I think that when you talk about something that really happened, whether you make it a caricature of what happened, or whatever, but it is a version of the truth, you connect with the audience in a way that you cannot with contrived material."
~ Comedian Robert Schimmel, I Am Comic documentary
What Schimmel is saying does not just apply to comedians. You may not think of yourself as a comedian and you may not feel the need to use the Comedy Evaluator Pro to determine the percentage of time your audience is laughing, but humor is a valuable tool to bring to any presentation, and not just the "yuk yuk" kind.
Let's say you're talking about something that your audience considers boring but necessary, like OSHA regulations or sales figures for the last quarter, or insurance premiums. The easiest way to make less-than-engaging topics more palatable for the audience is to insert some humor from real life. Think of something your audience can relate to, industry or office humor that is universally understood and appreciated, and use it. It will be welcome relief from the facts and figures.
What if, like Robert Schimmel in his quote above, you are discussing a topic like cancer (his son's and his own) or epilepsy or eating disorders -- a topic that makes an audience uncomfortable at best. Think there's no humor in disease and death? More than any other topic, humor is critical here to lighten up what can be a very heavy and distressing topic for your audience.
The trick is to weave humor in and out and not use a heavy hand. Your audience doesn't have to laugh uproariously. A lighthearted quip that brings a subtle chuckle can be just enough. I mentioned a client of mine a few years back who opened her presentation to fellow eating disorder professionals with "Who's hungry?" as she began her talk on what she calls "hunger disease." I imagine a lot of people raised their hands!
Another client of mine talks about his time in prison for securities fraud and intersperses entertaining stories (including a poignant one about inviting his parents to lunch to tell them he was going to prison), to keep the audience from getting caught up in the darkness. Can you imagine telling your parents such a thing? He brings it right to the forefront.
Feel free to be a little silly with your humor. When my client with epilepsy talks about how she lives a normal life, has advanced degrees and her own business, is married and has kids, she also tosses in that she was sixth-grade class president. Because it's cute, and it also underscores that, if her fellow 11-year-olds elected her, knowing about and having seen her seizures, then she must not be too much of a weirdo! Isn't that what we all want? To be accepted?
Another client, who is an expert in anxiety disorders, humorously shows a slide titled "Carolyn's Stressed Hypothalamus" while walking the audience through her body and brain's reaction to a stressful experience being exacerbating by hunger and exhaustion -- causing her to snap at her husband. Who hasn't been there?
I've been to funerals with plenty of humor to break up the sadness. Who wouldn't want to hear the positive and funny stories from the deceased person's life? It doesn't take away from the solemnity of the event; it allows a more well-rounded picture of the person whose life is being celebrated. I bet my various pastor and officiant friends and clients could back this up.
What works in all of these situations is the real life stories told by the speakers, and the juxtaposition of serious with funny. Serious makes funny funnier! It's a tension-breaker and it's an authentic expression of the spice of life.
Whether the audience is bored, anxious, uncomfortable, skeptical or fearful when faced with your topic, a little humor goes a long way toward reducing their anxiety and discomfort and taking them along on your journey, wherever it ends.
Update: I just learned that Robert Schimmel, quoted above, died three days after this post, of injuries sustained in a car accident. After making it through his young son's death by cancer and surviving his own cancer, and living with liver disease, it just seems like dying in a car accident caused by another driver is a really unfair way to go. RIP, Mr. Schimmel.