In March 2011, I was presenting a one-hour keynote on presentation skills for technical people. I was asked a great question: “Is it appropriate to use humor when delivering presentations to upper management?” The answer is yes.
I asked Michael Kerr, award-winning Hall of Fame speaker, author, and the North American expert on humor in the workplace to put together some detailed guidance on this subject. The following are his words of wisdom:
How to Use Humor with Managers – Without Getting Fired!
People often ask me if it’s appropriate to use humor in business presentations, to which my response is always, “Only if you want to be effective and successful.”
When used appropriately, incorporating humor in any presentation helps you keep the audience not just awake (always a good thing), but fully engaged.
Humor can help you come across as more authentic, which in turn helps the audience like and trust you more. Remember, if the audience is going to buy your message, they have to first buy you. (There’s a reason, after all, that Jon Stewart of The Daily Show tops polls as “the most trustworthy journalist.”)
Because humor creates an emotional response, chances are your audience will retain the information longer. It increases the likelihood that people will act on the information you deliver. Humor can also be an amazing reframing tool, helping both you and your audience to see old ideas in new ways.
Finally, humor is one of the best ways to manage your nerves. Sharing a little humor is one of the best ways to beat the butterflies, boost your confidence, and keep you relaxed, spontaneous and in the moment. The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed and receptive the audience will be.
“But what about using humor when my boss is in the audience? And my boss’s boss? And the entire head honcho team from corporate office? Isn’t there a chance I’ll come across as not taking the talk seriously?”
When people ask me this question I always remind them that, chances are, their senior management team is comprised of real human beings. In other words, all the benefits of using humor apply regardless of who’s in the audience. In fact, using smart, effective humor could make you stand out and shine in front of your boss. And if senior managers realize how effective your approach is with the entire audience, they might just be persuaded to practice a little less déjà moo (“the feeling you’ve heard this bull before”) and lighten up themselves the next time they have to present.
And I’m not suggesting for a moment you take either the audience or the topic lightly – it’s largely about taking yourself lightly in order to take your audience and talk seriously.
Now, having said that, here are three R’s to keep in mind when you flex your funny bone in the presence of your managers:
Respect Your Audience. Important in any talk, this is doubly important when senior managers are present. Which means when it comes to humor, stay even further away than you normally would from any off-color jokes. So no racist, sexist, ethnic, religious, sarcastic, or political humor.
Rule number one with any presentation is “know thy audience.” So know that senior managers tend to be extra sensitive about inappropriate use of humor. The good news is that when I’m talking about using humor in your presentation, I’m not suggesting you turn your talk into a night club act and start cracking jokes. There is an entire universe of funny research stats, hilarious quotes, funny anecdotes, funny cartoons, or even funny props that involve safe, clean, harmless humor.
Also be respectful of your boss’s position, especially when their boss is also present. Maybe you have the kind of relationship where you are comfortable kidding around with your boss when it’s just you and her, but others in the room may not know that and an offhand comment taken in the spirit of fun by your boss might be viewed as suspect by others in the room.
Be Real. Ninety percent of the battle when it comes to public speaking is simply being comfortable in your own skin. You’re not giving a performance; in fact, it might help to remind yourself that you’re not even giving a speech. All you’re doing is having a conversation with a roomful of folks.
Whenever I’ve coached senior leaders, it amazes me to see the difference in their posture, tone of voice and entire demeanor when they slip up and laugh at themselves. Humor, as one of the most human characteristics of all, helps us come across as more authentic. And if you come across more real in the presence of managers, you’ll also come across as more confident and competent.
Now, making jokes about a core competency related to your position on the topic at hand might just make you come across as insecure or incompetent, not always the best career move when speaking in front of your senior managers. However, laughing at your receding hairline or cracking a joke when you lose your place in your talk can help you come across as humble and honest.
Be Relevant. You are there to deliver a message that is relevant to the particular audience in front of you, not to entertain them. Humor is simply one of the delivery vehicles you’re using to make sure the relevant information gets imparted effectively.
You’ll score big points with senior managers when you take the time to understand their concerns and deliver a talk that is targeted specifically to them. So always plan your presentation around what your key messages are, and then look for ways to enhance it by incorporating relevant humor.
Several studies suggest that when presenters use humor even with dry subject matter such as university level statistic courses, audiences rate speakers’ credibility higher when the humor they used was relevant to the topic. Using relevant humor shows that you understand the subject matter so well that you can play with it to find the humor buried inside it.
The bonus of using relevant humor effectively is that by getting your audience to laugh and think at the same time, you are effectively killing two birds with one rubber chicken. So even if the humor doesn’t produce the laugh you were hoping for, it doesn’t matter because you’ve still delivered your point if you focus first and foremost on the message you’re trying to deliver. The humor is simply the icing on the cake.
If done right, relevant humor will also get you the biggest laughs in your talk. I constantly see “Bob from accounting” get huge laughs at conferences I am speaking at because Bob has referred to some inside joke that only the people in that room understand. So doing a little research and finding some insider humor that will resonate with the managers in the audience will pay off in spades.
And if you do dig up some insider humor that involves one of your managers but you’re not entirely sure if it falls under the category of “safe humor,” then err on the side of caution by asking permission before hand. Most managers see the benefit of being included in the humor because, like politicians who scramble to appear on late night comedy shows, they recognize that it helps humanize them in front of all the employees.
If you’re serious about being a more polished and persuasive presenter and want to incorporate more relevant humor in your talks, then start a few humor files related to the different topics you speak on. Collect funny newspaper articles, magazine clippings, weird trivia, or amazing stats related to the different topics. Once you start a few humor files, selective perception kicks in and you’ll start seeing more humor everywhere in your day to day life.
Michael Kerr is an award-winning Hall of Fame speaker and the author of “Putting Humor to Work.” For more resources and articles, cruise on over to www.humoratwork.com or contact Michael directly at firstname.lastname@example.org