You’ve likely been there: A speaker at a conference attempts to warm up the crowd with a few jokes, and they fall flat. Yet making people laugh can be a powerful tool for success. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that if you can make people laugh, not only will you lower their defenses and make them more likely to listen to the serious things you have to say, you’ll also be seen as a more confident and competent leader.
“[Humor] can make it easier to discuss serious topics,” says Joe Bor, a writer and standup comedian who also teaches classes in public speaking for professionals. “I think most people are capable of telling a story or a joke, they just need to be shown how to do that and be given the opportunity to find their rhythm and voice.”
So even if you aren’t a naturally funny person, here are Bor’s six tips for how you can still land some well-timed, appropriate jokes during a meeting or conference speech to help the audience warm to you and be more receptive to your message.
Bor says this is the No. 1 mistake people make when they try to be funny. If they like Jerry Seinfeld’s humor, they’ll try to mimic his deliveries. If they like Jon Stewart’s humor, they try to match his dry wit.
“I think there’s a big difference between what you want to do to make people laugh and what you should do,” says Bor. “Trying too hard or trying to emulate a comedian you like is often a mistake people make.”
As any comedian will tell you, pulling off a successful joke has as much to do with the type of jokes as with the comedian’s small mannerisms, body language, and timing. Trying to channel your favorite comedian onstage will ultimately make you concentrate on the impersonation more instead of a natural delivery, resulting in your joke falling flat.
Unless you’re a natural jokester, you should never step onto a stage prepared to use humor if you haven’t tested out the joke first to find out if it’s actually funny.
“Try it out on as many people as possible,” says Bor. “Practice a few times and make sure you are comfortable saying what you are saying.” Don’t have anyone to practice the joke on? Not to worry, says Bor. “I find that the best way of testing a joke is saying it out loud to yourself, and if it genuinely makes you laugh then it’ll probably work.”
If you’ve ever seen a speaker drop a joke on the audience out of the blue, you’ll know that most of the time the joke fails. It’s because doing so comes off as trying too hard–the humor equivalent of a nervous tick.
“A performance is a conversation with the audience. You wouldn’t go up to someone in the street and just tell them a joke straight away. Introduce yourself first, then ease into your material naturally,” says Bor. “Sound conversational. Don’t just go in with a gag.”
People are more receptive to listen to and laugh with a person if their mannerisms match the mood of the room. That’s why it’s important to take a quick reading of the room before you step on stage–literally peak around the curtain if you have to, or better yet, sit in the audience for a few minutes before the talk begins.
“Don’t go in high energy if it’s a small room with no energy; try to read them,” says Bor. That could mean you might want to have a couple types of jokes prepared–a low-energy and high-energy one–that you can quickly swap out. And remember, says Bor, “If it’s a big room, try your best to use the space and play to the back of the room.” Doing so will make you look more confident and help in your delivery.
No one likes to feel like they are being talked at. That’s why Bor says it’s important to acknowledge the audience as soon as you step onstage. This makes them feel both recognized and welcomed.
That acknowledgment doesn’t have to focus on them specifically, either. Bor says making a simple comment about the room they are in or the situation can loosen them up, making them more receptive for laughter. You can even make a small prejoke: something that’s an easy target, like a joke about the food or drink.
And of course, you can also acknowledge the audience by going back to the tried-and-true tactic of having them get vocal. “When you’re warming them up, get them to make a noise all together as one, get them to shout ‘hello’ or cheer. It brings the room together, and loosens them up,” says Bor.
Many people think they need a gag or joke with a punchline to get people to laugh. And both those options can definitely work in most situations, but they also require some mastery of humor to pull off well.
If you don’t feel like you are quite at that level yet, Bor says it’s fine to start with an anecdote the audience can relate to. “Tell a humorous anecdote about a similar situation to the one you are in at the time,” says Bor. “I have many stories and anecdotes about previous gigs that I use at shows. It’s a natural way of getting laughs and helps the audience warm to you.”