Presidential campaigns always feature their share of awkward moments, as privileged multi-millionaires hobnob with the regular folk. So far this season, my favourite odd encounter occurred when Mitt Romney paid a visit to a diner in New Hampshire.
The fake pinching incident with the waitresses got the most media attention, but what made me cringe was when he approached the restaurant’s owner to deliver this not-so-bon mot:
“I saw the young man over there with eggs Benedict, with hollandaise sauce. And I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce in hubcaps. Because there’s no plates like chrome for the hollandaise.”
This is the kind of, “Hey, do you want to hear a joke?” moment that sends people fleeing at dinner parties. And it’s what gives comedy a bad name in serious settings like business.
Comedy = Truth
But humour is an excellent way to put people at ease and get an audience on your side. It just has to be executed with a little finesse.
After all, few people are funny when they try to be. Think of when you get together with your friends or family. How do most of those LOL moments occur? Is it when somebody announces they’re going to tell a joke?
No. The funniest moments happen organically and spontaneously. They flow from the context of the situation and they touch on shared history and perceptions.
In short, comedy is all about truth.
So instead of trying to shoehorn a joke into your presentations, conferences, videos or other communications, look for more natural ways to be funny.
Here are some tips from the pros and a few examples from my own experience.
1. Find the Truth and Exaggerate It
In improv and sketch comedy, it’s called heightening. Taking reality up a few notches until it reaches humorously absurd proportions.
A vehicle manufacturer wanted to illustrate to managers the unnecessary and costly complexity of its product offerings. So they unravelled a 100-foot scroll filled with ridiculous options like fur-trimmed cup holders and jasmine-scented windshield washer fluid. It hit home with the audience, but because it was exaggerated, nobody’s ox was gored.
2. Try Parody or Satire
You don’t have to be Stephen Colbert to create decent satire. It’s something we do every day – making fun of celebrities or politicians or the DMV. Your own organisation probably offers a target-rich environment: outdated technology, convoluted procedures, the competition. Consultants are almost always fair game.
In unveiling its new and improved product development process, a client used video to poke fun at the old, inefficient process. “Customer research” is illustrated by a raucous party scene. When a product is “fast-tracked” we see a turtle ambling across the screen. “User training?” Circus animals doing tricks. The results were both hilarious and cathartic.
3. Be Specific
Instinct would tell you that the more general you are, the more you’ll appeal to the broadest possible audience. Not true, actually. Take Seinfeld. What’s funnier than being offered a beverage? Being offered a Snapple. What’s funnier than an heiress? An O Henry Candy Bar heiress. What’s funnier than Florida? Del Boca Vista.
So when you’re mocking something, get specific. If it’s cafeteria food, don’t do the equivalent of, “What’s the deal with airline peanuts?” Talk about the precise physical properties of the Tuesday Pork Surprise. Comedy is in the details.
4. Liberally Add Topical References
One of the easiest ways to get a laugh is to reference a current event, a familiar place or some other touchstone. It’s the reason talk show audiences spontaneously erupt in applause when their hometown is called out. “Whoa, he just said Dubuque! I’m from Dubuque!”
It doesn’t even have to be inherently funny – the name check itself is often enough to trigger a response. Just reference the headline or rumour of the day or mention the CEO’s fondness for breeding Labradoodles. It’s cheap, yes, but effective.
5. Do a Callback
Like the topical reference, the callback to an earlier event creates a shared experience among audience members. When they get it, they feel smart and part of the in-crowd. The Office does callbacks all the time, to the delight of the show’s fans. Michael Scarn, anyone?
This works well at meetings and conferences: “Ed talked this morning about the need to rein in costs, and I want to assure everyone that the $29,000 Berber carpet in my office is a factory second.”
Comedy is Serious Business
There are lots of benefits to using humour. But you know what the best one is? It’s funny. There’s nothing wrong with entertaining an audience.
Just about the worst character flaw for an individual or an organisation is to take yourself – as distinguished from the work you do – too seriously.
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