Over the past century a sense of humor has become a highly prized personality characteristic.
—ROD A. MARTIN, PSYCHOLOGIST
THE MOST POPULAR TED TALK ever is an unlikely winner: Sir Ken Robinson on why schools kill creativity. I mentioned earlier that his presentation is the most popular TED talk ever, but how could his 18-minute talk about education reform possibly attract more than 15 million views? People who are far more famous than Robinson have given speeches uploaded to YouTube—Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, J. K. Rowling, and Oprah Winfrey—yet none of their videos comes close to matching Robinson’s popularity.
Robinson’s video went viral because our brains cannot ignore novelty. The brain also loves humor. Combine humor and novelty and you’ve got presentation gold. Robinson used a novel approach to discuss an old problem. The problem: how to teach our kids better. The novelty: humor.
“If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education—actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education,”1 Robinson said as he opened his talk. The laughter started immediately and didn’t let up as Robinson followed up his observation about working in education with another funny insight: “But if you are [asked to a party], and somebody says, ‘What do you do?’ and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, why me? My one night out all week.’”
Secret #6: Lighten Up
Don’t take yourself (or your topic) too seriously. The brain loves humor. Give your audience something to smile about.
Why it works: Humor lowers defenses, making your audience more receptive to your message. It also makes you seem more likable, and people are more willing to do business with or support someone they like.
* * *
SIR KEN ROBINSON ARTFULLY WOVE anecdotes, stories, and humor into a narrative that drove home his main theme: America’s educational system rewards test takers and stifles creativity, risk taking, and innovation. Here are some other examples of how Robinson made his audience think and laugh at the same time.
“I heard a great story recently—I love telling it—of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, ‘What are you drawing?’ And the girl said, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God.’ And the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like.’ And the girl said, ‘They will in a minute.’”
“I lived in Stratford-on-Avon until about five years ago. In fact, we moved from Stratford to Los Angeles. So you can imagine what a seamless transition that was. (Laughter) Actually, we lived in a place called Snitterfield, just outside Stratford, which is where Shakespeare’s father was born. Are you struck by a new thought? I was. You don’t think of Shakespeare having a father, do you? Do you? Because you don’t think of Shakespeare being a child, do you? Shakespeare being seven? I never thought of it. I mean, he was seven at some point. He was in somebody’s English class, wasn’t he? How annoying would that be? Being sent to bed by his dad, you know, to Shakespeare, “Go to bed now and put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.”
“Anyway, we moved from Stratford to Los Angeles, and I just want to say a word about the transition, actually. My son didn’t want to come. I’ve got two kids. He’s 21 now; my daughter’s 16. He didn’t want to come to Los Angeles. He loved it, but he had a girlfriend in England. This was the love of his life, Sarah. He’d known her for a month. Mind you, they’d had their fourth anniversary, because it’s a long time when you’re 16. Anyway, he was really upset on the plane, and he said, “I’ll never find another girl like Sarah.” And we were rather pleased about that, frankly, because she was the main reason we were leaving the country.”
“I like university professors, but you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life. But they’re rather curious, and I say this out of affection for them. There’s something curious about professors in my experience—not all of them, but typically—they live in their heads. They live up there, and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads, don’t they? (Laughter) It’s a way of getting their head to meetings.”
Robinson received a prolonged standing ovation. He inspired a live audience of 1,200 people that included billionaires, philanthropists, scientists, thinkers, and influencers. He inspired millions of others online.
I study inspiring communicators: who they are, how they do it, and how the rest of us can be inspiring, too. If Robinson had relied simply on content, few people would have paid attention to his presentation, because facts and literal content—by themselves—are unemotional. As we know from chapter 5, statistics are boring unless they are wrapped in an emotionally appealing package. When a skilled communicator brings statistics alive, data has the power to move us, inspire us, and call us to action.
Humor plays a key role in the playbooks of the world’s most inspiring public speakers. Humor worked for Robinson. It will work for you, too, but you must learn to incorporate humor creatively and naturally. Repeating tired or, worse, crass or dirty jokes won’t get you far. In fact it might turn off your audience. The most popular TED speakers do not tell jokes! Unless you’re a professional comedian, jokes are not authentic. Think about it. When you meet a customer for the first time do you open the conversation with the latest joke you read on the Internet? No? Then why would you feel compelled to start a business presentation with one? A humorous observation, however, is perfectly appropriate and very effective. In this chapter you’ll learn five humorous alternatives to telling a joke.
A joke poorly told or, worse, a well-delivered but tactless joke can diminish your reputation with your audience very quickly. I once held a workshop for a group of sales reps at a large, global travel company. Each sales agent gave a short presentation to the rest of the group. The person—a male—who delivered one of the most nicely designed presentations ended his pitch with a tactless joke about women.
Sexist jokes are not acceptable in any professional business presentation, and, given that the majority of his audience were successful saleswomen, it really bombed. As we went around the room to critique the presentation, nearly everyone complained about the joke. It distracted his audience from the very strong story he had told about the product. A comedian like Chris Rock can get away with jokes about the sexes, he gets paid handsomely to do it, and his audiences expect it. Your audiences don’t expect you to be Chris Rock, so don’t try to be.
THE BRAIN LOVES HUMOR
Dr. A. K. Pradeep is the founder of NeuroFocus, a Berkeley-based research company that uses neurological research to determine why consumers watch and buy what they do. “At their emotional core, the brains of modern humans are remarkably alike,”2 he writes in The Buying Brain. Humor, it seems, is one of those tools the brain is hardwired to react to and is key to making a message new and novel.
When I met with Pradeep at his research facility, I learned that his experiments validate the existing research that brief, clear, and interesting conversations are more likely to resonate with listeners and are much more likely to be remembered and acted upon. How do you make messages interesting? According to Pradeep, use humor to make it novel. “The brain loves it,” he says.
The University of Western Ontario psychology professor Rod A. Martin says people use humor to “reinforce their own status in a group hierarchy. For example, you are more likely to crack jokes and amuse others in a group in which you are the leader or have a position of dominance than in a group in which you have lower status and less power than others.”3
In The Psychology of Humor, Martin argues that humor is used as an “ingratiation tactic,” making it easier to be accepted in a group. This explains why so many famous comedians have experienced difficult childhoods or have gone through a period when they felt like outcasts. They used humor to ingratiate themselves to the group, and they used it so often that they refined it to the point where they could make a living at it. According to Martin:
When we meet other people for the first time, we tend to quickly form impressions and make judgments about their personality characteristics such as their friendliness, trustworthiness, motives, and so on. Indeed, the ability to form relatively accurate impressions of others rapidly and efficiently may have been important for survival in our evolutionary history. One source of information that contributes to our initial impressions of others is the way they express humor. Humor is a form of interpersonal communication, and a good sense of humor is therefore an important social skill that we typically admire in others.4
Laughter also plays an important role in strengthening group cohesion, according to Martin. Humor, and laughter, is an example of what Martin calls affect-induction: “a method of communication, designed to capture the attention of others, to convey important emotional information, and to activate similar emotions in others … Laughter not only conveys cognitive information to others but it also serves the function of inducing and accentuating positive emotions in others, in order to influence their behavior and promote a more favorable attitude toward the one who is laughing.”5
According to Martin, studies show that when we meet people who have a good sense of humor, we are more likely to attribute other desirable traits to their personalities. Studies have shown that humorous people are seen as friendly, extroverted, considerate, pleasant, interesting, imaginative, intelligent, perceptive, and emotionally stable.
When popular online dating sites in the United States ask their members what quality they find the most desirable trait in a mate, more than 80 percent answer “a sense of humor.” When it comes to finding a mate, survey after survey shows that humor is more important than educational level, career success, or physical attraction. Unless you’re pitching yourself into a round of speed-dating, you’re probably not looking for a mate when you give a presentation, but you are seeking the attention and respect of your audience. Your audience is turned on by humor. Arouse them. Their devotion will help you be far more successful.
LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK
Having a sense of humor is important on the TED stage, for personal relationships, and in any business setting. In a study published in the Harvard Business Review (“Laughing All the Way to the Bank”), Fabio Sala compiled more than four decades of humor research and found, “Humor, used skillfully, greases the management wheels. It reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale, and helps communicate difficult messages.”6
Sala conducted his own research. He chose 20 executives from a food-and-beverage company, half of whom had been rated as average performers by their colleagues while the other half were characterized as outstanding performers. All the executives took part in a two-hour interview on the topic of leadership performance. Two observers categorized the content of the interviews and noted humorous references. Humor that included put-downs of others was coded as negative, while humor used to point out funny things or absurdities was coded as positive.
According to Sala, “The executives who had been ranked as outstanding used humor more than twice as often as average executives, a mean of 17.8 times per hour compared with 7.5 times per hour … When I looked at the executives’ compensation for the year, I found that the size of their bonuses correlated positively with their use of humor during the interviews. In other words, the funnier the executives were, the bigger the bonuses.”
Sala points out that merely “being funny” wasn’t the key ingredient; rather, it reflected the important success component of emotional intelligence. “In my studies, outstanding executives used all types of humor more than average executives did, though they favored positive or neutral humor. But the point is not that more humor is always good or that positive humor is always better than negative, disparaging humor. In business, as in life, the key to the effective use of humor is how it’s deployed. Don’t try to be funny. But do pay closer attention to how you use humor, how others respond to your humor, and the messages you send. It’s all in the telling.”
If it’s all in telling, how do you say something funny in a presentation? The first step sounds counterintuitive, but I assure you it’s critical: don’t try to be funny. Avoid telling jokes. The moment you start telling the joke about the blonde or the one about the rabbi and the priest, you’re dead. Jokes work only for professional comedians at the top of their game.
You’re not Jerry Seinfeld. When Seinfeld is working on a new act, he says, two-thirds of his jokes are garbage and largely bomb with his audience. Seinfeld works on jokes for years before he gets it just right.
In a video for the New York Times Web site, Seinfeld deconstructed the anatomy of a joke in great detail. He said he’s been working on a “Pop-Tart joke” for two years. “It’s a long time to spend on something that means absolutely nothing; but that’s what I do and that’s what people want me to do,”7 he said. Then he deconstructed the joke he had been working on: “I like the first line to be funny right away. ‘When I was a kid and they invented the Pop-Tart, the back of my head blew right off.’ That got [the joke] started—a specific part of my head blew right off, not just my head…” For the next five minutes Seinfeld dissected each component—every sentence—of the rest of the joke. If a sentence is too long, he’ll shave letters off words and count syllables to get it just right.
The video of Jerry Seinfeld is a fascinating insight into a brilliant comedian’s mind. It taught me two things: (1) comedy is hard work and (2) the humor we use in presentations and how we deliver that humor should be carefully crafted and considered.
How can you be funny without telling jokes? I’d be rich if I got paid every time a client told me, “I’m not funny.” You don’t have to be funny to be humorous. You just have to be willing to do your homework to make your presentation entertaining. Here are five ways to add just the right amount of humor to your speech or presentation without spending two years developing a joke.
1. Anecdotes, Observations, and Personal Stories
Most TED presenters who elicit laughs from the audience tend to relate anecdotal information about themselves or people they know, observations about the world, or personal stories. If something happened to you and you found the humor in it, there’s a good chance others will, too. Most of Sir Ken Robinson’s humor was in the form of anecdotes and stories about himself, his son, his wife, etc.
This is the type of humor that works best in most business presentations. Anecdotes and observations are short stories or examples that are intended not to elicit a huge laugh but rather to put a smile on people’s faces and endear the speaker to his or her audience. For example, at TED 2013, Dan Pallotta, the founder of the AIDS rides, made this observation about his role: “I also happen to be gay. Being gay and fathering triplets is by far the most socially innovative, socially entrepreneurial thing I have ever done.”8
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor generated a big laugh when she made a joke about herself recounting the moment when she was actually experiencing a stroke. Recall her earlier statement: “I realized, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke!’ The next thing my brain says to me is, ‘Wow! This is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?’”9 With a comedian’s perfect timing, Dr. Jill followed it up with this sentence: “Then it crosses my mind, ‘But I’m a very busy woman! I don’t have time for a stroke!’”
Starting a presentation with observational humor is the way to go. Don’t go for the big laugh right out of the gate. You might get the big laugh later, but if you work too hard to draw it out as soon as you step onto stage or launch your presentation, you might bomb, and while there’s no good time to bomb, you may never recover if it happens too early.
REMEMBER WHAT WORKED. Think back to anecdotes, stories, observations, or insights that have made you or your colleagues smile in the past. If they worked there and are appropriate to your presentation, weave them into your narrative and practice telling it.
2. Analogies and Metaphors
An analogy is a comparison that points out the similarities between two different things. It’s an excellent rhetorical technique that helps to explain complex topics. In my work with Intel, we use the classic technology analogy that a semiconductor (computer chip) is “like the brain of your computer.” When Intel launched its first dual-core chip, we said simply, “It’s like having two brains in one computer.” I recall working with the head of storage computing at the same company, who said, “By 2020 the world will have 40 zetabytes of data. That’s 57 times more data than every grain of sand in the world. Carmine, where the heck are we going to store all of that information?!”
By comparing data and sand, the storage expert put the enormous statistic into perspective and had fun delivering it. I advised her to start her presentations that way. She did so and they were very well received by her internal and external audiences. You see, you can’t tell someone to “be funny” or to tell a joke. If you ask them to do something onstage that they don’t typically do in everyday conversation, you’re setting them up for failure. Often, making a simple analogy can bring a smile to your listener.
Many popular TED presenters provoke laughter by using analogies. For example:
“Chris Anderson asked me if I could put the last 25 years of antipoverty campaigning into 10 minutes for TED. That’s an Englishman asking an Irishman to be succinct.”
“If you hear an expert talking about the Internet and saying it does this or it will do that, you should treat it with the same skepticism that you might treat the comments of an economist about the economy or a weatherman about the weather.”
—Danny Hillis, inventor, TED 2013
“Trying to run Congress without human relationships is like trying to run a car without motor oil. Should we be surprised when the whole thing freezes up?”
—Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, TED 2012
“If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark.”
—Richard Wilkinson, professor at the University of Nottingham, TEDGlobal 2011
An easy way to get a laugh without being a comedian or telling a joke is to quote somebody else who said something funny. The quotes can be from famous people, anonymous people, or family and friends. TED speakers do this all the time. For example, Carmen Agra Deedy quoted her mother, who said, “I gave shame up with pantyhose—they’re both too binding.” Some speakers quote others and add one pithy observation to highlight the humor in the statement. “In 2006, the head of the American Mortgage Bankers Association said, ‘As we can clearly see, no seismic occurrence is about to overwhelm the U.S. economy.’ Now there is a man on top of his job,” said Rory Bremner (Two years later, the subprime-mortgage crisis led to the financial collapse of several major financial institutions, heralding the worst economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression).
At TED 2013, Columbia University linguist John McWhorter taught the audience something new by providing a novel lens through which to view the 22 million text messages sent every day. McWhorter argues that instead of lamenting the abbreviated language that defines teenage texting, we should look at it as a “linguistic miracle” in the evolution of spoken language.
McWhorter showed a series of five slides, each of which had a quote from someone who criticized the way young people were speaking. In this case, the quotes themselves weren’t funny, but the way McWhorter used the slides to make his point made his audience laugh.
He started with a quote from an English professor in 1956: “Many do not know the alphabet or multiplication table, cannot write grammatically…”10 The audience didn’t laugh, nor did McWhorter expect them to. He advanced to the second slide, which had a 1917 quote from a Connecticut schoolteacher: “Every high school is in despair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.” No laughter yet. “You can go further back,” McWhorter said. On his third slide he showed a quote by Harvard president Charles Eliot in 1871: “Bad spelling, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing … are far from rare among young men of eighteen otherwise well prepared for college studies.” The audience started to get it and some began to laugh.
McWhorter continued, showing earlier and earlier quotes until he reached a quote from 63 A.D., a man saddened about the way people were speaking Latin, upset about the language that ultimately became French. After several quotes, the audience understood the premise and they were laughing at both the quotes and themselves for not seeing the evolution of language from McWhorter’s perspective. People always complain about the way young people are using the language, but “the world keeps spinning,” McWhorter said.
Creatively adding quotes to your presentation breaks up the slides nicely and gives your audience a mental break. Try to avoid quotes that are common and overused. And don’t just visit a quote library on the Internet, randomly pulling a quote from a category. Really think about the humor and the quotes you use. Make sure they’re relevant. When I give keynote speeches at an association or corporate conference, I often use quotes from association members, founders, or CEOs of the companies I’m speaking to. The quotes draw a laugh and help me connect with my audience. Building in good quotes requires some homework. Grabbing a famous quote would be easier, but not nearly as creative or effective. Do your homework.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK ON QUOTES. Search for third-party quotes that lighten up the mood of your presentation or cut through the complexity of your topic. Don’t feel that you need to stick with famous quotes. Go off the beaten path. In many cases, quotes from people you know can be quite funny and engaging.
At TEDxYouth in 2011, YouTube trends manager Kevin Allocca had the audience laughing hysterically with three short YouTube videos—a man in ecstasy over seeing a rainbow, a teenager girl singing a catchy, silly song called “Friday,” and a really silly animation called “Nyan Cat.” Allocca’s theme wasn’t silly at all. In an insightful presentation, he revealed the three reasons why the videos went viral (the videos had hundreds of millions of views): “tastemasters, communities, and unexpectedness.” In between the videos he showed charts and statistics about each video. By themselves the statistics would have been dry, but Allocca added silly videos to draw a laugh from the audience.
Very few people use video clips in presentations, even at TED talks. Video, however, is a very effective way of bringing humor into a presentation: it takes the pressure off you to be funny.
In one of my keynote presentations on the topic of the Apple Store and customer service, I show two videos. In one clip a comedian sees what he can get away with at an Apple Store; he brings in a goat, orders a pizza for delivery in the store, even hires a small band to serenade him and his wife as they dance. In a second clip the audience sees a young woman dancing in an Apple Store as the employees continue about their business on the sales floor. Both clips are meant to highlight the point that Apple Store employees are trained not to “sell stuff” but to “enrich lives” and to make sure people are happy when they’re in the store. The videos always draw a good laugh and, best of all, I don’t have to play the comedian; I let others do it for me.
When you think back to your favorite college class, there’s a good chance the professor you most enjoyed injected a fair amount of humor into his or her presentations. If I had to guess, economics was probably not the class that comes to mind for most people when they’re asked about their most humorous professors. They didn’t have economist and TED speaker Juan Enriquez as a teacher. If they had, they would have enjoyed going to class.
Enriquez has given four TED talks and takes the complexity out of economics by adding humor, usually in the form of photographs. His subjects are complex, and humor makes the topics easier to grasp because the photos place the topic in a context that everyone can understand.
At TED 2009, Enriquez opened his talk by saying, “There’s a great big elephant in the room called the economy. So let’s start talking about that. I wanted to give you a current picture of the economy.”11 The “picture” was a slide titled “The Economy.” The rest of the slide was black. In the year 2009 America was at the depth of a recession so no further explanation was needed. The black slide said it all and elicited a strong laugh from the audience right out of the gate.
Regarding the economy, Enriquez continued, “There’s a couple of really big problems that are still sitting there. One is leverage. And the problem with leverage is it makes the U.S. financial system look like this.” Enriquez advanced to a slide showing a photograph of people in a pool. They were laughing as their radio sat on a small table in the middle of the water, its power cord running through the water and plugged into an electrical socket that dangled over the edge of the pool. Again, Enriquez didn’t have to explain the slide. The photo acted as a metaphor for the problem of borrowing money against assets. It’s all fun and games while the money rolls in, but its consequences could prove deadly. The technical definition of “economic leverage” is: volatility of equity divided by volatility of an unlevered investment in the same assets. Enriquez never gave the definition. That would have gone over their heads and put the audience to sleep. Instead, he creatively chose a photograph that acted as a metaphor for the problems that leverage causes. Enriquez made his audience laugh … and think.
Showing another series of photographs, Enriquez says, “The government, meanwhile, has been acting like Santa Claus. We all love Santa Claus, right?” At this point Enriquez shows a stock photo of what appears to be a typical Santa you’d see at a shopping mall. He continues, “But the problem with Santa Claus is, if you look at the mandatory spending of what these folks have been doing and promising folks [entitlements], now that the bill’s come due it turns out Santa isn’t quite as cute.” The next slide shows a heavy man with a white beard sitting on a golf cart … naked with his private parts blocked out. The audience roars with laughter. They get the point—we love government money if we get it, but we cringe when the results of government spending are exposed.
Comedians work on jokes with different audiences to see what resonates, and I use photos and stories in the same way. In one section of my keynote presentation about customer service and communication, I use a series of photos from the Ritz-Carlton. The story (narrative) goes like this:
When employees are empowered to do what’s right for the customer, magical things happen. A family stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island. When they got home, they realized they had left the little boy’s beloved stuffed animal, “Joshi,” in the room. The dad called the hotel, the staff found the toy in the room, and offered to mail it. “Can you do me a favor?” said the boy’s father. “Can you take a picture of it so I can show my son that Joshi is okay?” The staff did one better. They sent several photographs showing Joshi enjoying the resort. Here’s Joshi near the pool; Joshi on the beach; Joshi in a golf cart; and Joshi getting a facial.
If you simply read my story in text form, you might appreciate the customer service, but it won’t necessarily make you laugh. I assure you the photos are hilarious. Seeing a stuffed animal lying on a massage bed with cucumbers on its eyes while someone massages its shoulders is funny stuff. The humor helps people remember the photos. More important, the pictures reinforce my key message—empowered employees create memorable moments for their customers.
Remember, in the Ritz-Carlton example, the photos get a laugh; I’m not trying to make the audience laugh by forcing a joke on them. It’s natural, authentic humor. I’m not trying to be something I’m not. You may have no hope of making it on the comedy circuit, but that shouldn’t stop you from delivering a presentation that’s informative and entertaining.
LIGHTEN UP YOUR PRESENTATION WITH VIDEO AND PHOTOS. Most PowerPoint presentations are dreadful because they have so little—if any—emotional impact. Incorporate a humorous photograph or video clip to lighten the mood.
I use each of these five techniques in my presentations. I was never the guy who told jokes. I love comedy, enjoy watching stand-up comedians, but I rarely remember or tell jokes. Yet, I laugh easily (and often) and find the humor in just about every situation. My wife and I laugh a lot. As I developed as a speaker, I realized that I didn’t have to make the audience laugh; all I had to do was reveal the humor in a particular situation. You don’t have to go for a laugh all the time, but you should try to elicit at least a smile.
“There’s this mental delight that’s followed by the physical response of laughter, which, not coincidentally, releases endorphins in the brain. And just like that, you’ve been seduced into a different way of looking at something because the endorphins have brought down your defenses. This is the exact opposite of the way that anger and fear and panic, all of the flight-or-fight responses, operate. Flight-or-fight releases adrenaline, which throws our walls up sky-high. And the comedy comes along, dealing with a lot of the same areas where our defenses are the strongest—race, religion, politics, sexuality—only by approaching them through humor instead of adrenaline, we get endorphins and the alchemy of laughter turns our walls into windows, revealing a fresh and unexpected point of view.”12
— Chris Bliss, TEDx
LET’S TALK S***
Always try to inject some humor when you are trying to help people wrap their heads around a complex subject, especially if they are new to the topic or have a low level of understanding about it. Humor is also a useful tool to deflect controversy or to relieve your audience from traumatic events. Millions of people tuned in to Saturday Night Live after 9/11 to get some relief from the constant barrage of horrifying images that were ubiquitous on television, in newspapers, and on the Internet. When comedian Will Ferrell appeared in one of the first skits with nothing but an American-flag-colored thong that showed his butt cheeks, the world knew it was okay to laugh again—not to forget, but to give our brains a break from the trauma.
Rose George sees the humor in poop. One day the UK-based journalist went to the bathroom and asked herself, “Where does this stuff go?” As a journalist, she was intrigued to find an answer to the question. For the next ten years she dug herself deeper into the world of sanitation, so to speak, writing articles and a book on the topic of how proper sanitation saves lives in third-world countries.
George takes her topic seriously, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously and she realizes that her audience needs a mental break from some of the heartbreaking images she displays on the screen. Her combination of humor and seriousness won the hearts and, yes, minds, of the TED 2013 audience.
George is smart enough to know that open defecation isn’t a pleasant topic. Her solution is to offer a careful, creative blend of humor and shock. George’s first slide showed a photo of a pretty female model standing next to a high-tech toilet at a conference of the world toilet organization, “the other WTO,” as she called it.
George says she grew up thinking that “a toilet like that was my right. I was wrong. It’s a privilege. Two-and-half billion people worldwide have no adequate toilet.”13 George advanced to the second slide, which shows a little boy “going potty” off the side of the road while people walk by, a way of life in many third-world countries.
George says the problem is that feces carry pathogens that cause many problems, including diarrhea. “Diarrhea is a bit of a joke,” George says as she advances to the next slide—a humorous one. “If you search for a stock photo associated with diarrhea from a leading photo agency, this is the picture you come up with.” Her audience sees a photo of a woman in a bikini standing outside a toilet with her eyes closed and fists clenched, obviously grimacing as she’s trying to hold it. The photo is funny and the audience laughs. Then George hits her audience with this: “Here’s another image of diarrhea. This is Maria Salie. She’s 9 months old [the audience sees a photo of a man crying as he stands in field]. You can’t see her because she’s buried under green grass in a little village in Liberia. She died in three days from diarrhea. She wasn’t alone that day. Four thousand other children died of diarrhea … it’s a very potent weapon of mass destruction.”
By now you can tell how George’s formula works: humor, shock, statistics. Statistics alone would put people to sleep. An overly shocking presentation would turn people off. Too much humor would take away from the serious implications of the topic. George skillfully blends the three into a magic formula for persuasion.
If Rose George can bring humor to her topic, you can certainly do so with your subject. Don’t take your topic too seriously, or yourself. The famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at the age of two. Now in his 70s, Hawking has been confined to a wheelchair for much of his life and since 1985 has had to communicate through a computer.
Despite his circumstances, he has a remarkable and disarming sense of humor. His wit makes audiences feel more comfortable around him. In 2003, Jim Carrey was promoting the film Dumb and Dumber. While he was being interviewed on Conan O’Brien’s show, Carrey got a phone call from Hawking and the two launched into a comedy skit. “I just wanted to tell you how happy I am that you’re excited about the new ekpyroptic universe theory,”14 Hawking said to Carrey as the two men complimented each other on being a genius. When asked about it later, Hawking said he’d done it because it sounded like fun. He doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Hawking brings his humor to public presentations. He knows his listeners’ brains will turn to mush if they work too hard to understand his theories. His levity adds a much-needed laugh to the discourse.
In February 2008, Hawking appeared on a TED stage to discuss the big questions: “Where did we come from? How did the universe come into being? Are we alone in the universe? Is there alien life out there? What is the future of the human race?” Pretty heavy stuff. Among the theories he debunks—being visited by aliens.
We don’t seem to have been visited by aliens. I am discounting the reports of UFOs. Why would they appear only to cranks and weirdos? If there is a government conspiracy to suppress the reports and keep for itself the scientific knowledge the aliens bring, it seems to have been a singularly ineffective policy so far. Furthermore, despite an extensive search by the SETI project, we haven’t heard any alien television quiz shows. This probably indicates that there are no alien civilizations at our stage of development within a radius of a few hundred light years. Issuing an insurance policy against abduction by aliens seems a pretty safe bet.15
Secret #6: Lighten Up
Humor involves some risk and most people don’t have the courage for it, which is why most business presentations are awfully dry and boring. It takes courage to be vulnerable, to poke some good-natured fun at yourself and your topic. The key is to be authentic. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. But if something makes you laugh, there’s a good chance it will make someone else laugh, too.
If you’re still not convinced that humor can help you win over audiences, think of it this way—studies show that humor is good for your health. Laughter lowers blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, improves breathing, increases your energy, and just makes you feel good. If you feel good, you’ll deliver a better presentation, and that’s something to smile about!