How to win over your audience during a presentation

How can you add humour to your presentation in a way that wins over the audience? Jean Stewart, of Toastmasters International, explores novel ways of engaging the person or people you’re speaking to

How often do you enjoy listening to a presentation? Very often a presenter who can use humour will be more engaging, and audience members will learn more from this speaker than from others.

If you’d like to use more humour in your own business presentations let’s look at how to make this work for you, and your audiences.

Always research. If you are presenting at a corporate event take time to find out about the organisation. They will, undoubtedly, have a fund of stories about their business and people; pitched correctly, this can provide you with an excellent opening to your presentation – and there may even be a funny story you can share. But remember…

Avoid confrontation. Never make personal comments about anyone in the audience as a way of being amusing. If you have pre-arranged a ‘victim’ many in the audience will spend the entire presentation worrying that they will be the next target, and you’ll lose their support. Sometimes you will get someone calling out, or making comments you feel needs to be dealt with. Don’t. Tell the person you’ll discuss it with them later, or simply ignore the remarks. You want to remain the friendly presenter on the side of the audience.

Your own experiences. If you want to tell an embarrassing story, make sure it is something you have experienced. Undoubtedly some of the audience will also have lived through a similar, unfortunate episode; in this way you will gain the sympathy of the audience – and won’t alienate anyone.

Don’t laugh. Although you want your presentation to be humorous – don’t join in the laughter. There is nothing wrong with having a wry smile on your lips, but too much laughter from you gives the impression that the session is for your benefit. Also, if you laugh and the audience doesn’t it will be awkward!

Mind your language. In a lot of situations, it would be a mistake to use inappropriate language to get a point across. Unless you know the audience well, and feel they are happy to put up with fairly tame, but inappropriate language, don’t indulge in this.

Avoid ‘taboo’ subjects. Avoid at all costs using humorous remarks based on the audience’s belief structure. If you are not part of their culture you will be considered a critic of their beliefs.

Give the audience time to laugh. You can never guarantee when an audience will find a statement funny. Each audience has its own personality. Some groups will laugh at a particular statement and others will fall silent. If they identify with something they find funny, because of their experiences, then their laughter will spread to others in the audience. At this point don’t try and move on too quickly – rather enjoy the moment and let them continue their laughter.

Practice. Humour inserted into a presentation should be written down and rehearsed as any other material would be. Do not think that humour can totally spontaneous; it needs to be planned and rehearsed – do as the top comedians do.

Words and pictures. Some of the audience will react well to the spoken word and others will be influenced by visual presentations. It is a good idea to have something that will add visual impact. This could be a humorous image on a slide, or even a humorous (and appropriate) prop.

Use pauses to full effect. If providing a humorous punch line to a story, pause and allow the audience to realise this is an important part of the presentation. If they don’t take the hint, move on.

It is good to remind yourself that an audience can be enjoying your use of humour without rolling in the aisles. Watch their body language and don’t forget that it can take time for an audience to warm to you.

The key is to be yourself. There is no need to mimic your favourite comedian when delivering humorous content. If the audience fails to get your humour, you can still rely on the key message of your presentation – so keep calm and carry on.

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