Leave them laughing – businesswomen using humor in speeches
Mary Beth Marklein
Leave Them Laughing A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the podium: Businesswomen lost their sense of humor.
Success-oriented entrepreneurs would be wise to recapture it, says Bob Orben, an Arlington, Va., speech writer who specializes in humor. As women gain prominence in their communities and are asked to speak at various events, he says, they’re likely to find that they’re expected to be humorous–whether in opening remarks or a full-fledged “roast.”
Experienced speakers know that a light touch goes a long way in gaining an audience’s confidence. “People remember better when they’re smiling,” says Barbara June Hill, a San Diego business leader who frequently gives motivational speeches.
But tickling the funny bone isn’t the same as becoming a comedian, says Hill, who owns Electronic Metal Fabrication Inc., a sheet-metal firm. “A humorous speech is not a whole bunch of funny stories with a bang ending,” she says. Rather, humor should help make a point.
“It helps you say things that otherwise might make audiences uncomfortable,” says Barbara Proctor, president and chief executive officer of Proctor and Gardner Advertising Inc., in Chicago.
Neither Proctor nor Hill could always elicit chuckles from their audiences. Twenty years ago, Hill says, “I was a very serious speaker. I though if people got the facts, they’d learn.” Proctor says her early speeches were too intense. “People don’t relish being preached at,” she says today.
Women may be reluctant to risk humor because they fear it’s unbusinesslike, says Jeanne Robertson, a professional speaker from Burlington, N.C., who frequently addresses association conventions and corporate meetings. “As they go up the corporate ladder, they think, ‘Oh, dear, now I’m supposed to take life seriously.'” In reality, she says, humor is “one of the best things you can use to get up that rung.”
Nonetheless, women have fewer options than men, she adds. Of the stories found in joke books, she says, “A lot are not funny, and those that are funny are geared toward male situations. When a woman tries to tell it, it just comes out wrong.”
Many women also rule out self-deprecating humor, a style favored by many men. The theory is that if women put themselves down, they set themselves back. “We all know the inequalities in the business world,” Orben says. “It’s been a hard, tough climb. So when a woman gets up in front of an audience, she isn’t about to do anything that makes her look foolish.”
Nevertheless, Orben urges women to find other lighthearted ways to illustrate their points. The question is where to mine the humor.
Says Hill: “I bring in anecdotes that are real, that are funny, that are right around me.”
Robertson advises women to keep notes on everyday situations, then “let your mind wander. Ask yourself, ‘Wouldn’t it have been funny if …?'”
It helps to know you audience. Hill typically interviews a few people who will hear her upcoming talk.
Proctor sometimes begins speeches with “test” humor, such as explaining that she was in a rush that morning and then lamenting to the audience that a businesswoman lacks one advantage that a businessman has–a wife. The response to such remarks, she says, “tells me if it’s a feminist audience or not,” and she tailors the rest of her speech accordinlgy.
Finally, using humor in speeches is a matter of practice. Toastmasters International and International Training in Communication are two organizations that enable nonprofessional speakers to hone their skills–and their humor–in a nonthreatening environment.
Using humor may be scary at first, but it pays off in the long run. “We like people who can make us laugh,” Orben says. “We feel at ease with them, and if we feel at ease with them, we’re more likely to work with them.”
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