By Cliff Ennico
These days, we live in a world of infotainment, marketainment and edutainment.
It isn’t enough anymore to just give out information. Your listeners need to have their emotions manipulated — to laugh, cry or get angry — even though you’re talking about recent developments in sales taxation.
It isn’t enough anymore to just sell something. Your customers need to have an experience to which the product or service somehow relates but that is only part of a greater whole.
It isn’t enough anymore to teach lessons. With ever-shrinking attention spans and competition from the ever-fascinating Internet, you need to become a circus act and develop breakdancing moves just to keep your students awake, much less create memorable moments that will stick in their skulls for more than a few minutes.
Even lawyers, accountants and other professionals have to adopt a show biz style if they want to stay in business. Like the song says, “Make ‘em laugh.” The ability to laugh at yourself and not take yourself seriously (as opposed to taking your work seriously, which you should) goes a long way toward success, especially in a service business.
Of course, you also have to know what you’re doing, but you would be amazed how often people take that for granted. People never ask me about my grades in law school or how well I performed on the bar exam. If I tell them I can help them, they almost always take me at my word.
So how can you become funny? The first rule is to not try. Humor should flow naturally and should never be forced. Someone who is clearly trying to be funny just comes across looking phony.
Here are some other rules:
Tell Stories, not Jokes. A well-placed joke at the beginning of a talk can be a great icebreaker, but few people can pull it off. You are much better off telling humorous stories, especially if they come from your own experience. The greatest stand-up comedians, like Bill Cosby, are storytellers, not joke slingers. Listen to Cosby’s early Warner Bros. record albums to learn exactly how to tell a funny story. No one, not even Mark Twain, did it better.
If you can, take your speaker’s introduction and turn it into something funny. Whenever I am introduced to an audience of lawyers, I begin with something like, “That was a great introduction, but there’s really only one thing you need to know about me. I practice alone. I work from home. No partners, no assistants, no paralegals, no secretaries, no dog, no cat, no gerbil. Most of the time I am naked. I am running — to my knowledge — the only clothing-optional law practice in the country. And” — (lowering my voice to a conspiratorial whisper) — I am looking for associates!” If you have ever seen me speak live or on YouTube, you know why this is funny.
The Joke Is Always on You. You, not your audience, have to be the butt of the joke. Insult comics like Don Rickles are fun to watch at a safe distance but not when they’re pointing at you. Self-effacing humor demonstrates humility, assumes personal responsibility for the things that happen to you and acknowledges our common humanity. Also, you can’t sue yourself for defamation. When something happens in a Woody Allen joke, it happens to Woody Allen, never the other person.
Always Playful, Always Upbeat. You know the difference between a scooch and a nudge? If you look the words up on Wikipedia, they mean pretty much the same thing. But when they refer to people, there’s a big difference. A nudge is a pain in the neck, an irritating, pestering person. A scooch is a playful person, someone who pokes fun at life in general and at themselves in particular, without being sarcastic or negative. A scooch is actually fun to have around; a nudge is someone you keep at a distance. Be a scooch, not a nudge. Keep the dark irony for your next trip to England.
Humor Is the Spice, Not the Meal. I love a great joke during a speech but not when it has nothing to do with the subject. Humor for humor’s sake may get you a quick laugh, but the audience goes right back to sleep once it sees your joke was a one-off.
Humor should be interwoven throughout your presentation, at least once every five minutes (or once for every PowerPoint slide). The humor should be organic — flowing from the substance of the talk — and ideally should illustrate a serious point rather than stand on its own.
Never, Ever Offend Your Audience. It’s no secret that people are increasingly sensitive about many things and are more easily offended than ever before. If your humor shows a lack of intelligence or sensitivity to your audience, your audience will hate you, really hate you. Know your audience, and tailor your humor to fit who it is, not who you are.
Cliff Ennico (email@example.com) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.”
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