We all know those people who, almost without trying, can make a room burst into laughter. Not surprisingly, everyone wants to be around them. That's because humor is a powerful attractor that can command attention and keep people wanting more. For speakers, humor can be the most effective way to  engage an audience. But not all humor is the same, and not all jokes are funny. If not executed well, your attempts at comedy can backfire.

I often use humor in my keynotes because, as my friend, comedian and speaker Ron Tite, points out, "Humor is a great way to capture people's attention so they hear what you have to say next."

Here are some dos and don'ts on how to use humor effectively in your presentations so that your audiences are buzzing with excitement well after you've stepped offstage.

Don't be a jerk

At least, not with your audience. That's what comedian, speaker, and corporate trainer Matt Kazam told me recently. "In comedy, you can either be laughing to someone else's detriment or you can be laughing at something in common," Matt says. Obviously, in business, you want to be laughing at things you have in common.

For instance, when I'm speaking to an audience of high-level executives in, say, a highly regulated industry, I might say something tongue-in-cheek about all the regulations they have to contend with. I would never say something disparaging about regulators, because if I start attacking them, then I would go from being fun to being nasty. And no one likes nasty -- or petty.

Do make fun of yourself

If you are going to poke fun at someone, it's always best to start with yourself. Self-deprecating humor can be endearing, and it puts your audience at ease, because it shows them you don't take yourself too seriously.

A good rule of thumb is: You can make fun of things both you and the audience have in common, but you can't have fun at someone else's expense, even if it's your competitor. Especially if it's your competitor.

Don't name names

If you do point out something bad that someone else did, don't single him out by name; otherwise, you just sound like a bitter human being. The point is to underscore undesirable behaviors that can (and should) be changed, not to embarrass another person.

It's important that any humor you use is said with a smile, not with a stab.

Do give them a way out

Instead, you want to give that person a way to save face. For example, in some of my keynotes, I tell a funny story about a salesman I've dubbed "Justin." One day, this young salesman calls me up and says, "Hey, Ian. We work with speakers just like you who are afraid and uncomfortable in selling situations ... "

Now, of course, sales is my expertise, but instead of hating on Justin, I simply tell the audience, "Look, it's not Justin's fault. Someone taught him to do that." Because, no doubt, someone did teach him to do that. The point is not to bash "Justin," the point is to deliver a teachable moment.

Don't tell lame jokes

Question: What's the best place for knock-knock jokes in business presentations?  

Answer: No place. There is no place for knock-knock jokes in business presentations. Period.

Do use body language for maximum effect

Oftentimes, you can be funny without saying a word. Funny facial expressions or exaggerated gestures are great vehicles for humor. If used the right way, at the right time, you can make audiences roar with laughter.


You don't have to be a comedian to be funny. You don't even have to be funny to be funny. If you're a speaker who wants to connect with an audience using the power of laughter, you just have to be observant, know your audience, know what they find interesting, and highlight the funny. When you can engage an audience in laughter, you can hold their attention and keep them wanting more.