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How to inject humour into HR presentations

Glen Savage - Toastmasters International

We know that presentations from HR are important and contain messages that are vital to our organisation.  But do they always have the impact that they should?  Does the content get remembered and translated into action?

Much as I would like to answer ‘Yes’ to these questions the reality is that a serious HR presentation can fail to land effectively.  And HR is not alone in this.  So, what can be done to ensure that presentations across the organisation are effective?  My answer is here is to use humour. In my experience, a little levity supports the gravity of a message, for many reasons.

Effective one-to-one communication depends on building rapport, creating a connection and building trust, and the same is true for presenting. Rapport one-to-many may feel different, but it has the same foundations. Demonstrating relatability and building a connection with the audience are fundamental to getting a message across, and humour conveys that relatability, displaying a human side which generates likeability and builds trust in the speaker.

A 2015 study by Microsoft (https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/) concluded that the human attention span had dropped to eight seconds (shrinking from 12 seconds only 15 years earlier), emphasising the challenge of capturing and sustaining people’s attention when presenting. Engaging and re-engaging the audience is key, and injections of humour will punctuate the speech and re-focus the listeners’ attention.

Research (2020, Mohebi and Berke. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41386-019-0492-7) has shown that dopamine is important for both goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory. Laughter, as an embodied experience, significantly increases the memorability of a moment, the entire presentation and the speaker.

Humour usually creates a response – a smile, giggle, or laugh, but used inappropriately can generate a negative reaction. What’s important is to understand your audience so that you can design humour into your presentation that will appeal to them.

What makes something funny?

A difficult question to answer, given that we don’t all have the same sense of humour.

I am often asked whether joke-telling is appropriate, for which my answer is that it depends. Jokes, puns and frivolity that are directly related to the subject matter at hand can work very well.  Stand-alone, crafted jokes of the ‘three men walk into a bar’ kind, are the territory of stand-up comedians and rarely work in other contexts.

In my experience, there are a number of things that audiences find funny which can be sprinkled into a presentation or speech.

Surprise

Something unexpected, a twist in the tale, an exaggeration, or the speaker making a joke at their own expense, all humorous interludes which surprise, and when done well, delight the listeners.

Relevance

People will laugh at things they can relate to, whether it’s an observation of something in the room, their own experience, current affairs or more.

Links

Humour that unfolds from the subject of the presentation, creating a flow between the serious parts of the message usually lands well and easily with the audience. Don’t try to shoehorn in a funny line just to get a laugh. Make sure any humour relates to the point or message.

Personal anecdotes

A story about the speaker’s own fallibility, maybe a mistake, or a surprising event or some other anecdote relevant to the message, conveyed wittily, improves relatability and builds connection.

Exaggerations

Exaggerating points, with a smile, raised eyebrow or chuckle puts a lighthearted spotlight on something to amuse the audience and underline a point.

Humorous titles

Create anticipation, curiosity and get a laugh before you even reach the stage with an amusing title for the session – if it seems appropriate.

To give you an example, I recently changed a session title from Sales training to Are you selling it or keeping it? Modern sales considerations.’. Attendance at the master class doubled!

It’s the way you tell ‘em

In my experience, humour only works when executed well. Here are my top tips for delivery.

Practice

Run through your presentation a number of times so that the humour feels natural and flows off the cuff.

Test

Try out the talk in advance with someone you know and trust to gain some honest feedback on the humour you’ve weaved in.

Have fun

Relax and your witticisms will be delivered with ease; when you appear to be enjoying yourself, the audience is more likely to enjoy the speech too.

Be animated

Use your facial expressions, voice and gestures to emphasise the humour – or use them to provide the humour with a smile, raised eyebrow, body movement or change of voice tone.

Be bold

Stretch out of your comfort zone and say or do things that you might not normally be confident enough to do. (I once told an amusing story about a purple gorilla in a presentation on ‘Health & Safety’. I ran into an audience member three years later who said. ‘Hey, I still remember that story you told about the purple gorilla.’)

Feed off the audience

Focus on audience members who are smiling and laughing to fuel your energy of delivery.

Read the room (or the virtual room)

Watch and listen. If people aren’t laughing, move on and if necessary, adapt what you are planning to say in the moment. Remember not everyone has the same sense of humour!

And finally, most importantly:

Let the laughter be heard

People like to laugh.  Let them enjoy the experience. Pausing until the laughter has quietened means laughs can ripple around the room without interruption, and the next thing that you wish to say will not be lost.

Humour is the secret weapon that connects, engages and holds an audience.  Laughter is like an instant vacation, a kind of mini-break, enhancing the intake of oxygen-rich air to stimulate heart, lungs and muscles. Laughter releases endorphins which lower cortisol levels and stress, and stimulates the brain’s release of dopamine – the feel-good hormone. Amusement can lighten any mood, relieve points of tension and increase receptivity.

Let’s make sure that HR presentations have a touch of humour so that people listen, receive the message, remember it and act on it. As Charles Dickens said, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”

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