by Theodore May

What’s so funny about a business presentation?

Jul 19, 2018
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

Lots of executives want their business presentations to be funny or entertaining. They seem enamored of the old vaudeville saw, “Always leave them laughing.” That’s funny.

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Credit: Thinkstock

When coaching executives who have to deliver presentations to large audiences, I always begin by asking them what performance skills they would most like to learn or improve. They often say, “I want to be funny.”

My response is always, “That’s funny. (Beat, two, three…) Why would you want to be funny?” Most of us struggle in life to be taken seriously. So, I think it’s funny that so many executives and managers want to make people laugh when they stand up in front of large groups of fellow managers.

Why would you want to be funny?

It’s been my experience that this desire to be funny is particularly true for male executives. (Why this may be so, requires more research and will likely turn up in a later article.) But it’s true not just for sales executives, where social ease and jocularity can be seen as a competitive advantage, or HR where the pressure to double as a kind of social director is always there. It’s executives of all stripes and from all verticals in an organization.

My focus is exclusively on the business presentation. I’m not interested in toasts, roasts, story jams or after dinner speeches. Business executives often confuse the presentations they give with public speaking generally. There’s some overlap between the two when it comes to performance, but what needs to happen in a business presentation and how you go about making that happen is specific and different than general public addresses. 

There are many different reasons why business presenters want to be funny. Two rationales commonly offered are:

  1. To put the audience at ease. Like an amiable dentist.
  2. To bond with the audience. Laughter is something that can be quickly and easily shared. Humor allows a presenter to signal to the audience, “I’m just like you. We’re all on the same page.” Especially in tech, the audience can be highly fragmented and factionalized in terms of their preferred programming languages, system architectures, hardware/software platforms and vender selections. Humor is seen as a way of establishing common ground.

There is truth to both of these but when a presenter tells me that they want to be funny, I think the main reason is most often that they want to appear to be at ease in front of an audience. If an audience is laughing it can seem less threatening. Humor is seen as a way to disarm the audience and reduce the perceived threat level and put the presenter at ease. The presenters think that humor will mask their fear, like whistling.

And the secondary reason is that they think that if they are funny the audience will like them more (and be more forgiving.) They may also think that if the audience likes them, the audience will be more likely to do what the presenter is going to ask them to do.

This reasoning is understandable, but there are better ways to calm your nerves, engage your audience and lead the audience to like (and appreciate and respect) what you are doing for them.

Another more nuanced and even subconscious reason a presenter may want to be funny is a desire to exercise power and control. Those of us who have some skill at leading audiences to laughter are seen to have power and control over that audience. It’s no coincidence that after, “I want to be funny”, what I hear most often is, “I want to appear more powerful.” (Again, a good topic for a later article.) But like the matador in a bull fight, this is largely illusion. Things very often can and do go horribly wrong for the comedian, quickly.

We are not here for your entertainment

My usual advice is don’t try to be funny. If you want a presentation to be funny, hire a [good] comedian. 

Business presentations are serious business. A holiday or retirement party, or even most keynote addresses at a conference, etc. are not really business presentations. These are generally social occasions for colleagues and partners in the work environment: more like “public speaking.”

As executives, we’re not here for your entertainment. We have work to do. Business presentations have clear purpose and intent pertaining to the business issues we or our companies face. We are trading in information that managers need to do their jobs. The goal is to leave an audience energized, focused and action-oriented. If an audience’s response to a presentation is, “That was funny. I really enjoyed your presentation. You were great. Very smooth,” it’s cause for concern.  Did they even hear or remember the key points of the presentation?

A presentation is not about you. It’s about the message – the transformative information – that you have to deliver to an audience. Our goal is to make the audience think and respond, not to make them laugh.

Not without risks

Any comedian will tell you that humor requires taking risks. If you have ever attempted stand-up you know that you must be prepared to die a thousand deaths before any joke begins to take shape and achieve potency and reliability. The 10,000 hours of practice rule generally applies.

And all audiences are different. What’s funny to some people is not at all funny to others. So, you must never expect to be funny and be pleasantly surprised if the audience finds something you say or do constructively amusing.

Don’t be caught flatfooted if the audience fails to laugh at your well-planned joke.

Positive uses of humor

The right sense of humor, artfully applied, can help in certain situations. It can help to ease the delivery of complicated or difficult information in delicate circumstances. But to pull this off, the humor must be organic, well-modulated, inclusive and paired with judgement.

The principle benefit of humor skillfully applied in a business presentation is its ability to evoke a physical response from the audience. A presentation is physical. To laugh requires breath, the flexing of muscles and energy. Laughter can begin to prime an audience for the physical response you are looking for as you move them to take action. How you can do this is a subject for yet another article.

But begin with this basic principle. If you want to be funny. Don’t worry. You will be. Funny things happen during any presentation. You’ll find yourself in funny situations. Your response to the unexpected determines whether you’ll appear witty or foolish. Begin by recognizing when you or things are funny or when a funny situation presents itself – show the audience you are present, alert and responsive – and embrace whatever happens with grace, enthusiasm and modesty. “That was funny” is much more beneficial than “you were funny.”