A few months ago I won an award for being funny. Now this took me rather by surprise. I hadn’t expected it, I hadn’t even known I was entering a competition. I took part in a stand-up comedy night for charity as part of the annual conference of the Professional Speaking Association. 19 of us did 5-minute sets to an audience of about 150 professional speakers, and at the end the compère suddenly announced that actually there was an award to be made for the best act; it wasn’t just a performance.
I won a bowl that had been donated in memory of somebody who was a former member of the Association who was a huge comedy fan but who died suddenly last year. I was really touched and I was told that I’d won it because mine was the set that would have made Kenny laugh most. I was genuinely bowled over.
It’s interesting because as soon as I came off stage people kept saying, “you were really funny”, “you really made me laugh”, “I really enjoyed your set”. While I’m delighted they liked my set, I’m aware that as a speaker that comedy is a great way to build engagement and I do try to use humour when I’m presenting, speaking and even when I’m training.
A lot of people ask, however, how they should use humour in business, but it’s not an easy question to answer. Actually the trick is not to do stand-up. When you’re in business humour should come naturally – it should come out of the situation you’re in, it should come out of shared experience, common bonds. What it shouldn’t be is a setup and then a punch line. It’s not a gag. You don’t want a cymbal going badum-tish after what you’ve said.
Humour should just come naturally and often it’s not the big uproarious laughs that people want, they just want to feel that there is a bond between you and them. In a stand-up club the shtick is that the comic has just stepped up from the audience and is sharing their thoughts. When you’re presenting or speaking in public or when you’re training, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You are standing up and sharing your thoughts.
Comics will often try to find what they call connecting comments and this can be as simple as just talking about the venue, it can be talking about what everybody’s thinking – is it very hot in here, is it very cold, is it very crowded, is it really empty, was the bar expensive, were the queues huge, is the weather appalling, was the traffic bad? And those sorts of things are what people will laugh at because they recognise them, they’ve shared them, they’ve experienced them too. So humour will often come from those shared experiences far more than it will from your particular observation or a gag that you heard in the pub.
Humour in business also has to be appropriate, so you do need to think about cultural differences, you need to think about language differences, and you need to think about the fact that what makes you laugh may not make somebody else laugh. If you’re in the slightest doubt as to whether something is appropriate or not, don’t do it. Cut it out, keep it safe.
Using comedy in your business presentations is one of the best engagement tools in the speaker or trainer’s armoury. Use it wisely, practice its use and enjoy its results!