Business Development Series Posted by David McDermott

The late, great Frank Zappa was once asked, “does humour belong in music?”, to which he replied, “it belongs in every other walk of life, so why not music?”

If this is the case, we can conclude that there is also a place for humour in presentations. Indeed, when you ask audiences what they like about presentations, many say that humour and asides make them more enjoyable and interesting.

However, a word of warning…

There are a few caveats when considering if you should use humour.

1. Make sure the humour supports your message, otherwise, it can have serious consequences. For an example of just how serious it can be, think of Gerald Ratner, the man who wiped £500m from the value of his eponymous jewellery business when he said of its stock: “People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, ‘Because it’s total crap.”

2. Avoid starting with the obligatory and often irrelevant joke. Otherwise your audience will remember the humour at the expense of  your message.

3. If you are communicating a serious or negative message, humour is best avoided. For example, it would not be appropriate to use humour if you are presenting on the under-performance of financial assets or how a health and safety failure caused a fatality.

4. If the humour could be offensive to any group or individual, then it is best avoided. As a client once said, “How was I supposed to know that David was once known as Dorothy?

For many presenters, telling humorous stories does not come naturally. A colleague once asked if I could help her tell funny stories in her presentations.  I had seen many of her presentations and was really impressed at how she hooked her audience.  She had them on the edge of their seats by saying things like, “Let me put my psychologist’s hat on for a moment” or “Allow me to engage in a bit of mind-reading”. Needless to say, I told her not to bother with the jokes and stick to what she is good at, and what comes naturally.

How to…

If telling funny stories is not your natural style but you would still like to inject a bit of humour, then here are some tips on how you can achieve this:

1. Show the audience a cartoon or illustration and let them read the punchline. The one below was used by one of our psychologists when delivering a presentation about taking responsibility

2. Attribute the punchline to someone else. For example, “My colleague told me she had given up on using rhetorical questions in her presentations. After all, what’s the point?”

3. Self-deprecation can also work well. When pitching for a large mandate, a team of civil engineers introduced their team by showing the audience an organisation diagram with their photographs in it. The team leader said, “Here is the team who will be working on your project. They will be available to you 24/7.  As you can see, they would never win any other beauty parade, but a more experienced and dedicated team would be hard to find!”

Humour certainly can make your presentation more enjoyable but there are risks. If in doubt, leave it out.

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