In my presentation skills training programs, people often ask me, "Should I start my presentation with a joke?" My immediate response is "No!"
Now I'm a fan of humor as much as anyone – and in fact, probably more than most people, since I've been performing onstage with an improv comedy group since 2004 and I've incorporated improv comedy rules and ideas into my communication skills/leadership training programs.
(Improv does not involve telling memorized jokes, however, but instead requires you to be in the moment and spontaneously respond to audience suggestions and whatever your fellow performers on stage have offered. Applied to speaking, improv helps you connect with the audience, remain fully in the moment and trust that you've prepared enough to handle the unexpected – from a technical glitch to an unanticipated question to a fire alarm.)
So here are 4 reasons why I don't recommend starting a presentation by telling a memorized joke:
1. A joke is difficult to get right.
Great jokes are all about timing and delivery. Expert comedians like Jerry Seinfeld work for hours to perfect a joke and decide which words to use, where to put the emphasis and how long to pause before delivering the punch line. Telling a joke right is a lot of pressure to put on yourself at the start of the speech, especially when you already are feeling nervous.
If you're a stand-up comedian performing for 15 minutes, you can afford to flub a few jokes. However, if you're giving a presentation and the joke is your opening, it's hard to recover from a joke gone wrong and from that awkward silence during which the audience wonders if they're supposed to laugh.
Speaking is not about perfection – it's about communication – and perfection is unrealistic and unnecessary. But jokes require you to be near-perfect, especially if it's your opening line and your only joke.
2. They've heard it before.
Unless you have your own personal joke writer, you probably get your jokes from the Internet. And if it's a funny joke, that probably means that someone in your audience has read it in their email inbox. And if the joke is specific to a particular industry, the chance is even greater that many people have read it or heard it before.
A key element of humor is the element of surprise, whether it's an unexpected juxtaposition of words or events, a twist in the ending of the story or an unanticipated punchline. If people in the audience have heard the joke before, you lose the power of surprise. And telling a stale joke could brand you as "same old, same old" rather than as a unique individual with a fresh perspective on the topic.
3. You will offend someone.
While you probably wouldn't start your presentation with "a rabbi, a minister and a priest walk into a bar…" because of its obvious inappropriateness for most audiences, there are few jokes and types of humor that are universally inoffensive. Especially given the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of our audiences, it's difficult to imagine a clean, funny and appropriate joke that is a safe bet for every audience.
And there's no real way to know if people are offended by your joke, unless they tell you. Just because people laugh doesn't mean they are not offended or hurt by the joke – sometimes, they give in to the social pressure to laugh, while inwardly feeling upset and even angry.
Beginning your presentation by alienating people in the audience will not help you communicate effectively.
4. Even if you get it right AND they haven't heard it before AND it doesn't offend anyone, it might be irrelevant.
Even if all else goes well, your joke might be viewed by the audience as irrelevant. They may laugh, but be unsure why you told it and how it relates to your message. Even if you think it's obviously and directly relevant to your presentation, they still might be confused about its purpose. And it's never a good idea to start off by confusing the audience.
So the next time you have to give a presentation, remember these 4 concerns. And unless, you can successfully address all of them, resist the urge to start with a joke you found online and you'll have a better chance of being effective.
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