For many speakers, humour is the Holy Grail of presenting, and it’s not hard to see why. There are few things in life quite so gratifying as a room full of people giggling and grinning at something you’ve just said.
We look at TED speakers that we want to emulate, and we see too that their talks are often wrapped in the warm glow of laughter.
Laughter is a great asset to almost any presentation or talk. Humour is a great way to defuse a problem, or to get an audience warmed up and on your side. And as your talk progresses, your listeners need a moment to laugh sometimes – it provides a moment of communal release, when everyone can take a break from taking in the content and check in with how the rest of the room is feeling.
Even very serious talks can be broken up with moments of levity. Funeral tributes are a good example of this – a funny, well-chosen story about the deceased can provoke welcome and perfectly appropriate hilarity at a time of great sadness. A good speaker can use those humour breaks to release some tension, and then start building up again.
So it’s natural to look at people who are famous for being funny, and to try and emulate their style. This, alas, can lead to some unfortunate combinations – you may be a big fan of Seinfeld, but is New York Jewish really your natural style of delivery? You might like the way Amy Schumer can leave an audience gasping with delighted shock – but is saying the unsayable really the right way to go for that marketing keynote?
Be funny, by all means, but find your own funny, and measure it to the occasion. At this point, someone often says to me: ‘But I’m just not funny!’ Not true. If you can laugh, then you have a sense of humour. And if you can recognise funny, then you can do funny.
But what kind of funny are you? One way to think about this is the kind of reaction your humour usually gets with your friends. Do you make people smile with your wit? Do you go for big belly laughs? Silly giggles? Corny groans? Dirty chuckles? Is your humour wryly observational? Are you a social satirist? A champion of banter? Or are you more the ironic self-denigrating type?
So think about the style of humour that suits you, and match your material accordingly. But don’t over-think it. You’re taking people on a journey, and humour is always a welcome element of that, for sure. But humour often arises unforeseen and unplanned, when we start to dare to be in the moment more and aren’t even actually thinking of trying to be funny. Watching a mindful speaker deal with an unexpected technical glitch or a left-field question from the audience can be very funny.
Remember, too, that pub-you isn’t presentation-you. When presenting, you want something of your flavour of humour to come through, of course, but ultimately you’re not being judged on how many laughs you get. It’s nice to get big laughs, but big laughs are also often the highest risk and potentially the most divisive.
So along with the laugh, let me put in a plug at this point for the smile. There are many smiles too - the smile of recognition, of affection, identification, surprise. The smile is a response to a style of humour that’s subtler and less confrontational, that’s more observational and less punchline-driven, and what it lacks in fireworks it can make up for in emotional staying power.
As the comic novelist Muriel Spark put it: “I have a great desire to make people smile - not laugh, but smile. Laughter is too aggressive. People bare their teeth.”