Sunday, August 25, 2013

Presentation Myths: Tell a Joke to Lighten the Mood

In this latest series of posts, I've been talking about myths surrounding public speaking, specifically focusing on the scientific talk. In this post, I thought I would tackle the idea that a speaker should tell a joke or a funny story during professional presentations to put the audience at ease. Is this a good idea or a disaster waiting to happen?

There is nothing inherently wrong with being funny during a formal presentation, especially when the material being presented is deadly dull. God knows, the audience is likely desperate for something to break the monotony or seriousness of the meeting. The problem is that this is sometimes very difficult to pull off.

Some speakers are naturally funny or have a knack for telling amusing stories. I know colleagues (and students) who could easily become successful stand-up comedians. They are not the problem. It's the rest of us scientists who are so serious and, let's face it, deadly dull. Of course, it's always possible to be so dull as to be hilarious, e.g., Ben Stein in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off:

By the way, that stint as an economics professor in this movie launched Stein's career in film (before that, he was a speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford, among other things).

But back to professional talks. The problem comes in when a speaker tells a joke or a funny story that really has no bearing on the speaker's topic. It almost always falls flat. Some even tell highly inappropriate jokes that worked on their beer-buddies (so everyone must like it, right?). The most recent, public example of of a joke-gone-wrong was the knock-knock joke told by one of George Zimmerman's attorneys during the opening statements.

The biggest sin is often not that the joke is inappropriate but that it isn't funny.

Sometimes it's just the wrong audience. A memorable example occurred at a botanical conference and during a talk about gravitropism in plant roots (how plant roots grow in a downward direction). The speaker explained that he had figured out that the chemical signal guiding root growth was dependent in part upon a mucous coating on the root tip (that facilitated ion movement, I think). He had tried all sorts of media in an attempt to replicate this mucous material, but the only one that seemed to work was the "personal lubricant", K-Y jelly (interestingly, the main ingredient is methyl cellulose). He then proceeded to describe his experience buying up large quantities of this product at his local Walgreens and the exchange he had with the checkout clerk. It was hilarious. However, no one laughed, except me, as I seem to recall. The audience was composed of mostly botanists (who are not known for their sense of humor). Upon further reflection, I suspected that this particular audience failed to find this story funny, not because they thought it was inappropriate but because they did not get the reference to K-Y jelly and what it is commonly used for. At least that's my working hypothesis. Perhaps some botanist readers would like to rebut?

The botany story might have gone over much better with another audience. But it was the high point of that meeting for me. In fact, it's been over twenty years since I heard that talk, and I still remember it (both the technical and the humorous aspects)....which relates to my previous post about telling a good story.

My own experience with using humor in professional talks is mixed. Humor only seems to work for me when it is unplanned. All the times I planned to tell an amusing story or make a humorous aside, the audience did not laugh. However, when I have added something on the spur of the moment, even when I was being serious, I've gotten a big laugh.

For example, I was once giving a talk at a conference on restoration of tropical forests and was describing my field site. It was located in Florida adjacent to a golf course. I showed an aerial photo of the site and described how I and my students had to trek across the golf course to get to our study site and were sometimes stopped by the groundskeeper who thought we were illegal aliens (we were dressed in field clothes and carried garbage bags). I thought that would get a laugh. It didn't. Then I later mentioned, off-handedly, that my students, on their first excursion to this site, always expressed fear of snakes, alligators, spiders, or some similar beast. I told the audience that I tried to allay their fears by telling the student that the most dangerous creatures out there were senior citizens lobbing golf balls into the forest. I was serious...getting beaned by a golf ball was much more likely than encountering a dangerous animal. It was a spur-of-the-moment statement that got a tremendous laugh. Go figure.

I suppose the take-home message is that humor can be used in a professional talk but it takes good timing, the right audience, and perhaps some comedic talent (but not always) for a successful outcome. If you have an example (successful or not), please share. We scientists need a good laugh now and then.


MineralPhys said...

I agree--a planned joke in a presentation is a completely different from generalized good humor that occasionally naturally arises during a talk. In the past, most of my planned jokes fall flat, so I never use them. However, I can occasionally move an audience to laugh with an on-the-fly comment, and I really enjoy that.

DrDoyenne said...

Thanks for the comment. I suspect that some of my off-the-cuff remarks get a laugh because I'm trying to be serious but the content is funny to the audience.