Should I tell a joke to start my presentation?

Often people ask me about humour in presentations and how best to use it.

Humour can be a powerful tool in public speaking but it is a bit of a double-edged sword.  If it doesn’t work, the presenter falls flat on their face and often finds it difficult to recover their credibility.

In the past I have discouraged people from telling jokes as part of their presentation for this very reason.  Instead I recommend gentle, self-deprecating humour to make a point.

Recently I read a fabulous book called “Be Heard Now” by American presentation coach Lee Glickstein.   Lee dedicates a whole chapter to humour and sums the topic up nicely by explaining that there are three types of humour.   Laughter of the Head, Laughter of the Spleen and Laughter of the Heart.

Laughter of the Head is exemplified by those clever or witty “bon mot’s” beloved of some speakers. Whilst sometimes amusing, it has a tendency to “put down” audiences because it relies on the speaker “showing off” by highlighting just how “clever” they are.  Most “jokes” invoke laughter of the head and as such is best avoided when trying to build relationships with your audience.

Laughter of the Spleen is evoked by making fun at the expense of another person or group.   As a Scot, I have heard lots of jokes about mean Scotsmen and, whilst some may make me smile, I cannot help but cringe a little inside.   Again this type of laughter does little to build rapport and empathy with your audience and is best avoided.

Laughter of the Heart is evoked by humorous stories  which recognise, in a light-hearted way, that we are all human and therefore prone to gaffes, blunders and embarrassing occurrences.  This is the humour of Billy Connolly, a master at observing our human foibles and turning them into hilarious anecdotes.   This type of humour is relaxing and reminds us all of our similarities and not our differences.   Sharing such embarrassments about demonstrates our humanity and vulnerability and therefore demonstrates empathy with our audience.

Of course, despite all this, you need to consider

1) Is  even a little humour, appropriate for this topic and this audience?

2) Have I got the timing and delivery to pull it off?

If you stick to humour of the heart, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about the latter point.

  1. Harley Giltner on 27/06/2010 at 06:39

    I love doing stand up!! Learning to do stand up comedy is tough to do, but very cool.

  2. Terry Gault on 16/04/2008 at 22:16

    While I like your three categories of jokes, I’m going to have to disagree with your advice to shy away from humor during presentations; humor always makes the presenter seem more approachable and human.

    Now, while jokes do sometimes fall flat, this is another opportunity to connect with your audience! Instead, of letting the awkward silence throw you off, turn it on its head by noting that your joke was a flop with a smile. Talk about the audiences reaction and note the atmosphere. Handling the situation like this if the joke bombs will often make the presenter seem cool, collected and approachable, and if the joke doesn’t bomb, this will lighten up the room and once again make the presenter seem approachable. It is a win-win as long as the situation is handled correctly.

  3. Nigel Heath on 03/03/2008 at 14:53

    Reading this reminded me of an embarrasing ‘joke’ I used to start a talk, hoping to engage the audience, but which definitely backfired and put my credibility with them at rock bottom.
    Newly elevated to Chair of my children’s PTA I was given the chance to talk to the teachers at one of their weekly end of day meetings. My objective was to acknowledge their needs and offer support through parents for their programmes. I could sense a slight antipathy in the room before I began and to acknowledge and share my nervousness told a slightly risque joke. All about having a nervous tick and what happens when you go into the chemist and ask for an aspirin. (Heard that one?)
    One of them laughed!
    My learning from this?
    Unless you are billed as a stand up comedian and the audience is primed for jokes, avoid them and follow Gavin’s ideas about laughter from the heart.
    The joke is, I don’t think I’ve told that one since then!

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