We’ve all been there at one time or another, suffering through someone’s droning presentation daydreaming about being on a tropical island with _________. Sadly I’ve heard speeches that were so boring even the presenter fell asleep. And according to a survey reported in Presentations magazine, 71% of business people admit to having fallen asleep during a business presentation!
Fortunately, adding a little humor seasoning to a presentation can add a little zest here and a little zip there. Incorporating humor into a presentation doesn’t mean you take the topic or audience lightly, on the contrary, it means you know enough about effective communications and respect your audience enough to want to give them a memorable, interesting and dynamic presentation. As Peggy Noonan, presidential speech writer and author of Simply Speaking says, “Humor is gracious and shows respect. It shows the audience you think highly of them to want to entertain them.”
Reason #1 to add some humor: You need an audience. Speaking to a wall has never been a particularly successful way of communicating. If you want to attract an eager audience, then make sure your presentation title and any promotional literature (even if it’s just one line in a meeting agenda) conveys a sense of fun or enthusiasm. Who wants to go hear Bob spew on about the Changing Paradigm of Project Management? Probably only Bob (and even then I wouldn’t count on it).
Reason #2: Audiences listen faster than you can say “wake up!”
We live in a world of flippers and zippers. People flip around the TV dial with their remote controls and zip through the commercials on their video tapes. The same holds true for members of your audience, except they’re channel changing inside their heads. The typical business person, according to Business Week magazine, has an attention span of only 6 minutes. And more to the point, most people speak at an average rate of 150 words per minute; the average listener takes in anywhere from 350 to 600 words per minute. Which means audiences have time to squeeze in other thoughts and still appear to be listening. As you talk, your audience might be thinking to themselves “I wonder what’s for lunch?”, “I wonder if my wife is still mad at me?” or “I wonder what the primary export of Bora Bora is?” Some speakers have even suggested that close to 2/3 of an audience in a one hour presentation will daydream about a sexual fantasy (which is why some audiences actually want you to keep speaking longer).
Because of the disparity between speaking and listening rates, speakers must be aware of the “zap rule”. Audiences need a “zap” at least once every 3-6 minutes during a presentation to stay focused and interested. A zap does not have to be a song and dance number; it may be as simple as slipping in a quote, asking the audience a question or changing your audio-visual medium. Using humor, however, is one of the most effective zaps available. Humor gets people involved, focuses their attention back to the front of the room and keeps their brains tuned to your station.
Reason # 3: You need to master your nervous energy
Even the most polished professional speakers admit to getting nervous, in fact, many speakers say they need to be nervous in order to be “on”. The trick is harnessing that nervous energy and making it work for you. And one of the best ways of managing nervous energy is through humor. Using humor near the start of a presentation helps you breathe easier, relax, slow down and dissipate bottled up nervous energy. And accessing your sense of humor just prior to delivering a presentation can do wonders for calming those pre-talk butterflies.
Reason #4: Your audience needs to relax too
Even audiences get nervous, or a little anxious, particularly if it is a learning situation. Adding humor helps the audience relax, unwind and not take the situation too seriously, making them more accepting to new ideas. Adding humor to the beginning of a presentation sends the message “we’re here to have fun too folks!”
Reason #5: Humor helps unite an audience
A united audience is a good thing (unless they’re united against you, but that’s a whole other topic), and nothing unites a group of people better than a shared laugh. When people laugh together they are no longer a gaggle of managers or a flock of union workers, but simply a group of human beings with a common reason to smile.
Reason #6: Humor helps deliver controversial, authoritative or bad news
If done effectively, humor can soften bad news. Like the old sugar-with-the-cough-syrup trick, humor helps audiences swallow difficult news a little easier. Humor diffuses anxieties, shows concern for the audience and helps people see a bad situation in a more positive light. In fact, research into the communication of sensitive topics suggests that negative appeals (such as “stop smoking or you might die”) have limited effect, however the use of humor has a much more potent impact when conveying sensitive topics. And using humor near the start of a talk can quickly disarm any hostile emotions.
Reason #7: Different people learn in different ways
Your audience is made up of people who learn in different ways, so to be effective at reaching everyone you need think about incorporating different styles and methods into your presentation. Adding humor is just one more way you can vary your approach to reach different learners in your audience.
Reason #8: Humor helps audiences retain information
Regular bouts of laughter and play is thought to boost memory retention. And tapping into your audiences emotions helps them retain information longer and remember the ideas hidden inside the humor. Nudging on their collective funny bone helps audiences to later access information through one more memory channel. Instead of just remembering the facts, the audience will also remember the funny hat you wore, which in turn will trigger an association to the content you were sharing at the time.
One study found that students who took a university statistics course with ample humor sprinkled into the lectures scored 15% higher on exams than their non-humored counterparts. Another study showed that “concept humor”—humor related to the topic at hand—significantly improved information retention.
Reason #9: Humor improves your credibility and builds rapport
Credibility and likeability contribute to the overall success of the delivery of any message. If you are going to persuade an audience, then first and foremost they have to trust and like you. Humor is a perfect way to build trust, reduce the distance between a speaker and the audience and reduce the authoritativeness of the presenter. Humor can convey the notion that you are “all in this together” and that you, as the presenter, share some of their same experiences or concerns. And by finding common ground, humor allows a speaker to meet an audience where they are at. Studies have linked humor with the speaker’s credibility, appeal, intelligence, audience attention, participation, retention, comprehension and attitudinal changes. And the use of humorous satire in some situations has substantially improved the persuasiveness of the arguments being presented.
Reason #10: Humor helps you have fun too
Adding humor ensures that you don’t get bored with the material either. If you’re delivering the same talk for the 18th time, or delivering a talk on a dry topic, then you need to think about making it fun for your sake as well. After all, if you can’t get enthusiastic about your topic, why on earth would you expect anyone in your audience to care about it? Using humor can keep the material fresh and lively, and help you look forward to delivering your next presentation.
Reason #11 Humor can make a complex topic less intimidating
Let’s face it, some topics are down right scary. Humor once again rides to the rescue by making even the most frightening topics seem less scary and easier to understand. In Reason, using humor in dry topics has been to show to have an even greater impact on an audience than when humor is used with topics that are perceived to be already interesting. And using humor to deliver sensitive or “dangerous” topics helps people confront them by allowing them to laugh at them.
Reason #12: Humor can reinforce your message
Jokes and funny anecdotes can reiterate points in small, easy to digest chunks, allowing your to repeat your main message in a varied and lighthearted manner.
Reason #13: Humor changes perspectives
Because humor involves a twist in logic, using humor can change an audience’s perspective on an issue. And since we know humor is a lubricant for creative thinking, using humor also helps to open up minds and encourages people to be more flexible in their attitudes.
Reason #14: Humor can leave people feeling positive
Ideally you want your audience going away feeling positive about you, the talk and
themselves. Humor helps foster an upbeat tone that leave’s people with a positive aftertaste.
Reason #15: Humor keeps us humble
One of the few unforgivable speaking sins that an audience just won’t forgive is when a presenter take themselves too seriously. Self effacing humor helps keep a speaker humble and accessible to the audience. Self effacing humor also helps presenters recover graciously from bloopers, which are bound to happen anytime we open our mouths in front of a large group of people staring at us.
So there you have it—15 compelling reasons to remind yourself that the next time you deliver a presentation, you just can’t be serious!
Copyright Michael Kerr, 2011
Michael Kerr is an international speaker, trainer and author of “The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses Are Laughing All The Way To The Bank,” “Putting Humor to Work” and “Inspiring Workplaces.” You can reach Michael at 1-(866)-609-2640 or firstname.lastname@example.org . For more humor at work articles, DVDs and other humor at work resources, surf on over to www.mikekerr.com . Michael helps workplaces reduce stress, boost morale, spark creativity and increase productivity by putting humor to work.
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