How to Use Humor in Your Presentation

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Humor is a powerful communication tool. It can gain attention, create rapport, and make a presentation more memorable. It can also relieve tension, motivate an audience, and enhance your reputation if it's used appropriately. Can't tell a joke? Don't worry. You have all the following options for incorporating humor into your presentation:

  • Using personal anecdotes: A personal anecdote is a story based on a real experience — yours or someone else's. It can be a story about something that happened with friends or relatives. It may be a war story from work, or an incident that occurred at school or home. These stories provide an absolute gold mine of humorous material for any presentation. And here's their best feature — you already know how to tell them. You've already been telling them for years. So you don't have to worry about delivery.

    Instead of telling these stories for no particular reason while conversing with friends or acquaintances, use them for a purpose: Use them to make a point. Make points about knowing your priorities, analyzing a situation for maximum advantage, and learning that appearances can be deceiving. Or any other point that you can think of!

  • Analogies: An analogy is a comparison between two objects or concepts. A funny analogy makes the comparison in an entertaining way. And analogies don't require comic delivery because they're so short. Funny analogies are difficult to think up yourself, but you can use other people's analogies in your own presentations by switching some of the facts. So anytime you come across a funny analogy, write it down and file it away. You can never have too many at your fingertips.

  • Quotes: Funny quotes provide an easy way to get attention. Call it the cult of celebrity. Call it a fascination with the quoteworthy. Whatever you want to call it, the phenomenon remains the same — as soon as an audience hears a famous name, it perks up. If the famous name is followed by a really funny quote, then you've got them.

  • Cartoons: Even people who insist that they can't tell a joke admit that they can describe a cartoon that appeared in a newspaper or magazine. Maybe you've seen it happen in a gathering of coworkers taking a coffee break. The conversation turns to some business topic, and the person describes a cartoon from The Wall Street Journal that relates to the discussion. The coworkers laugh, and the conversation continues. If you can do this, you can use cartoons to make points in a presentation.

  • Definitions: Funny definitions are extremely easy to use. Just pick a word or phrase from your presentation and define it in an amusing way. Where do you find funny definitions? Do a web search for "funny stuff for public speakers" or look for a book at your local library or bookstore. Trade journals and professional magazines are also good sources. These types of publications often have a humor page that includes amusing definitions related to their readers' occupations.

  • Abbreviations and acronyms: An abbreviation is formed by combining the first letters of a series of words. Two familiar (but boring) examples are IRS (Internal Revenue Service) and the accounting principle known as LIFO (Last In First Out). Funny abbreviations are much more entertaining. You can make abbreviations funny in a variety of ways. The simplest way is to change the meaning of the underlying words.

    Acronyms (abbreviations that form a word) can also be used in a humorous way. You can make up funny ones by abbreviating a funny phrase.

  • Signs: Have you ever seen a sign that made you laugh? They're all over the place. The "You Want It When?" sign posted in a secretary's cubicle. The "Mistakes Made While You Wait" sign hanging by a bank teller's window. The "Your Failure to Plan Does Not Constitute an Emergency on Our Part" sign taped to the wall of a printer's shop. All these humorous signs are potential material for a presentation as long as you can tie it to a point.

  • Laws: We live in a world of laws — civil laws, criminal laws, scientific laws. But no matter where we live, all of us answer to a higher law — Murphy's. That's the famous law that states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. This "mother of all laws" has spawned quite a brood. You can find entire books of Murphy-style laws, which is good because it means you can probably find a law that fits your subject matter. Why bother? Because funny laws provide a simple way to add humor to a presentation.

  • Greeting cards: Would you like free access to easy-to-deliver material developed by highly paid humor writers? Then walk into your local card shop and start browsing. Birthday cards. Anniversary cards. Get well cards. You name it. What was once a field devoted to solemn sentiments is now dominated by mirthful messages. And you can adapt them easily to almost anything that you want to speak about.

  • Bumper stickers: From stickers concerning driving ("Forget world peace — visualize using your turn signal.") to stickers offering self-insight ("I just got lost in thought. It was unfamiliar territory.") and general advice ("Be nice to your kids. They'll choose your nursing home."), wisdom previously limited to great minds became available to the masses.

    And if you don't want to look for bumper stickers, you can also find funny lines on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and just about any other object that has a printable surface.

    [Credit: Photo © iStockphoto.com/mangostock]
    Credit: Photo © iStockphoto.com/mangostock

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