Beware of Jokes - I

05/25/2011 01:15 pm ET

One of the most pervasive pieces of advice bandied about in the presentation trade is to start a speech or a presentation with a joke. Wrong! No one can guarantee the success or failure of any joke; certainly not a business person - but not even a professional comedian.

Consider Johnny Carson. The legendary talk show host spent 30 years on late night television telling jokes written by a crack team of professional, experienced comedy writers; but the jokes didn't always work. Fortunately, one of Johnny's greatest assets was his ability to recover from failed jokes. Whenever a scripted gag elicited no reaction or even groans from his audience, Carson would mug a silent take or make a comment about the bomb; either of which would often produce more laughter than some of the scripted jokes.

Consider one of Carson's most prominent successors, Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show." Although Stewart's adulatory studio audiences worship and roar at almost every word he utters, he occasionally produces a dud. Stewart recovers with one his many rubber-faced expressions or trademark cackles which, as with Carson, often produces more laughter than the planned gags.

If Johnny Carson and Jon Stewart can't guarantee a laugh how can you?

Still, the temptation persists to use humor in presentations to break the ice, to lighten up the proceedings, entertain, or engage the audience; all of which are noble intentions, but still risky business. For, even if a joke beats the odds and gets a laugh, the laughter is a digression from the main message of the speech or presentation.

The risk of humor is made even riskier by the diversification of audiences brought about by globalization. Diverse cultures, however, still retain their original sensibilities, and comedy does not cross borders easily - even when there is a common language. U.S. humor and U.K. humour differ by much more than a single letter. If you have any doubt, watch Americans in the audience of a British music hall comedy. They are the only ones not laughing.

If, despite all these caveats, you still insist on telling a joke in your speech or presentation, make it self-deprecating. If you fail at making fun of yourself, your failure will be far less onerous.

But even that strategy can backfire - as you'll see in the next post.