"What is a cow playing an instrument doing?" my six-year-old son asked at the dinner table. "I don't know, what?" I responded. "He's making mooo-sic." My son then burst into laughter, completely taken by his own humor. I, too, let out a chuckle because a first grade kid's sense of humor is funny.
There is a lot of bad advice about public speaking, but this is perhaps the worst and certainly the most dangerous. It's one thing if humor comes naturally to you in which case "trying to be funny" advice is a moo-point (see what I did there?). However, if you are not funny by nature, forced humor will only highlight that underdeveloped trait and undermine your authenticity and subsequently, your authority.
See, I told you it was dangerous.
Certainly, humor is an important part of a presentation and makes the experience more enjoyable. Here are three ways to make your presentations funnier without having to worry about the jokes.
1. Don't tell jokes. Tell stories.
Good jokes are hard. The long ones usually aren't worth the pay off, the short ones make it tough to stick the landing, and in either case you run the highly-probable risk of alienating half of your audience as jokes are often told at someone's expense. And in the age of social media, a bad joke can quickly become a public relations nightmare.
It's simply not worth the risk.
If humor is your goal, a better option (and a safer one) is to start with a story. Stories are engaging, persuasive and most importantly, can be funny. However, don't let that be your first concern. Instead of telling a "funny" story, focus on telling a familiar one.
2. Don't fret about telling funny stories. Tell familiar stories.
Before every presentation, I think about something I have in common with the audience; something we can laugh at together.
Recently I spoke for an event in my home state of Minnesota. I told the story of the first time I brought my Southern Californian husband to Minneapolis in the winter and how fascinated he was by the skyways that connected the buildings downtown.
The audience laughed at the image of a grown man surviving a Minnesota winter for the first time.There was no slap-stick in that story and it didn't need it. The story was funny because it was real; the truth was funny. Your goal shouldn't be to tell funny stories. Your goal should be to tell familiar stories.
Whether you are a funny person or not, if the story rings true for the audience in a funny way, the audience will chuckle. They will connect with the irony or the frivolity or the reality of the story. This type of laughter also carries more weight -- they are not laughing at you or your material, they are laughing about something within themselves which makes the enjoyment more meaningful.
And if you can't think of a familiar story to tell that particular audience, don't resort to a joke. Instead, tell a different story that is universally familiar.
3. Don't try to be funny. Learn to be funny.
Jerry Seinfeld is back in the news after the release of his Netflix special: Jerry Before Seinfeld. Jerry and other comedians like Jay Leno are meticulous about testing their material. What works. What doesn't. What punchlines hit and which ones fall flat.
The greatest tragedy with profound success is that it looks so easy and yet, the hours that go into that success are anything but. Storytelling and humor are skills, not talents, which means they can be developed over time. If you have a big presentation to give, spend some time testing your message on others before it's showtime. Study their response and learn what works.
Standing in front of any number of people can be daunting and it sure does make it easier if you can get them to laugh to cut the tension. However, trying to be funny is no laughing matter and is more likely to make the situation worse. Focus on being you and telling stories that are funny because they are so true.