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When Laughing Matters

“Humor.  It is a difficult concept.”

Such is the opinion of Lt. Saavik in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN…and I couldn’t agree more.  Few experiences in life are more pleasurable than having an audience laughing WITH a presenter, and few things in life are more difficult to achieve.

The number one mistake I see in corporate storytelling presentations is the attempt to “liven things up” by inserting comical moments.  I call this a mistake not because it isn’t a worthy goal, but because humor is an individually acquired taste and, what I find humorous, you may find rude and offensive.

I don’t want to steer you away from trying humorous story presentations.  When they work, and there is a genuine emotional connection, the content is remembered for a long, long time.  (I still remember humorous stories that Red Skelton told during two stage performances that I attended.)

It’s simply that there are no absolute rules to learn.  What works well with one audience may fall flat with another.  Be aware that if you lose an audience with humor gone awry, it is very difficult to win them back.  They will be thinking, “She thought this was funny and it wasn’t.  Now she is saying this is important, so it’s probably not.”

What follows are some guidelines to consider when you opt for the humorous story presentation.  Tweak them as you will:

  • Taking sides on controversial topics will alienate a good percentage of your audience.  If you must use a controversial topic in your presentation, try finding humor in the BEHAVIOR people exhibit toward it.  Behavior is more universally funny.
  • Be very careful in using an identifiable person other than yourself as the object of humor in a story unless that person emerges as a hero.  Otherwise, it may be perceived as insult humor.
  • If you are the subject of the humorous story, you should NOT emerge from it as the hero.  This seems like bragging.  Humor at your own expense, though, allows you to be seen as “one of us.”
  • If you use jokes, just remember that they often do not last long in a person’s memory.  So, avoid using a joke to illustrate a point.  (Also, you run the risk of your audience not finding the joke to be funny.)
  • If there is no response to your humorous story, do NOT acknowledge the lack of response.  Move on as if you did not expect any reaction at all.  Pointing out that people should be laughing is perceived as manipulation and quite possibly as being insulting.
  • Find humor in common experiences.  Almost all of us have been stuck in traffic, worked in a cubicle, or received an unanticipated performance criticism.  Such humor requires very little set-up (which is an added benefit for corporate presentations).
  • Using an unknown person as the subject of the humorous story allows your audience to project a “safe” person in their mind’s eye.  My Dad would often start stories with the phrase, “Somewhere at some time, I remember seeing…”  His audience not only created the person, they also created the scene.
  • Laughter is a wonderful, wonderful gift.  In the corporate storytelling world, it is acknowledged by pausing.  Thanking people (or bowing, as I once saw done somewhere at some time) interrupts the flow and changes the mindset to “I’m watching a performance.”

Some years ago, I had the honor of attending a live Tom Peters rant regarding designers.  As he became louder and more outraged (ultimately telling how he had “Scoped his eyes” in the shower), I heard the chuckles and saw the smiles on the faces of his audience.  He played against type and the message came through loud and clear.  I’m sure that he knew his outrage was funny, but there was absolutely no sign given that he was trying to be funny.

That’s a gift.  It worked beautifully.  It was funny.  And, yes, I still vividly remember the point he was making.  Consequently, I look forward to his presentations whenever they are available to me.

If you are uncertain of how to inject humor into your corporate storytelling presentations, it is best to steer clear of the technique.  There is still time to learn, and there will be future opportunities.

Thank you for reading.