Yes, go ahead and tell a joke if all of the following apply:
- You can immediately tie in the joke with the larger theme for the presentation.
- Your joke is simple and short – audiences can’t remember more than three types of guys meeting Saint Peter at Heaven’s gate.
- Your jokes won’t offend men, women, children, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists; Republicans, Democrats, Independents; cat, dog, fish, or bird lovers; people who don’t like jokes; and so forth.
- You like telling jokes and not just for speeches.
- Not only that, you’re good at telling jokes, especially for speeches.
Otherwise, don’t tell a joke.
If you flunked the above checklist, remember that there are other forms of humor besides jokes. Here are some suggestions for being jocular without telling a joke.
- Use exaggeration. One presenter who had the misfortune of following an extraordinary speaker at a conference began by saying, “That was a superb talk, Carl. I’m reminded of the time I tried out for the opera, and the fellow before me was either Pavarotti or his twin.”
- Use real-life examples with a silly slant or a bizarre bent. A woman in my speaking-under-stress class shared this with the group: “I always thought my talks went pretty well, but my boss disagrees. He says I begin well and end well. But in the middle he says, I always faint, and he’s getting a little tired of reviving me.”
- Use a touch of self-deprecation. Audiences respond well to a speaker who is able to laugh at herself. Be careful, however, that you put yourself down only when you have the group’s confidence. Otherwise, they may perceive you as a loser, not as humorously humble. A professor who received utter silence when he asked his graduate class a question did get a laugh when he asked, “Now I know my questions are extremely thought-provoking, but don’t all jump to answer at once.”