Many managers misunderstand the role of humor in public speaking. Its purpose is not for you to fancy yourself as a comedy club headliner. Jay Leno’s audience expects to laugh, but your listeners presumably want to learn something.
The goal of humor in a business presentation is twofold. You want to engage people while also advancing or reinforcing your point. When your colleagues smile and nod their heads, they’re more apt both to accept you as a credible authority and retain your remarks and take them to heart.
Consider how Cristobal Conde, chief executive of SunGard Data Systems, urged employees at his IT firm to control costs. In a speech to his troops, he joked that they should prepare expense accounts for any purchase over $2.95, according to The Wall Street Journal.
As a result, his employees adopted a more frugal mindset. For example, one of them proposed posting excess equipment on the firm’s intranet so that workers could give costly items they no longer needed (such as PCs) to their peers.
Occasional joshing in a business speech is fine as long as the underlying message resonates with the audience. But confusion sets in when your jokes fall flat or seem irrelevant. Even worse, an inappropriate stab at humor can offend the people you’re trying to persuade.
To test your humor, seek feedback from a few trusted allies ahead of time. If you harbor any doubt about its effectiveness, try coming up with a safer, more reliably funny remark that complements your point.