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The 10 Commandments for Using Humour in Public Speaking

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With great humour comes great responsibility…use it wisely!

I’ve talked before about the transformative power of humour in public speaking, not only in terms of what impact it can have on the speaker’s life, but also in terms of the impact on the audience listening. I don’t mean because laughter is wonderfully therapeutic etc. etc. (although it is), I mean because humour will make your message land, it will make your idea relatable and memorable, and it might be the catalyst people need to make positive change in their lives.

I’ve also mentioned previously that humour, used poorly can have catastrophic effects, and I’ve used the example of the contrast between Dick Costolo’s tweet sent the night before he started as COO at Twitter, and Justine Sacco’s tweet sent before she boarded a flight from Heathrow to South Africa. His was witty, funny and reflected a sense of humour that would contribute to him achieving promotion to the role of CEO. Her’s was a car crash of poor judgement and poor humour that’s worth taking a closer look at, (for the unbelievable chain of events that followed), before I give you my 10 commandments for using humour in public speaking.

140 Characters from Disaster…

Following are extracts from Jon Ronson’s New York Times Article ‘How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life’

“As she made the long journey from New York to South Africa, to visit family during the holidays in 2013, Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, began tweeting acerbic little jokes about the indignities of travel.”

This is the one that really kicked things off…

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

“She chuckled to herself as she pressed send on this last one, then wandered around Heathrow’s international terminal for half an hour, sporadically checking her phone. No one replied, which didn’t surprise her. She had only 170 Twitter followers.

Sacco boarded the plane. It was an 11-hour flight, so she slept. When the plane landed in Cape Town and was taxiing on the runway, she turned on her phone. Right away, she got a text from someone she hadn’t spoken to since high school: “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.” Sacco looked at it, baffled.”

“Sacco’s Twitter feed had become a horror show. “In light of @Justine-Sacco disgusting racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today” and “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” and “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.” And then one from her employer, IAC, the corporate owner of The Daily Beast, OKCupid and Vimeo: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.”

The anger soon turned to excitement: “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

“The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc. As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet.”

​By the time Sacco had touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke. Hannah, meanwhile, frantically deleted her friend’s tweet and her account — Sacco didn’t want to look — but it was far too late. “Sorry @JustineSacco,” wrote one Twitter user, “your tweet lives on forever.”

Jon goes on to talk about other ‘Tweetastrophes’ in the full article here.

The 10 Commandments

Justine’s faux pas is a lesson to us all…but the upside to using humour is massive, and as long as you stick to these 10 commandments, summed up in the handy little mnemonic TRAKS BLOND, you won’t go wrong…

THREES to succeed – THREES is the model that Melvin Heilitzer came up with to cover the essential ingredients of any joke, which are: T = Target, H = Hostility, R = Realism, E = Exaggeration, E = Emotion and S = Surprise. You can pick up a free guide to using the THREES formula here
Relevant  – the humour must be connected back to the presentation you are doing.
Add value – it needs to move the argument forward.
Know your audience – to make sure you don’t say anything offensive you need to do your prep on the audience.
Short and sweet – there is a rule in comedy which says the longer the setup, the bigger the punch line has to be, so only give as much information as the audience needs to setup the joke.

Be nice – it’s fine to be a little cheeky, and poke fun, but it’s not good to be mean to anyone.
Laugh last – please, please don’t laugh at your own jokes, (especially not before the audience has got it.
Overdo it (Don’t) – keep your humour to a reasonable amount. Around 3-5 jokes for every fifteen minute presentation.
No Repetition – Do not repeat, I said do not repeat the same joke twice.
Don’t kill the laugh – You must let the audiences’ laughter begin to subside before you talk, if you don’t they will stop laughing to hear what your saying and, if it keeps happening, you will condition the audience not to laugh.

Well there you go. My 10 Commandments for using humour in presentations and public speaking.

Thanks for reading!

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