Supercompetent Speaking: Leave メEm Laughing

8 tips for using humor effectively in your presentations.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

While the purpose of any presentation is to provide the audience with useful information or influence behavior, there is no fail-safe method for ensuring it happens. However, you’re more likely to have it happen through the use of humor, which can aid in breaking the ice, engaging your audience immediately, and retaining their attention.

Unfortunately, there’s no fail-sure humor either—one person’s trash can literally be another’s treasure. Richard Pryor and Red Skelton, while both popular comedians, took very different approaches to their subject matter; and both were quite different from, say, Rita Rudner or Ellen DeGeneres.

I’ve found the use of humor to be a trial-and-error experience. If you’d like to experiment with mixing humor into your presentations, here are some tips to consider:

  1. Make sure it’s appropriate and relevant. Don’t tell a joke just to tell a joke. Inject humor into your presentation only where and when it fits, as a means of underscoring your point and making it memorable. Your humor must be relevant to both the topic and the audience. Does it convey a point and hold the audience’s attention? If not, leave it out.
  2. Keep it clean. Never, ever use off-color, racist, sexist, ageist, genderist, or any other “-ist” humor that singles out and mocks a specific group or individual, or depends on shock value to get a laugh. Don’t use coarse language. It may work for many comedians, but has no place at all in a professional presentation, and will offend at least some members of your audience. Offended people won’t carry away anything useful from your presentation. Better to avoid humor altogether than to risk offending your listeners. Again, if you have any doubt, leave it out.
  3. Don’t make the audience the butt of the joke. Some people can take gentle joshing; some cannot. I never make fun of the audience, even in a kidding manner.
  4. Topical matters. Some humor may be evergreen, but most of it gets old quickly. As big a splash as the Enron scandal made a dozen years ago, it won’t be long before the primary response if you joke about it is, “What’s Enron? Arthur who?” Choose humor that makes sense according to what people are familiar with now, based on the popular media or the shared culture of their profession.
  5. Use self-effacing humor. It’s hard to go wrong by gently making fun of yourself, but don’t overdo it. Nobody will respect you if you make yourself look like a pathetic fool. But jokes that make you seem more human—such as misplacing your notes or having to use eyeglasses—will help you establish a better rapport with your audience members.
  6. Don’t laugh at your own jokes. TV comedy notwithstanding, most people don’t need a laugh track to figure out what’s funny. Either it amuses them or it doesn’t. If something falls flat, just shrug internally and move on. Take note of reactions the first few times you’re trying a new piece; it won’t take long to determine whether you should leave it in or not.
  7. Rehearse your humor. A humorous delivery requires practice, practice, practice. Even long after something stops being funny to you due to repetition, you still want it to appear fresh to your audience. If possible, rehearse in front of a live audience so you can get feedback, or at least record your presentation and review it so you can experiment with timing, phrasing, emphasis, gestures, etc.
  8. Think “humor,” not “hilarious.” Unless you’re Weird Al Yankovic or a humorist, you’re a professional speaker, not a professional jokester (Yankovic is both). Subtle humor works best in a professional context. Don’t think of your talk as a challenge to make the audience laugh; even true comedians have trouble doing that sometimes. Just because you think something’s funny doesn’t mean everyone will.

We’ve all attended excellent presentations that used humor effectively to get the point across, and it can be worthwhile to build it into your own presentations. But realize that humor can backfire, too; so if you’re terrible at it, get some professional help to build humor into your presentation. With the tips I’ve outlined here, you can take advantage of the good humor and better nature of your audience to enhance the experience and drive your message home.

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, her speeches have helped entrepreneurs, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, lower stress, and save time at work and in life. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides time management workshops around the globe that help attendeesachieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack is theauthor or co-author of 10 books, most recently “What to Do When Theres Too Much to Do.” Connect with her at;; or

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.