Many experts recommend opening a presentation with a funny story, joke, quote or prop.
Why not? Humor can engage an audience, add lightness to a heavy subject and increase listeners’ recall.
Yep, humor can be a great opener—when it works.
Few things will suck the confidence out of you faster than beginning with a joke or story that bombs, annoys or confuses your audience.
Using humor in a presentation isn’t without risk, so be smart about exposing your funny side by following these tips:
1. Make your jokes relevant.
I once heard a speaker tell a story about his dog’s obsession with his daughter’s goldfish. The tale was funny, cute and heartwarming. Unfortunately, however, the audience’s smiles turned to stony glares after he clapped his hands together and said, “OK, so let me tell you a little bit about our company.”
Humor for humor’s sake is rarely welcome in business. If you don’t connect your joke to your presentation’s topic or audience, you’ll annoy your listeners and waste their time.
2. Limit sarcasm.
Some people love sarcasm, but others find it negative and grating. Use sarcasm sparingly, appropriately and only if you have a good read on your audience. (See tip No. 7.)
3. Nail the punch line.
Have you ever heard someone come to the end of a joke only to forget or botch the punch line? That doesn’t instill much confidence in a speaker, does it?
Nerves can do funny things to presenters (no pun intended), so take your humor as seriously as the rest of your presentation. Practice your joke until you have it down cold.
4. Avoid controversial subjects and stereotypes.
I assume you know what topics are inappropriate. However, we often use stereotypes unconsciously, which can be dangerous.
I once heard a presenter tell a joke about millennials that fell flat on a group of HR executives. After the presentation, the presenter discovered that half the audience’s staff was millennials, and the executives found the joke inappropriate. The speaker hadn’t researched her audience.
Make sure you’re not inadvertently offending someone in your audience. When in doubt, don’t tell the joke.
Tip: The one person you can always get away with making fun of is yourself.
5. Deliver with confidence.
When using humor, you can’t be the least bit sheepish or embarrassed. If you can’t commit to the joke, story or prop 100 percent, don’t use it. Your audience will instinctively pick up on your discomfort and become uncomfortable themselves.
6. Punch and pause.
Presenters often tell me their jokes didn’t work when, in fact, they have no idea, because they didn’t give their audiences time to react.
Like a good comedian, take a beat (or two or three) after the punchline to let your audience recognize the humor and react.
A fail-safe measure for using humor effectively is to test it out on your future audience or people who are representative of your audience. If you don’t know who your listeners will be and/or what tickles their funny bones, proceed with caution.
Tip: Humor isn’t for everyone, so don’t worry if it’s not your forte. There are many other ways to engage your audience, like these.
Julie Hansen is the founder of Performance Sales and Training, as well as a keynote speaker, author and presentation trainer. A version of this article originally appeared on PerformanceSalesandTraining.com.