Humor comes easily to me. Maybe it’s because I used to watch, obsessively, old time comedians like Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, George Carlin, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, and Milton Berle, to name a few. Maybe it’s just how I’m genetically programmed. Whatever the reason, I’ve never had to spend much time thinking about how to be funny.
Unfortunately, when my clients have asked me if I can make them funny, I can’t tell them that I’ve never learned a process on how to be funny. Many have gone so far as to ask me to write jokes for them. I go by this rule of thumb: “If you need to ask me to make you funny, most likely you are not a naturally funny person.” I know that sounds harsh, but you don’t have to be funny to be a terrific speaker. This particular topic can really puzzle people, so let’s demystify the subject of humor, and at the same time, dispel a few myths. I’d like to start by telling you this:
‘Humor is the most overrated approach to holding an audience’s attention.”
It’s astonishing to me that this still seems to both confuse and shock people. Some of the greatest orators in history were not considered “funny” people. These orators were known for their ability to fascinate and hold the attention of every audience they spoke to, and humor was not part of the formula. That list includes some of our greatest Presidents, leaders, and visionaries.
So the question remains: Why do so many people want to be funny when they’re giving a presentation? The reason is because they are concerned about gaining and holding the attention of their audiences, and that is a valid concern. I’m not saying that humor isn’t an effective approach to sustaining interest within a presentation, but it’s way overrated. I’m here to remind you that there are many ways to accomplish that goal, and most do not include humor! When I work with speakers, I present them with over 25 ways to sustain interest within a presentation. The vast majority of those ideas have nothing to do with humor. Here are five examples:
- Participating Activities – This can be a number of different activities, such as case studies, small group exercises, or exercises you can create for as few as two participants. The fact is that the more the audience is involved in meaningful activities during a presentation, the more that audience enjoys you and your presentation.
- Anecdotal Stories – These are stories that relate to your subject, and they are effective in illustrating key points. If you can spell it, you can find it on the Internet, and that goes for some wonderful anecdotal stories that can bring you, your topic and your audience to life.
- Mobility – An excellent way to create and sustain interest is simply to move! You need to move away from the lectern and use the entire room that you are presenting in. Not only will this simple tactic keep your audience engaged, but just by moving around the room, you will add energy to your delivery.
- Non-Verbal Cues – These can take many forms, but the most important cues are from our facial expressions and/or gestures. Not only will this create interest within your presentation, but it has been proven that the emotional impact of any presentation is greatly enhanced by a combination of the right words and the right non-verbal cues.
- Varying Your Methods – Mixing various speaking techniques, such as lecture and facilitation, will add interest to your presentation. No matter how talented a speaker is, the audience may eventually lose interest if you don’t change delivery methods at least once during your presentation.
Another reason so many fixate on the use of humor is because it’s so easy to observe. When you see someone who is funny, which means that he or she is utilizing that skill to hold the attention of an audience, it’s hard to miss it. However, when you use other skills well, they are subtler and therefore the audience is often not even aware of what you’re doing to make the presentation interesting and enjoyable. What they are aware of is that they are interested in what the speaker is saying, and they are learning a lot. Isn’t that the purpose of most presentations?
Can I make you funny? Well, I suppose I can try, but there is nothing more uncomfortable than watching someone attempt to be funny when it just isn’t coming easily to that person. Why don’t we change the question to this: Can I make you more interesting? That I can do! There are dozens of other ways to make you more interesting, and the key is to look for the ways that fit comfortably within your style of delivery. There are options that will feel right for you.
Take it from a guy who has used humor from time-to-time: Humor is simply one of many ways to hold an audience’s attention. By tapping into any number of other techniques, you will be surprised at how successful you can be at your next speaking opportunity. Remember to practice and practice some more, commit to interest sustaining techniques that fit within your natural approach to delivery, and then knock your presentation out of the park!