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Humor can make your message memorable | by Jean Hamilton



J A N U A R Y 2009


’ve always liked this quote by victor Borge: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” How true. When you share a laugh with someone, you both let down your guard and establish a connection. That sense of connection is crucial to all successful business presentations. While it’s certainly not necessary to have sidesplitting laughter throughout, putting some humor into your talk is essential to making your presentation memorable. But what if you don’t have the quick wit of Jerry Seinfeld, the self-effacing charm of Ellen DeGeneres or the zany impulsiveness of Robin Williams? What if you feel like getting through a presentation is already a struggle, and adding humor seems like an insurmountable task? In other words, how do you bring humor to a presentation if you feel comically challenged? As a professional speech coach working with a wide variety of executives, I’ve learned that relaxing is the key to presenting humor effectively. When you enjoy the process of interacting with a group, humor becomes much more available. Here are some specific tips that will help you relax and will set you up for success.

to stay true to your topic. Leave joke-telling to social situations.

Instead, use stories. They are the best way to make a connection. Stories help you relax because you are speaking from experience. When you tell a story, people in the audience begin to think of their own lives and a similar story that happened to them. They feel like they know you, and become more open to your message. Keep in mind, though, that all stories need to be relevant to your topic. Let your story enhance your point, not detract from it. If the audience doesn’t laugh at a line you intended to be funny, don’t worry, just turn it into a serious point. As long as you don’t laugh, they will never know. Be sure you don’t preface it with, “Here’s a funny story. …” Make the habit of never being the first person to laugh while delivering an intended funny line. Once they laugh, you can laugh along with them, but let’s face it: Nervously laughing alone at your own joke is a bit pathetic. Many of my clients ask me how to find stories. Open your eyes and notice. Stories and funny events happen all the time. Look at life with newfound curiosity. Observe details. Notice interactions. Listen to conversations. Jot them down in a notebook so that you remember them. The funniest things come from truth. You can stretch the truth to make it funnier, but struggles, fears and insecurities are always the best material. Recently I was a finalist for an Award for Excellence given by Women Business Owners. I had to give a two-minute speech for the gala event. When preparing for the speech, I felt stuck. It wasn’t until I recognized why I was stuck that I was able to write my speech. I started by saying, “I have a confession. To stand up here as a speech coach and have to deliver a speech is a lot of pressure. I want to make you laugh, make you cry, I want to tell you a funny, heartwarming story, and I want to leave you with a message that will change your life forever. And I now have 1 minute and 27 seconds in which to do that.” Speaking my truth made it both easy and funny. Stories from your childhood and adolescence are often replete with good material. As the saying goes, “Humor is tragedy plus time.” The next time

opposite: Relaxing is the key to presenting humor effectively, and telling stories from your life is one way to relax, while connecting with your audience.

no Jokes
First, stay away from jokes. This might seem counterintuitive, but unless you have the skills of a Seinfeld, your jokes may fall flat. The last thing you want is a sympathy laugh. It doesn’t create the camaraderie, connection or respect you seek—it just increases your discomfort. Even if you tell a well-delivered joke, if it is irrelevant to your presentation, people will wonder why the heck you took the time to tell it. In a business situation, you need to remain professional. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun (you should!), but it does mean you need




something goes wrong, or doesn’t happen as planned, write it down—it might be great material for your next speech.

self-deprecating Humor
The funniest stories can often be your most embarrassing moments. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. It makes you human and endears you to your audience. Never make fun of other people, though, and always avoid ethnic, racist or sexist humor. Making fun of yourself is safe, but don’t go overboard. You want to show you have the confidence to expose your imperfections, yet your foibles should not diminish your integrity. Once I had a former student give me a wonderful introduction before a talk, telling the group how much of an impact I had on his life. I started my talk by saying, “I love my work, and one of the reasons is that I get to work with people like Eric.” “Jean,” he said, “my name is Keith.” The audience laughed; I blushed and apologized profusely to Keith. Then I said, “I always like to begin a talk on presentation skills by cramming my foot in my mouth.” They all laughed again; we moved on; and the presentation went very well.

“Thebestreasontokeep thingsconciseisbecause if you can make a long story short, you can tell another one.”
of the moment, and they love it. When you deliver an off-the-cuff remark that gets a good laugh, remember it. You might be able to use that same remark in a different presentation, and it will still seem off-the-cuff. “If you find yourself in a new environment, be on the lookout for ‘puns in nature,’ ” says Patt Schwab, a motivational humorist with FUNdamentally Speaking. “They can often be found by taking signs literally. One of my favorites was outside a Seattle hospital. It directed patrons to the ‘Hospital Cafeteria—Recovery Room.’ ” Obviously it’s hard to practice being spontaneous, but you can do what I call strengthening your “spontaneity muscle.” Take a theater-improvisation or a stand-up comedy class. You’ll learn exercises that will loosen you up and stretch your comedic range.

impromptu Humor
Another valuable aspect of humor is relishing impromptu moments. Before you present, take a deep breath. If you try too hard to be funny, you start looking desperate. You might get a couple of tepid laughs from a few kind souls, but you all know it’s not really working. As I mentioned before, when you relax, humor is much easier to find. You are able to think quickly on your feet. An impromptu line often triggers a bigger laugh than a funny canned line. The audience can sense the immediacy

Unexpected twist
You don’t want to rely solely on improvisational humor. It can be hit or miss, and you want some

mo nk e y B Usine ss ima ge s / s H Ut t eR st o ck ima ge s


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humor in every presentation. Besides funny stories, you can create structure that adds humor. One way is to list three items with an unexpected twist at the end. Many of us are conditioned toward threes: Ready, set, go. Beginning, middle, end. Stop, drop, roll. Develop a list-of-three that is relevant to your talk, but on the third item,

“After a laugh, often a pause with a look or a raisedeyebrowwill add even more humor.”
surprise them. We laugh when something is unexpected. Always make the funny word the last word of the sentence. Business humorist Bill Stainton says, “If that last word can be specific rather than general, it’s even better. For example, ‘I took my driver’s test in a car that was really old’ is not as effective as ‘I took my driver’s test in a 1963 Buick.’ Turning that same example into a set of three is even better: ‘When I turned 16, my parents said they’d buy me a car. I wanted a Porsche. I would have settled for a Mustang. I got a 1963 Buick.’ ”

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keep it concise
Another rule for humor: Keep it concise. Rewrite a 10-word sentence to make it a five-word sentence. It will be funnier. Added verbiage is like dead wood in your speech. It deflates the energy. Toss it out. Crisp, clear and concise is much better. Brevity is important not just for humor, but for all aspects of your speech. Take out the preamble and jump into your stories. “The best reason to keep things concise,” says Schwab, “is because if you can make a long story short, you can tell another one.”

Presentation Coach & Trainer
Position yourself for success: Take your presentation skills to the next level!

Jean Hamilton

How you present a line has a huge impact on how your material will be received. As they often say, “Timing is everything.”
877-606-8260 • 206-933-6645 • Seattle, WA

When you have a funny line, pause right before the laugh, and pause right after it. The pause right before sets up the line; the pause right after allows time for the audience to laugh. I’ve seen great lines ruined by presenters plowing through them. Keep the energy up, though, and don’t wait for the audience to stop laughing completely before you talk again. Use your voice as an instrument to bring humor to life. Stretch out and accentuate key words. Color words with the texture of your voice. “Become” the characters in your stories. Talk in a low voice, in a high voice. Build momentum by speeding up, and then right before the funny word, slow down. The same can be done for volume. Get loud, and then deliver the funny word softly. Another tool for humor is using your face. After a laugh, often a pause with a look or a raised eyebrow will add even more humor. Don’t forget about using your body. Getting into character with exaggerated posture and gestures can greatly enhance a funny line. Have some fun!

The best way to practice your delivery is with family and friends. Experiment, and you will find out what works. The confidence you build from familiarity with the material will help you relax. You can also videotape yourself. If you make yourself laugh while you watch, that’s a good sign. And if you are really serious about getting funny, take a comedy class; join Toastmasters International; or hire a personal speech coach.

Finally, develop a style that’s right for you. There are lots of different ways to be funny. How do you make people laugh in everyday life? Make note of it. That’s your key to finding your authentic humor. You don’t have to be a stand-up comedian to use humor with impact. Just make sure that you are as alive and animated during a presentation as you are in everyday life. When you present with authenticity, you become more confident, more persuasive and funnier. We all love to laugh. You owe it to yourself and your audiences to find those moments that bring us together. As humorist and author Regina Barreca so poetically wrote, “Laughter is the sound you make when you are free.” m Jean Hamilton, CEO of Speaking Results, is a coach and trainer on presentation skills.

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