Adding humour to your presentation is one of the quickest ways to win an audience to your side. However, if done poorly, it’s also one of the fastest ways to create unnecessary enemies. It’s a tool that can cut both ways if not used properly.
The same way we track how our brains respond to stories, we can also see how humour impacts the body. Laughter reduces our levels of stress hormones and acts like a mini workout that engages our diaphragm, abdomen and face. Lowering our need for Botox injections and giving rise to Laughter Yoga. Or Yoga with goats. Take your pick.
You might be lucky enough to have a talented friend who uses humour as a way to deflect from an awkward or uncomfortable situation. You might even be that person, as humour has been shown to lessen psychological distress by allowing us to mentally distance ourselves from what’s happening.
Anthropologists have theorized that humour has evolved as a way to identify those who are part of our tribe. The instinctual and unconscious way in which we LOL, is a quick way to determine who is with us, and who is…well not. It’s also cultural, as any expat sitting in a foreign movie theatre can tell you.
But what it is exactly that makes people laugh and how to make people laugh has been a mystery for the ages. Any scientific approach to figuring it out has been summed up in the following way:
“Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” -E.B White
Basically, if you have to explain your joke than you’ve told it wrong. Or you’ve told the wrong joke, at the wrong time to the wrong people. They have however identified three different formulas that work well-ish to trigger the funny bone in us all.
The Tension and Release Theory
This explanation comes from Freud so proceed with caution. What we laugh at is apparently connected to our inner desires. The joke being an opportunity to reveal to others, those who are paying attention, that which we really want or think.
Incongruity Resolution Model
Our brain looks for patterns and will logically fill in the blanks with our assumptions given the situation. If by the time you get to the end, and what is revealed is not what you’re expecting, but something else, the juxtaposition makes us laugh.
A.K.A You’re actually a really mean person. – joke. This one dates back to good ‘ol Plato and Aristotle and refers to a joke that is made at another person’s expense, misfortunes or shortcomings.
The reasons why we laugh continue to be debated with the latest theory issued forward by Thomas Veatch from Stanford University in 1998. He thinks that humour emerges when something seems wrong or unsettling but is actually benign. This was later named the Benign Violation Theory and works like this:
A man wearing a bathing suit jumps on a frozen pond to take a polar bear dip. Instead, this happens……….
Did you laugh? His friend filming sure did!
The theory is broken down in this way:
A friend falls instead of arriving safely at the end of the stairs, (a violation of expectations) is only funny if they remain unharmed. (a benign outcome).
This is the basis of the Jerry Seinfeld show of pointing out the outrageous things (violations) in everyday life (benign).
Although dissent in the academic field of humour studies persists as one universal theory fails to explain all the reasons why we laugh. As a story coach who’s also worked with TEDx speakers, I’ve often found that the closer you get to the truth, the funnier “it” is. In fact, the most watched TEDx talk has been found to produce a laugh every 20 seconds. To join the Academy of Humor Studies you can test that theory yourself.
It’s tricky because telling a successful joke can also require an innate sense of timing. And even tone. However, if you risk it, using humour can bring your audience in, breaking down their barriers making them more open to your ideas.
My advice: when using humour in a professional sense, whether at work or with clients, there is no one formula that will keep you safe. Instead, do as the stand-up comics do: Find a darkly lit stage, with an exposed brick back wall, located in a different city and practice your jokes on an audience who has no idea who you are.