We can't all be comedians, but we can warm a crowd
I only know one joke. And it goes like this: "So these Wild West cowboys are sitting huddled around their camp fire out on the prairie late one night when, way off in the distance, they hear the distinct 'Bum-bum-BUM-bum, bum-bum-BUM-bum' beat of tribal drums.
"Oh no!" says one of the cowboys to the rest of his group, "I don't like the sound of them drums."
"Sorry!" responds a voice way off in the distance, "It's not our regular drummer!"
Okay. That's it. Maybe it's because it makes me think of Animal from The Muppets or it conjures some sort of thing the guys from Spinal Tap might say, or because of my own frustrated air-guitar '80s rocker tendencies, but I love that joke.
But I'm also smart enough to know that practically nobody else loves it. Which is why I swear to you I have never tried to shoe-horn that joke into any of my keynotes, presentations or speeches.
However, the notion of humour is one that often comes up when I consult with people on their presentations and communications styles.
Even this week, a reader wrote in to tell me that he'd like help with his 'father-of-the-groom' speech for his son's wedding at the end of the month. "I need help putting the words together for the big day."
"How do I be funny?" people ask.
Don't ask me. Grab the Life magazine insert in this Sunday Independent and flip over to Tommy Tiernan's column. He's an official comedian. A stand-up pro and everything!
But seriously, I get it. I write about making stronger human connections through our communications. And as humans, we're social animals. We like to share a laugh.
It's especially true during speeches or presentations.
Whether they come at a wedding or a business conference, we all sit there, hoping against hope that the speaker will exhibit some sort of human moment of humour.
There are as many different types of humour as there are of personality types. Here are my top five tips:
1. Know yourself. If you don't tell jokes well during your personal life, don't try to deliver a joke during a presentation. (And you know this from the kind of eye rolls or deafening silences your jokes normally get.)
What makes your friends laugh? Are you the dry observer? Ironic? Silly? Go with that. A bit. Remember, a little goes a long way in the presenting context.
2. A personal story is usually better than a joke. Think of something that relates back to your point. Maybe something from your childhood. Was there really a funny thing that happened on the way to the forum (or the meeting room)?
Telling an anecdote that comes from the heart and that really happened to you is likely going to resonate better than some contrived joke anyway.
3. React in the moment. Ad-lib on the meeting so far, the curtains, the weather, the food. As long as you're not being too critical or mean-spirited, a quick humorous aside can bring a nice 'real' moment to the room.
4. Self-deprecation. It's important not to discount the precise area of expertise you are being called to speak about, but audiences like successful people who can still poke fun at themselves. Abraham Lincoln was once accused of being two-faced.
His classic response was: "If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?" He joked about his looks, but not about his ability to lead the country.
5. Aim for interesting or surprising over funny. Think about the audience and what they may be expecting. Most business presentations are so horrendously boring that all you really need to do is find a way to break the tension and your audience will laugh.
"Would you like coffee, tea, or a solid second quarter earnings report?" It's not so much about being funny as it is about being surprising or charming or just interested in your audience.
Any time you speak before an audience - be it a smallish regular meeting or a more formal event - the information you're about to present should take a back seat to the human connection you should endeavour to make.
If it were only about the information, then why stand before people and deliver? You're better off writing a memo and hitting the 'send' button.
You may not be a stand-up comedian like Tommy, but if you're standing up and speaking, remember there are people in the room with you.
If you stand up, lighten up. Think less about being funny and more about having a little fun.
Don't try too hard. You're a human. You're a natural.
And, if you're going to be presenting at an upcoming drummers' convention, do I have the perfect joke for you! Or maybe not.
What do you have coming up? Want me to help you write a joke?
No, seriously, please share your own communications successes and failures. Let's help each other make work more fun.
Drop me an email at SundayBusiness@independent.ie
Gina London is a former CNN anchor and international campaign strategist, who is now a director with Fuzion Communications. She serves as media commentator, emcee and corporate consultant. @TheGinaLondon
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