7 ways to use humor in your presentation

by | Sep 4, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

The recent surge in video conferencing brought on by the COVID pandemic has provided a wealth of comedic material for social media – from bosses transforming themselves into potatoes to Saturday Night Live’s take on the ubiquitous Zoom call, and many fails and awkward moments in between.

And the memes and tweets keep coming as the video conferencing fatigue deepens. We now even have a new emoji sticker about making video calls in your underwear.

Humor, of course, is a great elixir to take the edge off during times of trouble or uncertainty. But it can be a high-risk, high-reward tool that needs to be deployed with care.

Here are seven ways to wield it.

7 Ways to Use Humor in Your Presentation

1. Remember: You are not doing stand-up

Funny dinner guests and the co-worker who keeps fellow office mates laughing do not earn their humorous reputations by firing off dozens of one-liners or riffing on a particular subject the way top stand-up comics do. Rather, they spot the humor that exists in everyday situations and convey that through funny conversational observations.

It’s a formula that works well for most presentations – think humor, not jokes. Your audience is not expecting an open-mic night, but certainly will appreciate a speaker who can successfully deliver funny asides, amusing stories, wry comments, irresistible ironies, and memorable quips.

However, being funny simply for the sake of being funny doesn’t help you. As a presenter, the humor you use should serve your message – providing context and depth to your main points. It also is an effective tool to incorporate into your opening or close. You just don’t want your audience remembering your jokes at the expense of your key message.

Overall, the humor you use in your presentation should serve to enhance and illustrate the points you are trying to make. When used well, humor also can help you to poke fun at human foibles without sounding critical, encourage your audience to question long-standing assumptions without threatening their beliefs, and offer fresh insights into old ideas.

In his TED talk, The Happy Secret to Better Work, psychologist and bestselling author Shawn Achor successfully employed humor throughout his talk, including his opening. He enlisted a funny anecdote (it runs from about 0:10 to 3:05) to capture his audience’s attention and bring them to the very heart of his talk. During his opening, he employs a story that many of us can relate to. He offers funny asides. And, his humorous story effectively illustrates the main theme of his speech. Here it is:


2. Don’t knock your credibility

Self-effacing humor is one thing. In fact, in one study, business leaders who poked fun at themselves were seen as more trustworthy and caring by their employees. But it’s a fine line between laughing at your own expense and putting a ding in your expertise. Stay away from humor that questions your credibility or downplays the topic of your talk. You also don’t want to bring attention to your weaknesses (“I’ve never done a virtual presentation before, so good luck to us all!”).

3. Keep it appropriate

In real life, the jokes cast by fictitious Dunder Mifflin regional manager Michael Scott, played by Steve Carrell in the television show “The Office,” would have been a nightmare for any real-life human resources specialist. Don’t be Michael Scott. Overall, it’s best to steer clear of edgy, off-color, political, or profane humor.

If you are not a full-time comic, you might be stressed about finding inspiration for your humorous asides and anecdotes. Don’t worry, there is appropriate material all around you. The best material comes from everyday, real-life experiences you and the audience can relate to. Perhaps you had a funny exchange with a client, or your kid offered up a funny or ironic observation without realizing it. Maybe you want to recall an innocent blunder on your first day on the job, which wasn’t funny then but is hilarious now. Or, you saw a sign with a funny or contradictory saying. Think about material that doesn’t make you cringe.

If you need inspiration, comedian Brian Regan has built a nearly 25-year career on funny, wry observations about life that don’t require a parental advisory.

4. Avoid sarcasm

Sarcastic people can indeed be funny, but it’s all in the context. Inherently, sarcasm can be difficult to interpret, given you are saying one thing but actually meaning the opposite. It’s like an inside joke. It might go over well if everyone is in on it. If not, it could lead to conflict or hurt feelings.

5. Be confident

You won’t have to worry about hecklers, but your audience will sense if you are hesitant about delivering your punch line. If you are funny, play to your strengths. Deliver your funny anecdote with a confidence and ease that suggests you are having as much fun telling it as you hope your audience is having by hearing it.

If you are hesitant about sharing your own personal stories or are struggling to come up with material, you can always borrow material and pass it along – whether that’s a funny story you heard, a witty cartoon, or a famous humorous line. That fact that you know it is funny makes you humorous even if you are not the creator.

In his TED Talk Do schools kill creativity? which has been seen by more than 66 million people, Ken Robinson, an educator and bestselling author, offers a great example of how to borrow and deliver a great story. It starts around the 3:20 mark:

6. Not all humor has to be said

Unless you are talking about a super-serious subject, you can probably slip a funny slide into your deck. Perhaps you plant a quote from an unlikely source. Or, you show a prediction that has since been proven to be wildly off. The idea is to offer something unexpected. That’s what jogs your audience out of its doldrums.

7. Embrace the silence

The success of any funny comment during an in-person presentation is gauged by the laughter you get from your audience. I’d hazard a guess that even the canniest and most confident comic might be thrown by telling a joke to a crowd on mute. If you plan on being humorous during an online presentation, and your audience can’t be seen or heard, make sure that you won’t be thrown by this lack of laughter. Deliver the punch line and move on. It keeps it from getting awkward.

In other words, deliver the humor as if you are not expecting a laugh. If there is a laugh, treat it as a delightful surprise. If there’s not, it doesn’t matter because the line you delivered carried a message that made it through anyway. It’s only when you pause, as if you’re expecting a laugh, and you don’t get one that it becomes problematic. That said, if you are doing an in-person talk (or you can hear your online audience), and you get those laughs, let them breathe. If you rumble into your next points, the audience may not hear you. Or, they may feel as if they should abruptly stop their laughter which defeats the purpose of using humor!

Ready for success

Perhaps you are naturally funny but a little rehearsal couldn’t hurt. Test out your funny comments on a few friends or trusted colleagues. You’ll be happy to find out before you tell it if it lands as you intended. Even Jerry Seinfeld tests out his material. 

And if you are offering a virtual presentation, make sure you have a firm grip on the technology and know how to use it. You don’t want to be the potato.

This article originally appeared on the Throughline blog; reprinted with permission.

Christina Hennessy
Christina Hennessy is the Chief Content Officer for Throughline Group, a communications training firm based in NYC and DC which offers public speaking classes and media training classes.


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