Humour is one of the more difficult tools to give general advice about. It is deeply personal to each presenter and the precise way in which it is delivered can make all the difference to the audience response. Also, deconstructing humour can often destroy it.
“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”
E.B. White (writer)
As an informal educator, the biggest factor in your favour is that nobody expects you to actually be funny. This gives you a low threshold to raise a laugh. Also, your unconventional role allows you to take more humour risks than a teacher might be able to with a new class. Thankfully, you won’t have to face them for the rest of the year if any of your obvious comedy attempts fail.
Embed your content in the humour
Some of your comedy will be an external hook, but when you are using it as an internal hook to reinforce a key point, try to bake your content into the humorous line or situation. This means that the audience have to understand the concept in order to “get” the humour. Putting the “aha” and “ha ha” moments together like this is the most powerful principle of educational comedy. In doing this, though, be careful that you don’t alienate those learners who haven’t yet grasped the concept.
Also remember — humour, like a clown, has big feet. There’s a danger, if you use humour hooks too frequently, too strongly, or in the wrong places, that they will stomp all over your educational content. Smiles have smaller feet, but can be just as useful to you as laughs.
“The key to it was this — the humour in our films always arose out of the teaching points.”
John Cleese (comedian, talking about his business training videos)
In an upper primary school show about forces I appear to choose two teachers at random, hand them a mysterious bag and ask if they could leave the hall for a few minutes. This unexplained turn of events creates curiosity and anticipation about what is going to happen.
When the pre-selected teachers are out of the hall, they each step into a giant inflatable sumo wrestling costume. Onstage I am setting up the demo, by discussing the concepts of centre of gravity and stability.
Once I dramatically open the doors, the two teachers return much to the amazement and amusement of their pupils. You can probably imagine just how much excitement this creates. After the commotion dies down, I challenge them to have a sumo wrestling contest to push each other over, which triggers another wave of hilarity. After they have had a few attempts, I step in and ask for tips from the audience about what they can do to make themselves more stable. It is usually fairly easy to get the suggestions of standing with their feet further apart and bending their knees, especially given the ideas we have been discussing earlier in the show.
When the teachers adopt this classic sumo stance and try again, it is clear to everyone that they are both much harder to upend and the match usually ends in an honourable draw. Cue respectful bows from the teachers as they retire.
The purpose of the strong humour and teacher participation in this routine is to create a memorable mental image of where our centre of gravity is located and how we become more stable the wider our base and the lower our centre of gravity. Aligning the message and the humour in this way is an extremely powerful technique.
Overt humour — when they’re expecting it
With this form of humour, they may or may not laugh, but the audience at least know they were expected to laugh. This anticipation raises the quality bar and puts them under pressure to respond. It also forces the performer to be funny on demand. Overt humour is high-risk and difficult to deliver. If you fail publicly, it’s embarrassing for everyone. Think of a bad stand-up dying in a gig.
I don’t recommend this humour strategy for novices or for educators who have any concerns that it may not suit them. The ability to land the same overt humour lines successfully with different audiences, day-after-day, is relatively rare. It can be developed, to an extent, but to excel at it, I believe presenters need innate “funny bones” as well.
Covert humour — when they’re not expecting it
As an interactive, educational presenter, much more of your wit will arise naturally from situations which happen around you, e.g. your interactions with the audience or volunteers; and your reactions to unexpected circumstances arising from your equipment, the activities or the venue. In this case, you are the only person who was expecting them to laugh. This subtle change in context makes all the difference. Now their laughter becomes a welcome bonus rather than a requirement for the progress of the routine. With this kind of incidental covert humour, you can’t lose. If they don’t smile or laugh, you move seamlessly on. Unlike with overt humour, nobody dies.
In comedy, context is king. “Have you heard the one about the toddler who wandered in front of the audience? Don’t worry. It didn’t last. ….. He was just going through … a stage.” [cue cymbal crash and groans] If you deliver this stand-alone joke with good timing, you might get a courtesy smile or, at least, a playful groan. But when a child actually invades your space in a presentation and you pause, stare at the child, do a double-take, then look at the audience and remark, “Don’t worry… err … it won’t last. He’s just going through …a stage.”, they will think you’re a comedy genius. Every time.
Humour starts with self-awareness
We’ve all felt sorry for that person who, in a social situation, is trying to be funny with a type of humour which clearly doesn’t fit them. Don’t be that person. One of the secrets to using humour effectively lies in how well you understand how others see you. This applies to both overt and covert lines.
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”
Victor Borge (comedian)
Think carefully about the ways you naturally express your sense of humour offstage and which of your traits make people laugh most often. As you read this tool, use the lens of your character (1.2) to work out which humour hooks will suit you best.
The comedy continuum
Across different types of humour, there is a broad relationship between how overt a hook is and how difficult it is to deliver it. I call this relationship the comedy continuum and you can see it emerge in the loosely plotted graph below.
The overt/covert humour distinction, however, is not rigid — there is no clear dividing line between overt and covert approaches; and overt lines are not always more difficult to land than covert lines. For example, inserting funny images and videos created by other people, although an overt technique, is relatively easy to deliver; whilst being able to convincingly bring standard covert interaction lines to life, time after time, can take considerable skill and timing.
Primary benefits of humour
Strategic use of humour in educational presentations can help:
- make them listen — if you are trying to engage young audiences without humour, you’re making your life much more difficult than it needs to be. Even if they are not naturally interested in the topic, children don’t want to miss the next, immediately rewarding, laugh. Especially if their friends are all reacting.
“If they’re laughing, then they’re listening.”
Sir Ken Robinson (author)
- build your connection — there’s a reason buskers say, “Funny is money.” Humour creates a powerful shared human experience between you and the audience. Taking the risk to expose your unique sense of humour makes you vulnerable, authentic, likeable and relatable. One of the reasons groups find wit so compelling is that they instinctively know it exposes you.
- improve their recall — if you can successfully embed your educational messages in the comedy, it’s like adding an emotional marker to that content in their memories.
- bond them together — responses to humour are extremely visible and therefore contagious. One of your priorities is to train your audience to respond in unison. Group laughter forges this collection of individuals into a unified crowd. This means they become more susceptible to sharing any other emotions which you create on stage.
- release tension — learning often involves accepting that some of the ideas you held about the world were wrong. In informal education, having to do this in public is even more scary. Humour can help to diffuse this ego threat for your learners. It also breaks the spell that can descend when your audience is particularly shocked or impressed and are uncertain how to respond, e.g. after a dramatic science stunt.
Secondary benefits of humour
There are also secondary uses of humour — it can help to:
- signal inattention — when the audience miss a regular humour hook, the clearly audible lack of response can alert you that they may have lost focus or failed to follow an explanation.
- diffuse audience control situations — a well-judged aside during an escalating misbehaviour incident can have an almost miraculous effect on lowering the tension in the room.
- encourage creative thinking from you and your audience — like creativity, humour depends on making unexpected connections between ideas. It can also reduce your audience’s fear of being criticised for their innovative ideas later in the presentation.
- soften challenging ideas — humour helps to deliver difficult or sensitive topics in a way that makes them less likely to be rejected out of hand.
“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
Oscar Wilde (playwright)
- regain their attention — if you realise that you’ve completely lost them through boredom, incomprehension or distraction, you can use a strong external humour hook to bring them all back to living “in the moment”. This hook does not need to be related to the surrounding content in any way. Its purpose is to serve as an emergency reset button for their attention.
Make them feel safe
Laughing makes you vulnerable — it temporarily renders you powerless, and it exposes your attitudes and values. Audiences have to trust and like you sufficiently to believe you will not embarrass them or turn their laughter against them.
They also need to trust the rest of the audience before they will laugh heartily without being self-conscious. For instance, this can be a problem with school shows where different ages of students are mixed together or where several schools are invited to an event (4.4).
Pack them in
Laughter is socially contagious, but all emotional contagion drops off rapidly with distance. So, plan how you can get your audience to sit as closely together as they can with comfort. Also, try to reduce every millimetre of distance between them and you. Stand-ups call the large gap in front of some stages the comedy chasm — it destroys their act.
“Nothing is funny in a field.”
Bob Monkhouse (comedian)
Learn to recognise a bad laugh
The benefits of using humour as an educator are wiped out when it is perceived as being hurtful, excluding or offensive. However, spotting the difference between good and bad laughs is not always easy. For example, volunteers sometimes act as if they are enjoying the comical situations you place them in, whilst they burn with resentment inside.
It helps to know your audience — the parents and teachers who have brought their children have certain expectations about the type of material they would regard as inappropriate for that occasion.
“Not all laughter is good laughter.”
Eugene Burger (magician)
But the closer to the edge, the funnier you are
As you approach the edge of acceptability, the audience will find your interaction funnier, the tension you can play with is greater and your trust bank will grow faster (1.4 and 4.3). Right up until you step over the edge.
The trouble is that the edge is like a precipice in winter, covered in snow — you don’t know exactly where it is until you step over it. Worse, each audience draws its own edge afresh for each presentation. Worse still, like all human qualities, there is a spread — a normal distribution — of views across the audience about where the edge is. So, it’s impossible to ensure that no-one takes offence during your interactive presentation. If you focus on getting the audience to know, like and trust you, and on making your good intentions clear, however, you are much less likely to step over the thicker edge set by the large majority of the group. That is all you can reasonably hope to do as a presenter. This awareness only comes with reading your audience and with years of experience. And some painful falls.
Beware humour hysteria
In school presentations there are few sounds more chilling than the maniacal laughter of an assembly hall full of very young children. Imitation and contagion overpower reason at this age — soon most of them won’t even know why they are rolling around the floor. No matter what you do, they won’t stop laughing. You could shoot yourself and they would continue to roar. So, don’t start what you can’t stop.
Once you diagnose the tendency towards humour hysteria in your audience, it’s safer to moderate the level of humour you use and don’t let the audience react for too long to any one hook before you move on with a strong, visual cue to grab their interest. Some presenters train their audience to follow a particular nonverbal control signal at the start of the presentation or adopt the attention cue used by teachers in that school.