A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to this Presentation . . . .

It never ceases to amaze us how many people think that telling jokes is the best way to add humor to a presentation. Where they get this idea from, we don’t know, but we have seen quite a few people try to be the Jimmy Fallon of presenters, only to find themselves using the podium as a shield against the slings and arrows of audiences who were NOT AMUSED. “Dying is easy,” said the great 18th-century English actor Sir Edmund Kean. “Comedy is hard.” We wish that some of the would-be “comedians” we’ve seen, would have listened to Sir Edmund.

A case in point: Some years back, Ellen was teaching a presentation skills class to a group of ten—nine women and one man. Here’s her story:

I talked about the benefits of using humor to enliven a technical presentation and encouraged my students to think about ways to add something funny to their own presentations. When it came time for them to be videotaped, the lone man in the group started his presentation by saying, “How are statistics like a woman in a bikini?”

Well, dear friends, at first you could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the room as all ten of us women just STARED at this guy in disbelief. What?! He’s not only telling a joke—he’s telling a SEXIST joke to boot?!?!?! The gaping quickly turned to hissing and I silently pleaded with him, “Please—do not do this. LOOK at your audience! Do they look like they will be receptive to this kind of humor? Are you nuts?” Oblivious to the snarling, he continued with the punch line: “What they reveal is less interesting than what they conceal.”

The hook! The hook! Get this guy off the stage!

The difficulty of making jokes work in a presentation is compounded if your audience members do not all come from the same cultural background. The humor in most jokes occurs because of a shared frame of reference; if you and your audience members do not share the same cultural worldview, you risk confusing them (at the least) or alienating them (at the worst).

Here’s an example: When Ellen’s Chinese students asked her once if it would be a good idea to tell a joke in a presentation, she responded by telling them a distinctly American joke: “Two cannibals are having dinner. One cannibal turns to the other and says, ‘I hate my mother-in-law.’ The other cannibal says, ‘Well, just eat the noodles.’”

Did you think that was funny? If you are native-born American, if you understand the stereotype of how Americans feel about their mothers-in-law, and if you know what a cannibal is, then you might find this joke amusing (or at least you will get it). If you don’t have this cultural knowledge, you will be dumbfounded (as indeed Ellen’s Chinese students were).

The worst-case scenario is that the joke you tell will be offensive to members of your audience. (Certainly those members who actually love and honor their mothers-in-law might be insulted.) If you tell a joke at the beginning and it has a negative impact on your audience, the rest of your presentation may well be a disaster.

We’re not going to say that a joke can never work in a presentation. But before you consider ever using one in your own presentation, please be sure the joke you choose meets these three criteria:

  1. It is tried and true funny. (You’ve told it many times before, and it ALWAYS gets a laugh.)
  2. It is actually relevant to a key point in your presentation.
  3. It is completely, 100% not offensive to any person on any basis whatsoever.

If you can’t make it work, don’t use it. Tell a story instead. The best way to add humor to your presentation is to tell a personal story. If the target of your humor is yourself, you will most likely offend no one, and—even better—you will establish a human connection between yourself and your audience, no matter how different your cultural frames of reference may be. And one important tip about adding humor: Don’t tell your audience that you’re about to tell them a funny story – just tell it! If they laugh, great. If they don’t, then it was just a story, which is fine, too.

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