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.