February 11, 2011

The 'salt' of a great conference talk

As you might know, I am a frequest “public speaker”, or presenter, for Amazon.com, and in the last 32 months or so I spoke/keynoted at more than 280 events in four continents (they will become five in late April, when I’ll be keynoting in Brazilia, my first visit to South America).

This also means that I’ve seen THOUSANDS of other people give talks and keynotes and such, in front of many diverse audiences.

People listening to these talks are usually BORED, to say the least. The reason is simple: most presenters don’t work hard enough to make their presentations interesting. Even better: they don’t make their presentations FUNNY. This might sound strange to you, but even the most professional and serious speaker, in the most serious and professional environment, with the most professional and serious audience, should try to be funny, in a way that doesn’t clash with his/her message or goal.

I want to share with you some thoughts about “being funny”. Or, about humour, which I think it’s the “salt” of a great conference talk. And also the “salt” of much more.

First: Take a look at what Wikipedia says about Humour. In short, we cannot scientifically define how Humour works; in fact, there are many Theories of Humour. However, there seems to be some specific methods of creating humour, or being funny: hyperbole, metaphor, farce, reframing, timing. There is also a discipline, called Gelotology, which studies the effect of laughter in the human body.

If you were a native italian speaker, you could laugh to death at Gigi Proietti’s many gags, but if you try to reproduce them with friends, they would be terrible and boring. There is, in my opinion, something not yet clear about humour, or why some people are so good at making jokes, and others aren’t.

Second: Save 20 minutes of your time, and watch this wonderful, inspiring, and… FUNNY, presentation by Sir Ken Robinson, at TED 2007. Ken is funny, multiple times, in a surprisingly natural way. I admire this person mostly for his ability to be funny; and of course, because the topic he’s covering is of uttermost importance: education.

He’s also great in mixing funny moments and one-liners, with very serious statements, keeping the audience always with him. If I had the fortune to attend his talk in 2007, I would have thought that he invented time travel, because these 20 minutes would lapse in a second for me. Look, for example at 3:45, when he tells the story of a little girl and how she “sees” God. That’s fantastic. And then, much more serious talk, when he describes what he thinks about the Education system at 11:20.

Third: In my experience, I can be funny at least 2-3 times during a 30 minutes talk, and that helps a lot in getting people’s attention, and appreciation. I don’t exactly know how and why. I usually avoid the usual one-liners for speakers, such as these ones, although a couple of them are really funny.

I also think that being entertaining and funny is a form of RESPECT for the audience. These people are sitting there, all day, in a conference hall, while they could be enjoying a walk outside… You have to give them something, besides your boring Powerpoints. As Seth Godin says “A presentation is not an obligation. It’s a privilege.

Last, but not least: You might want to take a look at these posts, related to speaking and presenting in public, but with no specific reference to humour: Presenting in public Fredrik Härén: being a great speaker Sir Ken Robinson: Changing education paradigms

Can you suggest any resource to learn more about how humour works? Can you share your own experience?