Several years ago I attended a conference and one talk stood out to me in particular. What stood out wasn’t the topic of the presentation itself, but the content that surrounded it.
The talk was about ways to balance the needs of developers with those of project managers when working together. It’s a tricky subject, to be sure. No argument from me on that. But what was interesting to me was that sprinkled throughout were jokes about how Project Managers ruin projects by dismissing the wisdom of developers.
Caveat: I use the term “joke” here loosely. The first mention was a line delivered with the intention of receiving laughs from the audience. It had a mixed effect. Some people laughed because the presenters tone told them it was the correct time to laugh; others laughed because they thought it was funny; many did not laugh at all. After the “joke” had been made a few more times, one person stood up and said “I am a project manager and this is no longer funny,” and walked out.
He walked out.
The so-called jokes continued, but the laughter diminished and the information from that session is now lost in the back of my brain. But that Project Manager’s response still stays right up front. It informs the way I structure presentations and guides my interactions. And it changed the way I view jokes to this day.
Giving a presentation or addressing an audience can be difficult. It’s nerve-wracking enough to share one’s ideas in a small setting with people you know and trust. A room full of strangers can be beyond intimidating.
But in a world of personal brands and an industry that (to its credit!) values knowledge share, it’s hard to avoid. At some point in your career—likely many points—you will have to present. Getting comfortable with public speaking is just another part of working in the world, for most of us. Poise, confidence, a deep understanding of the topic you’re discussing— these are all prime factors to giving a great presentation. And so, quite often, are jokes.
What is a joke?
Though not a professional comedian, I’ve studied improv (as everyone’s younger cousin has) with Bad Dog Theater in Toronto and performed regularly over the years. Improv is a great way to hone your teamwork skills, your presentation skills, and your free-thinking skills. It’s also fun. There’s an undeniable thrill in conjuring laughs on the spot. And an interesting thing I found while studying improv is that most people don’t understand what a joke is. (That, for example, is not a joke.)
People understand laughing at things, that’s not the issue. Everyone gets what it means to have had something tickle your brain and get you to guffaw. But the actual concept of a joke, how to create the form and shape of the thing that brings people to laughter, is lost on most of us.
And I do mean most of us. I like to think I came into improv with at least some sense of comedy, but the truth is I learned a lot from studying it, too. (The book Truth in Comedy by Del Close and Charna Halpern was particularly informative and helpful.) Humour, like every skill in life, is learned a bit by osmosis and a lot by applying yourself to it.
A comedian who tells jokes is basically a salesman, trying to sell the audience a clever story or punch line, while hoping to be paid back in laughter. – Del Close & Charna Halpern, Truth in Comedy
The goal of a joke is to elicit laughter. The good news is, audiences are almost always willing to laugh. You tend to get the benefit of the doubt when trying to sell a joke. (Think of the “I just flew in, and boy are my arms tired!” joke. If the speaker presents this as a joke, and the audience is in a good mood, they’ll laugh! It is not, however, a great joke.) But the best laughs, ones that aren’t knee jerk reactions or sympathy-based, come from the audience seeing connections and revelations.
Where do the really best laughs come from? Terrific connections made intellectually, or terrific revelations made emotionally. – Del Close & Charna Halpern, Truth in Comedy
Think of your favourite sketch or stand-up set: undoubtedly, the content rings true to you. (Louis CK’s cell phone rant always hits me in the gut, for example.) Showing the audience a truth that they haven’t seen in that way before is the most efficient way to get laughs. Ellen Degeneres, Chris Rock, Louis CK— they all show us the truth of a situation in a clever, but relatable, way. And they’re very famous because of it.
Bringing humour into presentations
What does this mean for developers (or anyone else speaking at a conference, giving a presentation, or addressing an audience)? Do we have to be Jerry Seinfeld to even think of cracking wise? Should we be avoiding humour altogether, knowing how wrong it can go?
Absolutely not. A few jokes can keep people engaged with your presentation and help to build trust with your audience (an under-recognized but wildly important factor to a presentation’s success). The audience needs to trust that you’ll bring them from A to B, delivering on what’s expected and making it worth their while to be listening to you. One of the best ways to do that is to pepper in some laughs.
So how can we add some levity to the proceedings? It’s simple.
See connections in your work that are like other parts of your life. Unexpected connections and revelations make us laugh because we’re pleased to learn something new. Think of a baby discovering peek-a-boo. It’s awesome! Share your own intelligence with the audience by making comparisons between unexpected things. Giant pile of defects piling up? Make a developer chore wheel!
We tend to enjoy self-deprecating humour a lot, as we see our own insecurities within that. Doing it well is difficult, often we end up looking like impostors. But acknowledging faults and flaws is a great way to build empathy and bring laughs to your audience. Be cautious, however. Don’t target a single individual or group of people for the butt of your jokes (like the presenter at the start of this article). It turns them into a caricature of themselves and can lose you empathy and good-humour. Bring positivity into your presentation, emphasizing excitement and hopefulness. If you’re excited, your audience is more likely to be excited too!
Maintain a consistent perspective. Establish a pattern, so that the audience can follow along with you. If you’re using gifs in your presentation, pick a certain theme and stick to it. (Cats, Star Trek, Corgis, whatever you feel.) Bringing a joke back can have a similar effect— people like patterns, and repeating a point or recalling a joke gone-by builds a sense of belonging for your audience. It satisfies a primal human urge to classify and organize. Also, do things three times. I guarantee you it works.
Remember, your job isn’t to be the next Jerry Seinfeld— a few jokes will go a long way. People came to hear the information you’re presenting, not your standup set. If you focus on bringing your best self to your talk, you’ll do an amazing job. Intelligence, compassion, and perspective, plus a couple of well-timed zingers and you’ll knock ‘em dead, kiddo.
Want to work in a place where the laughs happen regularly? Join our team! We’re hiring— check out our open roles here.