Originally published by Zach Wolfe.
It is reported that many people fear public speaking more than death. If you are a lawyer, I hope that isn’t true of you, because speaking effectively in front of groups is an important part of what you do. Personally, I love standing up in front of people and talking. On the other hand, mingling at a cocktail party where I don’t know anyone – now that scares me to death.
Even if you are not a courtroom litigator like me, at some point you will find yourself speaking to an audience, whether it is a client conference, a meeting with your law firm partners, or a presentation at a seminar. In fact, regardless of your profession, it is probable that at some point you will need to speak to an assembled group of multiple human beings. You need to be able to inform, to persuade, and sometimes even to entertain. And to do these things effectively, you’re going to need some advice.
What qualifies me to give this advice? Well, I do a lot of public speaking, whether it’s in a courtroom or at a seminar, and I listen to a lot of public speaking. But that’s not why I’m qualified. It comes down to the fact that I pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and trust me, I have learned as much from what didn’t work for me as anything else. As Yogi Berra said, “you can observe a lot just by watching.”
So what works? First, don’t imagine your audience members in their underwear. That’s just weird.
Second, you have to decide whether you’re going to try to be funny. There is an intense debate over whether it is good practice to start a speech or presentation with a joke or a funny story. I will now settle this debate once and for all. To decide whether to lead with a joke, ask yourself this: Am I funny?
If the answer is yes, then have at it, lead with a joke. There is probably no better way to break the ice, get your audience’s attention, and get them on your side right off the bat. If that works, keep the jokes coming (at least until you get to a serious point).
But if the answer is no, then don’t lead with a joke, and don’t try to be funny. There is no better way to stop the momentum of a presentation than to tell a joke that doesn’t get any laughs.
The problem, of course, is that every person thinks he or she is funny. How many people have ever said “no, I really don’t have a good sense of humor”? It reminds me of writer Dave Barry’s line that “the one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.”
Just as some of us are below-average drivers, not all of us are actually funny. In fact, very few of us are funny. (On the very serious subject of what makes people funny, I recommend Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.)
So how do you know if you’re actually funny? Try this experiment. The next time you tell a joke in front of a group, observe the reaction carefully. (For more accurate results, your sample audience should not be drinking.) If there is laughter, is it the “polite laughter” that you get from a courteous audience when they know that someone just said something that was supposed to be funny? Or is it real laughter, the kind that comes more from the gut than from the head? The proof is in the pudding, and the difference is pretty obvious.
Chances are, you are not all that funny. If your ambition is to be a standup comedian, then this could lead to a major existential crisis. But if you are in some other profession, it’s ok, because once you figure out that you are not as funny as you thought you were, it takes some of the pressure off. Rather than trying to come up with something funny to kick off your next presentation, now you can focus on something else. For example, how about starting off with a somewhat provocative question to the audience that invites a show of hands?
And don’t feel bad. I’m not that funny either. True, my mom thinks I’m really funny, but she also thinks I should be the President.
Now, in fairness to myself, occasionally I might hit on something humorous that gets a few laughs. But generally, the things I crack myself up with in my own mind usually fall flat in front of an audience. Most of you are probably like me. So when you give a presentation, focus more on trying to be engaging than trying to be funny. If you’re interested, I will share some advice on that in the next part of this series.
Just don’t make me go to another cocktail party.
Zach Wolfe practices business litigation with Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC, a Texas law firm with offices in Austin, Houston, and The Woodlands.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case. You can, however, rely on it as public speaking advice.
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