Humour 101: How to Add Levity to Your Next Presentation

September 9, 2015 Trevor Currie

What is better than standing up in front of a group of people and getting a laugh?

Making people laugh is affirming, it lights up all of the pleasure centres in our brain and it makes us feel witty and clever. Why else would stand up comedians subject themselves to hecklers night after night? When your sense of humour connects with an audience, it’s amazing.

And because of that, many of my clients want to know how they can bring the funny. This can be tricky territory—how does one tell somebody that he’s not nearly as funny as he thinks he is? To help with this, I ask my clients three questions when they are deciding whether or not to incorporate humour into their next presentation:

  1. Are you funny? You know if you’re funny. You do. And if you’re really not sure, try to be funny and see if you get (a) silence, (b) groans or (c) laughs. If the answer is (a) and/or (b), you’re not funny enough to try and be funny when you’re presenting.
  2. Is your humour appropriate for the audience? The type of humour you use with your college buddies or even your close colleagues is hardly ever appropriate for a professional audience.
  3. Is your humour appropriate for the topic? If you’re giving a presentation about child poverty rates in North America, the types of humour you can draw upon will be pretty limited. If you’re giving a talk about the various ways the education system is failing children, you might have more to work with. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk is a brilliant example of how to inject humour into a serious subject with great effect. (You can watch it here: www.ted.com/sirkenrobinson)

If you can not confidently answer yes to all three of these questions, your attempt at humour will most likely bomb. And nothing kills credibility faster than humour gone wrong.

Instead of trying to yuck it up, make levity your goal.

You want to create lightness and make a warm, human connection with your audience. You don’t need to get big laughs to do this. Here are five techniques you can use to create a sense of levity in your next presentation:

Observe. The very best humour comes from astute observation. Your levity efforts should start long before you set foot on the stage. Research the pain points and frustrations your audience deals with on a regular basis. Spend time observing them (or people like them) to get a better handle on the crazy aspects of their reality. This is all great fodder for empathy and lighthearted storytelling.

Acknowledge their reality. Nothing endears you to people more quickly than demonstrating that you get them. If you can playfully acknowledge their pain points or frustrations or the crazy aspects of their world, especially as it relates to your subject matter or expertise, you’ll have them smiling and nodding their heads. And this is what you’re going for—appreciative head nods, not giant guffaws.

Recount a conversation. If you have the opportunity to speak with members of the audience before your presentation, you can reference back to things they’ve told you in a fun and charming way. You will need to decide if it’s more appropriate to share these bits of conversation anonymously or to attribute them back to the person you spoke with.

Insert a conversational aside. Conversational asides are a great way to inject some levity into your presentations. I often use quotations in my training workshops and consulting work and will add a conversational aside to engage the audience further. For example, I might reference a quote by French philosopher Voltaire that helps illustrate a point I’m making and then say: “by the way, I’ve never read Voltaire lest you think I’m trying to pass myself off as an erudite philosopher. I’m not. I just love that quote!”

Share your shortcomings. I sometimes use this technique when I’m talking to clients about the importance of posture, presence and gestures. I muse in a self-deprecating way that I’m a short dude and I need to create as much presence as I can so I keep my hands out of my pockets, my shoulders rolled back and my gestures in front of me. The truth can get a laugh, generate empathy and make you approachable. It’s okay to be candid and honest about your shortcomings as long as it doesn’t undermine your credibility.

The bottom line on humour in presentations is this: don’t tell jokes.

You are not a stand up comedian and that means your jokes are rarely delivered well or funny. When you tell a joke, it’s obvious you’re trying to be funny. And that’s awkward. In doing so, you’re creating uncomfortable and unnecessary tension between you and your audience.

So, aim for levity not big laughs; warmth not wisecracks. Connect your humour to your content and you’ll have them smiling and nodding and loving you in the aisles.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How and when have you used humour with great effect? How did you do it? Have you ever tried to inject some humour and failed fantastically? What tips and tricks do you use to ensure your attempts at levity and wit land every time? Share your experience in the comments below.

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