I love to use humor when I speak--in everyday life, presentations, and formal speeches. It's worth considering why this is a good thing, and when to use it before you plunge in.
Speechwriter and commentator Peggy Noonan wishes more speakers used humor wisely and well. Speaking about political campaigns, but applicable to your next speech, she says:
A voter laughing is half yours, and just received a line he can repeat next weekend over a beer at the barbecue or online at Starbucks. Here is a fact of American politics: If you make us laugh we spread your line for free....When two people meet, as they come to know each other as neighbors or colleagues, one of the great easers, one of the great ways of making a simple small human connection is: shared laughter....fill that area with humor: sly humor, teasing humor, humor that speaks a great truth or makes a sharp point.So, just how do you do that, as a speaker? Here's my guidance:
- Don't confuse making fun of someone with humor: Humor that hurts others or undermines them isn't funny--particularly when they're sitting right in front of you, and you have the microphone. You may make yourself laugh, but you'll distance yourself--rather than connect--with the audience. A quick test: How would you react if you were in the audience and your worst enemy said that about you while she was speaking? If it doesn't pass that test, don't use it.
- Consider how well you know your audience: Humor is nearly always a risk--so think first about what you know about your audience and tailor the humor accordingly. This need not hold you back from using humor, but consider it when you decide how far to take your humorous contribution.
- Deadpan: Deadpan humor takes work, and requires that you know your audience and whether they'll get it. But when it works, it's delightful. (Think of Leslie Nielsen's "Don't call me Shirley.") Deadpan humor can be a great way to keep a situation or exchange from being too tense or heavy.
- Summarize with humor: I gave a talk about using social media for professional career networking, and got a tortured question from an audience member who had been told by a colleague that if she posted a profile on LinkedIn, "everyone will think you're job-hunting." There was a lot I could say, but I kept it to two points: "That person probably wanted to keep you from being his competition. Listen: Employers are fickle. Social media is your friend." That got a good chuckle from the audience, and summed it up better than anything else I could have said.
- Use the humor when it can bring the audience together: I like to use an icebreaker that gets a small group up on their feet, and tricks them into choosing someone else to be the actual volunteer. Everyone laughs once they get the joke, and I usually say, "I just made five new friends" of the people who didn't actually have to come up front. (We also give applause to both groups.)
- Fill an awkward gap: When a speaker brushed past a large Irish crystal award intended to be presented to the evening's honoree and sent it off the stage, breaking into a million pieces, the emcee turned to the honoree and said, "You're going to receive more pieces of Irish crystal than anyone in history." If you can make lemonades out of lemons in that way, go with the humorous take. I've done the same when I've been ill during a conference, and fellow attendees knew it; when I got to speaking, I said, "Normally I like to display a lot of infectious enthusiasm about my topic, but if you don't mind, let's skip the infectious part and get on with the enthusiasm." It was a gentle way to acknowledge, then dismiss, my illness and keep it from interfering with the presentation.
Related posts: Don't make yourself the joke: Jerry Brown shows speakers how to recover
Marlo Thomas dissects humor, and how the pros use it
When self-deprecating humor doesn't work for you
The joke-teller's memory problem: Why not to start with a joke