“Humor is the affectionate communication of insight.” - Leo Rosten
Whether you are speaking at a staff meeting, seminar, or conference, using humor can help communicate information more effectively to your audience. Humor makes your audience feel relaxed and comfortable.
Humor is a handy tool to keep their attention. If you notice the audience with their eyes glazed over, try throwing out a little unexpected humor and watch their reactions. Find a common denominator with those listening to you; just show your natural and human side and they will listen more to what you have to say.
Humor As A Way Of Reaching Out To Your Audience
Humor can also help you approach sensitive subjects without making your listeners uncomfortable. Watch your words and phrase things carefully. Realize that you can handle sensitive issues with good taste. Be extremely careful with humor when dealing with sensitive issues to avoid offending your listeners.
If you are speaking to a not-so-friendly group, humor can defuse the tension and make them less hostile towards you and your message. Believe me; you can effectively use humor if you find yourself in front of a group of people who dislikes the topic and/or you. Let us be realistic about this. There will be instances when your audience will not love you. There will be instances when people will show their dislike for your assigned topic.
When they enter a seminar room, they take with them some preconceived notions about you and the topic. These notions can affect their reactions. Your role as speaker is to break through these misconceived notions and win them to your side. Humor is one effective tool to break down those barriers and resistance. It is difficult for your audience to disagree when they are laughing and having fun. Spin it so they will realize that you are actually on their side and not against them.
Humor can also help you tackle a complicated topic. The more complicated your message, the more you need humor to help introduce the topic and make the audience more receptive and open. Humor sets the tone for your talk. It helps relax the audience. A relaxed setting makes learning fun and easier. It helps if you can simplify what you have to say and make it more comprehensible to your audience.
Acknowledge that the topic is complicated and assure them that you will do your best to make it simple and fun to learn. You want to identify with your audience and humor is the way to do just that. It is easier for them to connect with you if they can see you are human like them. Humor makes you more approachable.
Using Humor To Break The Ice
So you go ahead with your talk and at some point, you realize that your message is not being understood by your audience for whatever reason. It may be that the room is not comfortable or the crowd is too big and unmanageable. It is possible that the people in the audience cannot give you their one hundred percent attention, for they are worried because the company is in the midst of cutting the budget and benefits. It is also possible that they are cautious because the big boss is with them or simply because they exhibited extreme dislike and disinterest in your topic. Break the ice by using appropriate humor.
Assure your audience that you are working for a common cause, such as the survival of the organization. Remind your audience that they should not shoot the messenger. If you are part of top management whose responsibility is to look into creative ways of limiting benefits, you may have to learn to be very funny quickly!
Do not be too flippant about a topic, especially if it is a sensitive one or it involves the lives of people. In this situation, you can use humor to lighten the mood and make them receptive to what you have to say. A witty answer to an angry question is fine.
When you are trying to sell an idea, product, or service to a group, humor is even more important. If you make them laugh, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say. Humor can make some messages easier to accept.
Open your discussion with anecdotes or funny personal stories. The idea is to become witty and not come across as a boastful and know-it-all person. This will surely turn off people and it will be very difficult for you to sell whatever you are selling.
During tense moments, try using a comedic comparison to help your audience relate. Compare the awkward moment with say an ‘I Love Lucy’ episode. If you find yourself in a rush and trying to meet deadlines, think of the Candy Episode. The candies to be wrapped are coming down the assembly line faster and faster. Picture yourself cramming the candies in your pockets and your mouth. Then, if you remember, the supervisor yells, “You’re doing great, let’s speed the line up.”
Some people, whose job description includes public speaking as part of their work life, have apprehensions about using humor in their speeches. They think that if they joke a lot, their co-workers will not take them seriously. They think that this will severely affect their credibility.
Is this the same case with you? Maybe you think you are no good at telling jokes or unsure about injecting humor in your talks. Perhaps, you are afraid that you will look foolish and no one will laugh.
Before you start adding jokes to your speeches, consider carefully who will be your audience. Jokes and funny stories should be appropriate to your listeners and to the occasion itself. The old ‘farmer’s daughter’ joke will not go well at the Ladies’ Garden Club meeting.
Do you want to win them over and make them more receptive to your message? Involve the audience in your humor. I do not mean make fun of them or make a member of your audience the butt of jokes. Personalize your humor to fit your audience and the message you are attempting to relay.
Make them a part of the message. Take a lesson from the most successful comics. Involve your listeners and make them relate and understand what you are saying. Noel Coward once said, “Wit ought to be a glorious treat, like caviar. Never spread it about like marmalade.”
If you want to master this technique, study Bob Hope. He is the best example of a person who takes the time (and is always successful!) to relate to the audience by involving them in the message. He performed for enlisted men all over the world for several decades. He would make jokes about the food in the military, the officers, or anything else related to the lives of the soldiers that he was entertaining.
Before dropping humor into your public speaking engagements, ask about the type of gathering where you will be speaking. Is it a seminar, an industry convention, or a sales conference? Where is the venue? Will it be in your own hometown, in a resort city, or maybe some place like Las Vegas?
You can add some humorous remarks about the city itself or tourist hangouts, etc. If you are in an unfamiliar city, do a little research and find out what is happening in that city. What is on everyone’s mind or heart in that region? What is the main interest or preoccupation of the people in that city? That, my friend, is grist for the humor mill.
Adjust your humor to the industry, ethnic group, social group, or organization to which you are speaking. Avoid the faux pas of the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he addressed the Daughters of the Revolution (DAR) with the words, “Fellow Immigrants…”
Another important variable to consider when planning a speech is the gender composition of your audience. According to Michael Iapoce, (Founder of Michael Iapoce Associates, a humor-consulting firm based in San Anselmo, CA), an all-male audience is the toughest to crack when it comes to humor.
Women tend to laugh more easily than men do. Our society has effectively conditioned men to avoid being silly or foolish. It is all part of the ‘big boys don’t cry’ syndrome. Apparently, big boys do not laugh either.
Brush up on your pop culture knowledge, keeping in mind that the broader your knowledge on the subject, the better your jokes will be. Bone up on the most popular funny television shows and movies. However, be careful of stealing someone else’s material.
Rather than stealing a joke from Ray Romano and passing it off as your own, acknowledge your source. After the audience has roared with laughter over the joke, tell them that you are glad they liked it and you will let Ray know that his material did well with the audience that evening.
Professional humor always does well at conventions. Lawyers, accountants, scientists, bankers, doctors, and even driving instructors provide humorous fodder for the public speaker. Here a little harmless poking of fun at a group rather than an individual will bring in the laughter.
An effective way of conveying information to your audience is the use of stories or parables. Great speakers use this technique with great success for centuries. Stories are useful for illustrating a point and making it more vivid. The more memorable your story is, the more persuasive your message will be.
When it comes to public speaking, it is more important to make your point, clarify your message humorously than to just tell jokes. The idea is to get and hold their attention, convey your message, and make it memorable. To make it memorable, jokes and parables must be directly related to the message you want to convey.
Another excellent way to convey information in a humorous manner is the ever-popular ‘good news, bad news’ kind of jokes. An example of that type of humor is as follows:
While flying over the Pacific Ocean, the pilot got on the intercom and said, “Attention passengers. I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is we are totally lost and I have no idea where we are. The good news is that we’re way ahead of schedule.”
One important element about humor for any public speaker or performer is timing. Timing is everything. Too many speakers set up the joke well, tell the story, paint the picture for the audience, but then rush the ending. Always pause before the punch line.
The audience listens and sees in their mind’s eye the picture you have painted for them or they wrap their minds around the idea you have presented. Then you deliver the punch line. Jack Benny used to say that, “Timing is not so much knowing when to speak, but knowing when to pause.”
After you have delivered the joke, the hardest and the most nerve-wracking part comes -- waiting for the audience reaction and expecting laughter. Whatever you do, do not rush into the next item of your speech.
Comics call that “stepping on the joke”. This will ruin the joke. It will destroy the impact of the joke. Although there is a long pause before the laughter, do not be tempted to laugh at your own joke. Professional comics never join in the laughter.
The great comic Bob Hope taps his microphone and say, “Is this thing on?” George Burns would puff on his cigar while waiting for the audience to respond and for the laughter to die down.
Comedians Vs. Public Speakers
The biggest difference between professional comedians and regular public speakers is simple — the audience expects the comics to make them laugh and they can be tough if they do not get what they want. They paid to hear funny material and by golly, that is what they expect to hear.
However, no one expects the public speaker to be funny. The expectations are completely different. When the public speaker turns out to be amusing, the audience is pleasantly surprised and they normally react with appreciation.
Surprise your audience with your creative and humorous side. Follow this simple sequence of steps:
Stand-up comics and jesters all have their place in our world. Do not feel that you have to strive to be one of them. Just pepper your speeches with enough humor to get and keep your audience’s attention.
A great way to practice is by joining a Toastmaster’s Club. This club provides the opportunity to practice in front of an audience. This is also a chance to practice humor in your public speaking engagements and gauge the audience’s reaction on your material. The meetings will help you develop and hone your public speaking skills and give you a chance to practice some jokes and stories.
Be Prepared: Accidents Do Happen!
The key is to become more observant. Try to observe everything and everyone around you. It is a good idea to have some humorous material ready in case of unexpected circumstances.
If the equipment fails to operate or the lights go out suddenly, have some funny ad lib ready to lighten the mood. As crazy as it sounds, it is possible to be prepared for spontaneity. Audiences love it when you come up with something spontaneous about them or the occasion.
Even the best-prepared public speakers find themselves facing unforeseen difficulties. Lights refuse to switch on, sound equipment malfunctions, or presentation does not work just because of plain and simple human error. In such instances, it is better to have some ad-libs and be prepared just in case.
Let us say you are so nervous, you forgot your next line or lose your train of thought. Do not panic. These happen to people. Have you come across singers who forget their lyrics? It happens to even well-known performers and speakers.
How do you cover that long pause while recovering your train of thought? What ad lib can you use and still appear amusing? What do you do to avoid appearing nervous and be able to reconnect with the audience? How about this:
“Okay, I gave this speech last week. Does anyone remember what I said next?”
What happens if you become so nervous is that you slip into a confused state, give a garbled speech, and mess up a sentence. To remedy this, consider these:
“I’m so sorry, but I seem to have left my translator in the last city I visited.”
“Sorry, I just washed my lips and I can’t do a thing with them.”
Any public speaker has probably encountered problems with the microphone. It malfunctions just as you step up to the podium and greet your audience. Try these as ad-libs:
“That’s what I get for buying my sound equipment from the Salvation Army.”
“Actually, some people say my speeches are much better this way.”
Public speakers often have to deal with people in the audience chattering away while they are trying to give their speech. How do you handle the chatterboxes?
“Excuse me, I only have a few minutes here to make a fool of myself, you’ve got the rest of your life.”
“Sorry, but I work alone.”
While we are on this topic, let us talk about the simplest, most spontaneous, and contagious type of communication ever devised. It is so simple, even a child can do it! It requires no special lessons or instructions, but you should practice it every day without fail. It has the power to alter your day and attitude almost instantaneously. What is this most powerful device? Why, it is a Smile!
A smile can spread from person to person without a second thought. In fact, if you want to make a person’s day, smile at them and then tell them what a great smile they have. I guarantee you that they will smile for the rest of the day at everyone they meet.
Look in your mirror. Is that the way you look at others? Do you look tense and drawn? Now, smile at yourself. Do you see the difference? You probably even look younger. A bright smile can make you look younger, well rested, and friendlier. Who needs a facelift? Just smile more often!
“We are not amused!” - Queen Victoria of England