Audience responding to humor

Humor is no joke in public speaking

Humor can be used to improve situations. It improves social relationships, diffuses tension, and helps us to address difficult topics. Humor allows us to laugh together, leaving a good feeling between us.

It is no different for public speaking. Humor is a resource that can improve your presentation. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be a comedian or tell jokes! Telling, for example, humorous anecdotes about the topic has an impact on the message, perception of the speaker and the audience reception.

With a little research, you can find a lot of advice out there favoring humor in presentations. However, most of it is vague and somehow questionable. Let’s focus on how humor benefits the message, audience perception of you, and makes them more receptive. Along the way, we’ll see effective ways to integrate humor in your presentation and will discuss why common advice might be best avoided.

The message becomes easier to understand

Presenting your message with humor amplifies it. When you introduce an idea with a bit of humor, it will immediately reach your audience with more impact, and it is more likely to be well received. It makes the content more digestible and interesting.

When something is humorous it engages your entire brain, activating different parts of it and increasing the number of neural connections. That is why it is so good for engaging audience attention and improving memory of your message.

It also helps with difficult topics. Humor helps you to convey caustic ideas more delicately. A message delivered with humor is more likely to be accepted by your audience.

Here is an example of how humor can help you to address a hard or uncomfortable subject. (Warning: neither workplace nor kid friendly)

The speaker seems more natural and connected

If you’re giving a speech, remember that humor will play a great deal in connecting with your audience. You’ll sound more natural and authentic. Besides that, the fact that you’re all laughing together, at the same thing, will help you to create empathy.

As a speaker, you sound more energetic and passionate about your message. It helps you to transmit your intention, personalizing the call to action. The audience will feel more inclined to follow your lead.

Your audience feels relaxed and open to new ideas

Using humor during a presentation creates an environment of comfort and trust. It makes the presenter look more likable and confident, which relaxes the audience.

When we feel comfortable and relaxed, we learn better because we are able to pay more attention. This also makes us more open to new ideas and different ways of doing our tasks.

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise, they’ll kill you.”

Oscar Wilde

The right moment to use humor

Despite all benefits of humor, it should be used carefully and with common sense. First, you must evaluate if it is appropriate for the moment or topic you’re addressing.

Sure, humor can make difficult subjects lighter. However, if it is a very delicate situation, it’s probably better to tell a good story instead of risking to insult someone. If something negative happened to you and you want to laugh about it, it’s perfect. If you’re talking about someone else’s problems, it might hurt some susceptibilities.

Generally speaking, two moments are usually appropriate for the introduction of humor. The first is the opening of your speech. Beginning with a funny anecdote is a way to break the ice. However, avoid jokes, they can make you look unprofessional and even ridiculous, especially if you’re not a comedian.

Another moment when humor is good is when something goes wrong or at least not exactly as planned. A humorous response will make you look more relaxed and confident in the eyes of your audience.

Is there a right type of humor?

Your very formal corporate audience stares blankly at you. You can see some eye-rolling or the exchange of some disapproval looks. Why? You had just entered the stage. To break the ice, you even told them a funny joke. What went wrong?

As I said before, the whole idea of telling a joke should be avoided. If you’re not a good comedian, you risk making a poor delivering that can have a negative impact. The choice of the material can also be a problem, and let’s not forget cultural differences.

You have to pay extreme attention to the formality of the audience and play accordingly. Telling jokes make you sound more ordinary and may not be very well accepted by everyone. Better safe than sorry, right?

One thing that usually works very well is to make unexpected distortions of the central problem you’re addressing in your presentation. It will look funny, but in truth, you are presenting your audience with a different perspective. They will focus their attention without noticing.

If you’re not sure how to do it, try what can be called the beginning from the end strategy. You start by talking about the consequences, what is (or will be) wrong, instead of the problem it will lead there. Exaggerate it. Exaggeration will pull out a few smiles from the audience. After that, address the reasons why those things are happening. This will catch their attention.

Sometimes, your audience is of a specific field of action. Play with the technical jargon they use daily. No one will find that more hilarious than themselves. It will help to create a connection.

Humor as a powerful tool in presentations

When there is humor involved is usually a positive experience. It helps your muscles to relax, drops your blood pressure, and boosts your immunity. Besides, it’s therapeutic, providing an anesthetic effect.

For all these reasons, a fun presentation will automatically be more interesting and memorable. Humor introduces levity, being a simple and nice way to deliver your message while making it more powerful.

Avoid jokes that can bring discomfort and embarrassing moments and keep to funny stories and anecdotes. It establishes comfort, both for the speaker and the audience, helping to decrease anxiety and making the whole experience more pleasant for everybody.

Cátia is a psychologist who is passionate about helping children develop and train social skills.


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