60 Seconds Spotlight: Should You Open With a Joke?

BNI 60 Seconds spotlight - Should you open with a joke

"As everyone knows, there are three types of accountants," said Simon Porter on his first visit to a business networking meeting at BNI Reading Oracle. "Those who can add up and those who can't".

What's your reaction? A chuckle? A smile? Maybe even a good-natured groan?

However amused you might have been by this quickfire quip, it's surely a better ice breaker than "I am a qualified chartered accountant with 25 years experience in corporate finance". Which might be true, but isn't going to start the room fizzing with excitement.

When you have to stand up and speak to an audience, no matter what the size, you have to get their attention. And showing your sense of humour - particularly in a self-deprecating way - is not a bad ploy to turn bystanders into listeners.

At BNI, you get 60 seconds to speak to all of the members and visitors in attendance. You almost certainly won't have a chance to speak to everyone one-to-one on the day and if you want to be memorable, you have to compete for attention with everyone else in the room.

The Expert View

Plenty of public speaking experts will tell you never to try to be funny. The theory is you're so inept at telling jokes you will make a fool of yourself. And if you think you're completely humourless then the nay-sayers are probably right. You'll have to find some other way to make your mark. But assuming you haven't had a charisma bypass and you've maybe practiced your line once or twice, what have you go to lose?

Perhaps better advice would be: don't try too hard to be too funny.

And don't laugh at your own joke unless you really, really can't help yourself.

Mock Yourself (Before Someone Else Does)

Being self-deprecating is the best bet. Humour that makes fun of anyone other than yourself makes you seem arrogant. Self-mocking humour, by contrast, shows you don't take yourself too seriously, making you more approachable. For example, my neighbour came round and banged on my door at 4 o'clock this morning. What a cheek! Luckily I was still up playing my bagpipes.

Contrary to what some people may think, telling a joke that everyone already knows isn't a bad thing in a presentation. Two TV aerials fell in love and got married. The ceremony wasn't anything special but the reception was fantastic. You'll give your audience a self-congratulatory buzz as they think to themselves "Everyone knows that old chestnut".

And there's nothing wrong with a groaner. For example, "I bought a DVD that said it contained deleted scenes and there was nothing on it". A groan might not be a great reaction for a stand-up comic but maybe if you spend your first five seconds on a silly one-liner, you'll have earned the chapter's attention for the next 55.

The groaner has the same effect as self-deprecation - when people groan, you're making them feel just a tad superior. It's as if you tried to trick them into laughing with your wordplay but they were too clever for you. That's a tiny ego boost for your audience and you can do a lot worse than make your audience feel good about themselves within five seconds of opening your mouth.

Comedy Don'ts

You might want to avoid being too clever. "Ninety-nine percent of lawyers give the rest of us a bad name" is a neat little witticism, but it might go over some people's heads at first. And the point is to make people feel clever, not draw attention to their slow-wittedness.

Of course, your joke must be relevant to what you're going to talk about. Don't just repeat something you heard on the telly because it made you laugh. It's the introduction to your talk, so by definition it should introduce the subject. If you're going to talk about copywriting, you could say "I'm a professional writer, but even I make spelling mistakes sometimes. I can't spell apocalypse. But it's not the end of the world".

Don't forget you're at BNI to do business, and so you should show discretion. Err towards dry wit rather than what you might consider boisterous, bawdy or alternative comedy ("My friend died doing what he loved... Heroin"). You might get a laugh and people will remember what you said, but you may not be making a professional impression.

See What I Did There...?

Alternatively, if you daren't risk starting with a joke, trying finishing with one.

And finally, it turns out Simon was wrong. There are actually two types of people in the world. Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data...

Jon Ewing
inframes.com ltd


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