30 January 2012

The Zen of Presentations, Part 48: Funny or die?

To hear a lot of people talk, you’d think telling a joke was as deadly as juggling a chainsaw.

Presenters are often told, “Don’t try to be funny.” This is bizarre to me, given that humour is one of the most often cited features of a good presentation. The thinking seems to be that failed humour is a dangerous thing to a speaker. What is at risk when you use humour? People might not laugh.

There’s two responses to that. First, people not laughing is not dangerous. It might deflate your ego a bit. But it’s not as though if a joke lands wrong, it could take your hand clean off!

And if you hadn’t told the joke? People definitely will not laugh. You have the same outcome with or without the joke.

Second, just because people do not laugh out loud at your joke does not necessarily mean they are not enjoying themselves. Sometimes they may just smile. Their smiles may not be big grins. Not everyone in the room may smile. It can be difficult to pick up those cues that people are enjoying the humour, particularly if you’re in a big room, or a dark room, and so on. Even if you’re not getting the audible laughs, you can still have a room full of people who are much more pleased with your presentation than if you didn’t make the effort.

If you tell a joke and it doesn’t work, and you panic, that is not a problem that comes from telling a joke. That is a problem that comes from poor preparation. Lack of preparation can make a talk brittle, and a presenter unable to cope with even slight deviations from plan.

If you’re not comfortable with humour in the sense of telling jokes, think of humour as used in the phrase “good humoured.” Even if you don’t deliberately say funny things, you could at least smile.

Related posts

The Zen of Presentations, Part 5: Legalized insanity
The Zen of Presentations, Part 37: What makes a good speaker?
The Zen of Presentations, Part 38: What you say vs. what they remember

External links

Live notetaking from the “Science humour” session at Science Online 2012 by Perrin Ireland.

Photo by FadderUri on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

Hat tip to Christie Wilcox (here and here).

1 comment:

KateClancy said...

"Second, just because people do not laugh out loud at your joke, that does not necessarily mean they are not enjoying themselves. "

This is such an important point! I think attempts at humor are very important in teaching and research presentations, because people often are enjoying themselves. It's just that they're ALSO thinking or jotting down notes. I don't expect laughter when I bring levity to my presentations, I just expect that people will be a little more relaxed and better able to hear me if I have that kind of attitude.