Humour. It's a terrific way to make the emotional connection and create energy in a room. It's also the best way to have a tumbleweed moment or offend your audience. Some people think they are funny, or at least think they are funnier than they really are. (A tip: Anything after 10pm in the pub on Friday is unlikely to play well in a business setting. I'm often given a great "story" that would "work brilliantly" for my keynotes... "there was this short-sighted gynecologist playing golf with a monkey and two wee pals called Sneezy and Happy..."). Aye, right, I'll be sure to keep that one in mind...
Humour was front of mind when I opened a director's programme in Prague last week with eight nationalities in the room; advising a colleague on a big audience event they were delivering last night; and reflecting on my own three hours to a big group yesterday.
Here's the thing: It was front of mind not to open with humour at any of these events!
One of the biggest mistakes public speakers make is thinking that a few laugh lines will open the room up and get some empathy and energy going, when it's more likely to close everything up and suck the energy out. That can evoke some sympathy for the dying speaker, though personally I'd rather someone threw a Fox's Glacier Mint at me than said "Aw, poor wee lamb."
At the start of big audience events, forget humour. First establish your credibility and authority: you need to get gravitas. Comedians, by the way, mostly don't have gravitas as it is understood in a business setting; listen to them doing the guest slot on Question Time. The best ingredients for gravitas in your first few minutes behind the podium are looking the part, knowing your stuff and displaying that knowledge elegantly, in a language your audience understands. An effective personal narrative, a snappy example or a story from left field that takes your audience to just where you want them to be are some possibilities. None of it needs to be funny; in fact it can compromise your authority if it is.
But what if you are able to do humour? What if you really are a funny chick or fella? Well, that truly is a gift that has value, but two things are worth noting: Be sure not to go to that well too often or you might become a caricature of a business person with gravitas; and asking for a laugh right at the beginning of your gig really is asking too much of an audience that doesn't know you, but knows you are not Billy Connolly. (This initial pleading for a laugh is often a function of insecurity or nerves.)
And sometimes we are not as funny as we think we are. In Tickling The English, Dara O'Briain tells of sledging middle-aged male bosses who are daft enough to take the big Irishman on when out with their staff at his gigs. They don't understand why, all of a sudden, people are not laughing: They are always funny in the office, especially on pay day.
One reason they bomb, of course, is that the big chap has the mike, the spotlight and the stage. Another reason is that when people ask themselves "Are you being funny?" they know Dara is, to be sure; they're not so sure about you.
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Russell Wardrop is our Chief Executive. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop him an email and we will be in touch.