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Humour

How can you use humour to engage your audience in your business presentations?

By Jean Stewart, Toastmasters International 

Not everyone in your audience will be overjoyed at the prospect of sitting through another presentation so what can be done to get them listening?  Afterall you are there to impart important information or to get enthusiasm for action! Using humour is an excellent way to get engagement as an audience which is enjoying a presentation is far more likely to listen, learn and take action.

If you’re worried that you’re not a natural comedian – don’t fret, there are plenty of ways you can add some humour without attending comedy school. Here are some pointers to help you introduce a touch of humour. 

Do your research. If you are presenting at a Corporate event, take time to find out about the organisation.    They will undoubtedly have a fund of stories about their organisation and the people in it. Pitched correctly this can provide you with an excellent opening to your presentation – and there may even be a funny story you can share. But remember…

Don’t make it personal. Never make personal comments about anyone in the audience as a way of being amusing. Do not think that having arranged for a ‘victim’ before the presentation will work.  Many in the audience will then spend the entire presentation worrying that they will be the next victim. It’s a sure fire, and quick way, to lose the support of the rest of the audience. Sometimes you will get someone calling out or making comments you feel need to be slapped down.   Don’t.   Instead, tell the person concerned that you will discuss this with them later, or, ask the audience for their opinion on the comment made.  Or simply ignore the remarks.   It is important that you remain the friendly presenter who is on the side of the audience, not someone who is itching for confrontation.

Your own experiences. If you want to tell an embarrassing story, make sure it is something you have experienced.   Undoubtedly some of the audience will also have lived through this unfortunate episode in their lives.    This way you will gain the sympathy of the audience – and don’t alienate anyone.

Words and pictures. Some of the audience will react well to the spoken word, and others are influenced by visual presentations.  It is therefore a good idea to have something that will add visual impact to your presentation.   This could be a humorous image on a slide, or even a humorous (and appropriate) prop. 

Practice. Humour inserted into a presentation should be written down and rehearsed as any other material would be.  Do not think that humour can be off the cuff. It needs to be planned and rehearsed – you as the top comedians so. 

Don’t laugh. Although you want your presentation to be humorous – don’t join in the laughter.   There is nothing wrong with the presenter having a wry smile on his/her lips – but too much laughter from you gives the impression that the session is for your benefit.   Also, if you laugh and the audience does not this is a way to make the atmosphere uncomfortable for all concerned.

Mind your language. In a lot of situations, it would be a mistake to use inappropriate language to get a point across.   I have seen this happen and it is nearly always a mistake.  Unless you know the audience well and feel they are happy to put up with fairly tame, but inappropriate language, do not indulge in this.

Use pauses to full effect.    If providing a humorous punch line to the story, pause and allow the audience to realise this is an important part of the presentation.  If they don’t take the hint; move on.

Give the audience time to laugh.   You can never guarantee when an audience will find a statement funny.  Each audience has its own personality.   Some groups will laugh at a particular statement and others will fall silent.  This is about the experience of some of the people in the audience.   If they identify with something they find funny, because of their experiences, then their laughter will spread to others in the audience.    At this point don’t try and move on too quickly, rather enjoy the moment and let them continue with their laughter.   

And remember the following:

  1. An audience can be enjoying your use of humour without laughing out loud.  Read their body language.   Sometimes it takes time for the audience to warm to you.
  1. You do not have to mimic your favourite comedian when delivering the funny content.   Be yourself.   If the audience does not get your humour, you can still rely on the main message of the presentation.   Move on.   It will get easier as you deliver more presentations with humour.
  1. Keep up the energy and enjoy yourself.   There is no doubt this is the most important aspect of delivering a successful presentation. 

Finally, give yourself a break and don’t expect everything to work immediately.  As you keep introducing humour your confidence in your ability to get a chuckle will grow.   As professional comedians know that not everyone will enjoy their humour – that’s life. The same is true for the humour in your presentation. If you can strike the right note with the majority in your audience you’ll be onto a winner.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jean Stewart is from Toastmasters International a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org