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How to Avoid Making Humor Mistakes in Speeches

Humor isn’t always a laughing matter. Don’t let humor mistakes sink your presentation and kill your credibility.

By
Lisa B. Marshall,
December 25, 2009

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Recently I did an episode on how to add humor to presentations. Turns out it was a very popular article. So for the Christmas day article I decided to expand on the previous one by talking about common humor mistakes-- or the three no, no, nos of ho, ho, ho.

Humor is actually a serious subject and a powerful rhetorical tool. Humor connects you with your audience.  Humor commands attention. Humor energizes your audience. However, it isn't always a laughing matter. Humor can easily offend and alienate.
 
To get it right requires a great deal of thought and consideration. And if you don't get it right, you can not only sink your presentation, you can kill your credibility. So today, I'll cover three common humor mistakes and how to avoid them.

Tip #1: Don't Start With a Joke

Perhaps the worst public speaking advice I've heard is to start off a presentation with a joke. Don't do that. Really, don't do that. Unless you are a natural comedian, it's unlikely you're good at telling jokes. Besides, if the joke bombs, or worse the joke offends, you've started your presentation on a very bad note and it's almost impossible to recover. For most people, staring with a joke is just too risky.

It's better--much better--to start with a humorous story from your personal experience. When you share an ordinary, but funny, real-life experience, it makes is very easy for your audience to relate to you. Besides, it's much easier to tell your own story than to tell a joke.

Just be sure your story is relevant and brief. That’s in fact, another common mistake. If it’s too long or it’s not obvious how your story relates to your topic, the audience will be left scratching their heads. Again, not a good way to start.

Tip #2: Don't Overdose on Self-Deprecating Humor

In my last article on how to add humor to your presentations, I suggested you use self-deprecating humor. That is the type of humor that requires you to make fun of your own weaknesses. One reader wrote to me to say that he felt that this was bad advice in the corporate world where you are trying to always highlight your strengths.

That may be true; but it’s also true that people who are able to laugh at themselves just the right amount are perceived as confident and likable, not insecure and weak. So what is just the right amount?

It depends; but a little goes a long way. Just don't go overboard. Don't constantly put yourself down. Think of self-deprecating humor as a little bit of gentle teasing. One slightly embarrassing story or two short comments about small mistakes you've made in a ten-minute talk is plenty.

The key is to choose examples of mistakes or embarrassing stories that aren't directly tied to your expertise. Poke fun of yourself in ways that can't impact your credibility. For example, comments about your appearance will work. Are you really tall? Really short? Maybe you've got bright orange hair?  Or talk about a mistake you’ve made, such as the time you misused a word, or the story of your most recent travel disaster. 

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