In my last post, I discussed how Alan Alda helps scientists communicate important ideas. In this post, I want to look at how humor can enhance communications – with a great example from the president of the United States.
This March, President Obama appeared on comedian Zach Galifianakis’ edgy web series “Between Two Ferns.” The mock talk show introduced the president as “Barack Obama (sp?), Community Organizer.” In return, Obama needled Galifianakis about the “Hangover” movie series, and deadpanned that Dennis Rodman is not the US ambassador to North Korea. And in the midst of comedic crossfire Obama found a chance to plug healthcare.gov, increasing traffic to the site by 40%.
Tasteful, well-placed humor keeps an audience engaged and entertained. It also helps underscore important points. In my own coaching practice, I use funny clips ranging from classic Monty Python to the latest meme to emphasize key messages. Humor makes the point for me by exaggerating a tendency that coaching aims to improve, like rambling on in meetings or delivering data-packed slides.
Before launching into a standup routine or heading to YouTube, however, keep a few points in mind:
Know your audience Obamacare’s success depends on having young people sign up for a healthcare plan. To reach this age group, it made sense for the president to appear on a web series geared towards millennials.
Don’t force it President Obama’s dry demeanor is a great fit for the “Between Two Ferns” talk show format. But there are many different ways to reach an audience with humor. If puns get you going, throw a few into your speech. If sarcasm isn't your strong point, don't try it. Use a style that works for you. This isn't the time to test jokes you’re not comfortable with!
Have a sidekick If you’re committed to using humor, but unsure how to execute it, consider a funny partner to set up jokes. Think McMahon to Carson, Shaffer to Letterman, Higgins to Kimmel. Galifianakis was a perfect foil to President Obama in his interview, leading him into various cracks about his movies and faking a “rash” that the president could poke fun of. (This strategy works best, obviously, with team presentations.)
Highlight the important message Humor can frame and enhance a message by packaging it in a surprising way. Jokes should add emphasis, and never muddy the message. In the “Ferns” clip, Obama doesn’t kid around when promoting healthcare.gov: he delivers his pitch in clear, simple language, letting Galifianakis make cracks on the side.
Appropriate humor is a great way to keep your audience engaged and to underscore important points. Sometimes the driest, most serious subjects can use a little levity - and even a president can let loose once in a while.