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Humour in science presentations

A public speaking expert, Tom Antion is also the author of "Wake'Em Up!", a book in which he delves into the use of humour in business presentations. In the context of science outreach, can humour play a part in the way information is disseminated to the public? Can forms of humour be included in a serious talk without it backfiring on the speaker? Tom Antion gives us his take on this topic.

Why should one use humour in a presentation?

Humour is a way to spark the audience's interest and to keep it awake. It is one of the spikes needed in a presentation to make people pay more attention. Humour is what we call an attention-gaining device.

When I lived in Washington D.C., I did a study on a magazine called the Washingtonian. In the back, there were personal ads for people trying to find a mate. 70% of those ads said they wanted someone with a sense of humour. Ultimately, people like people and want to be surrounded by people that have a sense of humour. It brings people together to each other's levels, especially self-effacing humour. Trying to be perfect creates a gap with the average person. If you can make fun of your flaws, people will just love you, gravitate to you and be more willing to listen to what you say.

How much humour should be included in a serious talk?

I would say anywhere from 15% to 20% maximum but it has to be spread out throughout the presentation and not incorporated all at one time. I also encourage speakers to push the limits while gauging the reactions from the audience. See if people come up, shake hands and want to talk at the end rather than say "Oh, I am glad that's over!". Then the speaker will see if they can put a higher percentage of humour than what they feel comfortable with.

When should one place humour in a presentation?

Audiences have attentions spans and listening patterns. In the beginning of a speech, the excitement is high and then if the speaker says a dumb joke, it completely drops!

To keep their attention up, I advise you to use attention-gaining devices. Some of it can be humour, but it can also be showing your visual, stage movements or voice inflexion. For a middle-age and up audience, they could be used every couple of minutes. But the younger the audience is, the lower the attention span gets, so you will then need to use some type of attention-gaining device more often.

However, I advise not to start a presentation with humour unless all they want from you is entertainment! That's the mistake people make. They start out with a not-so-funny joke and it goes downhill from there. You have an uphill battle and it is tantamount to climbing Mount Everest with flip-flop shoes on!

I always start out serious and then warm the audience up to the humour. I usually start speeches saying "Listen, I am here, I am not going to waste your time, let's get to it! I have some great tips for you!". The audience members know they are not going to waste their time, they are with me already and so there is very little chance of me failing.

Have you noticed some specific features related to the use of humour in scientific talks?

A lot of scientists feel they will lose their credibility if they are too fun. Obviously, there can be issues if the speaker acts like a stand-up comedian. But as long as they get their message across, they can allow a bit of humour. They will become interesting and, on the contrary, gain in credibility.

Also, many scientists and PHDs are afraid of what their colleagues are going to think. So they do everything to make sure not to disappoint them and forget about the people they are supposed to be thinking about: the audience. So one thing you have to do is get in their own bubble and try not to be influenced by their peers.

Using humour can be risky. How do you suggest reacting when a joke is not perceived as funny?

Humour should always be used to make a point in the first place. The goal is not to be laugh-out-loud funny, but rather to make the presentation fun. As long as the point is made, it is not always necessary to wait for a reaction from the audience or to stop talking.

For instance: "Did you ever hear of the topic of stress management? I was reading the other day that there are so many stress management programs out there, people are getting stressed out trying to pick one!" If the audience laughs, the speaker should stop talking. Otherwise, they might end the laughter. That's what comedians call "stepping on your laughter". They should wait for the audience to finish laughing before continuing the presentation. If the audience doesn't laugh, the speaker should keep talking as if no reaction were expected.

Find out more about the subject on Tom Antion's website.

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