I couldn’t believe I was going to open my presentation with that joke.

Me, of all people! Yet, there I was. With my heart pounding in anticipation… I was about to bound onto the platform and speak in front of over 250 people…

Not only that, I was going to open my presentation with a bit I had just come up with!

Before I continue, you need to know the back-story.

I was asked to emcee AWAI’s 2009 FastTrack to Success Bootcamp Awards Ceremony.

Prior to that event, Michael Masterson was giving an important presentation to attendees on the “peer review” process. In a nutshell, it is a rating system used to improve a sales letter. The goal is to boost the headline, lead, and transitions so the copy snaps, crackles, and pops off the page.

As I wandered around the room during Michael’s presentation, I couldn’t help but notice that some attendees were struggling to grasp exactly how the peer review should be done.

When Michael’s presentation ended, we broke for lunch. Thirty minutes later, the Awards Ceremony started. I took the microphone and, with a straight face, said to the attendees:

“News Flash: Michael Masterson is proud to announce that, four minutes ago, he created a brand-new rating system for copywriters. It’s called ‘The Peer Review Within the Peer Review’!” (Audience LAUGHS.)

“After you give your rating… the group then rates your rating. That’s right, folks… the rating never ends.

“When it’s all over, you will be so confused — you’ll most likely leave the industry.

(HUGE burst of laughter — a cathartic release — and applause from the audience.) I had struck comedic gold.

Humor should play an important role in every speech you give. Why? Because an audience will forgive anything — except a boring presentation.

And you — yes,you — can get laughs. Simply follow the five commandments of effectively using humor.

Commandment #1: Thou Shalt Know Thy Audience.

In writing a marketing promotion, you have to know your audience’s wants, needs, desires, and their shared pain. Same thing with giving a speech.

My opening riff at the Awards Ceremony was the right joke… for the right audience… at the right time. It struck a comedic nerve with them. Nowhere else could it have had the same impact.

Commandment #2: Thou Shalt Never Tell an UNTESTED Joke (or Humorous Story) at the Beginning of a Speech.

Yes, I opened my Bootcamp presentation with a brand-new joke — and I took a chance by doing it. It’s usually better to position a new joke/humorous story later in your presentation, after your audience is warmed up. Because if the bit falls flat, you will have to worry about getting them back on your side. Not a good way to get started.

But, as I said, this was exactly the right joke at the right time for the right audience. And there’s something else I didn’t tell you: I had tested that joke on two people during the lunch break. And it got a huge laugh. So I felt pretty sure it would work.

Commandment #3: Thou Shalt Choose Thy Target Appropriately.

In today’s politically correct world, you must charily pick your premises and punch lines. Depending on the venue, stay away from religion, politics, the disabled, and any blue material. Best to stick with subjects that everyone in your audience can relate to, without being insulted.

When it doubt, leave it out. For tried-and-true laughs, do your homework and discover who your audience’s competition or common enemy is. Then really make fun of that target… and prepare yourself for laughs and applause.

Warning: Never, EVER make fun of the person who is signing your check. (Trust me on this one!)

Commandment #4: Thou Shalt Be Self-Effacing, NOT Self-Deprecating.

Some comedians have built careers on making themselves the butt of the joke. Self-deprecating humor, as it is called, puts the audience in a position of superiority. That’s why, for example, they always laugh at fat jokes made by fat comedians.

But keep in mind that you’re not a nightclub comic. When you’re speaking in a corporate or a business environment, you want the respect that comes with being an expert. So you don’t want to make yourself look like an idiot. But you can — and should — use
humor in a humble way that points out some of your minor flaws. It will endear you to your audience and help you bond with them.

Commandment #5: Thou Shalt Take Control of Thy Speaking Environment.

Humor works best when there’s intimacy in the room. Arrive at your venue early, and take control. Make sure the room is cool. The colder, the better. This will help your audience stay attentive and focused on you.

Most important, make sure the seats are as close to the stage as possible. Too much distance between you and your audience, and the power of what you’re saying will be greatly diminished.

I once gave a presentation on a stage with a huge buffet table right in front of it. (Out of my control.) I knew this was going to be a distraction to my audience, so I took advantage of it.

I said, “You know, folks, I’ve never spoken in front of rising steam before!” My audience approved of this self-effacing humor — where I acknowledged the obvious — with a hearty laugh.

Once you get some experience and get your speaking chops, you, too, will discover how easy it is to exploit “humor nuggets” like these.

Learning how to write and present humor is just like any other craft. All it takes is following a set of steps that anyone can master.

In other words… you don’t have to be a comedian to get big laughs as a speaker!

[Ed. Note: Peter “The Reinvention Guy” Fogel is a copywriter, corporate speaker, and award-winning humorist who has worked on over 18 television shows, including Married With Children, Whoopi with Whoopi Goldberg, and HBO’s Comedy Central. For more information on how to create your own brand of humor and for Peter’s FREE 7 Days to Effective Public Speaking E-Course (value $55), go here.]

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