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Humor: Handle With Care
“I say, I say, I say, how should I use humor in my PowerPoint presentation?”
“Carefully, and in moderation!”
There is humor in this article.
(Oh no there isn't....)
(Oh yes there is....)
(Oh no there isn't....)
You can have too much of a good thing (or even a bad thing, see what I mean?). Humor can become tiresome after a while if overused. Apart from irritating your listeners, never a good thing to do, constant asides can interrupt the flow of a talk (are you sure...yes, go away, or the reader will give up on us altogether!)
If you weren't irritated by the humor at the top of this article, the above has been designed to show you just how irritating an excess of attempts at humor can be.
But even if we follow my often repeated axiom that when presenting with PowerPoint, less is more, there are still reasons why humor may not work.
In any piece of humor there are a number of elements which must be present for it to be effective. The first is a shared understanding of a situation. The “in-joke” is never funny if you are outside of the community of people that are “in” on the joke.
Culture can play a big part. Since 1999, a book of mine has only been available in South East Asia, where it has continued to sell in respectable numbers. I am slightly concerned about this, since the style is distinctly informal, and I'm sure that some of the humor contained within it must be completely lost in this different culture.
Humor generally has a target. There is generally a butt of the joke, at whose expense the joke is told.
In Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) Heinlein argues through one of his characters that:
“I have grokked this truth, and I have searched every joke I can remember. All of them fit this pattern - not only does every joke contain some element of cruelty, but the laughter during the telling (from someone who truly "gets" it) will occur when the height of cruelty is revealed.”
Speakers often use this as a device to say to the listeners,
“I'm on the same side as you, we both share a common view of the person or group who is the butt of this joke.”
Put like this, the risk is fairly apparent. You need to be confident that your view of your listeners is correct. It is frankly a cheap device, but can be effective. I was once asked to attend a day conference for nurses about quality at a time when the Government mantra was “private sector good, public sector bad”.
As a consequence, the first two presentations were from large corporate organizations, who spent a considerable amount of time telling the audience how wonderful their organizations were. I sat amongst the audience and observed fidgeting, eyelids drooping and heads nodding. Then we had a coffee break, during which the corporate speakers left. I was the next speaker and began my presentation with:
“So now we know how wonderful company X and company Y are, shall we talk about nursing?”
It brought the house down.
Cheap shot? Yes. Effective? Yes. Justified? I think so, because the butts of the joke were the organizations, not the individuals. But the alternative view is that it was a) high risk, and b) discourteous to my fellow speakers. Most, if not all humor has a butt of the joke. Obviously, humor based upon race, religion and I would suggest anything that attacks an individual directly is unacceptable. Unfortunately, it is not possible to always provide clear guidance about where boundaries lie.
And of course, there's always the danger that what you think is hilarious is simply not funny to your listeners! Try this slide to see what you think.