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Why Be Funny?
Five Reasons to Hook your Audience with Humor

By Patti Wood MA, professional speaker

Its been a hard week. You're flipping through the TV channels looking for something to watch. You come upon a comedy show in time to hear a funny line and you laugh. You stop changing channels. You are hooked by the humor and continue watching the movie. Every time you give a speech, your audience is sitting in front of you with their internal channel changer deciding whether to watch you or flip in their minds to something else. Using humor in your speech will hook your audience. There are five reasons why laughter is great bait to catch your audiences’ attention and keep them with you for the whole speech.

Here are five reasons to use humor:

1. It Breaks Tension

You know when you walk into a room to speak you may personally feel a lot of tension. What you may not have known is that the audience has tension too. They may be sitting next to strangers with no one friendly to talk to; they are worried about all the work they should be doing instead of listening to you; they are wondering if you are going to tell them something they won’t like or understand; and heck, the chairs are darned uncomfortable. So trust me they are tense. Laughter breaks through tension. We are no longer in the past thinking of things we didn’t do or in the future worried about things we need to do. We are totally in the moment.

Research shows that mirthful laughing can actually change the chemical components of the blood to good eustress from bad distress. When we have two incompatible feelings such as anger and amusement coming into our brains at the same time we have to pick one.

I was brought in do a team building talk on the first day of an executives’ retreat for a construction company. Some of the team had complained to the boss about one of the team members being condescending and overly critical, there were severe problems with completion of a building project and other issues that nobody felt safe to address. Everybody was already tense, arms folded, eyebrows furrowed as the boss came up to start the day. Before he introduced me he shared a very long list of things that were wrong with the group that the rest of the retreat (after my program) would address. Then he said, "So now here is our speaker to teach us team building.” I knew the boss had a sense of humor so I got up and immediately said, ”Welcome to team building the EXTREME MAKEOVER Edition.” Everyone laughed, The tension was immediately eased. All those construction executives knew the reference to the TV show where they tear down and rebuild a house in three days was a funny and accurate metaphor of their group change.

2. It Grabs Their Attention

When we walk into most meetings we expect to be bored out of our minds. Attention is related to our hunter instincts. Just like our ancestors noticed the big wooly mammoth that was not there a second ago, we look for things that are novel and unique. If the audiences’ expectation is to be bored and you are the least bit funny, you break their expectation and draw their interest.

I have a friend from Alabama with a strong southern accent. He used to be afraid when he opened his mouth that people would laugh at his accent. He decided to turn that thought around and now he starts all his speeches with a long southern drawl saying, “My name is Ken Futch and I am from Boston.” The audience always howls. One line into his presentation and he breaks up the most formal group of executives you can imagine.

3. It Connects You With the Audience and the Audience to Each Other

Fear of speaking is our number one fear, a fear greater than the fear of death because our primal fear is being rejected by the tribe. Think about it. When you’re up at the front of the room disconnected from the group, you’re not just dying, your dying alone! Being the source of humor makes everybody feel connected to you. When everyone laughs together, it unifies the group; you all aren’t a group of strangers or battling co-workers anymore – you’re a laughing group of kids.

Years ago I was giving my presentation skills three-day boot camp. An accountant who worked for Disney would come up to the front of the room like he was going to the gallows. He looked beyond uptight, wearing a tweed suit, vest and tie, with a terrified face, stiff posture and arms attached like glue to his sides. He would pause and then in a monotone voice that could put a caffeine addicted Starbuck employee to sleep, would give his presentation. None of our coaching could make him loosen up and enjoy himself.

Desperate to help him be successful, I took him aside and said “Tomorrow I want you to give the wildest, most outlandish, funniest attention getter that you can think of. Be daring; take a risk. This is a safe place for you to break out of the Disney accountant mold.”  He came in the next day, in his same wooly suit, carried a brief case to the front of the room, the audience slumped in their seats expecting to be bored. He then bent over the briefcase and turned around to us wearing Mickey Mouse ears! We all laughed so hard. His face lit up like a trailer park at Christmas and he started bouncing around the front of the room and gave the most animated dynamic presentation on finances I have ever seen. When we asked him what happened he said, “I didn’t know what it was like to feel connected to the audience; suddenly you were with me and I felt great!" And so did we.

4. It’s Memorable

Our strongest links to memory are through our emotions and senses. Humor has been shown to measurably increase emotional arousal and attention in the brain. And it makes us laugh, making are senses come alive. Its memorable. Quick, think of the last time you had a good belly laugh. You can feel and see that memory, can’t you. And the other wonderful trick is that if you laugh when given information, you are more likely to remember the information you were given just before and just after you laughed as well.

It’s often visual as well. In my first impressions speech I talk about striking out your hand forcefully to prevent a wimpy handshake. For years as I demonstrated this I would say to the audience, “you are showing with your body ‘Oh baby I can take it’” and I would wiggle my hips as I did it. Recently I realized that I had not consciously added the hip action, the visual not the line was making the audience laugh. And all those years of having people come up after my speech and wiggle their hips as they shook my hand made sense.

5. It Makes You Look Good, Which Makes the Audience Listen

The ability to make people laugh makes you look in control and powerful and that makes you a more compelling speaker. Most humor giving requires that you be forceful and confident. Audiences are drawn to that ALPHA power. Ok, so there is no academic research that says making an audience laugh increases your credibility and listenablity, but think about it anecdotally. Think of the people that have made you laugh. Perhaps your junior high teacher, a college professor or a motivational speaker. Don’t you think they are extra cool?

I have a friend Russ who has a way of seeing humor in the most mundane things and a sense of play as robust as a roomful of six-year olds. He can take rooms full of government employees and make them laugh and fly paper airplanes to learn economic forecasting. I don’t just see him as powerful, I think he has Batman super powers. He puts me in awe. I not only want to listen to him, I take notes!

So as you’re preparing for your next presentation. put a little less time on creating the perfect PowerPoint slide and put a few more minutes on coming up with something funny and you will “Hook them with Humor.”