Adding Humour to Presentations Could Be a Serious Mistake

Communicating Like a Human: Lesson 9.


The problem with presentations


If your job revolves around an office – or even if it doesn’t – the chances are you will have sat through many hours of tedious presentations, watching your life slip away before your eyes.


What if we told you there was a way to stop boring presentations? Would you choose: -

  1. Only using presentations for topics that are aided by this discursive format

  2. Not forcing people who aren’t natural presenters to present

  3. Adding humour to your presentations to lighten the mood?

Ask your favourite search engine and thousands of experts will tell you that the answer is (3). They will tell you how to add humour to your presentations. They will explain why adding humour will make you more successful. They will provide listicles of jokes, anecdotes, quotes, and cartoons to make it easy for you to add humour to your presentations.


Humour isn’t something you can buy off the shelf. It also doesn’t solve the real problem with boring presentations.


Before you run off to rehearse your best knock, knock joke, consider the 7 truths of humour. They may not change your mind, but they may stop you from making a serious mistake.


TL;DR?

 

How Siri recites something humorous, without being funny

When Siri goes ‘off-script’ and tells jokes, the amusement lies in the words she says, not how she is saying them.

1. Humour is Spontaneous


Spontaneity – or the appearance of it – increases joke appreciation. When humour seems to have come from a spontaneous thought, it makes you appear fully engaged at that moment.

Conversely, people sense a planned joke like a fart at a funeral. We can hear the rhythm of the drum’s “boom, boom” as it leads to the cymbals' “tish” of the punchline.


Any laughter generated is the body’s natural reflex to your set-up. It is the laughter of Pavlov’s dog.


Professionals spend weeks rehearsing their delivery to make their humour sound unrehearsed. It seems counterintuitive. It isn’t easy. And it’s unlikely you are a professional comedian.

 

2. Humour is Personal

“If you are hesitant about sharing your own personal stories or are struggling to come up with material, you can always borrow material and pass it along.” 7 Ways to Use Humour in Your Presentation

This is bad advice.


Do not borrow material and pass it off as your own. Just don’t.


You aren’t writing a character-led sketch show. In a presentation, humour works best when it comes from you. It reveals something of your personality. It may just be that you can be humorous.


When you quote someone else, it shows you can repeat someone. It usually shows you can make humour less funny. You will get a better reaction to a worse joke if the joke comes from you.


Don’t. Do. It.

 

3. Humour is Private


The humour you add to your presentations will need to appeal to the widest possible audience. You may think a good barometer for this would be TV viewing figures.


This approach would lead you to lines such as-

"There’s four things in life I hate: scroungers, foreigners, doctors and posh people. And he’s all four”

or

“If women belong in the kitchen, shouldn’t men belong in the garage with the other tools?”

These are taken from Kate & Koji and Mrs Brown’s Boys, respectively. They are the two highest-watched comedy programmes of 2020.


Humour can be private. The things you laugh at in the comfort of your own beanbag may not be the things you laugh at in front of your boss.


Even the middle ground may be a middle ground people don’t want to admit to enjoying.

 
A close up of a pug wearing an earring



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4. Humour is Divisive


Laughter is said to be contagious. When one laughs, everyone laughs.


Unless they don’t.


Picture this. You’re on a date. Dinner with someone you really feel a connection with.


Your server approaches with your main courses. He stumbles, tries to steady himself. He raises his arms and appears to pirouette. A chicken breast slides from the plate and slowly flops onto the left bosom of another diner. Moments later, a second piece of chicken takes position on her right.


You find this hilarious. You have so many puns about chicken fillets, you could vomit them out.


Your date doesn’t laugh. They don’t crack a smile.


Your date is over. Not just for the night. Your number has already been mentally deleted from their phone.

 

5. Humour is Visual

A cartoon of a person at work with an averagely amusing line written underneath
This will NOT add humour to your presentation

Humour is punctuated by delivery. Facial expressions. Raised eyebrows. Well-timed double takes.


A screen grab drains all humour out of a presentation. It shows that you know how to take a screen grab. That is all.


Zoom removes many opportunities for delivery. You may wonder if there is a Plan B? There isn’t. Don’t look for one.


Of course, there are many hilarious podcasts available that seem to argue this point. You aren't presenting a podcast.

 

6. Humour is Sexist

In 2019, an American research project looked at the impact of humour on perception. They recorded two versions of a store manager presenting their quarterly results; one version was ‘straight’ and the other had a few jokes sprinkled throughout.


The research participants were given the store manager’s CV before watching both videos. They were then asked if the humour added to the presentation made any difference.


One group saw the store manager played by a male actor. The other group received the same presentation and background, but with a female store manager.


With humour added to the presentation, the male manager was rated more highly for perceived status, job performance and leadership capability. He was described as “witty and likes to use humour to not seem like a stern speaker.”


The female manager’s use of humour was described as irrelevant and disruptive. She had “poor judgement in jokes” – they were the same jokes – and was “covering up her lack of business acumen by making little jokes.


I would suggest that the comments about the woman may really be a reaction to planned jokes, regardless of gender. The man gets away with it because of our subconscious bias towards men presenting.


No matter your gender, it’s just a matter of time before someone yawns in your face at a tired gag. You might be offended but at least it’s honest.

 

7. Humour is not magic


Honesty time.

  • Adding humour to your accounts’ audit presentation will not stop it being an accounts’ audit presentation. It will still provide the required information to the right people. It will still be dull.

  • Adding humour to the presentation that’s keeping you awake at night won’t help you relax into a good night’s sleep. It will still bring you out in a cold sweat.

Humour does not change your subject.


Humour does not make you confident.

 

How should we improve presentations?


Let’s look at the other options suggested in the opening of this article,

  1. Why are you presenting content that doesn’t benefit from being presented? Send it to them instead. “But they won’t read it”. If you don’t give them the fallback option of pretending to listen, they must read it. Unless it isn’t worth reading. In that case, it isn’t worth presenting.

  2. Stop thinking presenting is a skill everyone should have. You can go on presentation skills courses, getting peer feedback about your slouching shoulders and your pace of delivery. It won’t turn you into a great presenter. Unless the first bullet point in your job description is presenting, that’s fine.

I’ve worked with intelligent people who are funny and great to talk to. They were just shit at presenting. So we stopped making them.


Instead, they would be in the meeting, as someone else presented. They would be part of the conversation to deal with questions as necessary, more casually. It didn’t harm their careers. Everybody wins.


We should play people to their strengths. Not punish them for their weaknesses.

 

Finally…

  • Don’t borrow someone else’s joke. Ever.

  • A prepared joke will receive a hollow laugh.

  • Comedians say things funny. Comics say funny things. When presenting, you don’t want to be a comic.

  • If your subject doesn’t benefit from being presented, don’t present it.

  • If you can’t present, don’t.

 
 

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