Several years ago, an accountant came into my office for help with a speech. His voice was so soft that I had trouble hearing him. He also never smiled and had trouble with eye contact. I was thinking, “This is going to be a challenge.”

Then he said, “I’d like to learn how to be funny. Can you help me with that?”

A lot of people want to learn to be funny. And I can understand why. Humor can be a great communication tool. But it’s not for everyone. And if you want to use humor in business presentations, you need to keep a few ideas in mind.

Humor Isn’t For Everyone

Few things are more painful to watch than someone trying in vain to be funny during a speech.

That’s why, when someone tells me they want to be funny, I ask, “Are you funny? Have you ever shown any skill at making your friends laugh?” I ask those questions because funny speakers usually leverage their existing humorous personality.

When the accountant, admitted that he just wasn’t funny, I gently suggested that he focus on learning to execute the fundamentals of great speaking. You can be an effective speaker without humor.

Only Use Humor to Make a Relevant Point

I once worked with an attorney who asked me if it would be OK if he started his presentation with a joke.

I said, “That depends on the joke. Let’s hear it.”

The joke was as follows. “I’d like to start my presentation by telling you what Elizabeth Taylor tells all her new husbands. ‘This won’t take long’.”

Aside from it being stupid, outdated, and arguably offensive, the joke has nothing to do with the law. There’s no relevant point.

Instead, make sure that your humor drives your message. One nice way to use humor is to find a relevant, humorous quote. One of my favorite quotes about public speaking is from Franklin D. Roosevelt. When asked to give the keys to a great speech Roosevelt said, “Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.”

Poke Fun at Yourself

In my workshops, I tell a story about helping my daughter Annie with a speech. I make fun of how I was too harsh in my critique prompting her to storm out of her bedroom and slam the door. People always smile and sometimes laugh at the story.

I learned about the importance of self-mockery from Jeff Justice, who runs the Jeff Justice Comedy Workshop here in Atlanta. “Study after study,” Justice told me, “concludes that if you’re able to take yourself lightly and poke fun at what you do, it makes people think you are extremely confident.”

Practice Your Delivery

There’s another story I often tell in my programs about a friend who invited me over to dinner. To my surprise, after dinner, he invited me upstairs to look at his stamp collection. When I first started telling the story, I would get laughs every time as I discussed how odd it was to go upstairs and look at the collection.

But after about 50 tellings, no one laughed. I realized that I wasn’t telling the story with the same gusto. Once I started injecting energy back into the story, I started getting laughs again. With humor, delivery is everything.

Humor isn’t for everyone. But if you’re going to use it, make a relevant point, poke fun at yourself, and practice your delivery.

Speechworks is a communication and selling skills coaching firm. We teach professionals how to craft and deliver complex messages in a simple, persuasive manner. Since 1986, through workshops and one-on-one instruction, we have helped countless individuals become better presenters and communicators. You can reach us at 404.266.0888, speech@speechworks.net or on the web at www.speechworks.net

Joey Asher

President of Speechworks, a selling and communication skills coaching company in Atlanta. He has worked with hundreds of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book 15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations” is available now. He is also the author three previous books including “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition”, “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.” He can be reached at 404-266-0888 or joey@speechworks.net

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