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Humor and the Unexpected: Relaxing Your Audience and Yourself February 12, 2015

It was an impromptu presentation. Sixty seconds before presenting, each participant was assigned a topic. The time was insufficient to do much more than draw a deep breath before stepping to the front of the class. I did, however, have a trick up my sleeve – a brief, well-prepared introduction entirely unrelated to the subject.

Gazing out across the room, I smiled and began. “I had hoped that I’d be asked to speak about the dissolution of the Thai parliament and its economic impact upon APEC. Instead, it appears that I’ll be sharing a bit about goldfish.” The entire room burst into laughter and I launched into a three minute discussion on fancy goldfish and their superiority over other forms of aquatic life.

A few weeks later, I was called upon to speak again. This time, I began my presentation with a more foreign flavor. “Ahlan, SabaaH al-khayr. Ismi Anna.” I bowed my head ever so slightly to my audience, then turned to my instructor, who was smiling to himself, clearly doing his best to ignore the exhibition. “I’m sorry,” I apologized. “Did you want the presentation in English?” He nodded and the room burst into laughter. I then proceeded with a presentation entirely unrelated to my ability to introduce myself (rather badly) in Arabic.

The truth is that humor is a highly useful presentation technique, even for those of us who lack an inclination towards the lifestyle of a standup comedian. Brief, witty, and unexpected, it can serve to set both the audience and the presenter at ease. It breaks down barriers and builds a sense of camaraderie (even when it’s clear that the presenter understands something that the audience doesn’t). What follows are a few tips for using humor to introduce a presentation:

  1. Make sure you understand what you’re saying. No matter how hard we try, most of us are incapable of hiding the body language that accompanies discomfort with our subject. Be familiar with the topic of your humorous introduction before you share it with an audience.
  2. Listen to your vocal tones. Our voices, like our bodies, can betray our ignorance. Make certain that your tones reflect confidence.
  3. Practice your timing. Getting our timing right can be a challenge for those of us who are of a less humorous nature. Make sure that you’ve practiced your delivery before you go on stage.
  4. Keep it brief. People can tell when someone who isn’t funny is trying to be funny. A short humorous remark at the beginning to relieve tension and relax your audience… if you aren’t a natural comedian, leave it at that.
  5. Let the laughter sink in. Once your audience is laughing, you have their attention… but that doesn’t mean you need to plunge right into the presentation. Enjoy the moment, then plunge right in.

Humor can, of course, play a more significant role in presentation style, but since I’m not much of a comedian, I’ll leave it at that. Go out, give it a try, and see whether it works for you. And whatever your results, be sure to stop back by and share them with our other readers!

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