fun at the vanity of an immensely powerful actor, positions Abrams in a self-deprecating way and − most importantly − makes the audience laugh along with him. By mastering the mix of content and tone, you can get your audience in your corner by tapping into the visceral power of laughter.
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