Crying Out for a Laugh – The 10 Laws of Using Humor to Enhance Learning

Apr 9, 2021Posted by: mdctraining

Written by: Roger HB Davies, Founder and CEO, McLuhan & Davies Communications, Inc.

The sign read: “Attention attendees of Improving-Your-Self-Esteem Workshop. Please go to back entrance.”

OK, it’s not that funny. But maybe it forced a smile.

Usually any effort to elicit a laugh, a smile, even a groan, is appreciated by your audience.

Humor in Training

Humor has its place, especially in the training profession where (let’s be honest) topics can potentially be pretty dry. Frankly, these days, all of us are crying out for a laugh somewhere, somehow.

You’ll recall that classical rhetoric suggests that perfect communication involves three objectives: To inform, to persuade, and to entertain. In the past, entertainment remained low on the list of priorities. Today? Sorry, no one likes humorless trainers!  Consider inserting a little humor as part of your repertoire while recognizing the risks.

There are some obvious, and some less obvious, factors at play to help you manage these risks.

The 10 Laws of Using Humor
to Enhance Learning

  1. Assess your audience carefully.

If you know your audience well, it’s easier to judge what’s appropriate. I used to edit a trade magazine called Water & Pollution Control (AKA taps and craps) where the audience was pretty forgiving. You know you’re on safe ground when an industry flaunts an unofficial slogan: “It may be sh*t to you, but it’s our bread and butter.”  This clearly won’t fly with most audiences. In any event, if you don’t know your audience: play it safe. If in doubt, leave your humor out.

  1. Don’t make any obvious mistakes.

You know what they are, but for the record they include: Ensure your humor is relevant to your presentation, and avoid cracks about age, sex, religion, politics.  Not to mention ethnic groups, and minorities. Also, off limits: stereotypical remarks about anyone.

  1. Give your audience permission to laugh.
  2. You need to set your audience up, prepare them for the possibility that you may crack a joke. If you drop in a joke halfway through a serious presentation, without warning, it will only distract. People will start fidgeting and then chatting with colleagues. What did he say? Is he joking?

Point: don’t distract your audience from your key message.

  1. Script your humor.

I’m big on scripting humor rather than winging it. Some of you may be known for your quick wit, a worthy tool, if you get it right. But really high risk if you fluff it. Sooner or later you’ll say something that backfires. So, if you’re a blurter, join the scripting club. It’s much safer.

  1. Source your humor wisely.

Where can you find good humor? The internet will overwhelm you, much of which is just not funny, IMHO.

However, I’ve found some good quips online from famous people. One of my early speaking engagements involved helping engineers deal with the Press. I quoted Oscar Wilde in my opening lines:

“In old days we had the rack, today we have the Press.”  This always received rumblings of appreciation.

News articles provide another good source of smiles, e.g., typos, words out of place, ambiguities. “Afghan hound for sale. Eats anything. Loves children. Also, “Police are investigating the theft of 24 toilets.  Currently they acknowledge that they have nothing to go on.”

Another source: true life. From time to time we all run into real-life humorous situations. Bad reality, great anecdote. Make a list of these stories and access the list when the opportunity arises. Signage provides another rich source. I particularly liked the ad selling “Antiques While you Wait” from the island of Bali. Also, closer to home, the sign at some gas service stations “Change Your Baby”. i.e., if you don’t like the baby you’ve got: no problem. Just swap it with someone else’s!

  1. Don’t “tell” a joke, “tell” a story.

We now get into semantics because of the difference between “telling” a joke and “telling” a story. Be very wary of “telling” jokes. Many people react negatively to a joke. Too long. Often not funny.  On the other hand, ‘telling” a story sets up a different dynamic.

Jokes tend to be artificial, and clearly implausible —except in a joke scenario. A story tends to pull from real life. Could be true. Often is true. Which makes a story more engaging.

  1. Test your humor.

If you buy into my tip to script your humor, you’ll want to dry-run your lines on a safe audience. Maybe on your partner. Or best friend. Before COVID-19, I’d rely on dinner parties where alcohol passes lips. If no one laughs at your story in these circumstances, change the script.

  1. Plan where to use the humor.

Think about where you are going to strategically insert your humor into the presentation. Usually the beginning, middle, ending, at the very least.

In our workshops (Think on your Feet®, Writing Dynamics™, and The Skilled Presenter™) we’ve made a point of inserting humor into some of the learning activities.

  1. Play it safe with the tried and tested.

For example, consider using puns. Perhaps surprisingly, dropping in a pun or two always seems to receive a good reaction. The worse the pun the better. A groan from the audience is just fine. Any reaction that changes the tone of your presentation will complete the job. In our workshop, Writing Dynamics ™, we use a pun to reinforce one tip: don’t overuse the verb “to be”. We simply call them the “killer be’s”, because they kill good writing.  It always receives a groan. But most importantly, it also reinforces the learning.

  1. Tell stories at your expense.

Given that many targets for humor have been eliminated, this leaves the safest target of all: yourself.  It’s safe. Shows you’re human and allows you to tell a personal story that hopefully your audience will relate to.

Enough said!


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