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Can a Humorous Business Speaker Deliver a Serious Message

Perhaps the question should be, can a non-entertaining speaker deliver any message at all? A survey suggested that in a presentation which an audience considered boring or dull, only 3% of the messages delivered are retained or are repeatable by the delegates. Alternatively a pacey, engaging (often funny) presentation, can reach the heady heights of 85% retention.

The problem for the business speaker who is, or describes themselves as funny, is that they seriously risk scaring away the potential clients who often make comments like “too light”, “a far too serious subject to laugh at” and so on.

John Cleese suffered the same fate with his enormously successful business training videos at Video Arts. They delivered hugely impactful messages on sales, management, customers and even health and safety, but despite the irrefutable success of these training programmes resistant management objected to the humour as Video Arts used some of the UK’s most famous comedy actors to hammer home their stunning messages. Somehow it seemed wrong to laugh and enjoy learning and finally it prompted John Cleese to utter the classic line “You don’t have to be sombre to be serious.”

After one of my own presentations which I felt had gone rather well (well it got a lot of laughs anyway) I got challenged by an irate line manager.
“Who are you?” he cried “A business expert or the bleedin’ camp comedian?”
“What stories do you particularly feel strongly about?” I enquired
“Well that business about the dog, and the pig, and the company heroes, and the shrub boys…”
He went on to repeat every story, anecdote and joke
“Did you see the point I was trying to make?” I asked
“Of course, I’m not stupid.”
“OK, so you have remembered every single bit of my presentation and understood all the points?”
I commented to him that I was followed by the Head of Finance along with around fifty powerpoint slides and then I asked him,
“Tell me what you took from that?”
3% retention? You’d be lucky.

Then why not hire a comedian? Someone once asked me why I didn’t work as a comedian and I replied, tongue in cheek, that I couldn’t take the pay cut. Seriously, or, if you like, considering the subject, funnily enough, you may actually be perfectly fine using a professional comedian. If you have a dinner, an awards event, or just want to lift a bored audience after a tiring day, a comedian could suit you very well and would be an economical solution. Where you should be careful is that you need to understand that a comedian will have a set or routine which they take around the clubs and venues at which they perform. They rarely vary their performance (mind you, you could say that about some speakers) so you must check out their routine for offensive or inappropriate content – irrelevant may not matter but offensive really does. The truth is that it is very demanding to understand sometimes complex business issues and themes and turn them into an appropriate and relevant presentation that is also funny and memorable, while still delivering the key business messages. The briefing call before the event may not be humorous and could be very intense because a professional business speaker is hoovering up facts so that they can later burn the midnight oil to create a good show.

So, should you avoid funny? Don’t make me laugh!