How to begin? That question puzzles many presenters. The beginning or "grabber" certainly demands a speaker's attention; its function is to engage the audience and provoke interest, both goals that need to be accomplished within the first minute of a presentation. But if you browse the Internet to discover ideas for beginnings, you may find some advice that we advise you to eschew. That advice? Start your presentation or speech with a joke to put your audience at ease.
Oh, no, don't. Please.
First of all, a joke will rightly seem irrelevant unless its purpose connects to your message. Most jokes won't, so listeners will spend that first minute waiting for the presentation to really begin. That's not likely to put them at ease.
Jokes also create an on-demand response from your audience, adding to their being ill at ease. And even worse, they allow the audience only three responses—the uproarious laughter of success, the groans of failure, and, perhaps worst of all, the hollow and fake attempt to chuckle that is a sign of pity. For a presenter, only one of these responses is a win.
Instead, if you are the risible type and the occasion permits, open with humor, the kind that rises naturally from the occasion and topic, from your personality, from the context of your presentation. Return to it at other moments to emphasize a point or supply an example. Its surprise can be a strength, one that invigorates audience interest and shows your listeners that you, too, are a human in this world. Another benefit: something said with a touch of humor is something audiences will remember well.
But you must regulate your use of humor, both in kind and amount, and that requires you to remain aware of the sensitivities and characteristics of your listeners. Never acceptable are splashes of "humor" about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identification, political foes, religion, or physical appearance such as height, weight, or fashion sense. Tempted to say something "funny" about any of these topics? Don't.
In a presentation, humor must not demean or criticize. In this, especially, your credibility is at stake. Offensive humor alienates your audience from you and thus from the message you want it to accept.
How much humor can you use? Just now and then, not every sentence, not every section. Use it as a way to clarify or illustrate a point, to address or help release growing tension, to create a juxtaposition or speak to a contradiction, to call out a realization that you or the audience has made.
Stories and anecdotes are a rich source of humor. They can be drawn from your own experience or that of someone you know or of someone famous you've heard or read about. They make strong beginnings and provide opportunities to return to them during your presentation or at its end.
Quotations provide another humor trove, as do cartoons and comic strips. Explore your memory for those that relate to your purpose and message or actively search the Internet for something fitting. Always useful is to make note of any you run across that suggest they may have some use to you in a future presentation. Keep an online list, tear them from pages of magazines or newspapers and toss the pages in a box, keep a miscellany or commonplace book.
Insert an aside, a brief digression. These may be spontaneous or planned, and often their humor originates in both delivery and veracity. One researcher speaking at a meeting, for example, explained the results of a study, then looked up at the audience. "Of course," he intoned, "we would have liked these to have been a little better." His listeners laughed, recognizing the perpetual hopes of researchers everywhere.
We're all risible. But in a presentation, its expressions must include the three Rs: respectful, related, and relevant.