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Why great presentations need humour and stories

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This article is based on the free eBook "The Engaging Presenter Part II"
This article is based on the free eBook “The Engaging Presenter Part II”

Would you like to ace your next presentation? Did you know that using humour and telling stories can help you persuade and convince your audience? In this article you find expert tips on how presenters use humour and storytelling to their advantage.


Tell stories to make your message memorable

An example: a first aid instructor is trying to impress her students with the fact that rescuers are sometimes more likely to react to blood than the victims themselves. If she told the principle it would sound like this:

“You’ll find sometimes that you’ll react to blood more than the victim does. If you don’t guard against it, you could endanger the lives of the people you’re trying to help.”

Compare the effectiveness of that approach, with this story-telling:

“In 1931, early in the morning of December 14th, an air ace called Douglas Bader cart-wheeled his plane along the runway. When the wreckage came to a halt, Bader sat there in what was left of the cockpit, critically injured. Men rushed out from the clubhouse, including the steward who had the foresight to bring brandy from the bar.

“‘Here you are, sir,’ said the steward. ‘Have this brandy.’

“‘No, thanks very much,’ said Douglas Bader. ‘I don’t drink.’

“The steward leaned over to urge him, saw the blood spurting, turned ashen, then stood back and drank the brandy himself.

“The point is this, you’ll find sometimes that you’ll react to blood more than the victim does. If you don’t guard against it…”

Which way makes the message memorable?


Use colourful comparisons

Example: she went through that property faster than a cat through a dog pound.


Get personal, give your stories stars

Example: “On a sunny day in 1914, a young man called Rupert Turner put on his tweed jacket, polished his teeth with a used handkerchief, and strolled down to the local strip club…”


Get detailed, get particular

Not, “Harold was in a bad mood yesterday.” Instead, “Yesterday morning, Harold wakes up. The first thing he sees is the cracked plaster on the ceiling. The first thing he thinks is that there’s no food in the cupboard. And the first thing he tastes is what’s left on his tongue from the night before. Or was it two nights? He’s not sure.”


Use a word brush to paint pictures

Have you noticed how the examples above put pictures in your head?

Mario Cuomo, ex Mayor of New York, is one of the world’s better speakers. At a Democratic convention he laid a whip into the Republicans with this word-picture gem. “The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier, unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak, are left behind by the side of the road. The strong, they tell us, will inherit the land. We Democrats believe something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact!”

We note: Illustrative, relevant stories convince and persuade.


Make humour work for you

It’s commonly said that humour boosts the audience’s ability to remember by 20 per cent. Regardless of the figure, humour is a sharp tool to have on your belt, as long as you follow a few rules.

  • Make it relevant. The best jokes are an extension of your message. An isolated, unrelated joke is very difficult to run successfully.
  • Rehearse it: word-for-word. For once I’m only suggesting spontaneity if you’re an experienced stand-up comedian.
  • When preparing humour, add words that build visual pictures and heighten tension, remove words that don’t.
  • One more point. Don’t pussy-foot your way into a joke with ‘Stop me if you’ve heard this one’ or ‘I hope you haven’t heard this one’. Head straight into it. Take the risk. If someone finishes your punch line for you, he will come back as a dung beetle in the next life.


Abuse the audience

In the West, audiences love to be abused. Why else would we have Faulty Towers restaurants where customers pay exorbitantly for actor-waiters to treat them like rubbish that just blew in off the alley? It works well, as long as you follow two rules:

  • It must be witty
  • It must be obviously outrageous or absurdly exaggerated

If it’s not, you could belittle someone; the laughter will be brittle and the audience will lower its opinion of you even as it laughs.

Examples: (To a group of surgeons) But then what else can you expect? He’s a surgeon. He suffers from love bites… most of them self-inflicted. (To lawyers) It’s a terrible mistake to insult a lawyer. I did it once and he was so angry he was beside himself… you never saw such an unattractive couple. (To a group of public speakers) Yes, like all public speakers he’s a dedicated exhibitionist. In the winter he jumps out in front of girls and describes himself.


If you are looking for further help with your next presentation, then you should download and read “The Engaging Presenter Part II – How to connect with any audience” written by Michael Douglas Brown.