While being wheeled into the operating room after being shot by a would-be assassin, the ever-persuasive President Ronald Reagan got a chuckle when he wisecracked, “I hope the doctor is a Republican.” We may not all be so cool in a crisis, but we can all profit by not taking ourselves too seriously.
Humor is an infinitely variable commodity, on the part of both the sender and the receiver. Witness the range of comics from, say, The Three Stooges to Mort Sahl or audiences as disparate as Shriners and anthropologists.
My suggestions for improving your sense of humor: First, find out what your strong suit is, humor-wise. Ask a friend who’ll be honest with you. Second, research your audience. Find out who they are, what’s made them laugh previously. Third, work on your timing. Try out your best lines on your family, friends, and associates. Fourth, if humor hasn’t previously been in your repertoire, proceed slowly. It’s better to use humor sparingly than to be remembered as a buffoon or insensitive.
Fifth, sprinkle your humor throughout your talk, not just at the beginning or end. Sixth, make it relevant to the subject, not just a funny line you paste onto your speech for laughs. And, last, remember that some of the best stories are those you tell on yourself. A little mild self-deprecation can go a long way toward making your audience feel at ease with you.
Such conversational first aid not only makes the other person or group more persuadable, it helps you both keep your perspective. Humor can be an icebreaker. And if the going is tough to those in the trenches, humor can also be an affirmation of dignity, a declaration of your collective faith in the ultimate triumph.