Anyone who has ever attended one of my speeches, lectures, or workshops will know that humour is an essential element of my presenting style. Perhaps it’s because, when I first began giving speeches, it was in an era before TED Talks had started appearing online and so – with a relative absence of good role models – I thought back to the people that I’d seen who always managed to hold the attention of the audience: stand-up comedians.
Now, a good stand-up comedian can hold the audience in the palm of their hand, can take them from intense concentration to raucous laughter and back again. And so, when I first started lecturing I instinctively knew that the knowledge I had on a subject was nothing unless I could engage the audience and hold their attention throughout. Thus, my first (and perhaps still my) influences were people like Bill Bailey, Paul Merton, and Eddie Izzard.
Humour is a part of my personality so, in a way, in those early days of giving speeches it felt like a way to inject a little of myself into the process. And, as time went on, I began to appreciate that actually the truer I was to myself, the more I let my personality shine through, the better my speeches were received; and so I reached the point I’m at today where humour is an essential element of what I do every time I step onto the stage.
But the million dollar question is why? Why does it work?
The American writer, E.B. White, once said that “explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” And, while I’m never one to advocate violence towards amphibians, I am possessed of a curious mind. And, it would seem that a big part of the answer to that ‘why’ is dopamine.
Dopamine is an organic chemical that, in the brain, functions as a neuro-transmitter and is a vital part of the brain’s reward mechanism; with rewards typically resulting in a rise in the level of dopamine in the brain. Now, we’ve known that dopamine has a role in helping regulate attention and cognition, and we’ve established that one of the key components of the mesolimbic dopamingeric reward system, the nucleus accumbens, is activated by humour. So essentially, humour serves to increase the levels of dopamine, and increased levels of dopamine helps to put our brain into a state in which we can maintain attention and better process, and absorb, knowledge.
So it would seem that science backs up my early observations. Humour is a fantastic tool to hold the attention of your audience and, used selectively, can actually aid your audience in understanding the material that you are presenting. So, in summary, when it comes to your presenting skills – don’t be afraid to make ’em laugh!