Humour – or lack of

This post was sparked by François who suggested that humour is a very important part of presenting.

My answer, in the words of a famous accounting lecturer, is: “It depends.”

It depends on many things.  But before I get to those, let me first agree that if you are naturally good at incorporating humour into your presentations, and if the situation allows, it can be a very powerful tool indeed.

Why?  Smiling and laughing both release endorphins which make us happier (it’s true – if you’re feeling sad, just smile, and you will feel happier!), and those endorphins take a while to dissipate – therefore the listeners will still feel they are enjoying your presentation after you’ve moved on from the humour, and they will be more likely to continue paying attention if they are enjoying it.  They are also more likely to remember it since the mind has a tendency to retain happy memories and release boring ones.

So why not use humour in every presentation?  It depends.

Firstly, it depends on the context.  If you are the Best Man making a speech at your friend’s wedding – or at his stag night / bachelor party – then humour is usually expected.  If you are making a speech at your friend’s funeral, probably it would not go down well with his weeping relatives.  Likewise, if you are a CEO announcing a site closure and significant job losses, that is no time to be cracking jokes.

Secondly, it depends on the audience.  For example, different nationalities and cultures approach humour differently, and have different preferences.  English humour is full of puns or plays-on-words for example; that doesn’t come across very well with the French since their humour is different.  Equally, I have found that while Americans have a very well-developed sense of humour, a remarkable number seem immune to sarcasm which is a central pillar of English humour.

Culture and background can be important as well.  You can make all kinds of Mad Cow Disease jokes when talking to many groups, but not English farmers, or Hindus (for whom cows are sacred).  There’s also not much point making a hysterically funny and topical remark about baseball anywhere in Europe.  Finally, if you’re presenting in a language which isn’t the listeners’ first language, they might find it very hard to detect that you’re trying to be funny.

In summary, if you’re presenting to nationalities or cultures other than your own, be very careful since there is a significant chance they won’t get your jokes or understand your humour.

Thirdly, it depends on you, the presenter.  If you’re great at telling jokes or making funny remarks which make people smile or laugh, that’s fine – lucky you (just remember to control your humour and adapt it to the context and audience).  However, not everyone is naturally funny, and most people don’t have the timing or charisma to carry it off well.  Sadly, being funny is one of the hardest things to learn – you have it, or you don’t.

If like most people you are not a natural at getting up on stage and making people laugh, don’t despair – it doesn’t stop you being a great presenter.  The worst mistake you could make would be to try to present in a style which doesn’t come naturally to you.  Tell a joke badly and you could fall flat on your face and lose all credibility.  Better not to try unless you are almost certain you will be able to carry it off.

I’d conclude by saying that using humour is a high-risk strategy, with potentially high rewards but also a major downside if it goes wrong.  You should only take that kind of risk if you are confident you can succeed.  If not, play it safe, because you can still be heard, understood, respected and remembered without making people laugh.

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