The oxymoronic enjoyable presentation is the great white whale of presenters everywhere. We strive to be the kind of person that can captivate an audience for 20 or 30 minutes, or even an hour. We know we have to be all things to pull it off: smart, enthusiastic, talented, funny—you name it. That last one—the humor—is usually the one we all try to check off first. But not all attempts at humor are advisable in front of a big crowd.

It may be best to do a quick review of the kinds of humor available to us when we present. We’re not creating an exhaustive list here; just the most common in presenter-land. We’ll even through in a few tips on how to use (or not use) the humor in your next presentation.

1. Self-Deprecation: Why is it first? Because, for some reason, a lot of presenters go for it first. Self-deprecation can be a great counterbalance for presenters who are speaking from a position of power, implied influence or success. In these instances, self-deprecation can help the audience “forgive” the speaker for being on top. But beware of using this kind of humor in sales presentations, or in situations where the balance of power isn’t on your side. It’s not worth giving people reason to doubt your ability or professionalism.

2. Sarcasm: While often relevant in the realm of business presenting, sarcasm almost always does more harm than good. Deep down, sarcasm is all about defeatism. Even if the audience laughs, the implication is that you’re not able to make a difference in the subject area, so you choose instead to make fun of it. Sarcasm comes from a mentality of concreteness—it’s based in the assumption that the world is just a certain way. That implies powerlessness, and it’s not a great supporting piece to your presentation that’s trying to effect change.

3. Slapstick: This has long been a trusty go-to for presenters. Anything we can get our hands on that’s sure to get a laugh is game, with bonus points if it’s remotely relevant to what we’re talking about. YouTube has only made this easier, so you should find it incredibly simple to find a good clip for your next presentation. If you can finish the sentence, “I want something funny about _____”, you can type the ending into Google and pull it right up. We promise. It’s out there. The only risk with slapstick is going slap-happy. Too much will make a presentation seem childish and thin on meaningful content. So be judicious, but please, keep us laughing and engaged with your hilarious wiffleball videos.

4. Stories: By far the most sophisticated and engaging means of delivering humor in a presentation, stories allow you to entertain while also enlightening. The only problem with stories is that you have to live life a little to have them. It’s not fun to listen to someone tell somebody else’s stories. For the best kinds of humor, you gotta get out there, try new things and drink it in. In most cases, when we reflect on the best presentations we’ve seen, a huge part of the draw has been the life experience of the presenter himself or herself.

Remember that humor is not a requirement of presentations; it’s just a supporting device that can help the audience pay attention, stay engaged, and (gasp) want to listen to you. Humor should never be used for humor’s sake—however great it is to share a laugh—but if you can integrate the good times with your presentation, more power to you!

Question: What is the funniest presentation you’ve ever been a part of?

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