Guide on the Side – Humor is More Than a Laughing Matter

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

The funny thing about humor is that it does a lot more than make people laugh. For one thing, it is a communication skill for the job, social occasions and learning. It helps:

People get acquainted

Groups bond into teams

Strangers to no longer feel like outsiders

Improve performance

Promote creativity

Transcend cultural differences

Encourage positive thinking

Energize meetings

Get more work done

Humor and laughter are recognized as so important that a cottage industry of consultants has developed to teach humor skills to business and professional people. Presenters and trainers especially value and use humor because in addition to the above, it helps their audiences to celebrate shared emotions and to

Remember the main points

See the big picture

Retain information longer

Interact with members of the audience

Get a sensitive idea without offense

Feel free to express themselves

Plus ever since Norman Cousins wrote Anatomy of an Illness in 1979 about self-cure by laughter, medical researchers recognize that humor and laughter are important factors in

Reducing stress and tension

Promoting mental and physical health

Strengthening the immune system

Recovering faster from disease and injury

When people laugh heartily their bodies get a vigorous physical workout, hearts beat faster, feel-good endorphins are released in the blood stream and body chemistry changes.

Humor looks easy but “humor producers” know it takes thought and practice. Ask any comedian what it takes to develop a routine. The good news is that to use humor in presentations and training, you don’t need to be a stand-up comedian. What you need to do is make a connection with the audience. Do it by promoting an atmosphere of interaction, amusement, and openness. Sprinkle some levity in your title, opening story, and closing or surprise the audience with unusual connections.

In spite of all the things going for humor, many speakers/trainers resist designing it into their material because they see themselves as “humor challenged.” Yet if these same people were shadowed, we would observe them creating and sharing humor with family, friends and colleagues regularly. Why the disconnect?

People are more inclined to use humor in an atmosphere of trust and familiarity: when there is as existing relationship between the people involved. But it works both ways. Humor and laughter are like “social glue” to help create trust, familiarity and relationships. One sure fire technique speakers/trainers use to develop humor is to talk to some of the audience before the presentation/training. This builds familiarity plus the conversation will invariably entail an idea or feeling that can be shared with the audience.

Another reason is that many people have not learned to be themselves before an audience. They need to become as familiar with their persona as with their face in the mirror. Part of self-knowledge is to discover your inner clown, find your voice and unearth your preferred humor format:

Zany props

Skits or parodies

Witty or wry observations

Puns, metaphors or analogies

Fable, fairy tale or other literary narrative

Personal stories or anecdotes

Telling the truth

Finally, the neuroscientist, Dr. Robert Provine found that jokes, stories and other recognizable attempts at humor generated less than 20% of the laugher he observed when he eavesdropped on conversations at shopping malls, classrooms and other public places. “Most laugher is not a response to comedy but rather an attempt to set a positive emotional tone and enhance feelings of group belonging.”

People are born hardwired to laugh. Babies start at about four months, when peekaboo gets a response. By contrast, a sense of humor is learned. It is a skill and must be practiced. Here is the Top Ten to expand your mirth girth and grow your funny bone:

1. Cultivate your sense of humor:

Join a laughter club. See United States Laughter Clubs for a list.

Have a good laugh at the beginning of each day by visiting one of the many humor sites, such as the Comedy Zone.

Enroll in a comedy workshop:

ComedySportz and the Comedy League of America

ACME Comedy Theatre

Humor University — Putting Humor in the Workplace

2. Surprise your family, friends and co-workers with puns, parodies, props or pranks.

Be as adventuresome as the attorney who emptied a Law Librarian’s desk drawer, lined it with plastic, and then filled it with water and goldfish.

3. Collect personal stories to use for future presentations.

My favorite happened in New Zealand on the way to a marketing seminar I was to lead. By way of en route chitchat, I asked the taxi driver what he would do if he overheard his fares planning to rob the bank. With no hesitation, he responded “I would ask, will you be needing a ride?” I used this story at the seminar to illustrate an entrepreneur who had a marketing plan and recognized opportunities.

4. Customize anecdotes so they are relevant and pertinent to your message. Make sure they are inclusive not exclusive and bring the audience together.

5. Use unexpected illustrations and examples in your presentations and training

6. Exaggerate and alternately understate when you talk with people.

7. Read Dr. Robert Provine’s online articles or book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.

8. Use gestures or facial expressions that are the opposite of your words.

9. Use graphics that are literal but contradict what you are saying.

10. Look for something funny in the unexpected.

“At least we won’t have to…”

“Everyone knows that this is the way to…”

If you want to remain “humor impaired,” here is the Top Ten to get osteoporosis of the funny bone:

1. Use canned jokes that have no connection to your purpose.

“There was a lawyer, a doctor and a priest in a row boat…”

2. Read your jokes and stories instead of telling them.

3. Laugh at your own jokes; better yet start laughing before you tell them.

4. Announce that you are going to tell a joke; apologize if it bombs.

5. Berate the audience for not laughing: “That was supposed to be funny.”

6. Tell stories that make fun of others or make them look ridiculous.

7. Be sarcastic and act superior.

8. Use humor that the audience may not understand because of cultural, professional, gender or age differences.

9. Play practical jokes designed to embarrass people.

10. Tell off-color stories.

Laughter is universal and contagious. It has been called the world’s common language and a miracle drug. By contrast, a sense of humor is culturally determined by what is considered absurd or incongruous by people at a particular time and place. Humor is more than a laughing matter because it uncovers shared emotions and the feeling of being at one with others.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills