Yesterday morning at Engage Expo in San Jose, I delivered a presentation on the “State of Social Media”. After contemplating what I was going to talk about during my presentation, I decided that I would start things off with a joke. Untested jokes are a risky thing to incorporate into a presentation because there’s a very high likelihood that the joke will fall flat, as it did during yesterday’s presentation. Hopefully you can take advantage of my personal embarrassment and learn how to deliver a joke that doesn’t fail.
The Development Of A Failed Joke
Prior to explaining the core lessons learned from my experience I’d like to share the series of events that resulted in my unsuccessful joke delivery. While flying out to San Jose on Tuesday I was brainstorming joke ideas that I could use to start off my presentation. The joke involved an image of the “evolution of man”, which I was equating to the evolution of media, and a follow-up slide with an arrow pointing in between two phases of man. I would then explain to the audience that based on the “latest industry statistics” I could definitively state that we have now evolved to a single point in this natural evolution of media.
While the joke may not make sense to you, I once read somewhere that the success of a joke is not based on the joke itself but on its delivery. As such, I spent the morning of my presentation practicing the delivery of the joke (without an audience in front of me). I then phoned up the perfect test audience: my mother. I told her the joke via the phone and it ended up not working. I figured that because she couldn’t see the slides, my explanation of the joke didn’t suffice. Oh well!
I was convinced that delivery of the joke via phone was not the best method. As such I decided to keep the joke in the presentation. I wasn’t fully convinced that it would work though so I decided to test it out on some friends who were also at the event. I showed them the two slides ran through the joke and didn’t get the response I wanted. The main problem was that I first explained the joke before showing the slides and then showed them the slides and asked them if they found it funny.
After explaining it to them they understood but you shouldn’t have to explain a joke, right? I was convinced that I had somehow hijacked my experiment because I wasn’t delivering the joke as I would on stage. As such I would test out the joke on the most important group: the audience.
Now was the moment of truth. Regardless of my failed attempts at delivering the joke, I was convinced that the audience would erupt in to laughter after I nailed the joke. I was introduced by a fellow panelist, took to the podium, and began to explain why there was an image of the evolution of man under the heading “The State of Social Media 2009” projected on to the large screen next to the stage.
“Some people have described social media as a seismic shift which is disrupting the entire media industry,” I told the audience. “However I see social media as a sort of natural evolution. Pretend for a second that this evolution of man image on the screen is in fact the evolution of media.” I prepared to deliver the punch line, which I had no doubt would result in hysteria throughout the audience. “Today, I am happy to tell you that based on the latest industry research, I can state definitively that we are now here in the evolution of media.” I then pointed to the screen and flipped to the slide with the arrow in between two of the men. Perfectly executed!
At that moment there was absolute silence in the room. There wasn’t even the average sound of someone typing on their keyboard, as is common at most technology conferences. Nobody giggled and there was most definitely no hysteria. I then told the audience the results of my experiment, “Wow! That joke did not go well.” The room then erupted into laughter which could have meant two things: they had been holding back from laughing earlier or they were now laughing at me. Whatever the reason was for their sudden laughter I was now temporarily satisfied because my goal of making people smile in the room had become successful.
The Importance Of Context
Once the presentation was complete I began analyzing what had gone wrong with the joke and while it wasn’t an absolute disaster, I clearly screwed up the delivery. Most people wouldn’t dwell on the experience for very long however I want to constantly improve my public speaking skills so effectively understanding what went wrong is extremely important to me. When I stepped down from the stage one of the attendees immediately came up and said something which really stuck with me: “The people didn’t know that you’re supposed to be funny.”
He was right. I could have delivered a mediocre joke and probably would have received a few chuckles had the attendees known that I’m “funny”. Going up and attempting a standup routine at a trade show is probably not going to fly unless of course the attendees already expect you to be funny. If you’re developing content, it’s important that you understand your audience and what their perception of you or your brand is.
If these two things are not in sync, any communication that you deliver will be completely misinterpreted. My sarcastic style of joke telling clearly didn’t go over too well when people had no idea that I was supposed to be funny. Yes, a story which included a joke would have worked but telling a subtle joke when people aren’t expecting it simply doesn’t work.