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March 2003 - Why Humor is Effective

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March 2003

Why Humor is Effective

Although humor may not be effective or appropriate in all speaking situations, humor is effective in many situations. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Regains attention. Humor can capture audience attention at the beginning of a presentation, but humor is also useful when attention wanes. Consider the speaker who is using statistics to make the point that concern for the high salaries of major league baseball players is not new. Audience attention begins to drift, so he inserts a short humorous example that supports his point and also regains attention. He says, "Even back in 1930 players' salaries were often questioned. That year Babe Ruth earned $80,000. When asked if he thought it was fair that he received more than President Hoover, Ruth said, 'Well I had a better year.' And he probably did. The point is this, the concern for salaries of ball players has been with us for a while." The speaker used a witty example to support his point and regain audience attention.
  2. Builds rapport. Humor builds affinity and creates harmony with the audience. We like to laugh and we like people that make us laugh. This fact probably explains why the first search engine I tried yielded ten million sites keyed to the word, "humor." Web site owners key on humor because they know people like it. Think about speakers you've heard recently. If they used humor well and appropriately (i.e., you liked their humor) and if they made you laugh and feel good about being in their audience, you probably came away liking the speaker and what he or she said. Audiences especially like speakers who can laugh at themselves when they flub up, mispronounce a word, or become tongue-tied.
  3. Enhances speaker credibility. Studies show what experienced speakers know -- listeners rate speakers as both more expert and trustworthy when they use humor effectively. First, listeners believe people who use humor are more relaxed and confident about the subject and therefore more competent or expert. Second, listeners like and trust people who use appropriate humor-humor that fits the audience and the occasion. We believe people who use our kind of humor are like us; and we trust people who are similar to us.
  4. Aids retention. People may come away from a speech unable to remember the main points, but they will most likely remember the speaker used a "cute line about Babe Ruth and President Hoover." Many experienced speakers have certain humorous stories they use often, because they know these particular stories are effective in helping audiences remember a point. The supporting material doesn't have to evoke strong laugher. It doesn't always need a punch line. When an illustration portrays a husband and wife miscommunicating because circle drive meant one thing to one and something else to the other, (See my July 2000 column) audiences both remember it. Why? Because they see the humor of a man and woman going back and forth from circle drive to circle drive in their attempts to meet each other.
  5. Improves listening. Watch an audience. Attention picks up and listening improves when speakers use humor. A speaker talking about fishing, reels them in with a quick definition of habitat as "a place where a particular species of fish was last week." An expert on physical fitness, who is making the point that people want to be fit, but not bad enough to watch what they eat, tells this story. "A generously overweight man who had just finished working out got on the scales and exclaimed to his friend, 'I don't believe it. I started my diet yesterday, worked out today, and I 'm heavier than I was before I started. Here, Fred, hold my jacket. Wow! I'm still heavier. Here, Fred, you'd better hold my Coke and my Twinkies, too.'" A political candidate who accuses his opponent of "all talk and no action," draws this comparison. "I feel like the old man who went to a hearing specialist who recommended a hearing aid. The man said, "No way, I'm ninety-seven years old and I have already heard enough."

Humor is effective for the preceding five reasons and more. Besides, using humor is fun. And life's too short not to have fun.

(This information was extracted from Dr. Kline's book, Speaking Effectively: Achieving Excellence in Presentations, which Prentice Hall will publish later this year. See also his January 2001 Column: "Make them Laugh.")

John Kline
Montgomery, Alabama

March 2003 - Why Humor is Effective
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