Image for Humor in Communications: A Double-Edged Swiss Army Knife

Humor can be like a Swiss Army knife for communication by drawing in an audience, defusing tension or making a point. Humor also can be a double-edged sword that bombs, offends and undermines a presentation, not to mention a reputation.

Many great speakers avoid humor. Social media managers are warned about being too cute in what they post or share. Most of us can recall a time when we told a joke, only to discover others didn’t find it funny or appropriate.

Despite the verbal danger, humor can be a powerful tool in speaking. However, to deploy humor effectively requires practice, discipline and a willingness to test jokes and drop jokes based on the reactions of trusted friends. Professional stand-up comedians may be able to get away with insults, off-color stories and edgy language. Chances are, you can’t and won’t.

The best comedians understand their lane of comedy, rigorously test their jokes and practice how to deliver them to get a laugh. Those are traits worth following if you want to try injecting humor into a speech, presentation or pep talk.

Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan and Steve Martin are good examples to study. They are keen observers who find humor in small events, everyday people and unexpected behaviors. They steer clear of making fun of anyone other than themselves. Their humor is designed to connect with their audiences. That should be your goal, too.

Researchers who study what makes something funny have identified two common traits – incongruity and benignity. That’s why a lot of icebreaker jokes begin with, “A funny happened to me on the way here….”

So, here are my recommendations for how, when and where to use humor in your communications:

  1. Have a purpose for your humor. Don’t tell a joke just to tell one. Weave your joke or funny story into the fabric of your talk so it is part of the design rather than a misplaced decoration. The purpose can be illustrating a problem that you encountered and overcame, humanizing your perspective and subject matter or establishing a bond with your audience.
  2. Start with a wow, not a laugh line. You willmake a greater first impression by giving the audience a ‘wow’ rather than a snicker or belly laugh. Starting with a joke doesn’t give a clue to the audience where you are coming from and heading. It may break the initial tension, but it forces you to start your serious comments while people may still be chuckling – and that’s only true if the joke is actually funny. Think of the uphill climb if your joke tanks.
  3. Test run your joke before using it. The Swiss Army knife analogy of humor should include the possibility of seriously injuring yourself if you don’t know how to use it properly. That’s true for jokes. What may be funny to you could be offensive to others. Make sure to try out your joke with a friendly, but diverse set of friends to get their reaction. The risk of offending is often greater than the reward of a laugh.
  4. Rely on your own experiences. You are on safer ground by finding humor in your own experiences. Again, avoid telling a story about yourself just to get a laugh. Tell a story that may provoke laughter, but also conveys a relevant message or makes a salient point. Humor used in this way makes your message or point more relatable and real.
  5. Self-effacing humor is good – up to a point. Self-effacing humor can help you bond with an audience, but it also can be overdone and appear contrived, producing the opposite of its intended effect.
  6. Storytelling trumps joke-telling. If you want to tell jokes, become a comedian. If you want to connect and motivate an audience, tell powerful stories, not jokes. It’s okay if a story has some laugh lines. But tell stories because of their point, not a punchline. Most people tell stories and like to hear stories, probably because human minds know how to process and retain stories. Try remembering the last good joke you heard.
  7. Ignore advice and stick with what you know. There are people, smart people, trying to teach robots how to tell jokes. There are people, smart people, who encourage other people to use humor to charm, delight and inform an audience. Gaining and keeping an audience’s attention is hard enough without charming, delighting an informing them at the same time. The best way to meet the expectations of an audience is to share what you know, as honestly, directly and plainly as you can. If something humorous fits in, fine. If not, don’t worry. No one will remember the joke you decided not to tell.

If you are intent on injecting humor in your talk or presentation, here are some excellent tips from Dr. Nick Morgan, a communications coach, based on actual speeches.

  1. Point out contradictions. The late Emily Levine, a humorist and lecturer about science and the human condition, routinely got laughs by pointing out everyday contradictions and oddities, such as a beauty salon sign that read: “Ears pierced while you wait”. What’s the alternative, Levine deadpanned, “I’ll leave my ears and run errands until 5.”
  2. Use Irony. Irony is an alternative to punchlines, as demonstrated by author and humorist John Hodgman in a TED Talk about Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and aliens. “We haven’t seen them yet,” Hodgman said, “because they are very far away.” His irony was used as a foil in a talk about how a nerd like him found elusive love, got married and remained in love, even though “I couldn’t call her on a cell phone because the aliens hadn’t given us the technology yet.”
  3. Wit can be charming. Film director J.J. Abrams shows a clip from a Lost episode that depicts a downed aircraft with gore and mayhem. “If we wanted to do that 10 years ago, we would have had to kill a stuntman,” Abrams said. “Take two would have been a bitch.”
  4. Humor doesn’t flow just from words. Gestures, facial expressions and postures must reinforce what’s funny. Levine described to audiences how she warded off a telemarketer by interrupting his spiel with, “You sound really sexy”, using a husky voice. To sell the humor to her audience, Levine reprises her voice, accented with a pelvic thrust.

And, here is additional advice from Alf Rehn, a professor, author and keynote speaker, which is excerpted from his 2016 blog post on Medium:

“To put it bluntly, I feel that there are three reasons to use humor in keynoting, and that these are not created equal. The reasons are:

  1. To set the audience at ease – acceptable, but not to be overdone.
  2. To facilitate listening by creating a segue or an emphasis – often useful, but clumsy if utilized in a repetitive manner.
  3. To enhance the impact of the message by aiding in learning – the most important one of all.

Far too often, one sees #1 being the key reason humor is used. Putting the audience at ease can quickly become pandering, and further makes for a speech memorable only for its jokes. #2 is much better, as a keynote speaker needs to be mindful of just how much is asked of an audience. Sitting there and just listening for an hour (and often far, far more, if we count the whole event) is hard work, so aiding the audience by interspersing a few jocular comments can be a very helpful thing. Also, when working with complex matters, a quip can be a nice way to signpost that something requires extra attention.

However, the key reason to use humor in keynoting should be to help in learning. Even a short joke is, in effect, a story. Stories, again, are one of the key ways in which we humans learn. When we’re told a fact, without any form of context or embellishment, we have to memorize this as exactly this – a detached piece of information. When the same fact is presented as a part of a story, we are in effect giving scaffolding for our memory.

And this is only part of the learning bonus of humor. Laughing triggers biochemical reactions that inspires creativity and recall in the brain. The point of using humor is to help the audience, to make it as easy as possible for them to hear, process and retain your message.”