How to engage a business audience with humour
About a third of my work is comedy-related. I don't have 'funny bones' but I'm workmanlike enough to know how to construct and do funny. I realise LinkedIn isn't Comedy Central but enough non-comedy business folk have contacted me via LinkedIn for help with speeches, presentations, training, journal articles and such that there's clearly a latent demand out there from the accidentally comedic to the professionally unfunny to amp up their game when the occasion requires it.
Not everyone should attempt to write or perform jokes or standup. Some of these ideas I'm suggesting do come from that world. Neither you nor I should expect a NetFlix special to be offered to us. Let's calibrate our expectations. Maybe you're a self-employed professional or you've got aspirations within your newly joined firm or industry association? How do you stand out and engage people, drawing attention to your key messages and aiding people's retention of those messages and of you? One way is workplace appropriate humour. They don't have to be jokey jokes or even obviously a joke per se.
These are tools to put in your toolbox, techniques from which you can choose. They can be a bit 'colour-by-numbers' but if you're competent and confident enough to be asked to write an article or deliver a speech, then the humour aspect isn't any harder than the technical aspects of architecture or whatever your subject is. Once you know the basic principles of architecture, you can give it a crack. (Note: I do not know anything about architecture).
1. Defined-interaction Questions.
This is a good technique to start with in a low-risk and engaging way. (It's low-risk for both you and your audience). Indicate how you want them to answer - "Raise your hand if...", "Shout yes on the count of three if...", "On a scale of one to five raise some fingers...".
"Who's got kids? [Raise hand - Pause] Who's ever been a kid? [Raise hand - Pause] Who's waiting on DNA tests? [Pause] I like to include everyone."
My quote might be a joke for the sake of a joke but it also has the purpose of connecting and creating opportunities for involvement. That principle is fundamental to every field in which I work - writing, training, facilitating, speaking, MCing, comedy. Even if it gets no laughs, as long as you're not left hanging desperate for a laugh, everything is fine if you've created an opportunity for involvement. These are inherently engaging. Here's a short video on the three critical ingredients for the optimal engagement environment.
For your own opening, what might be your questions relevant to your topic, your audience, this place and time?
2. Point Out Inconsistent Behaviours
"You know how you look at a photo of yourself from 20 years ago and think oh that haircut how embarrassing? You know how you look at a photo of yourself from 10 years ago and think oh that haircut how embarrassing? Yet all of us at some stage today looked in a mirror and said, 'Nailed it'!"
What might be some inconsistent behaviours in your industry, organisation or team? You can poke at sacred cow topics and at least raise avoided topics using this technique. Does your firm talk a big game on customer service but don't walk the talk consistently?
3. Misdirection + Dramatic Reveal
I was MCing a conference at which a speaker was talking about workplace drug testing. Her objective was to sell workplace drug testing. She had one session in the morning and the same session with a different audience after lunch. At one point she asked the audience what they thought the percentage of the population who had tried the drug 'P' (meth) was. People shouted out numbers and it escalated quickly getting to 40%. When she told them the answer was 15% it was something of an anti-climax. She made no sales that morning.
Over lunch we had a bit of a chat. I talked about a particular type of joke-writing technique called the dramatic reveal. You give some information leading logically in one direction then the punchline is a surprise. Usually this requires a minimum of three steps. She constructed a slide showing the preceding years' 'P' usage that were all very low and only gradually rising - 0.2, 0.4, 0.9, 1,9 Then she rhetorically asked what they thought the last year's figure was and before they time to answer but while their brains were in a state of curiousity, she dramatically revealed the last bar in the bar graph - a staggeringly larger 15%. That afternoon she made three sales, the least of which was worth to her $10,000.
"I learned most of my job skills via trial and error. Unfortunately, I'm a lawyer"