We all love to laugh. Laughter releases endorphins, lowers blood pressure and improves our overall outlook. Among a group, it can create a sense of rapport and goodwill. We value laughter so much that we actually pay professional comedians to make us laugh! What’s not to love about laughter?
Let me ask you a different question: What is the appropriate use of humor in professional settings? If you are presenting information as well as leading an interactive session, there are certainly benefits to creating an enjoyable experience for everyone, but there are also huge risks involved as well. Here are some practical guidelines for the best use – or avoidance, as the situation may merit – of humor in business presentations and meetings.
The overarching, cardinal rule for the use of humor? It has to be funny! The worst thing you can do is make an attempt at humor that utterly fails. This will diminish your credibility and put you in a hole that can be hard to climb out of. If you’re not sure if something you’ve planned to say will work, run it by a colleague, if possible. Otherwise, the best rule of thumb is “if in doubt, don’t.”
Let’s be clear about what humor is, and perhaps more importantly, what it’s not. Jokes are not necessarily synonymous with humor. As a general rule, jokes should be avoided in a formal business presentation. Since they are pre-scripted, they can give the appearance of being used as a crutch for people who simply cannot be funny in the moment. In general, people who master the art of being humorous don’t have to rely on telling jokes. Another potential pitfall of using jokes is that you could offend someone. This violates the second cardinal rule for humor: never be offensive. Let’s cast the net even wider: never offend anyone in the room, anyone they know, or anyone they’ll ever know. Sound restrictive? It’s meant to be – and is another reason that jokes in particular can be dangerous.
What kind of humor is appropriate? Humor should reflect a lively, quick wit; the best way to wield it is to weave in humorous observations in the moment. These will build the kind of goodwill and rapport that you desire. Humor should be context-specific and part of the natural ebb and flow of a discussion. This requires a keen observation of your audience, a sense of self-confidence, and extremely active listening.
While some content certainly lends itself to humor more than others, a light touch of humor can catapult a dry session into an enjoyable, memorable one. Give some thought to your content ahead of time, and be prepared to elicit a smile whenever you can. And remember: enjoy yourself! If you’re having fun, your audience will too.