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Adding Impact With Humor


Why do we want to use humor in our business presentations? There are probably a lot of reasons, but I want to talk about three of them here:


  1. To be memorable
  2. To get your message across
  3. To break down barriers

Let's talk about each of these objectives in turn, and I'll give you some hints and ideas on how to use humor effectively to achieve them.


1. Being Memorable


DON'T: Don't tell jokes

Some speakers think that the best way to use humor is to tell jokes. Some have even been told that it's good to start a speech with a joke.

No, no, no! This is one of the worst things you can do! Why? Because jokes take time and they are risky.

A good joke takes about one or two minutes, and it's all leading up to a five-second punch line. So you'd better be telling a really good joke, and making a really good point, and getting a really good response, to justify spending all that time on it.



"MAPS" are:


* Metaphors
* Analogies
* Parables
* Stories


Metaphors and analogies compare things to each other. The humor comes from the contrast between them.

For example, Bill Gates used a metaphor when he said, "If the car industry had advanced as fast as the computer industry, our cars would cost $25 and do 1000 miles to the gallon." General Motors continued the analogy by replying:

"If Microsoft was running the car industry:

  1. For no reason whatsoever your car would crash twice a day.
  2. Every time they repainted the lines on the road you would have to buy a new car.
  3. Apple would make a car that was faster, cheaper, more reliable, and powered by the Sun, but it would only run on five percent of the roads."

Parables and stories make your presentation more memorable. People remember your stories, and they will then link back to the point you made.

What's the difference between a story and a joke? A joke relies on people laughing at the punch line; a story doesn't. A story can just make a point without having to be very funny. Of course, if it is a funny story, that makes it even more memorable.


2. Getting Your Message Across


DON'T: Don't do it just for laughs

There's a lot of funny stuff around, but if you can't use it to enhance your message, leave it out. You're not there to make people laugh - you're there to make a point.

If you use humor that's not relevant to your message, you waste time. Even worse, you take your audience away from your main message, and now you have to spend even more time bringing them back on track!


DO: Use humor to reinforce your message

If you do it right, humor is a powerful tool for getting your message across. Humor makes your audience receptive, attentive and puts them on your side - all things that help you present your message.

There are plenty of places to find humorous material, including books, newspapers, magazines, company newsletters, and the Internet (By the way, the St George's Web site has links to many other useful Web sites for speakers, including many humorous sites).

So it's not hard to find material, but the key is to make it relevant. And with a bit of practice, you'll find that it's not really that hard to find suitable material that you can adapt.

Example: Clifford Stoll said, "I've met dozens of high school students who can proficiently use a word processor, but have never written a thank-you letter". Here are some presentations where this could be used to make a point:


  1. A trainer emphasizes that technology alone is no good without the proper training.
  2. A safety manager makes the point that it's no good having procedures in place unless they are followed properly.
  3. A communication consultant says that technology sometimes gets in the way of clear communication.

All that from just a single quotation! Of course, you can't adapt every quotation to suit your needs, but it's surprising how easy it is to find something suitable when you start looking.

I've talked about external resources for finding humorous material, but the best source is your own experiences. Funny things happen to all of us all the time - we just need to remember them and then find ways to link them with our message.


3. Break Down Barriers


DON'T: Don't offend

If you're not careful, it's very easy to offend people when you use humor. A lot of humor is based on stereotypes - cultural, gender, religion, politics, and others. When you use this sort of humor, you're generalizing about people, and they don't like it. Steer clear of it!


DO: Laugh at yourself

The simplest way to make sure that you won't offend people is to direct the humor at yourself. Now you can even use stereotypes - as long as it's humor directed at you. In other words, it's OK for lawyers to make jokes about lawyers.

Remember that even before you start your presentation, people have their own ideas about you, your organization and your industry. If these are positive ideas, wonderful! But if they are negative ideas, you can use humor to change them.

Here's an example: Suppose you're a consultant, and you say to your audience,


"One of my clients once told me that a consultant is somebody who borrows your watch, then tells you the time. (Laughter)

Well, you know, when you work with us, that's partly true. It is true that you have the watch, because you are the experts in your field. But the other part is not true. It's not our job to tell you the time. It's our job to teach, train and empower your people tell the time themselves."

OK, this may sound a bit corny, but can you see how it works? You're doing four things:


  1. You recognize that your audience may have a negative view of consultants.
  2. You acknowledge that you're aware of it yourself.
  3. You show that you're willing to laugh at it yourself.
  4. And finally, you show them why you are different.



OK, so that's a brief look at ways of using humor effectively.

Many speakers are too scared to try humor, because they think it's just about telling jokes. I hope you realize now that there's much more to humor than just telling a joke.

I urge you to try it out. It's fun, powerful and very rewarding.

Good luck!



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