You’ve heard it before. At least if you have ever attempted to get a laugh. Maybe you meant to, maybe you didn’t. But you did it. You went over that somewhat imaginary line between what is acceptable and what is not. Perhaps you were aware of it, perhaps you were not. In any case, you hopefully learned a valuable lesson about what can happen when you try to be funny.
Whenever you use humor, whether in verbal or written communication, you have the potential to offend. Or to hurt someone’s feelings. And whether it’s intended or not, you will likely lose that person for the remainder of your speech, email or other method of delivery. Or worse, you could lose them forever.
Please keep in mind that I am speaking as a person knows he has offended quite a few people over the years and probably many more times than I would care to know! I am also speaking as someone who does like to use humor often, both to engage and audience and to convey particular points. So when sharing on this topic, I speak with the authority of someone who has often placed their foot firmly in their mouth!
Having said that, how does one use humor within a speech or other intentional communication? Here are a few suggestions that should help:
1. Make sure humor is inline with your objectives–Often times, we are trying to use humor just because we like the joke or because of our own fears–as a way to break the ice. As with many of the topics here, I would encourage you to consider whether the humor actually helps your audience connect with the topic. If it does not, it may actually distract from your presentation, drawing your listeners or readers away from your points or objectives. You will have, unwittingly, made the job of remembering your key points that much more difficult.
2. Understanding the difference between overall humor and jokes–When we think about people saying something funny, many of us may find that a comedian or TV show comes to mind. If you have children of elementary age, you are probably overwhelmed with “knock, knock” jokes. However, in purposeful communication, a well crafted humorous stories or anecdotes will trump a joke the vast majority of the time. As was stated in the first point above, remember that humor is not the main point, but a tool to be used to help connect your audience to your communication objective.
3. Measure how much humor would be beneficial–Unless you are giving a speech whose main objective is humor, give careful thought to how much humor will be helpful. Within a short speech, a few humorous connecting points are probably all that is necessary.
4. Make your audience laugh, not yourself–This is perhaps one of the more difficult challenges for most speakers. We tend to view humor through our own eyes and sometimes our judgement isn’t as stellar as we believe it to be. As such, we may use things like sarcasm or other demeaning forms of humor. In many cases, audiences don’t appreciate this form of humor and we may alienate them from us and from our message. Also work to avoid laughing excessively at your own humor, as it can again put you, rather than your message, at the center.
5. Rehearse and review your humor–Most humor “gaffes” fall into two categories: blown punchlines and inappropriate usage. Both of these can be helped significantly by rehearsing and/or reviewing your content. In the case of blown punchlines, this may be obvious. The best way to avoid messing up the story or joke is to have it memorized. When you don’t, it can really take away from what could have been a great moment for you and for your audience. In terms of inappropriate content, the more you go over your humor, the more likely you are to understand if it is “over the line” or may offend. If you add it at the last minute, you may not have fully considered your audience or whether the content may offend. So take your time. You won’t be sorry!
In closing, remember that our theme is to be intentional in our communication. Just because we are trying to be funny doesn’t mean that goal gets tossed out the window!