Courtesy of Flickr user Cameron Adams

Early in my speaking career, I had the opportunity to give a keynote to a group of project managers. I wanted it to go over really well. I not only wanted to be informative and inspiring, I wanted to be entertaining. I wanted to be funny. I knew how to tell stories and be funny, but I didn’t know how to incorporate humor purposefully throughout my speech. I talked to a couple of experts and they shared their advice with me, and I’ve used it to get a lot of laughs. You can too!

Humor is an advanced skill. I can’t imagine anything harder than being a standup comedian, needing to make people laugh every 10 seconds! Fortunately, as speakers, we don’t have to do that. We use humor to create connection, lighten things up when they get tough, and present challenging concepts in a more easily digestible way. I encourage you to include humor in your presentations. The payoff is worth the effort!

Here are my top three approaches:

1. Look for the humor in your stories. Every story has the potential for humor if we just look for it. For example, I share an experience I had in the Chicago O’Hare airport to open a speech I give about pursuing your dreams. It rarely fails to get a laugh because I also add plenty of creative expression techniques. It goes like this:

“He was sitting in a chair in Chicago O’Hare, passing people through the security gauntlet. I watched as he took their driver’s licenses, one at a time, and with a despondent look said, “Good. Good. Good.” I approached this TSA agent who looked as if he’d spent every day in Gold’s Gym for the last five years. I handed him my driver’s license, and with a huge smile on my face, I said, “Hey man, how are you doing?” “Livin’ the dream, man, livin’ the dream.”

Everyone can relate to this particular story, and not only because of the TSA experience. We’ve all been disappointed. Through this story, I share an uncomfortable idea in a humorous way and open the door to greater receptivity.

2. Use one-liners. In my speech, This Would Be Really Funny If It Weren’t Happening to Me! The Three Essential Truths of Leadership, I introduce my first truth with, “I can only please one person per day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow isn’t looking good either.” My truth is: leadership isn’t about pleasing people, it’s about serving people.

When I flip it around to share my truth, they get an aha moment in a delightful way! We don’t have to make everything up. We can take advantage of public use material and make it our own.

3. Use our common “human” experiences. I’ve found the humor in a number of experiences, including the time a colleague told me I was semi-gorgeous. When I asked what he meant by that, he told me if I was 20 years younger, I’d be gorgeous! I created a story from that experience and have used it to introduce the idea of looking within for our self-worth, not in the eyes of other people! I paint a very clear picture of the situation, then share that comment, and my audiences crack up. I use self-deprecating humor to create connection through our common experience of getting older. It serves to lower the invisible wall between the speaker — me —and my audience, and creates warmth and goodwill. Plus, we all get a really good laugh!
Humor is a terrific tool, but we have to be smart about it. Humor is personal so it’s easy to offend. To prevent that, remember to protect your audience first, and when in doubt, try it out on someone beforehand to make sure it works.

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