The art of the joke

Choose your humour well in presentations.

Silence. People look around, nervously. Then someone, quietly, from a corner of the room, hisses: “Idiot.”

You're making a speech, and you just started with a joke — a lengthy riff on why the chicken vacillated and vacillated, and then didn't cross the road. (Colonel Sanders, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, was on the other side.) Up north last weekend, it had your buddies hooting with laughter. But somehow, in the more sober environment of the workplace, it just doesn't work.

Sophomoric gags tend not to go over well in formal settings. But there definitely is a place for jokes in speechifying. Done right, says Lee Smart, creative director at Toronto's Second City Communications, the corporate division of the comedy troupe Second City, jokes can help communicate a serious message in a fun way.

So what's appropriate? Chris Earle, a director at Second City, says you should ask yourself first: “Is it actually funny? If you are trying too hard, it just won't work.” But, adds Earle, jokes don't have to be really funny to be effective. “Just a little bit of humour will help relax you — and everyone else.” Delivery is key. “Keep it short,” says Earle. “If you're spending more time telling the joke than communicating your message, you're not making a speech — you're doing standup.”

Content-wise, gauge your audience, and err on the side of caution. Avoid racist or insensitive jokes, but, “if you're in management, poking fun at yourself can work wonders,” Earle advises. Another tip, for smaller groups? Gently make fun of someone's habits — like writing very long reports. “What such jokes can do,” says Earle, is “take the group outside the situation, remind them we're all human beings.”

Earle recommends a running gag to keep people with you. “I was at an office retreat out west,” he says “and someone threw in a joke about some meek technical guy who went wild on the dance floor the night before. It made its way through the entire speech, and became very funny.” The joke sent up someone doing something out of character, but wasn't too critical. Another technique? Riff off something that just happened. “Billy Crystal does that at the Oscars,” Earle says. “He'll find something, an embarrassing technical glitch, say, and use it to wake up the audience.” What about a really tough crowd? “There may be some issue, some tension hanging over the group,” says Second City Communications president Steve Johnston. Before making your next speech to a stone-faced bunch, try to find what the problem is, and come at it from an irreverent angle. By addressing the issue head on, you diffuse the tension — and show you're aware there's a problem.

Above all, Earle says, use common sense. If people don't laugh, chances are they didn't realize you were trying to be funny. “Don't try to recover with another joke,” he says. “You'll dig an even deeper hole. Just move smoothly into your presentation.”