In the delightful Broadway musical “Singing in the Rain”, there is a song called “Make em Laugh” which is based on this idea that the best way for any stage performer to build a bond with an audience is to use humor to bring a smile, or a laugh, to that audience. Well, that idea is not just valid for stage performers. It’s just as true when you begin to develop your style as a public speaker.
If you pick up any self help guide to how to be effective as a public speaker, one of the golden rules is to open with a joke. But guess what? That is not actually a hard and fast rule. Humour is the type of thing that works just as well about a minute into your presentation, halfway through or just about anywhere that you feel you are losing your audience.
Audience psychology is a funny thing but not in the “laughter” sense. The truth is that when you first begin to speak to an audience, they are probably listening to you. Most people are at least curious about you and what you have to say and will take interest in you if for no other reason than you are a new person up there in front of them. While there is certainly not a bad idea to open with humour, the time your audience needs a joke is when you have launched into your discussion and you look out to nodding heads or drifting eyes and you know that you are talking but nobody is listening. That is when humour brings the audience back to you and hooks them back into your presentation.
The biggest problem with a lot of public speaking situations is that you may be presenting ideas to the crowd. While an idea is a good thing, people have trouble staying focused on pure concepts for very long. That is why most good public speakers use illustrations, stories and humor to keep the audience focused on what you are talking about. And that is where a generous use of humor will help your public speaking style as well.
Humour has a certain effect on the human psychology that causes the listener to bond with the speaker in a unique way. To put that more simply, using humour in your presentation makes people like you. And when they like you, they want to hear what you have to say. There is just no getting around the fact that people will listen to, accept, understand and make their own ideas presented with humour far more readily than if your talk is dry presentation of material, even if it is important material.
But what if you don’t know how to use humour? Of course you can always just tell a joke. But canned jokes are just that, attempts to use someone else’s humour. They do work, (if it’s a good joke) but if the humour is not relevant to what you are talking about or to you as a speaker, it often is not as effective as it should be. The best humour is actually self-deprecating remarks as you speak. These are easy to come up with by simply using yourself as the subject of an illustration. For example, if this topic was part of your speech, you might say
“You know it’s easy to get tongue tied and bumble around up here trying to use humour. But you folks won’t make a mess of it like I am doing.”
That isn’t even a very good joke. But because it is highly relevant, it is self deprecating and it’s a light moment in the presentation, it will probably get a chuckle. A chuckle is really all you are looking for. You are not trying to become a stand up comic up there. Humour that is too wild and designed to bring hearty laughter actually is distracting. You just want little asides that are of a humorous nature to bring your audience back to listening to you.
Listen to good speakers you admire and take note of how they seem to slip and out of humor easily and effortlessly and how quickly that build rapport with the audience. It will take some practice to get good at using humor as you speak. But it will improve your presentation style tremendously. And that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?