How to Add Humor to a Presentation

Can you, and should you, attempt to add humor to a presentation? This is one of those topics which really divides opinion, with those who say yes arguing it brings a needed lightness of touch to an otherwise serious topic, whilst those who say no arguing it detracts from the message, and worse, clan be punter-productive if and when jokes go wrong. This article will help you decide for yourself.

The short answer to this question is… It depends. It depends whether you can do humor or not. I believe it is less about whether the topic merits humor, or the client will accept it, and far more about how you plan to include humour in your presentation.

Most of us have experience of a joke not working. Whether us, or someone else, the silence that follows when a joke fails to “land” can be a deafening experience. Often though a joke working or not working is more down to how it is used in the context of the presentation. There also exists in some people a morbid worry about whether or not a joke is appropriate in a working situation..

Here are some pointers. First regarding where you use humor. Many speakers are of the view that they should “start with a joke”. I think this is a dangerous idea, unless you really do know what you are doing with making people laugh. I often use very gentle jokes early on in a presentation because it is something I am very comfortable with, and because I am guaging the level and reactions of the audience. The problem with trying out your one funny line at the beginning is that no one, not you and not the audience, really knows what to expect from you. If the joke doesn’t work you maybe lose a little confidence, which then doesn’t help your presentation. If you have ever seen someone tell a joke early on and get zero response, before nervously continuing, you will know what I mean.

Instead I like to use humor throughout the presentation, safe in the knowledge that not all jokes work. What is very funny one day seems not to work another day. I have certain “lines” I use in key moments which cuts down the number of times that I fail to get a laugh, because they a well tested moments. As one builds a number of these so confidence to try other funny lines increases because if something new doesn’t work, there are always well proven lines.

I have referred to using humor as “lines” rather than jokes, and this may need explaining. If you try and tell jokes of the “here’s a good one…. What do you get if you cross….” you set yourself up, and getting it wrong is so easy. Instead I want to use punchlines… There is a moment that people realise it’s a joke… Following on from what sounds like a it’s part of the presentation… Which gives several advantages;

The line is not expected, so the laugh tends to be more natural as people “discover” it.
It subtly makes people want to listen more, since your presentation is not as predictable
Crucially… If a line isn’t perceived as funny there is less build up, so less crash down for you.

This means you have to be able to deliver the line correctly. You will have seen the person who can’t wait to tell you the funny joke, which turns out to be not remotely funny. Not what we want to emulate. Instead, the line is “dropped in” casually. One needs to be aware it is there, so if an audience reacts, and we get lots of laughter, great we can pause to allow the laugh, a breathing space and a sip of water. If not, then no damage is done.

All of the above assumes that we agree humor is a good choice in a business presentation. Of course in some situations humor will not be appropriate, but the fact is it will work in many situations, and I have made powerful use of humor in pitch presentations, training sessions, conferences, motivational events and more.

Humor is really powerful since it helps bring a human perspective to the presentation. As people, at work, in many situations we find things funny. Not to allow that simply because it is a presentation does no favours.

Humor also changes the pace of what is happening. It can work astoundingly well immediately following or preceding very serious content. This is a dramatic technique which has been used throughout history…building up tension which is then released with laughter… Or having people in a state of mind when they are relaxed, before presenting them with serious information.

A laugher state is highly conducive to learning. Think about all the things you learnt before you went to school… And now remember how that learning took place… Laughing, smiling, jokes and fun. We can tap into that natural state by allowing humor in our presentations.

Humor helps bring passion to a session. It’s natural and helps people – you included – to be themselves.

Finally well placed self deprecating humor is very good at showing the speaker in a good light. The person who is confident to not only stand and speak in front of others, but also find humor in the situation, is perceived as a a powerful speaker.

Some really quick tips include;

Know the joke, rehearse it like the rest of the presentation, to avoid that getting it wrong thing we’ve all done.
Avoid “in jokes”… Tell a joke that everyone can understand. Many get this wrong and it never works.
Deliver your punchlines. Get a laugh and thats great. If not, continue.
Self-deprecating humor is really powerful.
Humor that comes from your organisations reality is best… “borrowing” comedians jokes is risky, since their style is probably not yours.

Finally remember that humor does not have to be roaring laughs. The fact remains that this is a business presentation. If your first attempts to use humor receive only an occasional smile, thats fine. Too many presentations are dry as dust, so if you can get a couple of people smiling, you’re ahead of the game.