Watching video of the recent Obama White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I was reminded how humor can be used in communication. The president uses self-deprecating humor to remind us that he is human and jokes to lighten the perspective of heavy political issues. His joke, "I'm not the strapping young Muslim Socialist that I used to be," does both.
I often have clients and students ask if they should open a speech with a joke to grab the audience’s attention. My usual response is to do so only if the audience will laugh and then listen. Humor can be very effective in public speaking, but it can also fall flat and be detrimental to the speaker’s credibility if the audience doesn’t find it funny.
Humor should be used primarily in a speech to entertain, though it can be an effective inflection point in a speech to inform or persuade. If you do use humor in a speech, never make it racist or sexist or any other ‘ist’. Not offending the audience is more important than amusing the audience. Flipping through one of my many textbooks on public speaking, I found a few sound pieces of speech humor advice.
- Play to the Audience – humor is in the ear of the listener, so know your audience
- Keep it Simple – complicated stories or jokes rarely work
- Know it Well – there is nothing worse than poor timing or a forgotten punch line
- Use Verbal Humor – play on words, hyperboles, wit, and irony all work well
- Use Funny Gestures – exaggerated facial and body expressions draw attention
It is not only in public speaking that humor is an effective tool in communication. Humor can lighten a tense situation in interpersonal communication and shift attitudes within group communication. The use of humor can facilitate transfer of information that is sensitive or difficult. For example, it is often easier to hear criticism when it is phrased as sarcasm. Humor can also relieve frustration of the group members and encourage participation. If a group has been working long and hard on a task and the leaders yells, “Only 55 more hours and we’re done,” the group will likely laugh and get that the leader appreciates how hard they are working.
Humor also has a role in changing societal perspectives, often by drawing attention to stereotypes. Television shows like Family Guy poke fun at so many stereotypes that the humor becomes eye opening. The New York Times Preoccupations column this week was on Henry Holden, who uses crutches and humor. He has used crutches since the polio epidemic of 1952 and helped form the Performers with Disabilities Committee of the Screen Actors Guild. Holden has fought to change people’s perspectives in every job he has held, including as a stand up comic. In the article he is quoted as saying, “There is nothing like humor to relieve people’s awkwardness about seeming disabilities or disadvantages.”
Whether giving a speech, interacting one-on-one or in a group, or working to change the world, humor can help. So, spread some laughter with a funny story or a witty pun.