THE SERIOUS BUSINESS OF BEING FUNNY … EVERYWHERE!
“When in Rome …” the saying goes, so if you use humor in your presentation (and who doesn’t?), that means that what’s funny in France will not necessarily make them laugh in Los Angeles. Anyone who has made presentations abroad learns this very quickly. As all good presenters know, humor is universal, but jokes may not be. So while using humor is always a good strategy, using jokes can be a poor tactic, precisely because what makes a joke funny often depends on an aspect of the local context. If the audience does not know the context, the joke bombs.
For example, I once prepared a presentation in Hong Kong. Just before I went on, a colleague reminded me that in Asia, a great way to kick off a speech is to express humility, based on the Chinese value of individuals humbling themselves. He suggested that I apologize upfront in the event my speech would fail to meet the audience’s expectations.
As a US-American, I viewed this strategy as the kiss of death for my presentation, wanting instead to open with a humorous anecdote about cultural differences, the topic of my talk. So I thought about this cultural dilemma. When I went on stage, I announced that I understood that here in Hong Kong, I would garner respect if I started my presentation with an apology of sorts. I said that in my country, the United States, we would prefer to start off with a joke. So, to accommodate both cultures, I apologized for not having any jokes to tell. The audience got — and appreciated — the joke, and it was a great way to introduce the topic of my talk: making presentations across cultures.
The Challenges of Technology
But following the tried-and-true “When in Rome…” rule for delivering humor across cultures is, while a good starting point, now no longer enough. While still true, presenters are now also required to manage new virtual technologies in their presentations, and technology, like culture, presents new challenges to the use of humor in presentations. In today’s world, we not only communicate and make presentations face-to-face, but increasingly we are doing so virtually. We use technologies such as WebEx and Skype, and make our presentations and keynote speeches to groups both large and small…