As entrepreneurs it is essential to hone your speaking skills. Whether you are winning over an investor or cementing a deal with a new customer, giving an engaging presentation can make all the difference. And humour has a part to play even in a serious situation.
In my experience, introducing a little humour will supports the gravity of your business message, for many reasons.
Effective one-to-one communication depends on building rapport, creating a connection and building trust, and the same is true for presenting. Rapport one-to-many may feel different, but it has the same foundations. Demonstrating relatability and building a connection with the audience are fundamental to getting a message across, and humour conveys that relatability, displaying a human side which generates likeability and builds trust which is particularly important for a startup founder.
A 2015 study by Microsoft (https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/) concluded that the human attention span had dropped to eight seconds (shrinking from 12 seconds only 15 years earlier), emphasising the challenge of capturing and sustaining people’s attention when presenting. Engaging and re-engaging the audience is key, and injections of humour will punctuate the speech and re-focus the listeners’ attention.
Research (2020, Mohebi and Berke. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41386-019-0492-7) has shown that dopamine is important for both goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory. Laughter, as an embodied experience, significantly increases the memorability of a moment, the entire presentation and the speaker.
Humour usually creates a response – a smile or laughter. However, if used inappropriately it can generate a negative reaction. I tend to agree with Charles Dickens who said, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.” Research your audience members as much as you can before an important pitch, customer meeting etc. With this information in mind, you can design the humour in your presentation to appeal to them.
What will your audience find funny?
A difficult question to answer, given that we don’t all have the same sense of humour.
I am often asked whether joke-telling is appropriate, for which my answer is that it depends. Jokes, puns and frivolity that are directly related to the subject matter at hand can work very well. Stand-alone, crafted jokes of the ‘three men walk into a bar’ kind, are the territory of stand-up comedians and rarely work in a business context.
In my experience, there are a number of things that audiences find funny which entrepreneurs can sprinkle into a presentation (and also into conference speeches and other talks).
Something unexpected, a twist in the tale, an exaggeration, or the speaker making a joke at their own expense, all humorous interludes which surprise, and when done well, delight the listeners.
People will laugh at things they can relate to, whether it’s an observation of something in the room, their own experience as entrepreneurs, current affairs or more.
Humour that unfolds from the subject of the presentation, creating a flow between the serious parts of the message usually lands well and easily with the audience. Don’t try to shoehorn in a funny line. Make sure any humour relates to the point or message that you are aiming to get across to your potential investors or customers.
A story about the speaker’s own fallibility, maybe a mistake, or a surprising event or some other anecdote relevant to the message, conveyed wittily, improves relatability and builds connection.
Exaggerating points, with a smile, raised eyebrow or chuckle puts a lighthearted spotlight on something to amuse the audience and underline a point.
Create anticipation, curiosity and get a laugh before you even stand up in front of your audience, with an amusing title for your presentation – if it seems appropriate.
To give a business example, I recently changed a title from ‘Sales training’ to ‘Are you selling it or keeping it? Modern sales considerations.’. Attendance at the master class doubled!
In my experience, humour only works when executed well. Here are my top tips for delivering your next presentations.
Run through your presentation a number of times so that the humour feels natural and flows well.
Try out the talk in advance with someone you know and trust to gain some honest feedback on the humour you’ve included.
Relax and your witticisms will be delivered with ease; when you appear to be enjoying yourself, the audience is more likely to enjoy the speech too.
Use your facial expressions, voice and gestures to emphasise the humour – or use them to provide the humour with a smile, raised eyebrow, body movement or change of voice tone.
As a startup founder it is important to stretch out of your comfort zone. In this context this means saying or doing things that you might not normally be confident enough to do. (I once told an amusing story about a purple gorilla in a presentation on ‘Health & Safety’. I ran into an audience member three years later who said. ‘Hey, I still remember that story you told about the purple gorilla.’)
Feed off the audience
Focus on any audience members who are smiling and laughing to fuel your energy of delivery.
Read the room (or the virtual room)
Watch and listen. If people aren’t laughing, move on and if necessary, adapt what you are planning to say in the moment. Remember not everyone has the same sense of humour!
Don’t stomp on the laughter
People like to laugh. Even when pitching to investors it is good to let your audience enjoy the experience. Pausing until the laughter has quietened means laughs can ripple around the room without interruption, and your next important point will not be lost.
Over the years I have listened to many ‘serious’ speakers who, frankly, offer an excellent antidote to insomnia. The drier the content of a presentation, the harder it can be for the audience to stay attentive. With coaching clients who see themselves as ‘serious speakers’ I ask the key question, ‘Do you want to be a serious speaker or a speaker who is taken seriously?’ To be the latter sprinkling in some humour will help you achieve your goal, which as an entrepreneur is precisely what you want.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Glen Savage DTM is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org