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Make your presentations more powerful by adding humour

By Glen Savage, Toastmasters International

Not long ago I was talking to a business executive I was coaching and suggested that he added some humour to an important presentation he was practicing. He was quite indignant and stated emphatically: ‘I am a serious speaker’.  

The problem is that the drier, the more factual the content of a presentation the harder it can be for members of the audience to stay engaged and attentive. My response to my client was to ask whether he wanted to be a ‘serious speaker’ or to be someone who was taken seriously when he gave a speech or presentation.   

A sprinkling of humour supports the gravity of a message. Why is this?

Effective one-to-one communication depends on building rapport, creating a connection and building trust, and the same is true for presenting. Rapport one-to-many may feel different, but it has the same foundations. Demonstrating relatability and building a connection with the audience are fundamental to getting a message across, and humour conveys that relatability, displaying a human side which generates likeability and builds trust in the speaker. 

Humour usually creates a response – a smile, giggle, or laugh, but used inappropriately can generate a negative reaction. I tend to agree with Charles Dickens – “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.” Though the wrong kind of comment will lead to a disaffected, potentially hostile reception. Levity should only be designed for a presentation once the speaker has a good sense of the potential audience.

What makes something funny?

A difficult question to answer, given that we don’t all have the same sense of humour. 

I am often asked whether joke-telling is appropriate, for which my answer is that it depends. Jokes, puns and frivolity that are directly related to the subject matter at hand can work very well.  Stand-alone, crafted jokes of the ‘three men walk into a bar’ kind, are the territory of stand-up comedians and rarely work in other contexts. 

In my experience, there are a number of things that audiences find funny which can be sprinkled into a talk or presentation. 


Something unexpected, a twist in the tale, an exaggeration, or the speaker making a joke at their own expense, all humorous interludes which surprise, and when done well, delight the listeners. 



People will laugh at things they can relate to, whether it’s an observation of something in the room, their own experience, current affairs or more.



Humour that unfolds from the subject of the presentation, creating a flow between the serious parts of the message usually lands well and easily with the audience. Don’t try to shoehorn in a funny line just to get a laugh. Make sure any humour relates to the point or message.


Personal anecdotes

A story about the speaker’s own fallibility, maybe a mistake, or a surprising event or some other anecdote relevant to the message, conveyed wittily, improves relatability and builds connection.



Exaggerating points, with a smile, raised eyebrow or chuckle puts a lighthearted spotlight on something to amuse the audience and underline a point.


Humorous titles

Create anticipation, curiosity and get a laugh before you even reach the stage with an amusing title for the session – if it seems appropriate.  

To give you an example, I recently changed a session title from Sales training to Are you selling it or keeping it? Modern sales considerations.’. Attendance at the master class doubled!


Your delivery counts

In my experience, humour only works when executed well. Here are my top tips for delivery.


Run through your presentation a number of times so that the humour feels natural and flows fluently.



Try out the talk in advance with someone you know and trust to gain some honest feedback on the humour you’ve weaved in.


Have fun

Relax and your witticisms will be delivered with ease; when you appear to be enjoying yourself, the audience is more likely to enjoy the speech too.  


Be animated

Use your facial expressions, gestures and voice to emphasise the humour – or use them to provide the humour with a raised eyebrow, a smile, body movement or change of voice tone. 


Be confident

Stretch out of your comfort zone and say or do things that you might not normally be confident enough to do. (I once told an amusing story about a purple gorilla in a presentation about ‘Health & Safety’. I bumped into an audience member years later who said, ‘Hey, I still remember that story you told about the purple gorilla.’)


Read the room (or the virtual room)

Watch and listen. If people aren’t laughing, move on and if necessary, adapt what you are planning to say in the moment. Remember not everyone has the same sense of humour!

Focus on audience members who are smiling and laughing to fuel your energy of delivery. 

Don’t interrupt the laughter

People like to laugh.  Let them enjoy the experience. Pausing until the laughter has quietened means laughs can ripple around the room without interruption, and the next thing that you wish to say will not be lost. 

Humour is the secret weapon that connects, engages and holds an audience.  Laughter is like an instant vacation, a kind of mini-break, enhancing the intake of oxygen-rich air to stimulate heart, lungs and muscles. Laughter releases endorphins which lower cortisol levels and stress, and stimulates the brain’s release of dopamine – the feel-good hormone. Amusement or hilarity can lighten any mood, relieve points of tension and increase receptivity.

The message is clear. To be taken seriously as a speaker aim to incorporate the unserious in your repertoire. That way your audience will relate to you and stay engage and attentive.   


Glen Savage DTM is a member of 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